Having Sean Penn, David Byrne and Bono’s daughter in his Dublin-set movie about a jaded rock star “was all part of the music, magic and mischief” filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino tells Paul Byrne.
When the award-winning Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino needed a home for his jaded, faded rock star in This Must Be The Place, he knew it had to be a city where a middle-aged, lipstick-toting, scarecrow-haired Goth with an ever-present shopping trolley wouldn’t look out of place.
Naturally, he chose Dublin.
Yep, if you’re a rock star scuttling down a road to nowhere, eventually, you’ll end up in our fair city. It’s Florida with guitars, the natural home for hard-rocking, tax-dodgin’ millionaire musicians when life just stops making sense…
“When I first started writing the script about this rocker living out his twilight years, I was searching London for a shooting location,” says Sorrentino, who broke through internationally with 2008’s Oscar-nominated Il Divo. “And then I came to Dublin, and I just knew, straight away, that we had to shoot the film here. Dublin is melancholic, just like my main character.
“I love Dublin, such a beautiful city. The tide, the streets, the people…”
In This Must Be The Place (the title comes from a 1983 Talking Heads song), retired rocker Cheyenne (Sean Penn) has spent the last few years living in something approaching a purple haze, dividing his time between shuffling around Dublin, having coffee with teenage confidante Mary (Eve Hewson), and being mothered at the suburban mansion he shares with his jolly firefighter wife Jane (Frances McDormand).
Think Performance long after the ganja and the gangsters have gone.
This ain’t no rock’n’roll suicide. It’s veggie pizza in the oven, unopened letters from MTV, and worries about the €30,000 of Tesco shares. And Sciatica. And being laughed at in the supermarket. It’s going, as our leading protagonist says at one point of enlightenment, from an age where we say, “My life will be that” to an age where we say, “That’s life”.
And it all began when Paolo Sorrentino saw Robert Smith waiting to go onstage with his now 36-year-old band The Cure. Full make-up, baggy black clothing, floppy white shirt, and a big black head of hair that looks like it hasn’t been touched by man or comb in well over a decade.
It’s worth pointing out that although he still presents himself like a teenage Goth who’s just been grounded, Robert Smith is 52. And he’s still singing Friday, I’m In Love.
In the movie, Penn actually looks more like New York Dolls guitarist Sylvain Sylvain or Visage frontman Steve Strange after a night on the tiles.
Or is that Ozzy Osbourne on helium we’re watching?
“It’s always been Robert Smith,” says Sorrentino when I list off the true-life lookalikes. “Well, Robert Smith and myself are the real inspirations. I never actually saw the Ozzy Osbourne sitcom until after I wrote this – some friends said I should check it out – so, that wasn’t an influence. But we all have an idea of the jaded old rock star trying to live an ordinary life.”
Penn was the head of the Cannes committee the year Il Divo walked away with both the Jury Prize and the Palme D’Or, and, after expressing a keenness to work with its maker, Sorrentino wrote This Must Be The Place with his new buddy in mind.
Not content with weaving in a father-son plotline to his rock star burn-out tale, Sorrentino decided to include the Holocaust too, Penn’s Cheyenne heading to the US to be at the bedside of his estranged, dying father, after almost 30 years apart. When the old man passes, this rebel suddenly has a cause, setting out to track down the former Nazi officer who had made his father’s life hell all those years ago.
The mind boggles as to how Sorrentino pitched all this to the money men when it came to securing his $28m budget. Eh, Robert Smith: Nazi Hunter?
“How did I sell this movie?” ponders Sorrentino. “Very simple – the movie is funny. The movie is mostly a comedy, and it’s unusual to see Sean Penn in a funny way. So, that’s how I sold the movie.”
Yep, if Fast Times’ Jeff Spicoli – a rare, early comedic outing for Penn – had experienced the rise and fall of Ziggy Stardust, he might have come out the other side as Cheyenne. Penn delivers another fine comedic performance here, keeping a straight if shaky face throughout This Must Be The Place. He’s got the shakes, the trippy, hippy shakes, and Sorrentino let’s us in on Cheyenne’s trip, complete with midget construction workers, a bison staring in the window, Emily the goose, and, most surreal of all, the Oscar-winning McDormand in her full Dublin fireman outfit, waving from an Upper Mount Street window ledge.
Gradually, Performance becomes Paris, Texas, all on some serious Poitín, as this man who fell off the earth goes deeper down the rabbit hole. To places such as Bad Axe, Michigan. A real city.
The casting of Eve Hewson as Cheyenne’s teen buddy only adds to the sense of madness and mischief here. Ms. Hewson is the 20-year old daughter of Paul and Ali Hewson, aka Bono and his missus. Sorrentino is clearly having a little fun with the baggage Eve will bring to the movie. Right?
“All the casting was part of the music, magic and mischief of the movie,” he states, “but everyone involved is there because they proved to be the best person for the role.
“As soon as I started to do auditions, I was really impressed by the abilities of Irish actors. So, I used Irish actors also sometimes in American roles – for example, Kerry Condon as the girl who lives in the United States. Irish actors are absolutely the best in the world. If it was possible, I would have liked to have Irish actors for every role.”
The titular Talking Heads song is covered by various artists throughout the movie’s soundtrack, and is even given a live performance in the movie by the band’s founder, David Byrne, so, it’s hardly surprising to discover that Sorrentino is a big fan of the new wave masters. Perhaps the movie was all just a $28m scam so Paolo could meet his idol?
Sorrentino lets out a laugh. “Nah, I think there would maybe be less expensive ways to meet David Byrne. I’m not really sure where the $28m was spent – that’s not my job…”
Surprisingly, the permission to use This Must Be The Place in the movie was sought after Sorrentino had written his script.
“It was very important for us,” he nods. “Indeed, when I met David Byrne, I was scared that he would say no, and the movie would be impossible to do. I needed him on the soundtrack, and himself as an actor, and the first time I met him, I was gibbering with nerves, and he said, ‘No. You’re asking me too many things, and I can’t give you all this’. Luckily, I calmed down, and he later agreed…
“Not really sure what I could have called the movie if This Must Be The Place wasn’t available.”
Perhaps The Forgettable Fire, I suggest.
“Yeah, The Forgettable Fire would have worked,” he laughs. “Maybe it’s not too late to change it actually, before all the posters go out…?”
This Must Be The Place hits Irish cinemas March 23rd