Elizabeth Palmore illuminates humanity in her adaptation of ‘The Evening Hour’

After my conversation with Elizabeth Palmore, who wrote the film “The Evening Hour” for the screen, that premiered at Sundance this year, it made me remember how much I wanted to be a screenwriter. The beauty of visual language allows you to live with the character while being immersed in a different place, populated by people with the common connection of humanity.

As noted in its Sundance summary, the film is about Cole (Phillip Ettinger), a young health aide, at a nursing home living in rural Appalachia. He’s making ends meet by redistributing excess medication from townies to local buyers. Among a community low on opportunities but seemingly awash in pill bottles, he envisions himself as a caretaker, genuinely fond of his suppliers and keeping addicted customers out of the path of the town’s menacing kingpin. The film was directed by Braden King and also stars Kerry Bisché, Lili Taylor, Ashley Shelton, Stacy Martin, Michael Trotter, and Tess Harper.

In the following interview I speak with Elizabeth Palmore about her first written play, her journey to “The Evening Hour”, and the strength of the women in the film.

Elizabeth Palmore at “The Evening Hour” Q&A at Sundance 2020

REBECCA MARTIN: Where did you grow up?

ELIZABETH PALMORE: I grew up in Richmond, Virginia. I was born and raised there. I ended up going to James Madison University. We joke that it was called “Just Missed UVA”. I was a theatre nerd in high school, I played sports, but I really loved theatre. I wrote my first play in high school. 

MARTIN: That’s great! What was it about? I’m just curious. 

PALMORE: It was about women’s relationships with their bodies. It was called “reflections”, and it took place in a dressing room in a women’s department store. You just heard a series of monologues where women would come out of the dressing room and complain about their bodies. 

MARTIN: That happens all the time, and I love that you captured that.

PALMORE: It’s one of those things that I look back on. I was a senior in high school, and I was like, “did I peak?” [laughing]. It’s definitely written by a senior in high school with the language. But it just makes me think, “huh?” The main character was the sales woman, and she was kind of manipulative because she knew she could prey on their insecurities. 

MARTIN: Oh my god, that is amazing. 

PALMORE: I had these young women, younger than adolescents, playing the roles. It’s funny that you asked, I forgot about that.

MARTIN: You should totally update that for the screen, maybe for a short film or something. 

PALMORE: I always used to say that would be a fun short. I went to this really great school where I took an English class my senior year because I knew there was a playwriting component. I had not yet had any recognition for my writing. What they would do is the faculty of the english and theatre departments would pick three of the one-acts to stage, and then one of the plays would be directed by a local theatre, like an actual professional production, and that one was mine. 

Elizabeth Palmore

MARTIN: That’s awesome.

PALMORE: So, I’m convinced that was my first taste of “oh, that feels good.” I wish I still had the bravado I had at 18. 

MARTIN: I know, right? At that age you feel like you can do anything.

PALMORE: If anything, I wish I could go back to that moment. I remember being nervous, but not like I was at the premiere of “The Evening Hour”. When I was a senior, I didn’t feel as vulnerable and scared. I didn’t feel as exposed. I mean, of course, it’s a different thing having a play performed at a high school than having a premiere at Sundance. I feel like I need to lean into that 18-year-old girl. I was just like, “Fuck it if they don’t like it.”

MARTIN: Like this is my work, deal with it. 

PALMORE: I feel like as women, we get conditioned to be people-pleasers and even just with our art. Like, “I don’t want to offend anybody, I want to make everyone happy. I want to make the director happy.” We forget to make ourselves happy.

MARTIN: Was “The Evening Hour” your first feature script?

PALMORE: Yes. I have an MFA in creative writing, but that was in playwriting. I had never written a screenplay before. Well I had done one before, but I call it my “Elizabeth learns how to use Final Draft” script. It’s never seen the light of day. “The Evening Hour” was essentially my first real experience with screenwriting.

MARTIN: Looking at your IMDB page it seems that you were involved with a lot of people in different films, playing more an assistant role. How did that play into you doing “The Evening Hour”? 

PALMORE: When I decided to pursue film I didn’t know much about it other than if you didn’t know anybody, you were kind of screwed. I wanted to make sure that somebody would read my work. In the theatre world, granted, most really prestigious theatre houses don’t accept unsolicited scripts. But a lot do. So you are put in a position where you’re able to write a play, and potentially get it read. And I knew that wasn’t the case necessarily in film. I decided I was going to get some work in a physical production, like on set and my goal was to meet ten people that would read something of mine. And ten people above the line. Not to be a snob but it wasn’t going to help me to have my girlfriend in the wardrobe department read it. 

MARTIN: That make sense.

PALMORE: So that was the goal. I also wanted to learn more about filmmaking, because I didn’t know anything about it, other than I loved movies. But I didn’t know much about how they got made, and it really informed my writing. 

