'I relied so much on Dylan’s face to tell the story'

Flag Day director Sean Penn on Trump, parenting and working with his daughter

by Richard Mowe

Sean Penn and daughter Dylan on the red carpet before the premiere of Flag Day
Sean Penn and daughter Dylan on the red carpet before the premiere of Flag Day Photo: Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

As a champion of the underdog both onscreen and through his political activism Sean Penn has impeccable credentials which he chooses to flout only modestly.

He returns to Cannes with Flag Day, his sixth film as a director in 30 years after the likes of The Indian Runner (1991), The Crossing Guard (1995) and Into The Wild (2007). Also in the mix was the humanitarian drama The Last Face with Charlize Theron and Javier Bardem, which was presented in Cannes in 2016, and was roundly trounced by both audiences and critics.

Flag Day has been well-received, with Penn playing the part of notorious criminal and swindler John Vogel as well as directing the screenplay based on a memoir Film Flam Man: A True Family History by Vogel’s daughter Jennifer. Penn’s daughter Dylan plays Jennifer.

Sean Penn on Trump: 'We were let down and openly neglected and misinformed'
Sean Penn on Trump: 'We were let down and openly neglected and misinformed' Photo: Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
Penn, 60, was not immediately drawn to the idea of doing the two jobs. “I sent the script a month and a half before shooting began to Matt Damon. He called me back generously not to say he couldn’t do it but to say that I would be a stupid schmuck not to take the opportunity to act with my daughter. We had reached a point of necessity to make a decision about who was going to play the part and once I had decided it felt like a big burden was taken off. Whenever you are directing an actor there is a certain emotional politic you are dealing with but because I was now in it I didn’t have to waste time worrying about it. Removing one complicated personality from the equation was not a bad option,” said Penn.

His admiration for his daughter’s professional prowess is unstinting. “As an actress she is completely uncontrived so when you put the camera on her face as she is listening you have the whole world of truth and deception. I relied so much on Dylan’s face to tell the story,” he said proudly.

Raising Dylan, 30, and her brother Hopper, 27, who also appears in Flag Day, as well as fitting in the demands of work required a fair amount of agile scheduling for him and his ex-wife Robin Wright Penn. “There were periods when I was away but we made sure that I was always back on Friday and off until the Sunday. But once get done with a job then you are the only parent who is there 24/7. That is when the children get upset … when you are there all the time. We tried to strike a balance, but there were times I was away too long. They still seem to like me, though, and I am sure anyone who is a parent will understand.”

Dylan Penn in Flag Day,: 'I felt I had a lot of parallels with the story and I felt I could reference my own feelings and bring them to this character'
Dylan Penn in Flag Day,: 'I felt I had a lot of parallels with the story and I felt I could reference my own feelings and bring them to this character' Photo: United Artists

Dylan concurred that she had not suffered as a result of having two parents in the business. “They were pretty present during our childhood. They took us from Los Angeles where the industry is the focal point and raised us away from it all to give us as normal an upbringing as possible.” As for being directed by her father she admitted she felt a certain apprehension before agreeing to participate: “I think I said no about ten times before I said yes. I first read this book when I was 15 and coming back to it now at the age of 30 was almost like reading my own diary. I felt I had a lot of parallels with the story and I felt I could reference my own feelings and bring them to this character. Meeting Jennifer herself was amazing. She stressed that she did not need a copy of her character. She did not need me to mimic her.

“I went into it as any other job. He was my boss but at the end of the day he is almost my father and we have a complex relationship. We are both Alpha and sometimes that can be a clash. I think it worked out in the end.”

Sean and Dylan at the Flag Day premiere
Sean and Dylan at the Flag Day premiere Photo: Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
As a veteran activist and anti-Trump proponent Penn has spent much time during the pandemic helping to organise Covid testing and vaccinations for underserved communities. “We were let down and openly neglected and misinformed. We had truth and reason assaulted under what was in all terms an obscene administration,” he said about the former president and his pandemic task force.

“It felt like someone with a machine gun gunning down communities that were most vulnerable, from a turret at the White House. In the transition to the task force that President Biden put together, it was really that feeling like a sun was rising. There was no effort of integrity coming from the federal government until after the Trump administration was dismissed.”

Penn suggests his vision of America stems from his younger days when he used to criss-cross the States in road trips. “I developed a real affinity for the landscape of that country. I am sure that has influenced choices I have made in movies that I have worked on since then. We were short on time for preparation. The film got made with a leap of faith for the environment we were in.” It was shot in Winnipeg standing in for Minneapolis.

The actor-director reflects that there had not been a lot of higher education in his generation of the family. “My brothers and I were not studious whereas Dylan and Hopper had a completely different take on education. She was quite a swot. I had started to pay attention to my own curiosities only once was out of formal education.”

Flag Day is released on 13 August in the US and in France on 22 September

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