Sean Penn Reflects on His Directorial Debut “The Indian Runner” 20 Years Later

The two-time Oscar-winning actor recalls asking Charles Bronson to shave his mustache on the set of his directorial debut and candidly discusses how he picks movies to make during...
Sean Penn making his directorial debut on Indian Runner

If you’d prefer to listen to the full Q & A, it’s in the audio file below.

It may be surprising to hear, but whereas most directors would be upset to hear a “slightly warped” print of their first film would be shown to an audience including his mother on the occasion of its 20th anniversary, Sean Penn took it as something of an honor.

“I don’t know that I had it as f—ed up in terms of the technical stuff that just happened,” Penn said after a screening of “The Indian Runner” at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica last week. “But once upon a time, there were more revival houses like this one…[and] by the time it got to the revival houses, [the prints] were kind of f—ed up, so I always thought that’s what good movies look like. So I really feel proud of it.”

Even with the technical difficulties, Penn appeared to be in good spirits for a discussion of his 1991 directorial debut with moderator Geoff Boucher of the L.A. Times, recounting with glee how after “15 to 17 Heinekens,” he once woke up Bruce Springsteen in the middle of the night to ask his permission to adapt the song “Highway Patrolman” off the “Nebraska” album into a feature.

Penn was all of 21 years old at the time, not even really establishing himself as an actor just yet with “Taps” and “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” still in the offing. But the Boss gave him his permission and Penn would spend the next decade meeting with writers to turn the tune about brothers who grow into roles on opposite sides of the law into a full-length screenplay until he hunkered down on the set of “We’re No Angels” to adapt it himself.

“I haven’t made that many movies since this one,” said Penn. “I still step on the set and chuckle, thinking “Do these adults have any idea who they’re putting their money in the hands of? It makes no sense to me and I kind of wing it.”

However, as his first film behind the camera, “The Indian Runner” is hardly a work of mischievous youngster, a moody meditation on the bond of blood the two men share even if they no longer have the same perspective on the world after one returns from war. Still, the film does feature plenty of actors in their wilder days including a magnetic Viggo Mortensen in one of his first leads as the wayward brother Frank, Patricia Arquette as his young fiancée, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him Benicio Del Toro, and David Morse as the more domesticated brother Joe. Morse, whose big break would come in Penn’s 1995 effort “The Crossing Guard,” was an actor that Penn said he pleaded with other directors to cast opposite him since seeing him in Richard Donner’s “Inside Moves,” “So when it was up to me, Don [Phillips, the producer] and I went and got him.”

Without knowing him, Penn also snagged Charles Bronson for what would ultimately be his next to last screen appearance as the two brothers’ father who takes his own life shortly after his wife’s death. Penn acknowledged he had been touched by Bronson’s personal experience of losing his real-life wife Jill Ireland after a long bout with cancer, but there was a surprisingly touchier subject that nearly kept Bronson from doing the movie. Here’s the story (5:30 into the audio file):

[Bronson] asked me if it was necessary that the character committed suicide because he wasn’t so sure his Italian fans would be so happy seeing him do that. I assured him that it was necessary.

There were then a series of conversations that I got out of very quickly. He mentioned something to me, but I didn’t say anything about it. Don had to handle this one because the agent kept calling on his behalf. No one can ask him to shave his mustache. So I waited until just before he was going to come out and join us in about two weeks. We were shooting, and I called him and I said, “You’re coming in tomorrow and this and this, and I just had this thought…how would you feel…”

He says [to the point], “You want me to shave my mustache.”

And I said, “That…that’s a great idea!” [laughs] So then he went ahead and did it. That’s how I met him because he came to set and we were shooting, so he came by, he was going to get his wardrobe set and all that kind of stuff and I go see him and we broke for lunch, so I went over to the trailer and I knocked on the door. And I knock and it was quiet. There was no light on in the trailer. It was the afternoon, but all the blinds were shut and I knocked again. “Come in.” So I opened the door, I saw him, the mustache was shaved and I said, “I was just kidding.” And other than “come in,” his first words to me were, “You better not, you sonuvabitch.”

But Penn was nothing but kind otherwise to his actors, whom he praised repeatedly throughout the Q & A while expressing his preference for directing, joking once, “There’s no question in the creative process, the actor’s job by far is the most difficult and I try to avoid it.”

Penn spoke of acting a little, cryptically saying “I have failed sections of films…[but] I’d rather do it as a director because it’ll be my failure,” and spoke some unguarded truth when one audience member asked what draws him to a script (“You read it if it’s a really good friend or someone you really respect or if they’re both the same person that’s directing it or wrote it or if you’re offered a lot of money. You keep reading it if on page 10, you’re interested. If you’re me, when they’re offering a lot of money, you hope you’re still interested).

When asked to identify what character he related to most in “The Indian Runner,” Penn drew laughs and applause by saying the eccentric “lady in the pink hat” (who can be seen in this clip), a callback to when he tiptoed around a question Boucher had asked earlier about the odd characters who populated the film like a bearded lady by saying, “I’m going to say something that’s extremely conceited or maybe just self-celebratory about something the rest of you wouldn’t celebrate. That’s a shorthand for me for how most people look to me all the time.”

Penn also surprised with who he cited as his biggest firsthand influence as a filmmaker: Michael Haller, the late production designer on nearly all of Hal Ashby’s films, whose son Brett (who composed two songs for “Indian Runner”) was in the Aero audience, and worked on Penn’s first two directorial efforts. (At 16:51 in the audio file, Penn tells a great story about Haller’s script recommendation to take a scene about Frank stealing a rich man’s car one step further.)

Once the floor was open to questions from the audience, Penn also talked about the trauma that’s inherent to American men, the influence of Native Americans on the film and culture in general (27:00), the hardest role he’s had to play (29:00), the influence of his late brother Chris on the character of Frank (37:00), and a fun story involving “Marge the Muffler Queen” (38:21).

Though he’s attached to direct the Robert De Niro starrer “The Comedian,” Penn’s only hint towards the future was when he talked about what makes him want to direct.

“The bar ought to get higher on falling in love and when you start something as a director, you’re going to be bled, you’re going to have fights for money, you’re going to have an assault of convention coming your way. You’re lucky to get out of it alive every time, so you need a little bit of time to recover and you need time to, for me, you need time to recover that excitement and to identify it with a project that makes you want to do it more than ever.”

When he stopped himself at one point in the heat of talking about “The Indian Runner” to say “This makes me want to go make a movie,” it was encouraging news for all.

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