Crowdfunder: Why Penn Jillette Hopes to Be the Anti-Lindsay Lohan

Penn Jillette Horizontal - H 2013
Getty Images

Penn Jillette Horizontal - H 2013

The magician pledges to make his found-footage horror flick even if he doesn't reach his million-dollar goal.

“The idea for this movie wouldn't be possible 10 years ago,” Penn Jillette tells The Hollywood Reporter of his new film project, the crowdfunding hopeful Director's Cut. The found-footage flick is the story of a murderous psychotic who splices up a Hollywood horror movie. Jillette, best known as the talking half of magic duo Penn and Teller, would play an obsessive fan in a movie he describes as “scary, funny and very meta.”

PHOTOS: Deathly Entertaining: TV's Terrifying Serial Killers 

Jillette shopped Director's Cut around Hollywood, but no one would bite. So, with a passion for technology and connectivity, Jillette decided he would try his hand at crowdfunding, using Donald Trump's (the two became friends when Jillette starred on a season of Celebrity Apprentice) to solicit for his $999,972 goal. He's about a third of the way there.

The Hollywood Reporter: Indie horror movies often find success with traditional financing methods. Why go this route?

Penn Jillette: I had been really interested in crowdfunding, and not just as a way to get money. I was really interested in the feelings you get funding a movie. I've been on the other side of crowdfunding a lot, checking out the sites and giving to charity and projects. Because the movie is about how people interact with movies and movie stars, crowdfunding becomes part of the idea of the movie. 

THR: What is that “Blair Witch effect"? Does it align with your interests in illusion and skepticism?

Jillette: Some people say it was Jean Cocteau, some people say Orson Welles, but the quote is that movies wouldn't be art until the tools were as cheap as a pencil and paper. We're going in that direction very quickly. We hit a moment with Blair Witch, and there were cases before this but it was more democratic when it hit Blair Witch, where movies pretended to be something else. Novels could pretend to be diaries or letters, but movies couldn't do that. They had a reason for existing that had to do with being a movie. Blair Witch changed that. I've been watching, as we all come across Cloverfield, District 9, Paranormal Activity. I've been studying those, and I wrote Director's Cut to be one of those. A weird combination of “stolen footage” and “outtakes” all tied together with a form that we haven't seen in the plot. People have used director's commentaries in an artistic way, like Spinal Tap or Tropic Thunder, but they haven't made it a plot point.

STORY: Magician Penn Jillette Launches Crowdfunding Campaign for Horror Pic

THR: When people with a reasonable amount of fame turn to crowdfunding, many wonder why they would even need to be crowdfunding.

Jillette: The answer to "Why are you crowdfunding?" is a lot like "Why did you do Celebrity Apprentice?" If it were the '60s and Ed Sullivan was on Sunday night, I would want to be on Ed Sullivan the night The Beatles are on. In this century, I want to be on Celebrity Apprentice the night Gary Busey is on. I'm a visiting scholar at MIT's Media Lab, and I was on the Web before there was a Web, and I've been fascinated with trying to understand what the connectivity of the Web is doing to us. Whether it's playing Minecraft with my children or all the wonderful sex stuff that ties people together or medical information, I'm fascinated. Now we have this way of funding things which is really the Wild West, and I would like to learn more about it.

THR: Was funding the film out of pocket ever an option?

Jillette: The last two movies I've done, I did. I did The Aristocrats all out of my pocket, and same with Tim's Vermeer. This is a little more money than I can write a check for. It's also important that you get feedback. I got lucky on Aristocrats and Tim's Vermeer, but what's nice is that people who put up money are useful beyond the money. Crowdfunding is a way to see, "Well, if studios don't want it, what do people think?" And we don't know yet. We've seen feedback on one movie: the Lindsay Lohan thing, Canyons, which was not good. And it may be that movies that are crowdfunded are terrible. I would like to be a counterexample to the Lindsay Lohan movie.

THR: In your campaign, you mention being offered parts in other magic movies. What were those offers?

Jillette: You know the ones.

THR: Better question: Why weren't you in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone?

Jillette: I didn't like the script very much!

THR: Would you consider yourself a horror buff?

Jillette: My love for horror is completely intellectual and not visceral. Night of the Living Dead, [George] Romero's movie, I remember reading his description of it, which was, "What happens to the United States when a truly radical political form takes over?" So when you do horror, you can do any intellectual commentary you want. It's my favorite movie. I love that he's doing a heavy movie with zombies in it. The purpose of art is to collide the intellectual and visceral together at the highest speed possible.

THR: In your video, you make it clear that you're aching to play a bad guy. Is this the impulse of an actor or a guy who just wants to feel evil?

Jillette: I don't see myself as an actor. All of my performing has been in service to the writing. We did this thing called Director's Chair -- it was with Steven Spielberg on some CD-ROM. Spielberg cast me as the bad guy, and he said, "You need to be the bad guy in a movie." Bad guys define every plot. Good guys, with a few exceptions, are not very interesting. Even when you get Sean Connery as James Bond, you're still more fascinated by Goldfinger and Dr. No. I wanted to create a bad guy who I was completely sympathetic to: a guy who just wants to make movies. Also, I'm kind of made for it. I'm six-foot-seven, 300 pounds. A guy you don't want to run into -- so why not use that?

THRWhat happens if you don't raise all of the money? Do you still make the movie?

Jillette: We've made a promise to people that we will. They have our word. If we have to make that movie for $300,000, it will be very difficult, but we have to do it. We've promised 11,000 people that they'll get all the things we promised.