Emilio Estevez, Back in the Library with The Public | ALA Midwinter 2019

Members of the library community are not the only ones who have excitedly awaited the release of Emilio Estevez’s newest film, The Public. But they were among its first audiences, at screenings held during the 2018 American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference in New Orleans. Before the Midwinter screening, Estevez and Ryan Dowd, author of The Librarian’s Guide to Homelessness, sat down with LJ to talk about The Public and the story of its 12-year journey.

Ryan Dowd and Emilio Estevez
Ryan Dowd, l., and Emilio Estevez at ALA Midwinter
Photo by Lisa Peet

Members of the library community are not the only ones who have excitedly awaited the release of Emilio Estevez’s newest film, The Public. But they were among its first audiences, at screenings held during the 2018 American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference in New Orleans. The film, shot in the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County (PLCHC), OH, tells the story of a group of patrons who turn the library into an impromptu shelter during a bitterly cold night, initiating a standoff with library officials, law enforcement, and the media—and forcing library staff to confront their own ideals of inclusion and access and, ultimately, stand up for what they feel is right. Estevez, who wrote, produced, and directed the film, plays one of the librarians on duty that night, heading a strong ensemble cast that features Jena Malone, Christian Slater, Alec Baldwin, Taylor Schilling, Gabrielle Union, Michael Kenneth Williams, Jeffrey Wright, Ki Hong Lee, Richard T. Jones, and Jacob Vargas.

The Public held its first screening at the Santa Barbara Film Festival in January 2018, and officially premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2018; the film has also screened at the Hamptons International Film Festival, NY, and in Palm Springs, FL, and Cincinnati. Estevez tweaked the film in response to librarian feedback at the 2018 Annual Meeting, among other factors, and the final version of the film was screened twice more for a library audience at the ALA Midwinter meeting in Seattle to a packed auditorium, standing ovations, and thoughtful questions. A screening is scheduled for April 1 at the New York Public Library ahead of its theatrical release.

Before the Midwinter screening, Estevez and Ryan Dowd, author of The Librarian’s Guide to Homelessness (ALA), sat down with LJ to talk about The Public and the story of its 12-year journey.


Estevez was no stranger to libraries when he first encountered the article that would inspire The Public. He had spent plenty of time in them as a child, and had recently put in a long stretch at the Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL) doing research for his previous film. “The history that I was trying to access was not available online—it was all on microfiche,” he told LJ, recalling, “it was a dollar a page, and if you didn't get the entire page you'd get home, you'd go through your research, there'd be a great story, and it'd be [incomplete]. So you'd go back. This was over months, compiling as much information as I could for my film Bobby, which was about the day Bobby Kennedy was shot.”

After that film wrapped, Estevez was looking for a new picture “that would be similar in tone, that would be an ensemble piece, that would be at a single location.”

On April 1, 2007, he picked up the Los Angeles Times and read an article by Chip Ward, who had recently left his position as assistant director of the Salt Lake City Public Library, titled “Written Off: A Librarian’s Days Among the Chronically Homeless.” (The piece also appeared online on Tomdispatch.com as “What They Didn’t Teach Us in Library School.”)

“The essay was about how libraries have become de facto homeless shelters, and how librarians have become social workers and first responders,” Estevez explained. “I was so moved by the piece. But I also knew what he was talking about, too.” Doing research for Bobby at LAPL, he said, “I saw this community of people who were using the library as a shelter…. These [city] homeless shelters, they kick people out at 6 a.m.” When the library doors opened at nine, he said, “Boom, they're in, until six, seven, eight [o’clock], depending on the day.” Right away, Estevez told LJ, “I said, ‘This is my next film.'”

A few days later, Estevez was back at LAPL digging into the story. “What if,” he wondered, “these people decided not to leave?”


The first draft of The Public took about a year to write, said Estevez. “It was 155 pages, it was overwritten, it was overwrought, and it was super dark, because we were in the middle of the [George W.] Bush regime.”

He initially envisioned the story set in Los Angeles, and began putting together a cast and crew and raising startup money. “Then the financial crisis of 2008 pretty much sunk it,” he said. “But I’m glad that it did, in retrospect, because I think that the film’s more relevant now than it would have been had we made it then.” The delay also gave him a chance to fine-tune the script.

Estevez’s idea of filming at LAPL met with some resistance as well. When he met with then-director Fontayne Holmes, she told him bluntly, “It’s not going to happen.”

“I said, ‘Well, why?’” Estevez recalled. “And she said, ‘We had a film company in here before. They set up the lights, and the lights got hot. The heat turned on the sprinklers and the sprinklers went on, and they ruined books.’ I said, ‘Oh, what a bunch of clowns! What a bunch of unprofessionals! Who was it?’ And she said, ‘It was a show called The West Wing.’”

There wasn’t much Estevez could say after that, he felt. And although he had more encouraging conversations with current city librarian John Szabo, who replaced Holmes after her retirement in 2008, ultimately Estevez decided to move the film to Cincinnati.

Why Cincinnati? In addition to the strong tax rebate incentive offered by the state of Ohio—no small consideration as he continued to assemble funding, said Estevez—the city of Cincinnati suggested he look at the library. Estevez’s mother is from Cincinnati and his father is from Dayton, he noted, “so I have Ohio roots. Going back was not a heavy lift for me.”

The harsher weather in Ohio made sense for the story line as well, Estevez added. “It does get cold in L.A.—it got down to 30, I think, once or twice in downtown—but it was certainly not life-threatening like it is in the Midwest, like we're seeing now .”