MARTIN: Were there any women that inspired you in screenwriting? 

PALMORE: I have a friend, I joke that she’s like my life’s producer. We went to college together. She was the first person I met that actually said she was going to work in the entertainment business, and did. To be that person from James Madison University, that was it. I thought she was so exotic, she interned at “Entertainment Tonight” one summer. And I was like, “I interned at the democratic party in Virginia.” What she did sounded a lot cooler. Her name is Noelle Pflum. Whenever my life has deviated from being creative, Noelle has figured out a way to drive me back in. 

Elizabeth Palmore

MARTIN: What brought you to “The Evening Hour”?

PALMORE: Michael Trotter, who plays Reese in the film, started this project. He’s the one that read the book, and courted the author Carter Sickels, and hired the literary rights. I knew Michael because he is from Virginia as well. And our paths have crossed for many years. Michael brought the book to me. He knew my work as a playwright, and knew that I was interested in breaking into films. 

I read the book and just felt completely in love with the world. As someone who grew up in Virginia. We’re neighbors to West Virginia, but we also have Appalachia in Virginia. There’s no real way to describe it other than it was a heart tug. I wanted to do it. In general, I’ve always been attracted to stories about invisible members of society. 

MARTIN: I love that.

PALMORE: Particularly regions that have been ignored in entertainment and media. If they are not ignored they’ve been mistreated, which is safe to say about Appalachians and entertainment. It was just something that really spoke to me and I faced the opportunity to tell a story about a really elegant and noble part of this country. Their struggles deserve witnessing.

MARTIN: Can you share with me about your process? I read through your script and I love how you visually describe a character. How do you write visual rather than just prose?

PALMORE: It can be a challenge to me, because when writing the first draft of “The Evening Hour,” I was so nervous that I was going to over explain everything, that’s one of the more obtuse scripts. One of our producers that helped developed the film for years, his name is Tom Skapars. Tom was like, “Listen, you’re allowed to give us something”. Because I was so nervous about the “show, don’t tell,” I went to the opposite degree. 

Because some scripts will say in there, “Cole is sad”, and I was like, “You can’t say that”, so I wrote, “in hearing this, Cole stares at the floor.” I was like, that’s how you do it!

MARTIN: Exactly, visual language! I haven’t read the book, but I feel such a depth in this film, especially with the main character Cole [Philip Ettinger], with his upbringing and his religion. I feel that’s something that is usually not translated well on the screen. Can you talk about your process in adapting the book into this visual language?

PALMORE: I grew up Episcopalian, and I definitely identify as a Christian. I also identify as a progressive liberal, which is most in line with how Jesus Christ lived. But unfortunately the folks that get the most attention in media and also in the press are Evangelicals that protest outside of funerals and at the international gates of airports. 

With this movie in particular and this book, faith is important, but it’s also culture in this world, specifically the Pentecostal church. No matter what, I think it was important to honor and respectfully portray that this religion is a huge part of these people’s lives in this part of the country. Regardless of your beliefs in faith and Christianity, or your politics, it’s just a truth. You can portray it with honesty or you can  judge it. I certainly wasn’t interested in judging it. What I think is so easy right now because our country is so raw and enflamed, is that when you see a church scene you immediately kind of cringe. You’re like, “oh lord, these are conservative half wits”

And there is some truth to that. I can’t say every person believes the same thing. I can say that, it’s complicated. What was important in this film was shown through multi-layered characters. You can be a snake charming tongue speaking minister and you can also take your grandson on nature walks to appreciate the beauty of the landscape around them. I think it’s just trying to show a multi-layered experience and an honest one because there are some scary churches where women are not allowed to sit with men. And there are a lot of archaic rules. It’s a sense of community, it’s a sense of safety for a lot of people.

“The Evening Hour” cast (Cosmo Jarvis, Braden King, Philip Ettinger, Stacy Martin, and Lili Taylor)

MARTIN: I felt the female characters onscreen brought a lot of depth, specifically Lili Taylor’s character Ruby and how she influenced her mother when she came back into town, and Ashley Shelton’s character and her relationship with the character Cole. What were your thoughts on writing these female characters for the screen?

PALMORE: In my opinion the women are the most fascinating people in this world. I found the women I met in Harlan Kentucky, which is where we were shooting, to be much more interesting than the men that I met. It’s a different world that we have to navigate through as a woman. In general, in the world, but specifically in Appalachia, your opportunities are limited, because it is a male dominated region. And it’s a very physical region for men. And most men work with their bodies. With that comes a lot of physical violence, and navigating addiction. It’s like the tightrope that all the women have to walk.

