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In 'Flag Day,' Sean and Dylan Penn aim to break cinema's 'three thought rule'


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: Finally tonight, Jeffrey Brown talks to Sean Penn and his daughter Dylan about real-life family ties and those on screen in their new film, "Flag Day." They also discuss Sean Penn's relief work, as he's on the ground in Haiti this week.

It's part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Dylan Penn: What do you do for a living?

Sean Penn: You know what I do for a living. I'm an entrepreneur.

Jeffrey Brown: It's a story of a girl growing up with a charismatic con man of a father. "Flag Day" is based on the memoir "Flim-Flam Man" by journalist Jennifer Vogel about loving, leaving, and coming to terms with her criminal dad, John Vogel.

ACTRESS: The suspect has been identified as John Vogel, the second largest counterfeiter in U.S. history.

Jeffrey Brown: And when Sean Penn first read the script years ago and considered directing the film, he immediately saw his choice to play Jennifer, his own daughter, Dylan, then just 15.

Sean Penn: I think it was the truth machine aspect of Dylan -- Dylan's nature. She's not someone who tells you what she's thinking. She just thinks the thought, which transfers very well to an actress, to what acting is and what makes us want to watch and consider what's going on inside.

Jeffrey Brown: The problem, Dylan, whose mother is another well-known actor, Robin Wright, originally had other ideas.

Dylan Penn: I think I partly rejected the idea of acting for so long because I didn't want to follow in their footsteps. I wanted to be in film, but I always wanted to be behind the camera.

Jeffrey Brown: Years later, though, now 30, she felt ready to take on the role of Jennifer, with her father as both director and co-star.

Dylan Penn: I felt similarly to her in her pursuit of finding her own identity, away from her past, separate from her father, her mother, and then also coming to this reconciliation, acceptance of the fact that your parents, your past is a part of your identity.

Jeffrey Brown: You had to do some emotionally difficult scenes, right? Was that easy or harder having family right there?

Dylan Penn: I think it definitely made it easier. I did not expect that. But it was definitely cathartic, to say the least.


Jeffrey Brown: A family tradition continues. Sean Penn's father, Leo, who died in 1998, was a director. His mother, Eileen Ryan, is an actress.

Sean Penn: Is that my daughter in there?

Jeffrey Brown: He's a two-time Oscar winner as best actor for "Mystic River" in 2003.

Sean Penn: My name is Harvey Milk, and I'm here to recruit you.

Jeffrey Brown: And "Milk" in 2008. His directing credits include 2007's "Into the Wild."

Sean Penn: The truth is, I have actually been out for a while.

Dylan Penn: How long?

Sean Penn: A year and a bit.

Jeffrey Brown: "Flag Day" is another tightly wound and taut human drama, increasingly rare in big screen theaters.

You continue to make these smaller, character-driven films. Is there still a place for the films you want to make?

Sean Penn: Right now, you have caught me at a moment where I'm just really grateful to have this one get a life in the theater before it goes into the box. It certainly has become, we all know, much more difficult for films that have -- if they break the three thought rule.

If there is more than three thoughts, you're going to have a tough time getting it distributed in a movie theater.

Jeffrey Brown: The three thought rule, huh? That's not many thoughts for a two-hour film.

Sean Penn: Well, see most things on the big screen these days, and you will see what I'm talking about.


Jeffrey Brown: But are people ready to go to the movies? Penn says he doesn't know. He's asked that only those vaccinated attend.

What he does believe, something important is being lost in the move to streaming at home on the small screen.

Sean Penn: Because it's not just about the big screen, right? It's about making the effort to go that makes it special. It's very difficult now, because for me to get a sense of that which is special, because it's as though the town square is open for everyone to speak, but, therefore, everyone is there, and it's too loud to hear anything.

And they're all speaking, and nobody's being heard. It's just very different from that which I fell in love with in the movie theaters of my youth.

Jeffrey Brown: Dylan, what do you think about that? Because you're of a younger generation that might determine which way things go.

Dylan Penn: I mean, when he talks about it like this, it feels so -- I feel the romance of what going to a movie theater is, and I really miss that experience.

So, being in a theater now, vaccinated, and, like he said, sharing the experience with strangers, I think is a really -- that's the power of filmmaking.

Jeffrey Brown: Soon after our talk, Sean Penn left for Haiti, where CORE, the disaster relief group he co-founded, has worked since the 2010 earthquake.

In the wake of a devastating new quake, CORE is working with the Ministry of Public Works to clear roads and get supplies and medical teams to hardest-hit areas.

I asked Penn about the prospects for a country facing political upheaval as well.

Sean Penn: I always think that things can change. Certainly, there have been -- to say setbacks would be an understatement.

We're going to have to fight several steps forward that we take with our Haitian partners to get where we're moving forward, of moments that we had in the past where it's slipped away again, either by living or spiritual devils.

By that, I mean the living devils that create these manmade problems, and the spiritual ones that create the natural disasters.

Jeffrey Brown: CORE is now set up for earthquake relief in four locations in Haiti's south, while operating 23 COVID vaccination sites across the country.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

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