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Q & A: Sorrentino Talks Sean Penn-Starrer 'This Must Be the Place'

Thompson on Hollywood By David Gritten | Thompson on Hollywood October 17, 2012 at 7:06AM

One of the more intriguing films opening this November stars Sean Penn in the most unconventional role of his life. In "This Must Be The Place," from the Italian writer-director Paolo Sorrentino, he plays Cheyenne, a rich, retired rock star, now about 50, who chooses to hold on to the way he looked in his glory days – hair dyed black and back-combed, mascara, pancake make-up and scarlet lipstick. (The real rock icon he most closely resembles is the Cure’s Robert Smith.)
This must be the place poster

How much of middle America did you explore?

Quite a lot. It took several trips. Beforehand, I’d never been to Los Angeles. I knew New York and San Francisco. Then I started going to different places, like Las Vegas. But almost randomly I was guided by the sheer gusto of visiting places that were off the beaten track.

Quite a lot found its way into the movie. Quite a lot did not. But any road movie is written twice – once in your own mind, and then again when you actually shoot it.

David Byrne, like you a European who went to America, has a big influence – he gives the movie its title and acts in it. Did you feel influenced by his "True Stories"?

For sure, David Byrne had an influence on it but not especially through his own movie. It’s an all round influence. The same goes for the Coen Brothers. What they have in common is that they take something that might be deemed nonsensical and extrapolate the sense in it.

David and his band perform the song in the film, with a gorgeous string arrangement. What was behind the decision to show them playing the entire song?

"This Must Be the Place" is my favorite song ever in the world. But it was also a reaction to the way you see music portrayed on TV with frantic edits. I wanted to go against that grain and show it in a calm, collected way so you can concentrate on a very beautiful song from beginning to end.

With Sean Penn’s Cheyenne, you’ve captured that syndrome of people who are stars as young men, then they grow older and can’t make a graceful transition into middle age. In a sense, he’s lost. Pop stars often seem to buy big houses, fill them with things, but don’t know what to do with themselves.

I was fascinated by the idea of people who are crystallised in the moment of their highest and biggest success, without the vitality they used to have when they were experiencing it.

Cheyenne is nobody’s idea of a man who would hunt down a Nazi in hiding.

I found really fascinating the idea of somebody who is starting afresh: that search and hunt has given him a new lease of life. He’d like to think that he himself would find a new impetus, something different. Even with the movie industry it’s not easy to find a new movie with the enthusiasm I had when I shot my first. The problem is you know what it entails. You have to dig deep to find the enthusiasm.

There’s a perceptive scene when Cheyenne says to Judd Hirsch (who plays a Simon Wiesenthal-inspired Nazi hunter: “You’re also a celebrity.”

Yes. Cheyenne, who makes his vanity a virtue, recognizes it in the other character.

 Was the Dublin setting in the original script or because you were partly financed by Irish money?

In the first draft of the script, Cheyenne lived in the suburbs of London. But there’s a deep melancholic atmosphere about Dublin that paralleled the feeling of the main characters. In a subsequent draft he moved to Ireland because of tax relief. That was cut for the final movie. But he’s a character who was careful with his money.

Because the Holocaust and its aftermath is such a sensitive area, have there been comments about the way you blended comic moments with such serious material?

I think so, but I didn’t pay too much attention. Certainly there were no criticisms on the part of Jewish people.

Were you and your cinematographer (Luca Bigazzi) inspired by the images of other films about middle America: the big sky, the plains, the iconic gas stations?

I’m not denying any influence of past movies. But maybe it’s more subliminal. It’s been inspired by still photographers like William Eggleston, who have portrayed that landscape.

How was your experience of shooting in America? Inspiring? Enjoyable?

It was very easy – dream-like, but a long dream that came to fruition. It’s been a bit difficult to wake up and get out of it.

This article is related to: Interviews, Interviews, Interviews , Sean Penn

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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.