There’s this undercurrent. It’s kind of like geology. There is this undercurrent of violence and destruction. I feel like the women in this region have to navigate, and know when to soothe, and know when to retreat. I do think it’s a challenge to find your moments of empowerment. Women in this book and in this film mean a great deal to me because the worst thing in all of their lives are men. 

MARTIN: I see that.

PALMORE: In general, that seems to be our biggest problem in the world. You were talking about how the character Ruby (Lili Taylor) influenced her mother. That was two fold. Dorothy [Tess Harper] started to live the life she wanted after her daughter returned because her husband was finally gone. It’s always a challenge to illuminate all of these nuances and show all of these changes, but we used to have a scene where Dorothy gets her haircut finally, because her husband never let her. That is a big part of the Pentecostal church, having long hair and honoring that. 

Her husband’s death marked the freedom for her daughter, but also for herself. Then you look at the character Lacey (Kerry Bishé), who has just kicked her husband out. While she is struggling financially there’s a freedom for her to raise her daughter safely. She had to do that by forcibly removing a man from her life. And then Charlotte (Stacy Martin), because of her circumstances, essentially kept trying to find her pole vault out of town. Like where is my battering ram to get me out of this place?

Unfortunately her modes for that was with men because that is what she had been taught, and that is what she was told her currency was, and what her worth was. It ends up getting her in danger and she has to leave. She gets her wish, but not the way she wanted.  The stick of dynamite in this place in West Virginia, in this fictional town, are these men, who don’t know how to handle their emotions. 

MARTIN: All of these women seem to be surrounding Cole, and they are all influencing him in a different way. He emotionally can’t seem to know himself. These women are so strong and they do know themselves because they’ve had to deal with these different challenges. That’s why Lacey only gives Cole one shot because she knows the dangers of when she’s with a man that incapable of handling his emotions. 

PALMORE: If it was up to me we would be having a miniseries and each episode would center around one of these women. 

MARTIN: Can you do that? That would be awesome.

PALMORE: If it was up to me- 

MARTIN: Right [laughing]. 

PALMORE: Ashley [Shelton] brought such a humanity and depth into Ellen. Her character is so important. Her character gets more time in the book, and it was a bummer that we weren’t able to use her character more onscreen. The book is so rich, it’s a challenge to fit everything onscreen in two hours. 

I think that also Cole surrounds himself with all of these remarkable women that were all pretty fierce. And I think it was because he could disappear. And then he doesn’t have to think about what he wants and just be a caregiver and a drug dealer. It’s the definition of codependency. It’s funny because he grew up with this larger than life, buoyant, aggressive grandfather. He seeks solace in all of these buoyant aggressive women. 

MARTIN: The way you are talking about these women, I feel it circles back to your first play, all of these different women, coming together with this commonality of being women and dealing with similar struggles. Were you a part of the casting process? 

PALMORE: I’m very grateful to Allison Estrin, the casting director. Braden [King] our director was very collaborative when they work and look over casting submissions. If something really spoke to them he would send me the links, and ask me “What do you think about this person for this?” It wasn’t for every character obviously, but for the bigger roles I did feel like I had a voice and was a part of the conversation, which was not only generous, but also unheard of as a writer.

I mean I’m sure that Aaron Sorkin gets to decide, but when you are a first timer and a female you don’t really get these opportunities. Allison is amazing. What she did in contributing to the tapestry of this film is beautiful. 

MARTIN: Any advice for emerging female screenwriters?

PALMORE: It’s never too late to start because I didn’t get into the film industry until I was 30. Being 30, depending on where you are in the world, can seem pretty young. I remember thinking I was super behind, I was never going to catch up.

There are really no rules anymore. You can make a movie on an iPhone. If you can write, you can figure out how to write a screenplay. My advice to any woman who wants to tell their stories for the screen is you’re already equipped with all of the tools because women are natural storytellers. Try not to listen to any of the voices in your head that say, “who am I to tell this”. I think that in general, writers will say that “that’s not my experience, so I shouldn’t do it.” We have to remember that men have been telling stories about women forever.

MARTIN: Yep!

PALMORE: And men have been telling stories about experiences that they know nothing about forever. I mean, I adapted “The Evening Hour” about a bisexual man that lives in Appalachia, but I understand the human condition. Or I’d like to think I do. 

So my first thing would be that it’s never too late to start. Second, don’t be afraid of what you don’t know or haven’t experienced. Just don’t be afraid of your story. Don’t worry about something that is not your immediate life experience. Find some people you trust to show your work to, and if you are trying to break into film, once you feel like your sample is strong, after you’ve been workshopping it with your friends, submit to every contest you can, where it involves getting read. I would try to apply to grants that are specific to female filmmakers. Because Sundance has a lab, there are these different fellowships that are all about nurturing writers, so I would do that. Also, if you can’t get into any labs or contests, you just need to read “Save the Cat” by Blake Snyder. That is literally the only book you need on screenwriting. 

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