TR Interview: Penn Jillette Brings out the Bad Guy


He’s a magician, satirist, Apprentice, go-to celebrity pundit on all things atheist and libertarian, but Penn Jillette has one more role he’d like to add to his resume: movie villain. Together with director Adam Rifkin (The Dark Backward), he hopes to make his horror screenplay – entitled Director’s Cut – a reality, and like so many other celebrities these days, he’s lost his patience with studio executives saying no, and taken to crowd funding.

Unlike some other celebrity crowd-funded projects that don’t even offer a ticket to the movie as part of the prize, however, Jillette’s rewards are insanely extravagant for reasonably affordable prices. Chip in $280, and he’ll answer all your phone calls for life (via recording). For $4,100 he’ll give you a full Las Vegas wedding ceremony that he’ll officiate, complete with VIP tickets to the Penn & Teller show. And it’s not all pricey – $35 gets you a T-shirt and the DVD.

For absolutely nothing, you can read my extensive interview with Jillette, who dishes details on the movie, punditry, his philosophies of horror and acting, his friendship with Glenn Beck and more.

Luke Y. Thompson: Tell me about this movie you’re doing.

Penn Jillette: Well, the idea I’ve had for a while is the idea of doing a movie that takes off – it’s a found movie based on director’s commentary. We’ve gotten really used to director’s commentaries as a form, but no one has really done a take-off on them and really used that, the fact that we know those as a technique. That’s not literally true – Spinal Tap did a director’s commentary that was in character, and so did Tropic Thunder, but no one has done it as a plot point.

The gag on this is that the director’s commentary is on all the time, and you hear from the very first moment of blackness of the movie, you hear my voice as the director in that kind of sterile, intimate, reassuring way that you start to trust the director. You hear him talking about the movie, and as the movie goes on you start to realize that the person talking may not really be the director. Then you realize, a little deeper in, that he really is not the director. And then you realize, a little deeper in that he is now re-editing the movie in ways that are not the way a movie should be done, and that he’s a little obsessed with the female star. And then you realize that he has kidnapped and is torturing the lead actress, and making her do parts of this. And then the director’s commentary of the movie-within-the-movie starts to intertwine, and it all turns into that kind of thing.

So I pitched this for years around Hollywood, and people seemed to like it, and they were close to starting deals on a few things. But they kept worrying that it was too high-concept, too smart – however you want to put that. And I kind of kept plugging along, thought about funding it myself, because the last two movies I’ve done – The Aristocrats, which is a movie about dirty jokes; and Tim’s Vermeer, which is a movie about 15th century painters – both of those I funded out of my pocket. But this one was a little too expensive, so I kept plugging along, and I was fascinated by the idea of movies that pretend to be something else; just like novels that pretend to be diaries, then pretend to be found. And someone told me about a movie called Look, by Adam Rifkin, that is all ostensibly shot on security cameras.

LYT: Right.

PJ: I saw that movie on a Friday night. Right after the movie, I wrote right to my agents and managers and said “Find me Adam Rifkin. I need to talk to him.” I then wasn’t satisfied, so I went to Facebook – found out we had mutual friends; wrote to him, got him on Facebook that night, told him how much I loved Look, my favorite movie ever. Could I tell him about this movie I wrote? He says “Yes.” Then I said I can’t wait – I was going to fly into LA and meet him that Wednesday. I said “Can we talk on the phone?” We talk on the phone, like high school children, until about three in the morning. I explained the movie to him. I then sent him the script. By 4 in the morning, he’d read it. By 4:30, we were partners. [laughs]And I wrote to my manager and agent, saying “Never mind getting in touch with Adam Rifkin – we’re already partners on this.”

