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Sean Penn moves around to other side of the camera

Here is perhaps the finest young actor in American movies, and he says he's decided to say the hell with it, and walk away from acting, and direct films for a living. Did the gossip machine destroy Sean Penn, or is this just a phase he's going through?

If he never makes another film, Penn will be remembered years from now, in the same way other gifted young actors are remembered for their early work - actors like Marlon Brando, James Dean, Montgomery Clift. The films that will prove his greatness will not necessarily be the big hits, like "Colors" or "Taps" or "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," but more obscure films, even some that got bad reviews at the time of their release. Films like "Bad Boys," "At Close Range," "The Falcon and the Snowman," and most definitely, "Casualties of War." There is an intensity in those roles that is almost frightening - and also an astonishing range, from victim to feckless loser to animalistic killer.

But if Sean Penn is telling the truth and will not act again, then, at 30, he is denying us his maturity. Consider how Robert De Niro developed a poise and confidence in his later movies, how "Raging Bull" demanded not a hot young actor, but a bruised survivor.

But on this afternoon at the Toronto Film Festival, Penn says he is serious about devoting the rest of his life to directing. "I never say `never,' " he said, "but I just found myself not happy acting in the last couple of pictures (`State of Grace,' `We're No Angels'), and I started thinking I should try and find something else. Then, when I made this movie, it was such a great time. And I've got a lot of other ideas I would like to direct. So I guess we'll see what happens."

He is referring to "The Indian Runner," which he wrote and directed, and which was received with respect and perhaps a little surprise at the Cannes and Toronto festivals. It's all his work, right down to such unexpected festivals. It's all his work, right down to such unexpected casting choices as Charles Bronson and Sandy Dennis as the parents of his troubled brothers, and it proves one thing: It proves he can direct, that he has a rapport with actors and a respect for serious material.

The film, which is now opening around the country, stars David Morse and Viggo Mortensen as Joe and Frank, brothers who have taken different paths; Joe is a law officer, Frank is an alcoholic drifter with enough charm to seduce a series of women into sticking around long enough for him to hurt them. The brothers have the same first names as the Hardy Boys, but their lives have not been as sunny.

When Frank gets out of jail for the latest time, he comes back home with Dorothy (Patricia Arquette), his most recent enabler, and announces he is at last ready to get a job and settle down. Joe gets this news and talks it over with his wife (Valeria Golino), and says he has decided to help his brother one last time. But there are some people you cannot help. The movie has a convincing small-town feeling, reinforced by such characters as the weary bartender (Dennis Hopper). It also has an unusual assurance, for a first-time writer-director. Penn doesn't fall for such traps as making Frank, the bad brother, into a colorful rebel, or the lure of making Joe into an inflexible straight-arrow. He keeps his eye on the story's central problem - on the fact that Frank has never been able to apply himself to anything, or ever been able to control his violent flashpoint. And at the end of "The Indian Runner," Penn is even brave enough to resist supplying a neat conclusion.

The movie was inspired, Penn says, by "Highway Patrolman," a Bruce Springsteen song about two brothers who took different paths in life.

"What happened," he said, "was, someone that I knew had a promotional copy of the `Nebraska' record before it came out, and we sat around listening to it, and Springsteen happened to call that night. I had met him once or twice before that, briefly, and I was so moved by the whole record, but this one song in particular, I got on the phone with him, and without thinking in any literal terms, I said something to the effect of: I'd like to make a movie out of that song.

"As the years went by, I thought of doing with myself and De Niro. We talked about it a couple of times, and it always came back to getting a writer. I talked to a couple of writers, who expressed sporadic interest, and meanwhile, every time I heard the song, I thought about it. I realized after several years had gone by that a lot of pictures were coming into my head from the song."

Talking, Penn unconsciously reached for a cigarette and lit it, and told the story as if it were somehow happening to someone else.

"I'd go for a long period of time without hearing it, and sometimes I'd hear it again, and just before we were doing `We're No Angels' and I was thinking about it an awful lot then. At that point, I knew I didn't want to act in it, but I started getting pictures in my head of what these guys would look like and what they sounded like - rhythms of speech, and things like that. I really wanted to write. I felt a need to write at that point, and so rather than go ahead and secure the rights, with the song and everything, I said I'm just going to go ahead and write this and get it out of my system.

"So I sat down to write it and I wrote it, and not long after that, I showed it to Springsteen, and he told me to go ahead, which was a surprise to me; I know that he's turned down a lot of similar situations, but I think it had a lot to do with the fact that I wrote it on spec, so he could already look at it, and not make a blind deal." Some people, I said, are going to wonder if the two brothers in this movie represent two sides to the personality of Sean Penn. On one hand, we have the gifted actor and director, whose conversations are filled with thought and insight. On the other hand, we have the popular media image of the ex-husband of Madonna, swinging at photographers and being led away by cops.

Penn shrugged. "It would be a little too simple to try to figure it out that way," he said. "Some of the things in the movie, I was able to write them because of roles I had played. For example, when I did `Colors' for Dennis Hopper, I hung out a lot with cops, watched how they talked and moved and made their judgments. So when I was writing the role of Joe, I didn't have to give that a lot of thought because I already knew how he might think."

