Above image: “Nonconforming” by Mr. Fish.
On this week’s “Scheer Intelligence,” the director explores how films like “Palmer” are redefining how global audiences understand gender constructs in previously unthinkable ways.
“Palmer,” a new film starring Justin Timberlake and directed by filmmaker and actor Fisher Stevens, challenges harmful ideas about masculinity and serves as an example of how far Hollywood and much of the U.S. has come towards creating spaces for gender nonconformity. The movie, released globally by the streaming service Apple+ on January 29, is set in small town America and centers on the story of a child, played by Ryder Allen, who defies ideas about what boys should and should not look and act like. The film ultimately becomes about the child’s unlikely kinship with Palmer (Timberlake), who is struggling to rejoin his community after a prison sentence, and how society views those who are considered different in any way. On this week’s installment of “Scheer Intelligence,” director Fisher Stevens, who also produced the Oscar Award-winning documentary “The Cove” and the Netflix hit mini-series “Tiger King,” joins Robert Scheer to discuss his new film as well as the benefits and downsides of streaming services. Stevens explains that where filmmakers may have struggled previously to get Hollywood companies to take a chance on projects that push boundaries, streaming services like Netflix, Amazon and Apple+ have brought many unconventional works such as “Palmer” to a wider global audience.
“I can pretty much tell you that more people watched ‘Palmer’ [in its opening] week on Apple than would have seen it in a cinema,” Stevens tells Scheer. “So it is kind of amazing. I exec-produced this TV show for Netflix called ‘Tiger King,’ that during [the COVID-19 pandemic] had a massive audience. Had we put it on some obscure cable TV channel, I don’t think anyone would have seen that either.
“So it is a good moment right now,” he says, “[and] I’m hoping that [streaming giants like Apple, Netflix and Amazon] stay like this [and don’t start dictating content]. Right now it is a kind of heyday.”
Scheer, who wrote a book about Silicon Valley’s increasing prevalence in every aspect of our lives titled “They Know Everything About You,” also warns against the dangers of big tech companies such as Apple finding new ways to collect data on subscribers. The podcast host also acknowledges, on the other hand, that the fact that such a globally known company is not only led by an openly-gay CEO in Tim Cook, but also buys projects such as “Palmer” can go a long way towards changing hearts and minds around the world. Throughout the discussion, Scheer speaks enthusiastically about the film, which both Stevens and Scheer agree is primarily about another issue that deserves the spotlight: bullying.
Listen to the full discussion between Stevens and Scheer as they explore the changes taking place in the entertainment industry as well as American society at large over the past few decades.
Host: Robert Scheer
Producer: Joshua Scheer
Introduction: Natasha Hakimi Zapata
Transcript: Lucy Berbeo
RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence. I always hasten to say the intelligence comes from my guests, in this case Fisher Stevens, the director of “Palmer,” a just-released compelling film distributed by Apple Plus.
And I must say, this movie is one of the–I don’t know what the right word is–it’s one of the most compelling movies that I’ve ever seen. It features Justin Timberlake as an ex-football player from high school and one year of college, and he ends up in trouble, in jail, and comes back. And by accident gets involved with a young kid who is having gender issues in his community, played by someone you’ve never heard of before, Ryder Allen, who after you watch this movie you will want to watch anything this young kid does for the rest of his life. And I don’t normally gush this way, and I’m doing it in part because I didn’t expect to find the movie so compelling. It’s kind of off-putting in its theme; you think this is just going to be sorry and despair and, you know, and from what I’d read about it in advance, it’s set in a part of, a life of rural, Southern life, and pickup trucks and mobile homes. I don’t want to just go on and on–but the humanity that it exudes, the complexity of personality.
So I just want to begin: how did you come to make this film? I should introduce you a bit; you’re probably very well known to everybody I’m talking to, because you’ve had, what, 40 years of acting and directing? And I knew you through a movie called “The Cove,” on the slaughter of dolphins in Japan, a great environmental movie; we could talk about that after. But you know, one thing that’s great about your new movie is that somehow you have survived Hollywood, and all the changes of Hollywood. And at this point, you know, after this long career, you have made a significant work of art in an improbable area of, what, streaming cable television. So why don’t you just tell how this project came about, and what you really wanted to communicate?