We then sniffed around with him involved, to try to find money. Even the crowd funding thing, I was really interested in. I’ve been involved in crowd funding, from the other side – I give money to it all the time. I love the democratization of that, and I love the fun that you get in helping someone do something groovy that they may not be able to do without you. And as FundAnything started up, I saw Adam Carolla be able to make his movie that he wanted to make for years – that he had been talking about for years. I started that up, and I’m having a blast with the crowd funding. We’re trying to do the crowd funding differently than other people have. We’re trying to see the crowd funding as something ‘meta,’ something deep, in the movie, the way years ago Blair Witch used the web as part of their movie, kind of let it spill into there. We’re letting the crowd funding spill into our movie. We did the promo, which I hope you’ve seen…

LYT: Yes.

PJ: …we didn’t do it as in the kitchen, “Give us money,” we rather did it as part of the movie, with the real crew we’re going to use and everything. And then we’re also going to be – no one knows this yet – but every other day, there will be videos put up by friends of mine, talking about how I’m becoming a really bad guy. So that’s where we are in the movie.

LYT: So is that using the heat that guys like Zach Braff have gotten from crowd funding to make it look like you’re being a greedy celebrity who wants more money – that kind of thing?

PJ: Well, that’s a little bit – I don’t think Zach’s that interesting, because first of all, he hasn’t gotten much heat. You have to weigh the web properly. You have to make sure you’re not taking a few nuts and pretending that that’s the zeitgeist. Not really. I don’t think that anybody really thinks that. Unless you think that anybody in show business is a greedy celebrity, which I think is a valid point, but kind of an uninteresting one. I mean, everybody crowd-funded every movie that’s been out. We crowd-funded The Lone Ranger, we crowd-funded World War Z. It’s just that there was an intermediate guy grabbing a lot of money, that’s all. You have a studio that speculates, and gold mines on that, and takes a cut out of it. People are still paying to see it.

It would be very true, I think if I were going there and saying, “I’m a celebrity, so send me money.” Although that would be valid; people would just say “No.” But I’m not. I’m saying, “I want to make this movie, and it’s going to be fun.” The thing people have commented on the most , I think , is the fact that our rewards are stupidly valuable. In some cases, the face value of the reward we’re giving is higher than what we’re charging for it. [laughs]We’ve got rooms at the Rio, and the Penn and Teller show, and the DVD, and the poster, and the T-shirts, for whatever it is, $500 bucks, and you end up with something that would cost you, if you didn’t make the movie, $600. So we’re doing some weird things, because we’re able to have the economy of scale, we’re able to kind of pick our movie up. But no – no one, no one should contribute to this movie for humanitarian reasons. They should contribute to this movie because they think it will be fun, and they want to see the movie, and I believe that’s what they’re doing. The problem with attacking Zach Braff for that is it pretends that he’s not making a movie.

LYT: You mentioned some of the other movies you’ve made, but I was thinking also in terms of horror, I saw the short movie you were involved in a while back called “The Little Dead.” Was that any sort of inspiration towards the horror genre?

PJ: Well, no. The inspiration towards the horror genre is, I think, our whole country. George Romero – you know, I had no interest in horror. Adam Rifkin has an interest in horror that goes back to classic horror, as does my buddy Gilbert Gottfried, but mine came with people – I’m a little too young for this, but not much – when Night of the Living Dead came out, and everyone was talking about it as a horror movie, but I wasn’t interested. But then people were talking about it as an intellectual movie – George Romero’s description of it is what happens to the United States when a truly radical political system takes over, and I was really fascinated by that. But I was fascinated by the idea that you could work in horror and if you put some blood, some scares, and often some breasts in, you could do any intellectual idea you wanted; you could do an art film. I was really interested in that.

As a matter of fact, my favorite movie of all time is original Romero Dawn of the Dead, though I love James Gunn’s version as well – my favorite movie is the Romero Dawn of the Dead, because it talks about such strong intellectual ideas, and does it with this shock of the visceral. I think you want your visceral and intellectual to collide as fast as possible. Of course, the other one that kind of invents what I love about this is Psycho, which has the very deep premise that everything bad that happens, happens because of love, whether it’s romantic love or whether it’s familial love that destroys us. It’s a pretty rich, deep idea to be done in a popular movie. So yeah – that’s my love of horror. Zeke, who works with us – I’ve known him since he was a child – Zeke did The Little Dead thing, and we helped him out with that, once again, contribute here and there, and also acted in it. But that was just helping out a buddy, and having fun. It wasn’t really my start of interest in horror.

