|Sean Penn in Paolo Sorrentino's new film, This Must Be the Place.|
Q. This movie goes to so many unpredictable places. Were you surprised by the way it turned out?
A. I think of it as a slice of Paolo’s imagination. He’s an extraordinary writer. Reading the script is quite an experience. Even on set he’s the kind of director whose dreaming you don’t want to interrupt. And so each step of the way — from what I thought I was going to read to what I thought I was going to work on to what I thought I was going to see — was very surprising in all cases. In a way I wanted to be surprised by the overall look of the movie. In most cases I’ll go and I’ll watch most of the rushes. In this case there were things that I would look at when I was concerned I maybe needed to adjust something. But in general I wanted to just see how it all came together at the end.
Q. How do you think audiences will respond to your look in the movie?
A. I’m quite convinced that there will be plenty of audience reaction that is — I’m going to use the word “challenged.” But there was a choice to make, I made it, and I trust the director on it as well. I was constantly looking to him because it was certainly going to be one of those fall-on-your-face-or-don’t choices, and I can’t say that I’m totally objective about where I put it now.
A. I have no clue, but I’ll go with either. I’m dazzled by this director. It was a great experience working with him, and it was a very strange one because I had book-ended it. The film is book-ended by so much time spent out of the country, out of touch with anything, in a very different world. I was kind of flying from Haiti in the beginning of this movie and then immediately flying back.
Q. Can you talk about what led you to delve so deeply into your work there?
A. I had been single-parenting after a divorce for about eight months, and in that time my son had a traumatic head injury. And after getting through the life threat or the brain-damage threat, still there was the pain, and then he was given morphine for the pain, and I guess somewhere I locked away — I really found affection for what those pain medications could do to people. I had just seen his relief, and so then it was four days before the earthquake that both he and his mother had found they were ready to spend time together, so he left, which was initially kind of a 24/7 burden of eight months that I needed to break through. And then by about Day 4 after that I was just sitting around missing him, and the earthquake happened. I was hearing about the amputations and so on without any IV pain medications, so I put a little group together, but the intention initially was just to go down and distribute those medications to the hospitals and clinics that were doing surgeries. And then we had a pretty good group of people, and there were gaps to be filled. There was a brand-new education about what N.G.O.’s do and what they don’t do.
Q. An education for you?
A. Yeah. I found myself philosophically mostly feeling that they were destructive — with exceptions of course. And so we kind of committed ourselves beyond that, and one commitment built into another one, and that’s how that whole thing happened. I describe it the same way as what happens when you’re going to direct a movie, when you kind of get on the railroad track and you’re walking into a tunnel and then you look behind you and the train is coming and there’s no room to go right or left, and you just got to keep running. So we’re still running.
Q. Are these experiences going to affect the kind of film roles that you take from now on?
A. I guess the natural answer to that is that they will, but I don’t know necessarily how, and I don’t know that I’ll pause to think about it. You take a lot of stuff in, no matter what circumstance you’re in, and it all tends to kind of squeeze out of the sponge.