FS: Well, thank you. I really appreciate your kind words, and it means a lot to me, coming from you especially. I read this script right after Trump was elected, actually, and there was something about the combination of where the script was set and the relationship between the Justin Timberlake character and the Ryder Allen character, that I really felt was an important relationship to put on screen in this period of time in American history, or any time, frankly. Also, my nephew Max, at seven years old, was the character of Sam; he played with dolls, he wore dresses, all of his friends were girls. And I really kind of had–I loved Max, and he was raised by these very liberal parents in Chicago, but I thought setting this in rural America and having a boy like this live there was a very interesting subject and topic. And I felt like these characters, both the Sam character and the Palmer character, needed to come to life. And I just, I guess I related to them. And it wasn’t easy getting it, finally getting it made, but it was a long and very worthwhile journey.
RS: Well, let’s talk about that, getting it made. Because this is a film that never would have been made in the old media, old structure of Hollywood. The marketing people, the studio people–you know, it just wouldn’t happen. And you know, and we’re in the business now, or the habit now of condemning much of the internet and the new media, you know, and where are the standards. But one thing we’ve gotten from this wired world is much greater opportunity to experiment, to find audiences, to not have to go to some mass idea, which turns out to be fake anyway. And so let’s talk about the process, because you know, you truly are a veteran of this industry who has survived or actually enhanced your values. You’ve made very meaningful documentaries, and now you have a feature film. And so talk about it. Talk about your own survival.
FS: Ha, ha. It’s, ah–it is a crazy journey that at my age, and having been around so much, that in this year of Covid, of all times, I’ve been really, like, fortunate, between–and in large part due to streaming services. One thing is I–you know, when you’re starting out you have dreams, and you want to be like people. I mean, I guess the people that I wanted to be like when I was starting out were a mixture of actors and directors. My idols were, like, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, but also Sidney Lumet, Sydney Pollack, Norman Jewison. And social kind of commentary directors, Elia Kazan, and actors that I thought did, like, great works and were the best actors in my opinion.
So I had no idea that my career would take these twists and turns. And you know, you do some movies you think are great that nobody sees, and then you have trouble getting work for a while. And then you do movies or TV shows that people watch, and that keeps you going. You know, it is a strange business. And ah–yeah, if you would have asked me 20 years ago if this is where I would be, I wouldn’t have–I would have been like, no. But you never know how things will line up.
And Palmer, when I did read the script, there was a–you know, I had produced a bunch of independent films; I had a company for years called Greene Street, where we were early on–I think we were a pretty early indie New York film company. I mean, Miramax was a bigger version of it. But we found a hedge fund to finance feature films early on. This was, we were one of the first people to do that. And the hedge fund wanted to kind of make its portfolio larger, and we needed money to make independent, edgy films. And we made “In the Bedroom,” and we made “Piñero,” and we made some cool movies. We made movies that we thought were really true to us.
And it wasn’t till the hedge fund goes, “Come on! Now, let’s start making some real money! Here’s some money, go make some commercial movies.” And that’s when I got into trouble as a producer and as a filmmaker, trying to do something commercial. Which–you know, I think I’m too–I’m not a commercial thinker, so to speak, in a lot of ways. Or I wasn’t. And yeah, so I then got into, I fell in love with doing documentaries because it was like, oh, they didn’t cost as much, and you could really tell stories. And you can make them easier; you don’t have to worry about raising millions of dollars, you can make a documentary for a million dollars.
RS: How much did “The Cove” cost?
FS: Well, The Cove was expensive. [Laughs] That was a weird one, because I came on to that project–I’d met Louie Psihoyos, who was the director–we were scuba divers together, we were scuba buddies. And our friend Jim Clark–who actually, speaking of the internet, he created Netscape, which was one of the first search engines. And he got very wealthy selling Netscape to AOL in the nineties. And Louie and I, we used to go scuba diving with Jim all over the world. And Jim started funding Louie to make a movie about–really it was first about coral bleaching, and about global warming, at the time. And Louie had discovered this story about these dolphins being slaughtered in Taiji, Japan, and had tried to put like a million different stories into this one movie, and had been spending Jim’s money going around the world trying to find this documentary. And it wasn’t until Louie and I kind of got together that we just decided to focus the whole film on that cove–make it “The Cove.” But that movie did cost about, I think it was something like $4 million at the time, which was a lot of money. Yeah, it was an expensive documentary, but fortunately it did well.
RS: Well, and you won the Academy Award for documentary.