LYT: So horror, the way you talk about it, is almost like a magic trick – you misdirect people with the exploitation, and then they don’t realize what they’re getting in the subtext till afterwards.

PJ: Right! Exactly! You know what? Teller always says that we have to give people something to pretend they’re doing while they’re really looking at you, and that’s kind of what entertainment is to me.

LYT: I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask: Is Bullshit as a show completely done, or is there any chance that you’d ever come back to that?

PJ: We’re always trying to. It’s just that we left Bullshit in order to do other projects, and we’re always hoping to be able to go back, and maybe someday that will be true.

LYT: Do you own the rights to it, if you wanted to take it somewhere else?

PJ: No, no, no – it’s complicated. It’s more complicated than your sex life.

LYT: [laughs]I was going to say, if you crowd-funded that (the show, not my sex life), I’m sure it would get through the roof in a heartbeat.

PJ: The problem is, it would involve crowd funding Showtime. [laughs]

LYT: Did you ever want to direct this movie yourself?

PJ: No, no – directing’s for schmucks! I mean, don’t tell Adam Rifkin this, and don’t tell Teller this, but directing is for losers. Directing is just being there and having people yell at you all the time. I’ve always wanted to write, I’ve always wanted to produce, I’ve always wanted to perform, but direct? No fucking interest.

LYT: How much of a stretch acting-wise is this for you? Is it a character very close to yourself, or are you going the opposite direction?

PJ: It’s so far from myself it’s insane. And I guess actually I should make some sort of joke that that would be better. The truth of the matter is in order to do stuff that’s really scary, you have to be secure and happy. All this stuff about digging in and finding your inner demons I think is bullshit. You know, I know Romero. George Romero is the kind of guy that coaches little league, and is completely happy with his family, and has no murderous tendencies whatsoever. And Arthur Penn was a good friend of mine, made Bonnie and Clyde – no violent sensibilities whatsoever.

That kind of violence in fantasy and violence in reality overlap is the kind of mentally ill stuff that Hillary Clinton says about video games. It’s just crazy, crazy, crazy. The fact of the matter is, you don’t need to be a fan of teen suicide to get something out of Romeo and Juliet. So no – it’s something I’ve always wanted to do, to dig into that psycho side, but only because of how interesting that is plot-wise, and what beautiful things you can say with it. Nothing to do with digging in and finding my evil side.

LYT: [laughs]You don’t want to be like Heath Ledger, getting too Method about it.

PJ: There’s no reason to do that.

LYT: So what sort of preparation do you do as an actor, if I may ask such a pretentious question? Is it just the classic thing of “just say the damn words”?

PJ: No, no, no – nothing is. I ran through them, even for the promo, I worked with Adam a lot, because you have to figure out how to get the right tone. For many, many people, what you want to do to be menacing and scary is to go louder. But for me, I can’t do that – I’m as loud as you can fucking get! So you’ve kind of got to come in under it, be more menacing – I thought a lot about focus. A lot of what I’m doing is not acting towards what people think of as creepy, but acting against the parts about me that I try to make not-creepy.

One of the reasons I wear glasses professionally is at the size I am, and my face, to soften things. I try to speak clearly, and I try to have a little bit of a crispness, all because it’s very, very hard to say the word “big” without following it with “dumb.” [laughter]You have to kind of fight against that a little bit.

So I didn’t walk up and kick kittens or cause trouble. I just tried to think what would look good. I did probably 25 takes in rehearsal, for Adam, and get the feedback from Adam, and letting Adam do his job. Adam is a phenomenal, breathtaking director. He’s just fabulous.

