The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Palm Trees and Power Lines.
Was there an importance to telling this story at this particular time? What sort of feedback have you received?
Jamie Dack: I was writing this script at a certain time in my life where I was starting to look back on some relationships I had when I was younger—one in particular. I think due to my age, and time passing, I had started to look back on it differently. The Me Too movement was happening at that exact time and it definitely affected me. We were living in this time when women were beginning to re-examine things that had happened to them. That was part of the inspiration. It’s been super validating as storyteller and a filmmaker. People consistently come up to me after screenings and share their own stories and ways in which they identify and relate to the film.
If she has to go through it, I felt the audience should have to go through it with her.
Can you talk about creating the feature from the short it was based on?
JD: I made the short in 2017 and it premiered in 2018. As I said, a lot of people said that they identified with that story. That was the nudge that I needed to keep going and explore this further. I began adapting it… I usually call it an adaptation rather than an expansion because it really did change. The short deals with a rather small betrayal. I kind of kept that element, which is that this guy betrays her but in a much smaller way and she continues to hang out with him again. Those are the basics of the short. As I was writing the feature, I was also very interested in what I had been reading about sex trafficking and grooming. I decided to write the script by following the stages of grooming. I really wanted people to understand how she ended up where she did and to never think of her as making dumb decisions, but instead to understand how she got to that point.
Leah, how did you and Jamie come to work together? Did you meet at NYU?
Leah Chen Baker: Jamie and I both went to NYU but we didn’t overlap there. When I was a first year, her short film Palm Trees and Power Lines premiered at Cannes and really impacted me when I saw it. I was introduced to Jamie and I knew she was going to expand it into a feature. I loved her hand as a director on the short and when she shared the full-length script, I knew I had to be a part of it. Making this film felt a bit like going to film school together. It’s a very intimate process.
Jonathan Tucker: I want to add to what Leah just said about it feeling like going through film school together. Having made a lot of movies with bigger budgets with people with longer resumes, it didn’t feel like participating in a film school project, to their credit. It was so elegantly and professionally run. Or they hid everything very well!
Jonathan, it’s an incredible and challenging role and you bring such nuance to the part. What appealed to you about the project?
JT: The script was excellent. But excellent scripts don’t make excellent movies. Good scripts with excellent directors can make excellent movies and excellent scripts with good directors can make good movies. You don’t always know. Talking to Jamie and seeing her short film and her obsession with storytelling and filmmaking and then reading the script, well, the choice to do this film was crystal clear for me.
Given the limited budget, what was really important to you to focus on in order to make this film feel natural and authentic?
JD: I remember during my first semester of film school, my professor said that casting is half the job. I don’t know if it’s half or what percentage it might be, but it’s huge. Your cast makes or breaks your film and it’s one of the things I’m the proudest of in this film, particularly Jonathan and Lily’s performances. In terms of budgetary constraints, I actually felt that the limitations were helpful to us in some ways. It allowed us to focus on what was really important. We really put an emphasis on the vulnerabilities that leave Lea ripe to Tom’s manipulation, specifically the suburban malaise and the boredom and aimlessness that she’s feeling. That was intentional to set up the dynamics of their relationship.
JT: It’s important to highlight how deliberate Jamie and Leah’s work was to create an authenticity on the screen. It wasn’t by accident. There was so much deliberation and execution based on years of work. Jamie started production back in 2017, so five years ago. It’s really a credit to their craft of filmmaking.
What were some of the challenges as a producer, in regards to budget?
LCB: We had big dreams of what we wanted to accomplish in terms of budget. We shot in LA primarily, and LA is expensive. We also shot during the peak of Delta, so it was pretty interesting to consider what could happen with this budget during Covid. Jamie already had such a clear vision and an amazing cast and our crew was fantastic, because this was also a meaningful step in many of their careers as well—that made a huge difference in terms of energy and partnership. Given all that, the biggest thing we needed was time. We really had to dig into what we were going to prioritize and what we needed more days on. That preparation helped us a lot and Panavision was a huge partner to us in terms of getting more time to make this film, because of the grant they gave for indie filmmakers. That’s how we were able to shoot for twenty-five days.
Jonathan, can you talk about working with Lily?
JT: Everyone in the room today got to experience the magic of her work, which is innate and honed and guided by Jamie. It’s a privilege to be able to have the closest position to someone’s performance. It’s such a thrill being an actor and sitting a foot away from a young person at the beginning of their career. It’s really in coverage when I can be a little more cognizant of what’s happening around me in her performance and how to calibrate that for her coverage. People pay hundreds of dollars to go sit on Broadway so they can be in the front row, and in this I was just front row and it was fabulous. If she navigates the business and continues to work on her craft, she’ll have an amazing ride ahead and I’ll have gotten to say I sat a few feet away. It’s one of the true joys of being an actor.
Can you talk about staging and shooting that last scene in the hotel?
JD: I knew that I didn’t want that scene to be graphic and I didn’t want nudity. I often respond to what you hear behind a closed door, or maybe what you see is fuzzy and that can actually make something scarier. I knew I wanted to set the camera far back. The actors actually did that take twice. It’s a ten-minute take and we cut it down but I also knew I wanted it to play in real time. If she has to go through it, I felt the audience should have to go through it with her.
JT: I remember we shot at this hotel in Thousand Oaks off the 101, and the art department had a wall covering that was very specific that Jamie had wanted for this tableau shot, this pivotal shot. Lily and I had a scene in that room prior to the one you’re asking about. Somehow the attachment device to the wall covering was bubbling, so we did a few takes and finally Jamie was like, it’s not going to work, we’ll have to come back and do another day here. And I thought, I’ve been in like forty-million-dollar episodes of TV and they’ve been like, eh, the audience won’t notice it or figure it out. And working on this tiny movie, figuring out how to put a new wall covering on and wait another day, good luck! But it was such an important part of the movie and Jamie had such a specific vision of how this was going to look and Leah was going to make sure that was protected. I think it’s a great example of the value they put on executing this deliberateness of the vision. I had never seen that on a movie this scale. They knew exactly what needed to happen, and they were willing to figure out how to make that happen.