Sean Penn Reveals How Plan for “Lighthearted” Documentary About Ukraine President Turned Into a War Film

Sean Penn has spoken about how he originally intended for his Ukraine documentary Superpower, which he co-directed with Aaron Kaufman, to be a “lighthearted” portrait of the country’s actor-turned-president Volodymyr Zelensky before the Russian invasion of its European neighbor in early 2022 caused him to pivot to making a war movie.

In an appearance on CBS Mornings on Wednesday, Penn explained how that shift took place and the role that delays, including the COVID-19 pandemic, played in shaping the scope of the film.

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Penn noted he initially met Zelensky over Zoom, “long before the drums were beating on the Russian invasion,” when the Ukraine president was in the news for his role in the “controversial phone call,” as Penn put it, that ultimately resulted in then-President Donald Trump’s first impeachment.

“Then COVID happened, and that delayed our start,” Penn recalled. “By the time we got there, things were building up quite a bit in November 2021. Then also something had come up that made it impossible to meet with the president, and I had always said to him that I didn’t want him to agree to participate in the documentary until we had agreed to meet without cameras in person. I just thought it was a better way to be sized up and for him too because I wanted him unguarded if we were going to do it.”

The two finally met in-person off-camera on Feb. 23, 2022 for what Penn called “a very good meeting,” where the pair agreed they’d start filming the next day.

That night Russia’s invasion began, but Zelensky was still willing to make the film.

“Late in the morning we got a call from the president’s office that nonetheless he was going to honor our agreement to start shooting that day,” Penn said.

When asked by CBS Mornings co-host Gayle King why Zelensky was still willing to document what was happening, Penn said, “I think that he understands that part of war-fighting in the new world is communications on a lot of levels.”

Penn ended up visiting Ukraine seven times, which prompted co-host Tony Dokoupil to ask why he was so willing to put himself in danger with his frequent trips to a war zone.

“I’m very curious about things. I’m an expert in nothing, but like the rest of us, we can have a feeling of things when we’re present to them. I have the luxury of being able to travel at will at most times, and I have a famous face that gets me access to people and places that I otherwise would not,” Penn said before adding that he was inspired by the unity he saw in Ukraine, which he’s spoken about before.

As for what Penn hopes U.S. audiences get out of Superpower, streaming on Paramount+ on Monday, he said the film provides “context to Americans around the kitchen table to understand the ways in which everything that happens in Ukraine will be on our table, and that it’s not so simple as to say, ‘Oh, we’re putting money in another country.’ No, it’s a great investment in our future and in the future of democracy.”

Watch Penn’s full interview below.

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