LYT: Totally different genre, but I remember quite well in Michael Moore Hates America, where you give the filmmaker the advice “You’re going to fuck it up!” and he keeps replaying that. Do you hear that in your head when you make a movie?

PJ: Oh sure, sure! That’s all you think about, is that you’re going to fuck it up – and you are! You are. As Arthur Penn once said, “You start out every movie project trying to make the best movie ever made, and end up just trying to stay alive till the next day.” [laughs]You know, it’s a hard thing. Every movie you do is starting a business, and most businesses fail. It’s always difficult, and once again, Arthur Penn, who was a really important teacher in my life, said “There are three things that are important in a movie, or any piece of art. One is to have fun while you’re doing it. Two is to do something good. And three is that it be well-received. Two of those are 100% within your control, and one you have no power over whatsoever. And yet most people just concentrate on the third.” Just let the third go and do the other two.

I’ve tried to follow that – it’s very difficult to, but you know we, very parallel to this movie in such odd ways, made a documentary about Vermeer, a movie called Tim’s Vermeer, which is a documentary about a 17th century painter. It couldn’t be more high-brow. Nobody wanted to make that. I pitched that all over, and nobody would do it. We did our own money – all our own money – and made it. It took us five years. As we were making it, it wasn’t like the world was clamoring to buy it from us. People weren’t clamoring to put it out. Then we finished it, and it was at Telluride and Toronto and the New York Film Festival, and I think it’s an understatement to say it’s doing very well – pretty much beyond any of our wildest dreams. We just tried to do the best movie we could.

Kind of getting back to the Zach Braff, the one or two trolls saying “Why doesn’t a rich guy like you use your own money?” The answer is, I did. I used all my own money on The Aristocrats. I used my money, along with Teller’s, and a little of Tim’s, to make Tim’s Vermeer. And this movie, I simply don’t have enough money. It’s a very simple sentence like that. Making a documentary movie, making those documentaries, costs about as much as a house. And I am successfully enough that I can float a house for five years. I am not successful enough that I can float a business for five years. Vegas has been very good to me; not that good to me. There are very few people – Spielberg, you know – who can actually write a check to do even a low-budget movie without any help. I’m certainly not one of those people. We’ve got this movie stripped down so that we can do it, for kind of whatever money we get from here, but the more money we get on the funding, the bigger a movie it will become. The bigger star we can go with for the star of the movie. The more car chases we can have, essentially. And so, yeah, we’re pretty excited, and it’s also taking off, from what people say – I’ve tried to be a student of these things, but I’m not an expert – from what people say, this is taking off better than most other people who do crowd funding.

LYT: Why not go with Kickstarter or Indiegogo, and go with a lesser-known crowd sourcing site?

PJ: I always go with the lesser known! [laughs]I don’t drink Coca-Cola. I don’t know. I think it’s just this weird little personal thing, that the people from FundAnything came to us, and they had an even more laissez faire view towards it than Kickstarter or Indiegogo. I mean, I’ve invested in both; I’ve given money in both Indiegogo and Kickstarter. I have projects that I’ve given money to there. With FundAnything, I’ve given money to three or four projects there, but there just aren’t that many yet. But I love being involved in it, and I like the way Kickstarter was doing it, and very simply, I like the people. I’ve met Brad and the guys that run FundAnything, they seem like – I’m just saying it’s an approach, not an avoidance – I didn’t meet anyone from Kickstarter or Indiegogo that I didn’t like, it’s just that I kind of clicked with the people from FundAnything, so we’re going with them.