That answer seemed to me like a slight evasion of the good/bad poles of Penn's public image, and indeed in the movie's press notes, it is somewhat breathlessly reported that in making the movie "he confronted his own well-publicized demons." He is quoted as saying that the movie deals "with issues I've been trying to work through and resolve in my own life. One is the question of responsibility. A mature life means responsibility. That, in turn, means compromise. I've come to recognize compromise as an interesting option."

Yes, by all means, and yet, watching Penn in the movies and talking to him, I doubt that compromise will ever be his instinctive option in most situations.

You're pretty friendly with Hopper.


Has he been sort of an encouragement to you, since he's gone through some of the same things, gotten in some of the same trouble, and made the same transition from actor to director?

"In a way, you know, he's been a consistent surprise for me. He was so supportive of me from the moment that we met. Like for instance, with this movie, I called him up and he said, `Yeah, I'll do it,' before he read a script or anything, and there he was. It was great. I don't know if the facts add up if you try to compare us right down the line.

"There are certain similarities in that we started early, and went to directing, and so on. The biggest charge I get from Dennis, though, is on a personal level. He's so wild." He laughed. "But it's the movies themselves that he and other people have made, that made the biggest impact on me. I've always loved a lot of different moviemakers, but with both Dennis Hopper and Hal Ashby, one of the things that I admired about their movies was the way that music played such an important role. That was a definite influence here."

Two other influences were possibly his father, Leo Penn, who has directed thousands of hours of network television programs, and his mother, actress Eileen Ryan.

"I used to talk to my father about directing when I was a kid, when I'd be on a television set with him. And in terms of this movie, he was very helpful when I was rewriting the script. I was in a lot of contact with him at that point. I knew where I was going in way that didn't follow a conventional structure, so I left in some holes, maybe, and I felt like whenever he came up with a question that I couldn't answer, it was something I had to look at.

"Then again during the editing process, I'd bring him in on every cut. I didn't doubt myself as far as the particular images I had in my head, and the way that I wanted to tell this story. But just by the nature of the kind of work that he's done, he has shot more film than any director you can name, and he was a big help. He's 70 years old. He's been at it a long time. When you do television, you're shooting so much more film. He'll do the equivalent of 10 pictures a year, vs. somebody in features who does only one. There's an incredible amount of knowledge." Penn smiled at a memory. "Here's something he doesn't know. He came on the set for two days once, and he didn't say a thing for the first day and the second day, he left the set and told me he assumed I had gotten a certain shot, and I lied and said yeah, sure I had, and then I ran back and got it - because he knew I would need it, and he was right."

A real surprise in the movie, I said, is the quiet power of the performance by Charles Bronson. He's been making junk like "Death Wish 3" for so long now that I'd sort of thought that he had stopped caring.

"I liked him as an actor," Penn said, "and I had never met him. I had seen a lot of the stuff he had done earlier on and I always liked him. And you could tell from the outside about how he was sticking by his wife (the actress Jill Ireland) during her struggle with cancer. I always sensed there was a great dignity there. It was pretty clear to me that my instincts about him were right. I needed him for a man who cared very deeply about his family and his dignity, and I knew that if he wanted to do the role, that the things that I thought were important to the character were there."

Bronson paid you quite a compliment, I said, by agreeing to come to the Cannes Film Festival for the film's opening. He doesn't even go to his own openings.

"I took it as a personal favor, because I don't how proud he is or isn't of his own work - because he says he never sees it."

What about your work, as an actor? Isn't there anything there you've come to depend on?

"I think I've finally weaned myself away from that dependence. What I liked about what happened to me when I made movies was only enhanced by directing one of them." You could actually be serious about not acting again?

"Well, financial considerations could enter into it, if I have a rough time as a director. As an actor, I think I was always pretty comfortable in the job. I tended to fill my time pretty well. It never bothered me to get a call at 6 in the morning call, and not shoot until 2 in the afternoon. I liked the feel of a movie set.

"What I do find, when you're working as an actor, there are certain elements you've got to hold on to, in an imaginary sense, like the mood of a character, all day long. The director has to hold onto things, too, but they're not so imaginary. They're very tangible things, which I like, and have always liked in anything I've been involved in - carpentry or anything else. Also, as an actor, you have the burden that what goes down will be a piece of yourself for eternity. So it always means so much to you. As a director, you have actors to do that for you, and they can ruin their lives for the check that you get for them. You've got these consistent tangible building blocks to play with. As good of a time as I anticipated having as a director, I had that much better time."

You sent me a note once, I said, thanking me for some article I'd written - because your parents liked it. When you were getting all that bad publicity, what touched me was that you were so unhappy that it made your parents unhappy.

He lit another cigarette.

"Well, it came at a time, I think, when it was basically the chic thing to say in the press that I was somebody to wipe a- - - - with."

That period seems to be over now.

"There's some lingering kind of effect, like a fart in a phone booth, but basically it's over. Once I got divorced."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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