RS: And really raised consciousness about it. And it was a challenge to a very sophisticated culture, the Japanese culture, and the whole idea was where is tradition, and is it OK to eat certain animals, and pay a high price. And you really challenged, you know, some very well-established cultural norms. And you said, you know, they may be well-established, and they may appeal to very wealthy people, like maybe eating endangered species, but the fact of the matter is, it was brutal. And it took a lot of risks –I don’t want to take away from your current movie, but that movie took a lot of risks in filming, and you ran into hostility of people who didn’t want it filmed, and so forth.
FS: Oh, yeah.
RS: I recall all those controversies. Let me take you back to “Palmer,” because I want–it opened today, which is Friday–what is today anyway, the third or something?
FS: No, it opened–yeah, it opened on the 29th.
RS: Oh, 29th, sorry–
FS: Yeah, that’s OK.
RS: OK, well, I’m behind the curve. [Laughs] But it’s now widely available, right?
RS: So I just want to stress something about it. Because you know, my wife has accused me that in my writing and my website and my podcasting, I’m too pessimistic. And even though–you know, I didn’t even want to watch your movie, because I thought it was going to break my heart. You know, I mean, I thought this poor kid is going to be tormented and harassed–which he is, and you see all the brutality and stupidity of human existence.
But I came away feeling enormously optimistic, because you picked an issue in terms of the treatment of gay people, transgender people, you know, sexual differences–you picked an issue where we’ve actually made greater progress, or greater progress in a short period of time, than on any other issue. You know, and I think–gosh, the New York Times used to, back even in the late sixties, condemn the homosexual community of Greenwich Village, you know, for being disorderly and degenerate. And you know, we had legislation here in California where you would be arrested for having any such thoughts. And then the whole argument always–well, you’re going to endanger children, so that was always a big, sensitive thing.
And the thing is that your movie now, it pushes the envelope in terms of taking it to an audience about our prejudices. But actually, I don’t know if you agree, but it seems to me the public is open for it now. And you can actually see a Justin Timberlake-type high school football hero, who runs into some adversity and ends up going to jail and comes out, and can be touched by this story, and actually risk quite a bit to come to the aid and to nurture this young kid.
FS: Yeah, yeah, no, I–
RS: –realistic, actually.
FS: Yeah, it was really–well, I think this boy at seven–I mean, I wouldn’t label him anything other than a boy who wears dresses and plays with dolls. And the fact is, yes, he is different, for sure, than any of the other kids in his school, in this part of America.
And I agree with you that we have come a long way in our culture. And even where I was filming–you know, it was interesting, because I’m filming like in Louisiana near the Mississippi border. And you know, politically, a lot of these people that I ended up meeting and I are on different sides, for sure. But yet they all read the script, and let me film in their church; they let me film in their homes. And they were super cool. And they were super open, and they were super touched. And a lot of the people in the community, even, would say, oh! I know a kid like this, or I’m, you know, my nephew is–or, you know.
And I was–it was kind of a beautiful thing. Because I live in Brooklyn, you know; I live in my bubble. And as I said, when Trump was elected, I was kind of shocked–like, wow, how did he win? Am I just blind to the rest of the country? So it was very interesting to see that these, a lot of these people–because we didn’t talk politics, and when we did talk politics, often we’d disagree. Yet we saw this issue very much eye-to-eye, and they were very accepting of the story, and allowing me into their lives. And we ended up getting along great, and it was a beautiful experience to film in that part of the country.
RS: Yeah. And, but you know, the Matthew Shepard case is not so long back in our history. And you know, and one of the–I mean, look. The whole ability to scapegoat, condemn, marginalize people always assumes that they’re not part of your family or your tribe, or they’re “the other.” And the big breakthrough, of course–well, without saying that this seven-year-old is gay, he’s certainly drawn to alternative ways of defining being a boy.
RS: And for which normally, in the old days, they would have said, you know, we gotta force him. You know, it’s like making left-handers right-handers–we’ll tie up his hand. And you have, you know, this jock, you know, handsome in real life and in film–and as I say, one would have said oh no, he’ll never see the humanity of this child, and he’ll probably go the other way. And you know, ah, discipline him to “Be a man!” and all that. And what we have learned, and the reason we’ve made so much progress on gay issues–including, by the way, for Republicans, because Trump, after all–I don’t like what Peter Thiel stands for in business, but you know, actually, Trump was the first person to have an out-of-the-closet gay person address the Republican Convention. And that is not one of the groups he particularly scapegoated. You know, he did to some extent with the military, and gays in the military.