I also think – FundAnything shouldn’t hear this – I’m afraid it’s the truth from my point of view, the projects that I’ve contributed to, and enjoyed contributing to, I did not care at all what site they were on. I’ve cared about projects. It’s like Hollywood, when they talk about networks – is this an NBC thing, is this a CBS thing? I don’t know anyone that gives a fuck about that. You watch Breaking Bad, does it really feel like to you – I don’t even know what it’s on, AMC? – does it feel like an AMC show? No, it doesn’t matter. It’s kind of the same thing to me, with Kickstarter and Indiegogo and FundAnything – I guess there are some quasi-political or sociological reasons you would pick one over the other, but those aren’t mine.

LYT: Lloyd Kaufman says the only branding that people go to just because of the brand is Troma or Disney.

PJ: Who said that?

LYT: Lloyd Kaufman, the guy who runs Troma.

PJ: Yes, that’s exactly true. That’s very well said.

LYT: You’ve become a go-to libertarian political pundit, whenever anyone wants to interview a celebrity libertarian. Is that something that accidentally happened, or is that something you seek out in any way?

PJ: I don’t know the difference between “seeking out” and “allowing.” I’ve always been very willing to speak about it. I try – I try – not to speak beyond “I’m just a celebrity saying things.” I am a little bothered by celebrities being passed off as experts, and I try not to do that myself, although some people would say that the medium is the message and I do that automatically. But I like it! I like being able to talk about that, and I also like that because of getting a little bit into the pundit world, I have two good friends: Lawrence O’Donnell, Jr. and Glenn Beck are good friends of mine, and I love kind of showing that off.

LYT: So is Glenn Beck actually saner than he comes off?

PJ: Well, I don’t know how much you’ve watched him. If you watch what people pull as clips of him, he’s pretty fucking crazy. If you actually watch him and listen to him for more than 15 minutes, he’s pretty sane. It’s a little bit like Howard Stern in the late ’80s – if you didn’t listen to Stern, and people just gave you clips and said “Listen to this compilation of misogynist stuff Howard says,” it was horrific. But in context, you understood him, kind of deeply. It’s the same thing with Glenn, that in context, it doesn’t seem that bad. I don’t see the crazy, in other words, even in his professional work. I certainly don’t see it at all in his amateur work.

LYT: It’s interesting – I used to watch his show on whatever it was before Fox, and it seemed like night and day when he went there; a little more overdramatic once that happened. But I don’t want to derail this into a conversation about him.

PJ: The truth is, you start filling up X amount of time every day, and you start mining parts of yourself that weren’t what you went with. So I think you have a valid point there.

LYT: Do you see a similarity between doing a magic show and doing some of the pundit shows? There’s a mix of showmanship and deeper substance. Does it seem as much of a show from the other side?

PJ: Nothing ever seems like a show to me. I’m kind of sorry to say that you’re speaking with the person with the least cynicism you’ve ever talked to. I really believe that people in show business and people in politics are overwhelmingly speaking from their heart.

LYT: That is not the answer I would have expected, but that’s cool.

PJ: I do magic, but I do magic in a way that tries to tell the truth that’s in my heart, and I see no joy in lying and manipulation, except for the purpose of joy.

LYT: Is there anything else you want to say about the movie before we go?

PJ: Yeah. We can make it! [laughter]

LYT: I don’t think you’re going to have a lot of trouble getting the money for this.

PJ: Well, thanks! I hope we make it, and I hope it’s good. That’s what I’m always hoping.

LYT: How’s the funding looking so far?

PJ: It’s about triple what we expected, so it’s very likely. At the money we’re at now, we can do something, so we will make a movie. It’s just how fancy-ass it’s going to be is the decision now. We’re going to make something. Adam can work with any budget; so can I. So we’ll make something.

LYT: So this is more like the Indiegogo model, where you get to keep whatever you raise – it’s not like Kickstarter where you have to give it back?

PJ: Yeah, yeah. We’ll make a good movie with whatever we get.

LYT: That’s good to hear; certainly keep us apprised.

PJ: You’ll have so many updates you won’t believe it!

As of this writing, there are 38 days left to go on Penn Jillette’s fundraising appeal for Director’s Cut.