Awards Radar got the opportunity to speak with Jamie Dack, the writer and director of Palm Trees and Power Lines, her feature directorial debut that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2022 (reviewed here by Joey) and is currently nominated for four Independent Spirit Awards. Dack brought the film to life in feature length form after making a short of the same title in 2018.
Palm Trees and Power Lines follows a disillusioned teenage girl who finds herself in a relationship with a man twice her age. She sees him as a solution to her problems with her friends and family, but his intentions are what not what they seem. The film stars Jonathan Tucker alongside newcomer Lily McInerny in her first feature role.
In this interview, Dack breaks down everything from the process of expanding the short film into a feature length script to the relationship of Tucker and McInerny on set amidst shooting many difficult scenes to the worldbuilding that helped characterize the film as a whole.
Hi Jamie! I’m Danny Jarabek here with Awards Radar. Thank you for so much for taking some time to speak with me.
Jamie: Of course, thank you.
First of all, I just want to say congratulations on making this film. I absolutely loved it when I saw it for the first time, and it just struck me as something that was so powerful and just an incredible film too from your first feature and you have a breakthrough actress in your lead role and so it was just something that really stuck with me and I’m just incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to talk with you about it.
Jamie: I really appreciate that, thank you for watching.
I want to just start off by asking, because I know this was originally a short film and extended into your feature length film, I just want to hear some insight on the short film making process and how you transitioned that into the feature?
Jamie: Yeah, so you know a lot of people I know or having just seen other directors do this, made short films that act as proof of concept for a feature. But for me, I actually just made this short and later decided I wanted to extend it. I felt like there were things I was starting to explore in the short that you know, I wanted to keep working on. Also, when the short was on the festival circuit, I was getting so many responses from women who were identifying with it and so it really made me want to keep working on it. The short, which was quite different in scope just dealt with a much smaller betrayal than the feature does. But yeah, I began, you know, kind of adapting it into the feature and really wrote the feature to follow the stages of grooming, which was different than the short. That was kind of where it changed.
Right, and that’s something that I think was actually really interesting about the expansion was I thought when I watched the short and then the feature that you had really just kind of pulled some of the major themes and ideas and the feelings from that short, but then expanded them in scope with the narrative.
At the center of this you have an incredible breakthrough first time performer with Lily McInerny playing Lea and I just want to hear a little bit about how you came across her in casting and what your decision process was with her because whatever it was that you saw in her absolutely was correct of course because she gives such a devastating and powerful performance. I’d love to hear about you working with her in your collaboration as the lead actress here.
Jamie: Yeah, well, thank you, I think Lily is absolutely incredible in it as well, and it’s one of the things I’m most proud of with the film. I worked with a casting director, Kate Antognini, who was really a critical part of this for me and I felt like we were just really aligned and that she understood what it was I was looking for. I was really looking, I wanted to discover someone. I wanted to find someone that the audience could kind of get lost in their performance and not be watching and go ‘oh there’s so and so playing a teenage girl.’ Also, I feel like when I’m watching movies or TV shows about teenagers and it’s like a twenty-five-year-old actor playing a teenager that can really take me out of it. So that was kind of what I was looking for and then Kate had discovered Lily and she showed me a tape, well we had her audition and she showed me the tape and you know, as I always joke, I kind of felt bad for everyone else who auditioned after Lily because she was one of the first tapes I saw and I was just like, she’s incredible. And I really wanted to pair her, that’s the other part I should just mention about the casting, was that I really wanted to pair her with a veteran actor like Jonathan [Tucker], because I thought that that their experience with acting was going to lend itself to the power dynamics at play in the script.
Yeah, and that’s something I think shows in the expansion from the short to the feature as well because it’s not obviously explicitly stated, but it seems like in the expansion the power dynamic grows, the age gap widens, so that that definitely seems like something that was a very intentional decision with the casting as well.
Jamie: Yes, for sure.
Going off a little bit more with Jonathan of course, he is much more of a veteran actor as you said, but what was it like just the relationship between Lily, as a first timer working with Jonathan here? What was their relationship like on set? And especially, there’s a lot of heavier scenes in this that were probably difficult to manage especially with a first-time actress. I bet she was probably thinking this wasn’t the easiest role to dive into in her first major feature, so what was it like with her working with Jonathan and those heavier moments that you had to depict?
Jamie: You know they have, they had, and still have, what I would call a very sweet and special relationship and I feel like Lily would say too that Jonathan was kind of like a mentor to her. It was apparent to me right away that Jonathan was really kind of shepherding this person through an experience like this and so I think Lily and I are both really grateful to him for that. It also was clear to me that we needed to just be really close to three of us, and it happened very naturally, and I consider them my friends we have a group text that we were on and we were texting all the time and getting to know one another and going to meals and just trying to be as comfortable as possible. Lily often says this, and I think this is really beautiful that she’s like ‘It’s obvious what I had to do, but people often forget what Jonathan had to do like his role was really hard too for him.’ So yeah, I’m not sure answering your question, but these are some of my thoughts.