But generally, the reason that there’s been this progress on that issue is because once people are out of the closet, you discover, oh, it’s all these people I like. And they’re my own family, and they’re my minister, or they’re this one or that one, the teacher. And so it became very difficult. And that really is what happens in this movie, isn’t it? That, you know, people–even the deputy, the guy you think is going to–the sheriff remains a bad guy. But the deputy, he kind of somehow becomes enlightened at the end. And you know, it’s believable. That’s what I think is one of the great strengths of this movie, and a source of optimism, is that you keep thinking it’s going to end very badly, and in fact it doesn’t. And best of all, this kid is able to assert his own autonomy, his own power, his own rights, and stick to it, in a really interesting view of what might be the victim–but you get the feeling at the end he’s the winner.
FS: Yeah, he–you know, it’s interesting that–one thing that I’ve learned in my years is that often I’m quick to judge people myself. Not necessarily because of their, you know, sexuality or anything, but I jump to conclusions about people often, or used to much more often. And now it’s like I’m trying to continue as a human not to judge so much.
And I think the Timberlake character is a good lesson for all of us. At the beginning he does judge Sam, and then once he really opens his eyes and listens and looks, and watches him, and realizes that Sam is more–kind of more enlightened and more intelligent than his high school friends that haven’t grown at all since he’s been in jail. That there is something to learn and love. And yeah, it is a great relationship.
The other thing that I really liked about the movie’s script was that his mother–who’s a meth addict played by Juno Temple, who’s a wonderful, actually English actress–the mother, even though she’s a terrible mother, leaves him for days on end with Justin’s grandmother, with Palmer’s grandmother, and you know, probably doesn’t feed him much; his nutrition is a disaster, she feeds him cookies–she does allow him to be who he is. She does let, you know, she does let him play with dolls, she does let him put barrettes in his hair. And she gives him this kind of self-esteem, in her own way, that I think is a beautiful thing, in accepting who Sam is, and what Sam, you know, who he likes to play with and what he likes to play with.
RS: Well, that’s a great strength of this movie. In fact, I read–you have pretty good reviews on, I forget where, Rotten Tomatoes or the other ones or something. And somebody said, “Well, even though it’s a long movie, you know, almost two hours or whatever, the characters should be developed more.” I disagreed. I thought the real strength of this movie is that these are not dismissive hicks, you know. That they’re all serious human beings, for good, bad or whatever. And I don’t know, I didn’t live in that area; I’ve traveled, certainly, through that part of Louisiana and Mississippi, and you know, I did it back in the old days; I think my first trip was 1960.
FS: Oh, man.
RS: And you know, at first glance you could say, wow, rednecks or hicks or something like that. But then you realize, you know, a little bit of conversation, a little bit of digging, and it turns out everybody’s got their own, you know, sweet spot, and they’ve also got their own nightmares and terrors and stupidities. And the movie conveys that. There are no caricatures in this movie. I thought–look, I don’t want to be too positive about the movie, because that’s not my job here. [Laughs] I’m supposed to explore this. But I was so pleasantly surprised–I stupidly waited till the last minute to watch it, just to be honest about it, because I couldn’t get the technology to work [Laughter] and even though I pay for all these services–I know I can get the Lakers game on, but that’s about it.
FS: Right, right.
RS: And I got it to work, and now we’re running up against the clock, and I thought, you know, maybe I’ll just skim it or get the drift or something. I found it compelling. And I just want to be honest about that, and I didn’t expect that. And my son Joshua Scheer, who’s the producer of the show, he lines these things up. And so I berated him early this morning–exactly why am I doing this, you know? What is my competency in this area? And then I felt like, no, I do want to have a megaphone–I do have a megaphone, somewhat, and I do want to get people to watch it. Because you know, again, it’s a sign–I hate to use the cloying word “progress”–of genuine progress. At least there’s one area here where people, because they can see it in their own family, the “othering” got broken. Now, it might not last; you know, we may have a pogrom against the people who are sexually different. You know, I mean, there’s no limit to what demagogues can do to find enemies. But you know, we have to acknowledge–when I was watching this movie, I was thinking, like when I was growing up, a kid who seemed different–you know, I remember one of my closest friends, they would just attack him–“Mel the fag,” you know. And then I would say no, no, that’s Mel–and you know, other people, our inner group of friends. But the brutality, the viciousness–you know, this is not kidding around, this was deep in the culture, the whole masculinity and all that. And to be able to have this young kid actor–what is his name, I forget–
FS: Ryder Allen, yeah.
