Jamie Dack’s directorial feature debut “Palm Trees and Power Lines” is a revelation in the way she cinematically captures the delicate complexity and vulnerability of being a teenage girl, lost in her identity and looking for it in painful places. Many women will see themselves in the main character Lea, played by Lily McInerny in a powerhouse film debut.
There are few films that have achieved what Jamie has done with “Palm Trees and Power Lines.” She takes us through the eyes of a teenage girl, and when she meets Tom (Jonathan Tucker), we see the signs of grooming (targeting a victim; gaining their trust; filling a need; isolation; abuse), and we see Lea fall into it. We want to stop it, but we can only watch, which makes the film very painful, yet very powerful.
I had the privilege to speak with Jamie and Lily about how they both came to the film, the voyeurism of the camera, the emotional places it took them, and what they hope people will get from this film.
Jamie, how did you come to this film?
Jamie Dack (JD): I wrote and directed a short in 2017 that is of the same name as the feature. Being a short, it was much smaller in scope. I was really just trying to explore some of my experiences as a teenager, growing up in suburbia, and the feelings of loneliness and insecurity that I felt. There were some things that I could not tackle in the short that I knew I wanted to explore in a feature. As soon as the short was wrapped, I began writing the feature. What really took the feature in a different direction than the short was really just being the age that I was at. I started looking back on certain relationships that I had as a young woman, and as a girl. They were relationships that I thought at the time were choices I was consciously making for myself, and that I was very much in control of them. But with this new age I was at, I started to think that maybe that wasn’t exactly what was happening, which was a bit disturbing for me. I started to feel protective of younger Jamie, and felt worried about her and sad. I came up with this character Lea that Lily plays, and I used the character and the story as a proxy for my younger self, as I explored what happened to me, but also what could have happened to me.
How did you discover Lily for the Lea role?
JD: I knew that whomever was going to play Lea had to feel like a real teenager. I really didn’t want to cast someone famous where audience members would be watching and say, “There’s so and so, playing this teenage girl”. I thought if she was more real and unknown, people could get lost in the movie more and this particular story would be all the more painful and all the more powerful. I began working with an incredible casting director, Kate Antognini, who really specializes in this. She does a lot of scouting and has discovered some amazing fresh faces of new actors. We watched hundreds of tapes, but Kate knew Lily for years, and she said she was saving her for something right. Kate said when she read the script, she immediately thought of Lily. I saw Lily’s tape too, and it was kind of a no-brainer. I feel bad for anyone who auditioned after Lily, because I had already made my mind up.
Lily, how did you prepare for a role like this one? And how was it working with Jonathan Tucker?
Lily McInerny (LM): In terms of my preparation for the role, the first thing I did was find a very good therapist. I knew that I would be going into some pretty dark territories, and I also knew that the responsibility of leading in my very first acting job was enormous. Not only did I want to feel prepared emotionally for some of the more intense subject matter that this film covers, but I also just wanted to work on my confidence and self-esteem as an actor, so I could walk on set feeling as comfortable as possible.
But working with Jonathan Tucker made it just so much more fun and easy than I could have ever imagined. He is such a kind, sweet, supportive and hilarious person to work with. I knew whomever Jamie would cast would be someone I could trust, because I knew how important this was to her, and how personal this was for her. But as soon as we got onto the first phone call, I knew I was in good hands and it only got better from there.
Can you talk about the look of the film and the production design?
JD: I would say that this applies to every film I do, and I felt it was very specific to this one too. I wanted it to look a certain way. There’s some films where story can take the forefront, and here it was equal to me. I’m telling this very important story and I really wanted it to look this certain way. I had been taking photographs in this area, which is why I set the film here.
Regarding production design, a lot of it was filmed on location. It’s not like designing a stage. A lot of the work is finding a location, and that involves a lot of scouting, like finding the diner with those seafoam green booths. It was about being very specific. I also had conversations with my production designer [Yu-Hsuan Chen] about what Lea’s house was going to look like, and what type of style her mother had. What was in her teenage bedroom? One of the opening lines of the script talks about her waking up, and how her bedside table is covered with stickers that are remnants of her childhood. Through little details like that, we wanted to make the space feel like the childhood bedroom of a girl who is now a teenager.
This is hard to talk about, as it’s probably the most uncomfortable scene in the film, but it’s also impressively lensed in one take. You really feel the discomfort watching Lea from a distance, suggesting that there is nothing you can do. I’d love to hear from both of you how you feel about this scene.
LM: That was the scene that I had prepared for the least, because I knew that no amount of planning or analyzing could really effect the emotional, visceral intensity of that shot, and of that scene. So I left it alone and just tried to take care of myself as much as I could that day, so I could go in and out of it safely and comfortably. But I think a lot of that in-the-moment discovery is apparent in the final cut. I’m grateful that I left it alone until the cameras started rolling because it was a little too painful to rehearse, but it also really allowed me to go to places emotionally and discover feelings that I don’t think I could have planned for. What do you think Jamie?
JD: I have so much to say about this scene. It’s funny because a filmmaker friend of mine asked me what scene are you the most proud of? I felt like a deranged person because when I stopped to think about it, that is the scene that I’m the most proud of. That was one of the most daunting scenes to me, and I felt that if it didn’t work out, the whole movie wouldn’t work out. I had a lot hinged on it and I ultimately felt that it was really powerful, so I am proud of it.
I would also be asked all the time in prep with all of the different collaborators, ‘How are you shooting this?’ Everyone wanted to understand my vision for it, and I kept trying to explain less is more to me. The less we see, the more disturbing this is going to be. I was thinking about certain filmmakers that I feel had demonstrated how what you hear behind a closed door is more disturbing than if it was shown to you. That was my idea for the wide shot. By the way, that wide shot goes on for about 10 minutes. Lily and that actor did that wide shot five or six times from beginning to end. I thought it was more powerful to take that far away voyeuristic view of it.
Because you asked how we were feeling, the last thing I’ll say is that I was hiding behind one of the beds. It was a closed set, but I was literally at my little monitor in that room and I was crying after the first take. I was like, ‘Oh my god, what have I done here?’ But I knew that it was so powerful.
What do you hope people see in your performance?
LM: What really drew me to this script was how much of myself I recognized in Lea. The most I can hope an audience member takes away is that they’ll see a little bit of themselves or their stories represented onscreen. In that way, they may find some catharsis alongside my character’s journey. I hope it sparks conversation and I hope it challenges some people’s expectations of what a predator looks like, and what exactly grooming means. I have never seen it represented onscreen the way that this movie handles it.
Jamie, what do you hope people see in your film?
JD: I feel similarly to what Lily just said. I want people to see themselves, even if they relate to Lea’s experience in a very small way or in a rather large concrete way. When I made the short film, which is only a sliver of this, people would come up to me all the time at festivals or write to me after seeing it online about how they related. And that was something that really inspired me to want to adapt the short into a feature as well. I think women deserve to see this kind of story onscreen, and I hope all audience members, women or not, understand how Lea got to where she ends up in the third act. In the very last scene of the movie, I want people to understand and realize that this can happen.