Yeah, no that’s totally great to hear. There’s something else that helps build the characterization I think in the film, especially for Lily, but also for Jonathan too, and in the place that they’re at psychologically, and what is bringing them to this moment in their lives, and I think that has a lot to do with the setting in the way that you build this world that they’re living in. It seems like this it’s this suburban melancholia if you will, maybe you have a better way to describe it, but their surroundings and their world building that’s leading Lily to her loneliness that puts her in this vulnerable position. So maybe if you could describe that a little bit, and how you went about building that world and how that helps influence the characters.
Jamie: Yeah, I remember when I was a teenager and I was in my high school English class and we read this story about suburbia, and the teacher literally wrote suburban malaise on the board and taught us what that meant and I was like, ‘Oh my god, like, that’s what I’ve been feeling all this time in this town and growing up.’ And so that really was a huge part of this story for me, and in the character like what the character is experiencing, and I feel like he is grooming her and is able to do so because she has certain vulnerabilities. They include her father not being present, her mother being there, but not really, not fitting in with her friends. All these things, and another one of those is definitely the suburban malaise that she feels, and so that’s why the title of the film is what it is because to me that’s just an image of the things around her in her world.
That’s something I love about this film is the title itself.
Jamie: Thank you!
Palm trees and Power Lines. It’s something that is never explicitly stated in the film, but after you watch it, you almost get the evoking quality of what that means it feels like. What led you to titling the film that?
Jamie: It was just like I, you know, when I made the short, the short and the feature stemmed from a series of photographs that I was taking because I’m also a photographer, and mostly photographs of just these certainty neighborhoods in Southern California, and what ultimately became the world and the back drop of these two films, and I just felt like there was often literally palm trees and power lines in these images and it just had this kind of poetic ring to me that I liked and I also liked that power lines also kind of doubled in meaning in terms of the power dynamics at play between them.
Yeah, absolutely. I’ve seen this film described and there’s one phrase that I can’t claim credit for, but something that I really related to when I read it. Someone described it as a car crash in slow motion when you watch it. That’s something that that really stuck with me and I think it speaks to something else I want to talk about, which is the editing process for you. There’s something I really love about the editing in this movie because it is deliberate but is constantly evoking those feelings that Lily is going through and undergoing. There’s a lot of moments that really stick out to me where you almost linger with her in the moments that she is making a decision about what is happening with her. There’s one moment that stuck out to me when she goes to his motel for the first time, and she is shot in profile waiting to take a step through the door threshold and it’s those moments in the edit I feel like where it just kind of lingers with her that really were powerful. So, I just want to hear a little bit about what your editing process was like, and what sort of pace and tone you were going with for the edit?
Jamie: It’s so funny that you said that about the door because it’s literally in the script it says, ‘She stands at the threshold.’
Jamie: Yeah, and I did want her to pause and think about if she’s really going to enter the space. But in terms of the editing, I’m definitely inspired by many European films, and I think that you know in the US and in Hollywood films people often don’t want to take their time and there’s kind of a more rushed feeling that now works for commercial films but isn’t necessarily in line with my sensibilities. It was always like, the short doesn’t have any dialogue for the first four minutes, so I definitely feel like I’m willing to take my time with pasting and the editing, and I worked with an amazing editor, Chris Radcliff, who really understood this as well, understood that this was my vision for it, and especially in the beginning of the film, she, as I said, is experiencing this suburban malaise and it’s the summer and she’s bored and off from school and bored and the days are long and she doesn’t know how to pass the time and so I feel like the editing and the slow pace really lends itself to that and makes the audience feel what she’s experiencing.
A couple last things I want to talk about and get your thoughts on briefly are did you have anything in mind about what this film would mean to people telling it from Lily’s perspective, from this female perspective that’s very specific to her in how this story unfolds? What did it mean to you to tell the story from her perspective? What do you think it has meant to other people in what you’ve heard of how it resonates?
Jamie: I mean, as I said, the short which didn’t go to the places that the feature did, but so many women were telling me that they identified, and so I kind of had a sense that that may be the case and it’s unbelievable really. You watch the feature, and you go this is so dark, it is so intense, what’s happening? This maybe only happens to a very specific group of people, but I just can’t tell you how many women share with me that they identify or have had an experience even if it’s much smaller, they relate, and I think that’s important.
Absolutely. This film I believe, premiered at Sundance about a year ago now, right?
So, were you able to go? Was it virtual? What was the experience of that?
Jamie: Sundance was virtual. It was cancelled two weeks before in the height of Omicron and it was very disappointing and I was very sad, and as I say to many people when they asked me about it I really felt, of course the festival did happen, but virtually, but I kind of felt like an athlete that had been training for the Olympics for years only for it to be canceled, but I feel like there’s been so many great things that have happened for the film since then that have kind of made up for that loss.
Of course, and a couple of the great things the film is currently nominated for four Indie Spirit awards for First Screenplay, Supporting Performance, First Feature, and Breakthrough Performance, a lot of the credits that we talked about, Lily, of course, and Jonathan as well. So, I just want to wrap up and thank you for your time and ask is there anything on deck for you that you can speak about with this film or anything else?
Jamie: I’m writing two features at the moment. One is my own idea. One is an adaptation of a novella that I optioned the rights to. Yeah, that’s what I’m working on.
Awesome, well I’m definitely looking forward to what’s next and thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate having the opportunity to see this film and talk about it with you today.
Jamie: Of course, thank you. I really appreciate that. Thank you.