RS: –yeah–and convey such wisdom, but in a real sense. And yet you know he’s struggling, you know he’s hurting, you know he’s being alienated in school. And it’s really about bullying, not just sexual bullying, of course, but bullying of anyone who’s different. And I agree with you, it’s not, you know, necessarily a movie about gay people; it’s about anybody who’s different at that age, and taking it up into teenage years after. And so it is really primarily a movie about bullying, and the intolerance that’s baked into our culture.
RS: You know, that the culture just reeks of it. And yet now there’s, you know, a crack in that system. And in the movie, what I really felt–you didn’t preach, and you don’t come up with too rosy an ending, you know; the kid’s still going to have a hard time, it ain’t all going to go away. But it’s plausible. It’s plausible that kid actually could be accepted and have a decent life and so forth, and that even some authority figures like that one teacher–I forget who plays her, but–
FS: Alisha Wainwright, yeah.
RS: Yeah, she’s great. And you know, that reaching out–the fact that there is some community support. There’s the mob, but the mob shows cracks, and then there are decent people. And I ‘ll tell you, when I went through that part of the country back in 1960 with the deep segregation and the violence and everything, I wondered where were the decent–certainly where were the decent white people. But evidently, they exist.
FS: Yes. Times have changed.
RS: So let me ask you about the–go ahead.
FS: No, no, I was just going to say, times have changed, you know. But not–as we know from January 6, little–you know, times have changed, but they’re still out there, those dark, dark forces, right.
RS: Yeah, but–well, let me ask you about the changing industry, because you really are a witness to really what is the heart of our culture and our consciousness, is this mass media world. And as you say, lots of people get into it and talk a good game, and want to do something with it, you know. And it generally happens by accident, but the really prohibitive thing down through the history, certainly of moviemaking, was the box office and how wide it had to go, and how big it had to open and all that. And then we kept hearing about all the indies and all the rebels, and even before that there were the foreign films and so forth. And you bring a wealth of experience about the movement of this medium. And you know, when the credits rolled and at the end I saw Apple–and I feel that sometimes with Netflix, and seeing some of these movies, even coming out of Amazon. And these are these giant companies that you really feel are quite threatening in so many ways, but they’ve also opened up these smaller markets where, you know, things can–until the censorship hits. That’s the way, basically, I feel about the internet. You know, as long as it’s neutral, as long as we don’t have too much pressure on people to have the algorithms that rule out anything controversial. And I don’t know, I’m predicting this will be successful, but don’t you feel you have a space that you might not have anticipated maybe 15 years ago?
FS: Oh my goodness, for sure. I mean, even my work with Netflix–I did their third documentary original that they bought; it was a tiny, tiny movie about Sylvia Earle, a scuba diver, 80-year-old scuba diver who’s been trying to save the oceans. I mean, not that many people saw it, but more people saw that movie on Netflix than would have ever seen it, ever, if it was released in just cinemas. And I realized the power of it. And it does give you a great audience. The thing about Apple with this movie is that they were–they were great. They didn’t tell me–you know, I did a lot of movies with Harvey Weinstein as a producer and as an actor, and Harvey was constantly telling me to cut this, do this, blah blah blah. Working with Apple, it was like, we want your movie because we love your movie. And it wasn’t like do this, do that–there was none of that. And you know, I was like, wow–this is amazing.
And–so you talk about box office. In the weirdest way it was like, OK, so I made this movie during Covid–I finished it during Covid, I mean; we’d shot it before. But I have never screened this movie, finished, with an audience, ever. And you know, it’s bizarre. Yet it opened on Apple on January 29th, on Apple Plus, and we got these crazy calls from Apple saying, “Our viewership went up 33% this weekend because your movie was released.” So there was this kind of weird–I guess it’s how they determine box office now, is viewership, and how many people see it. So I can pretty much tell you that more people watched “Palmer” this week on Apple than would have seen it in a cinema. So it is kind of amazing. I exec-produced this TV show for Netflix called “Tiger King,” that during Covid, like, it had a massive audience. And had we, you know, put it on some obscure cable TV channel, I don’t think anyone would have seen that either. So it is a good moment right now. But I agree with you, Robert, that I’m hoping that they stay like this, that they don’t start becoming–you know, you do read articles that, you know, will Apple start dictating content, will Amazon, Netflix, these big streamers. But right now it is a kind of heyday.
