Sean Penn Slams Movie Producers, Calls Healthcare System a Racket in Cannes Press Conference

Cannes 2023: Penn’s “Black Flies” costar Tye Sheridan also shared that he let the veteran actor give him an IV in preparation for the brutal paramedic drama

Sean Penn and Tye Sheridan in Asphalt City
"Asphalt City" (Roadside Attractions/Vertical)

Sean Penn called the American healthcare system “a racket” and slammed motion picture producers for pushing for AI at a Cannes Film Festival press conference for the movie “Black Flies” on Friday.

The statement about producers came early in the press conference and was something of a prelude to his lengthier comments about healthcare and mental health.

Asked if he supported the Writers Guild of America strike that is “upending” the industry, he said, “I would say the industry has been upending the writer and directors and actors for a very long time. My full support in the situation is with the writers. There are a lot of new concepts that are being tossed around, including the use of AI, (and) it strikes me that it is a human obscenity that there’s a pushback on that from the producers.”

Then he added, “The first thing we should do is … title the Producers Guild how they behave, which is the Bankers Guild.”

(In fact, the Producers Guild is not involved in the negotiations, which are between the Writers Guild and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, a different group.)

During most of the press conference, which found Penn accompanied by costar Tye Sheridan, director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire and other members of the cast and crew, Penn and Sheridan talked about how they immersed themselves in the lives of paramedics during years of preparation for the brutally immediate film.

“Sean got so good that I let him give me an IV,” Sheridan said at one point. When the statement was met with a bit of incredulous laughter, he insisted, “That’s true,” as Penn nodded.

The film from French-born, New York-based director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire is a brutal immersion into the lives of two New York City paramedics, a young man with dreams of becoming a doctor played by Sheridan and a grizzled veteran played by Penn. TheWrap called it “visceral and vicious,” and overall it has received largely negative reviews after premiering in the Main Competition in Cannes on Thursday.

While Sheridan initially said that he’d had a good time making the film, Penn took a different tack. “It’s a little more gray to me that we had a really good time,” he said. “I think we had a really valuable time. We had a great partnership between the actors and (Sauvaire’s) crew. However difficult it was, it was great to be a part of it. And later to be able to process it.”

Penn has spent the last several years doing work in trouble spots around the world, including Haiti and Ukraine, and he said he found connections between that work and the job done by paramedics like the ones he and Sheridan played.

“There’s a lot of overlap,” he said. “I’ve been working in emergency response for 12 years, 13 years now, and in the two years in making ‘Black Flies,’ I was 16, 17 hours a day for two years working in a partnership with the L.A. Fire Department and their paramedics. A lot of friendships came out of that, and a lot of conversations related to mental health.”

In the film, the paramedics all suffer from stress because of the overwhelming nature of their jobs. “Last night (at the premiere), it occurred to me that the overwhelming nature of all that for a human soul to process reverberates through all of our lives today, and certainly all of our children’s lives. With the rawness of this movie, I had a kind of ‘What do we do now?’ experience.” Penn, Sheridan and Sauvaire also addressed the support they’d gotten from the medical community of emergency responders, whether or not they’ve been vocal about that support.

“The 99% who aren’t talking are saying, ‘Thank god this f—ing movie was made, because this is our life,’” Penn said. “What most of the paramedics share when talking about the healthcare system, people go into there largely with a desire to serve. And what they find is that they’re beleaguered by short-term poltical-gain policies. They’re not there to practice their jobs, they’re there to support a racket.”

In the press conference on Friday morning, Sauvaire defended his bleak and brutal immersion into a hellish New York where paramedics see the worst of humanity and receive torrents of abuse as they try to save people.  

Check out TheWrap’s Cannes magazine here and all of our Cannes 2023 coverage here.