Emilio Estevez on Tackling the Homelessness Crisis in 'The Public'

The Santa Barbara Film Festival's opening film, about a group of homeless Cincinnati residents who stage an Occupy sit-in at the downtown public library when a cold front hits the city, also stars Alec Baldwin and Christian Slater.

The 33rd Santa Barbara International Film Festival comes on the heels of the devastating mudslides that hit neighboring Montecito on Jan. 9. While Highway 101 didn't reopen until Jan. 21, the festival's executive director, Roger Durling, chose to push ahead with the annual event — "It is needed now more than ever," he wrote in an open letter — with each day highlighting a different charity involved in recovery. The fest, which features 23 world premieres, opens Jan. 31 with the public, directed by Emilio Estevez, who also stars along with Alec Baldwin, Christian Slater and Jeffrey Wright. The oldest of Martin and Janet Sheen's four children, Estevez got his big break in 1983's The Outsiders, then followed it up with a string of modern classics, from cult-favorite Repo Man to St. Elmo's Fire. The 55-year-old father of two adult children, who in recent years has focused on writing and directing, spoke about his film, which is centered on a tense showdown with Cincinnati's homeless after they're forced to leave the library during a brutal Midwestern cold spell.

You've written and directed a movie that takes place entirely in a library, which is reminiscent of another movie of yours [1985's The Breakfast Club].

I thought after 30 years, it's time to go back into a library. (Laughs.) No, that was not something that was intentional. This story came to me in 2007. It was inspired by a story in the L.A. Times. A librarian was retiring because he couldn't take it anymore. The piece was about how libraries have become de facto homeless shelters and how librarians were no longer doing the work of librarians. These guys were now first responders, and that's gone to a whole other level just in the last 10 years. Librarians are now trained to carry Narcan because there are so many overdoses in urban libraries.

It was originally meant to be set in L.A.?

Yes, at the downtown Los Angeles Public Library. They said, "We haven't had a film crew here since the last one almost set the whole building on fire and those sprinklers went off." I said, "What production was that?" And they said, "Well, it was The West Wing."

As in the show your father played the president on?

Isn't that cool? So, some irony there.

Your film is incredibly timely with the homelessness epidemic and the bitter cold snaps hitting the country.

Sadly, it's more relevant now than when I started on this in 2007. The homelessness crisis has been with us for some time, but it does seem that there are more people falling through the cracks. It's an issue that is especially pressing with the new tax cuts and with Social Security and Medicare on the chopping block.

Do you live in Los Angeles?

I sold my house in November 2016 and loaded everything up — basically distilled my life down to two suitcases and a very small storage unit for photographs and books. I drove out to Ohio to research a film. I've been living in an old building in Cincinnati. I'm looking to relocate my life to Ohio.

You have roots there.

I do. My mother was born in Cincinnati in 1939 at the no-longer-standing Home for Unwed Mothers. My dad was born in 1940 in Dayton, Ohio, which is about 45 minutes away from Cincy. I have Buckeye in my blood. My parents didn't meet until the early '60s in New York. Here they were, literally born 45 minutes away from each other — and then met years later in New York, which is where my three siblings and I were born.

Are you going to continue making films out of the Midwest and Cincinnati?

Todd Haynes has gone to [Cincinnati] to shoot Carol. Don Cheadle shot Miles Ahead there. There's been an incredible uptick of productions coming into the city. It's a gorgeous city. It offers a ton of locations. That's a long-winded answer, which is yes.

This story appears in the Jan. 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.