RS: Yeah, and that’s the whole problem. I mean, the internet was–speaking of the rest of the internet, not the delivery system of films–was wide open. And then people said well, we don’t like the Drudge Report, you know, and so therefore you should crack down. And then you don’t like the folks on the left, and you got to crack down on them. And there is a lot of pressure now for destroying what is best about–yes, there’s a lot of junk, there’s a lot of dangerous stuff, because that’s what’s called freedom. But the fact of the matter is there’s a lot of pressure now on Google and on Facebook and on Apple to clean up their act, you know, and only give us what we consider to be real news and so forth. Well, that’s begging the private, the big–you know, that’s the old days. Big studios, and they didn’t say anything about our being a segregated society, a homophobic society, that we had a lot of Jewish people doing constructive, good things in our society, even though the studios had plenty of representation of gay, Jewish people, and even some people of color, or at least they were in contact with, or they were liberal on. And yet watching the old, the heyday of movies, you wouldn’t know that we lived in a segregated society, right? And you can go through the whole trip, and you certainly wouldn’t–I mean, remember the AIDS crisis, when finally it took Elizabeth Taylor to remind us that Rock Hudson was gay. And you know, and that this was a real issue.
So what I’m–I want to end on this, but I mean, I don’t want to get my optimism too great over–you know, right now it’s a fragmented market. So even Showtime and HBO and everything, they have a lot of movies that would have had difficulty being made. But the fact of the matter is, that can be tightened up. And you mentioned somebody–OK, I didn’t want to end with–you mentioned Miramax, you mentioned Harvey Weinstein–it’s one of the ironies, this guy’s now sitting in jail, and this is not a podcast about that. But something nobody ever mentions is that actually he made a pretty significant percentage of the movies that people look back on as having been significant, socially significant.
FS: Yeah, well, he definitely changed the whole game. You know, he made doing independent movies profitable, and he brought a lot of movies to a massive audience that would never have seen a big audience, you know, before the streamers. It’s just unfortunate that [Laughs] he had a lot of–I mean, it’s really strange that, you know, like you say, he’s just sitting in jail, and he did all these absolutely horrible, horrible things to people, yet he had a massive influence on our industry, I think, in other ways. You know, bringing these–he made a lot of filmmakers that are, you know, from around the world, that are great filmmakers, and gave their movies an audience.
RS: So let me just conclude this. Because you know, freedom in a modern, capitalist society–we’re really a cartel capitalism, you know. I mean, you made a movie for the richest company in the world, right? Apple–
FS: Well, I didn’t make it for Apple. Apple actually–I made the movie, I got a bunch of independent people to put up some money–
RS: Yeah, oh, I’m sorry.
FS: Yeah, and then Apple bought it and put it on, yeah.
RS: OK, all right, but I mean the delivery system and getting it on, that becomes the name of the game, or it doesn’t exist.
FS: For sure, for sure.
RS: And there’s no doubt there are cracks in the system in how things get through. And it is not–you know, and it’s a good thing that the most admired chief executive in the world, including in countries where they still suppress homosexuality in a very brutal way, is Tim Cook, who is an openly gay person. I’m not saying that’s why this movie is shown, but we have space now. And I think maybe that’s a good point on which to end. I just want to ask you, how did you keep your energy and optimism going–how long has it been? I forgot to ask you your age, I should have looked it up–
FS: Oh, I’m 57, and I–
RS: Oh, you’re a kid, you’re a kid, OK.
FS: I did my first–my first movie was actually with Harvey Weinstein’s company. It wasn’t even a company, it was–my first big part was in a movie called “The Burning,” a horror film when I was 16.
RS: Yeah, and you dropped out of NYU, I read somewhere, right? You only had one year of college?
FS: Well, no, I didn’t even really have a year. I actually barely made it through high school, and I talked my way into the Gallatin program because I wanted to study philosophy at NYU. And I’m basically a–I’m not very educated, let me put it to you that way. But–
RS: Well, I love that, because you know, I teach at the University of Southern California, where we have a pretty big cinema school, and we have a lot of media, and I teach at the Annenberg School. And I do have to point out to people, it’s wonderful to get a traditional education, and I’m all for it, and I loved City College of New York, and it changed my whole outlook; it didn’t prepare me for any career that I’m practicing, I was studying engineering most of the time. But the fact is when I read that in the biographical material about you–and I’ve heard this from so many other people, including some of the people who gave us the internet, who were dropouts of one kind of another–and yet you managed to learn while doing. So what was driving you? Why didn’t you sell out? Why didn’t you just go for the commercial–?