With the support of the Cincinnati Film Commission, Estevez met with then­–PLCHC director Kimber Fender. “She sat there and she said, A movie? A whole movie? Well, how long?” said Estevez. He invited Fender to read the script, but noted, “It's cost prohibitive for us to try to recreate [the library] and build this—the movie's not going to get made if we don't shoot it here.” He assured her that the crew would respect the space while filming at night, when most of the action takes place, and would defer to the library’s work and patrons’ privacy when they had to shoot during open hours.

“I wanted to make it clear to Kim that our intention was to say, ‘This is a privileged issue here, and we're grateful. How can we work with you? And promise I won't screw it up. I promise that librarians will see this film and will be happy.’”

A number of PLCHC staff members had cameos as librarians, security officers, and homeless patrons, and Estevez made a point of hiring local Cincinnati actors as well. As far as the main cast, some of the biggest box-office draws, he said, were cold calls. “People just read it and said, ‘I'm in.’ Alec [Baldwin] was the first, and once Alec was in it was a lot easier to attract the others. Jeffrey was next.” The Public began production in January 2017, and was filmed in 22 days.


poster for The PublicThe film’s themes—mental health, homelessness, the opioid crisis, and global warming—often made it a tough sell when approaching partners, Estevez said. “You roll all that out and you just watch their eyes glaze over.”

But when people watch The Public, he said, “It's engaging, and it's entertaining. That was the real sleight of hand with this film.” One of his inspirations, he added, was an early film in which he costarred—John Hughes’s 1985 The Breakfast Club, which was set in a school library. “It was the courage of John Hughes to say to the studio, ‘I want to shoot a movie about five kids inside a library for detention.’ You can imagine, he was probably met with the same reaction.”

An initial distributor fell through in May 2017, but Estevez took The Public to ALA Annual in New Orleans anyway. “We showed up without a real action plan, so the librarians and library staff there are saying, ‘Hey, when's the movie coming out?’ and I'm just sweating,” he told LJ. “I had no idea when it was coming out or who was going to buy it.” Representatives from Universal Pictures loved the film at the Toronto International Film Festival, however, and signed on—much to the relief of Estevez, who described himself as “a one-man band for the last 12 years, getting this thing up and running.”

He has also been delighted at the response he has gotten from the library world. In New Orleans, Estevez said, “I stood through all three screenings at the back of the theater, sweating, terrified. Because I thought, if we don't get it right here, social media being what it is, [it’ll be]: ‘This movie sucks.’ ‘They didn't get it right.’ ‘Stereotypical depiction of librarians once again—thanks, Hollywood.’ That's the nightmares that keep you up in the middle of the night.”

He had also promised to take any and all questions from the audience. “I threw myself into the fire, and I was ready for anything—no question was pre-vetted.”

But as Dowd, who was with him, recalled, the first question from the library audience was, “How did you get our world so right?”

Their laughter at library in-jokes cheered Estevez and Dowd as well. “I think that they were surprised,” added Estevez, “and their fears were allayed.”

Even in front of non-library crowds, as in Toronto and Palm Springs, The Public’s reception was warm. When he asked the crowd how many people had a library card, recalled Estevez, he was impressed at the show of hands. (Estevez also held special screenings at the Toronto and Palm Springs public libraries.)

Despite the overwhelmingly positive response, Estevez felt the film still needed tweaking. Length was one consideration, he told LJ. “I wanted to get the movie under two hours,” he said, citing the “tinder dating” of movies: “You sort of go through [the listings] and it's like, ‘1:59, yeah, I’d date that tonight.’ As opposed to 2:15, eh. 2:05, nah.” He also wanted to get a PG-13 rating, rather than the R it was given at the time of the screenings, a matter of “removing some F-bombs,” Estevez said. “To cut those out doesn't materially affect the film, but it will ultimately affect the box office and the accessibility of it.”

In addition to the warmly received screenings in Seattle, the film will go on to the Cinequest festival in San José, CA, and the Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville before premiering at NYPL on April 1, exactly twelve years since Estevez first read Ward’s article.

What has impressed him about libraries during more than a decade spent immersed in their world?

“The sacred space between the patron and the desk reference librarian,” Estevez replied immediately, “that is as sacred as the relationship between doctor-patient and lawyer-client. I didn't understand that until I started doing the research.”

That relationship, he told LJ, was the key to his character, Stuart. “There's politics in everything, in any profession,” he said—even, he discovered, libraries. “At the center of [the film] you have a somewhat idealistic character who gets dragged into it unwittingly.” The Public is a “David and Goliath type of story,” he explained, and the head librarian finds himself “sitting on the wrong side of history, as it proves during the course of the film.”

What he hopes people will take away from the film, in addition to an appreciation for the underdog, is the sense of curiosity that libraries embody.

The library, he added, is not only a safe place for all—“It's a place where imagination and curiosity live. And I think that we need to reconnect to that.”

Nearly 35 years after The Breakfast Club, Estevez told LJ , “I’m back in the library—with a different club.”

You can watch the most recent trailer below:

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Lisa Peet


Lisa Peet is News Editor for Library Journal.

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Don Keaton

I am a Cincinnati actor and fortunate to have worked as one of core homeless.I went to TIFF to see the film in September.I came away very proud to have had the opportunity to be involved in a quality film as this one.I made so many friendships that will last a life time.This article reminded me of my own learning experiences through books and my love for libraries as a child and today.

Posted : Mar 27, 2019 09:25

Kirsten Corby

I enjoyed the movie when I saw it at ALA 2018. It did get a great deal right. Although I think one critique leveled at it -- why are the main librarians all men? -- was valid. Also, the Breakast Club is one of my all time favorite movie, so I appreciate the callback. I hope the movie does well in theatrical release.

Posted : Mar 07, 2019 08:01


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