FS: Well, I–I always listen–yeah, I always had a political conscience, because my mother was an activist in, you know, I remember she was arrested in ’68 because we lived in Chicago, when I was like four years old. And then my mother became an AIDS activist, and just kind of taught me and, you know, read me, like, The Autobiography of Malcolm X when I was in fourth grade. You know, in that sense I felt like I had an obligation to mix work with activism. And my career just kept taking weird turns. I guess if I had blown up big, maybe I would have been different, but the fact is I had a slow, steady climb.
And I love people, which is another reason I make documentaries and like to direct films like this. Because I love people, and I’m interested in people, and I’m interested in storytelling. And yeah, I have a lot of energy, but I think a lot of my energy is because I’m so curious–so, curiosity. And I love to learn; I just never had that formal education. I mean, when I was supposed to be in high school, in eleventh grade, I started working at a casting office as a bike messenger, and was a busboy at a couple of restaurants in New York, and started making more money than my mother–and then auditioning. And I loved auditioning, I loved reading plays, and I loved that.
So that was my education, I guess: the street, sort of, and reading plays, and then reading novels. Reading–reading is the best. So that just–I’m still super curious and love–I’m making a documentary now on this group called The Lincoln Project, I’m sure you know about. And–
RS: Well, describe it for people who don’t.
FS: So The Lincoln Project were a bunch of Republicans who, in 2019 they basically formed a group of themselves to make anti-Trump ads and to fight against Donald Trump and senators who support Donald Trump. And they continue today, and they made great ads; they’re hard-hitting, and most of them have left the Republican Party; all of them except maybe two that I know of have left the party. And they’re an interesting group of political operatives that I’ve been lucky to film, and I’m making a television series about also.
RS: OK, and maybe we’ll have a Roosevelt Project of [Laughs] disgruntled Democrats if they don’t deliver now and do something about this enormous income inequality that is destroying everything. And by the way, for all the homage I’m paying to Apple and others for doing these films, the fact of the matter is, you know, it’s done at the price of cartel power. And at some point, you know, we’ll see if they make movies about their power. You know, and their hold on our culture. But you know, I’m sure if you’re still around and you’re making movies, you’ll take them on also.
And I do want to say, finally, one concluding point about this. You don’t have any simple caricatures. I said it before, but to me it’s a big deal as a journalist. It’s so easy to demonize the other, and to hold them responsible and so forth. And what you introduce us to with this movie, is that everyone has to make ethical choices, and they know it when they make the wrong ones, and they know it when they make the right ones. And they can be challenged.
You know, and that’s really what this movie’s about, is challenging the people around that school, and in that community, about this little kid. And if you look at him, you say wait, he’s wonderful! What’s the issue? You know, but they don’t look at him that way, at first. And then it touches, you know, and basically it’s a very optimistic movie, and legitimately so. That, you know, people really don’t necessarily want to be brutal and vicious and contemptuous and bullying, I think. Anyway, so I’m going to conclude on that. I want to thank you for giving us this time. You got any last thing you want to say?
FS: Ah, no, I just want to say that, you know, I am optimistic generally. And I try to stay optimistic, and even through the Trump years tried to stay optimistic and fighting. And I do love people, and I do think that if we can just kind of look at each other and–one thing Biden did say in his inauguration speech is, like, put yourself in other people’s shoes. And I try to do that as a filmmaker and as an actor all the time. So I leave it at that, and I just thank you for having me, and I’m glad you got the film.
RS: Yep, and those qualities do show. And I’m not going to be this easy for the next four podcasts, [Laughter] but I happened to actually like the film, so I’ll try to be, what, more critical next time. But anyway, the movie is called “Palmer.” It’s really important to see. Fisher Stevens directed it, we’ve been talking to him. I want to thank Christopher Ho, our producer at KCRW, for getting these things up on the NPR system, and KCRW in Santa Monica. Natasha Hakimi writes the introduction. Lucy Berbeo does the transcription. And the overall producer and person who got this great guest for us today, Joshua Scheer, I want to thank him. And the JWK Foundation in the memory of a terrific writer and editor, Jean Stein, for helping fund these programs. See you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence.