“Your depression is mounting, the ashtray is filling because of it.
Bedside bottles half-empty, the rest of it’s filling with your regret.
Just how sad can you get when nothing is ever really worth it.”
These are the melancholic lyrics consistently running through the mind of Lea (Lily McInerny), the teenage protagonist of Jamie Dack’s shattering debut feature, “Palm Trees and Power Lines.” Like the titular trees awkwardly transplanted to the west coast, Lea sees herself as a misfit in her environment and is eager to escape it as soon as possible. When she catches the eye of Tom (Jonathan Tucker), a man twice her age, Lea develops a deep infatuation with him, sparking her hope that they will one day build a life together somewhere far beyond the horizon, where the power lines seemingly stretch toward infinity.
Power, and the abuse of it, is what Tom’s character embodies so insidiously. The script, co-authored by Dack and Audrey Findlay, provides a meticulous study in the art of grooming, as Tom isolates the girl from her peers, while assuring her that only he can see her special qualities, before revealing his true intentions. A key mark of a great actor is the ability to keep our attention rapt simply through listening, and McInerny is utterly mesmerizing as we see her studying Tucker’s face, grasping onto hope even as cracks begin to form in his slick façade. An excruciatingly protracted shot deftly lensed by cinematographer Chananun Chotrungroj of Lea as her newfound entrapment suddenly sinks in is flat-out devastating.
“Palm Trees and Power Lines” is one of the very best films I saw in 2022, and though it made my top ten list last year while snagging four richly deserved Film Independent Spirit Award nominations—for Best First Feature, Best First Screenplay, Best Breakthrough Performance (McInerny) and Best Supporting Performance (Tucker)—the film will finally be having its official release in theaters and on VOD this Friday, March 3rd. My wife and I have been championing the picture ever since we caught it during the virtual edition of Sundance last year, where Dack received the Directing Award in the U.S. Dramatic competition. So it was a great honor for me to recently speak at length with Dack, McInerny and Tucker via Zoom for RogerEbert.com about their unforgettable collaboration.
There is no one I am happier to see nominated at this year’s Spirit Awards than you three.
Lily McInerny (LM): Aw, thank you!
Jonathan Tucker (JT): Matt, you have been so supportive of the movie, on social media in particular, and without voices like you with your platform, Lily, Jamie and I wouldn’t be sitting here, so thank you very, very much.
This film hit me on the deepest possible level, since I have close friends who have been targeted in a similar way by predators who isolate them by saying things like, “No one understands you better than me.” To what extent did research play a role in conjuring this level of authenticity?
Jamie Dack (JD): I’ve had many of my own experiences that were similar but on a much smaller level. I was examining ways in which I felt I had perhaps been manipulated, so there was a personal connection for me to the material, but I also did a bunch of research as well. I read a lot of books written by survivors of this sort of situation, so it was kind of a combination of my own experience with this research that I had done.
Lily, you had told my wife when she interviewed you for Cinema Femme at last year’s Sundance that it was important for you to find a good therapist before filming started.
LM: Yeah, definitely. Apart from this being my first professional role and knowing that the pressure of it would be a lot to deal with, I was also aware of the fact that the subject matter itself and the nature of the role would require me to go into emotional places that, like you said, reach really deep in this film. So it was really important that I was doing this responsibly. I was able to go in and out of this character in a healthy and productive way, not just for myself but also for the work. I think that’s the best place you can be.
And I agree with Jamie, these kinds of relationships are tragically common, not always to the scale that they reach in this film, but in so many smaller and just as devastating of ways. I’ve also had personal experiences with people close to me who were dealing with this in their own lives. But when approaching the role itself, it was really important for me to put my judgment and my hindsight as a young woman aside, along with my criticism of the relationship as somebody with a more mature understanding of how grooming works. Instead, I just fully focused on my character’s motivation, her love and her attraction to this person without judging myself in the moment.
Jonathan, you have spoken about the difficulty in playing a character this reprehensible, considering you have children of your own. Was it important for you to create a backstory for your character in order to better understand his psychology?
JT: Certainly you need to know the iceberg of the character below the level of the water that the audience gets to see. I think one of the elements that I was most interested in exploring with Lily and Jamie was how to provide a sense of safety and comfort. How do you provide enough light to attract and to make somebody feel that this is a relationship, or that this is a journey that they can take? When you make someone feel uncomfortable physically, they don’t feel like they have an exit. Everything in their system starts to shut down or all the alert flags go up.
That was something that I think was a really interesting exploration for us in preproduction and then on the day. To Jamie and Lily’s credit—but particularly Jamie’s—there’s only a few scenes in this movie where it’s not actually light. She so beautifully and with such talent was able to kind of convince the audience that they saw something or experienced something that, in point of fact, they actually didn’t view onscreen, going back to this idea that there is something so much deeper below the surface.
Someone I have seen championing Lily’s work online is podcast host and sex educator Eileen Kelly, whom I have written a few articles for in the past.
LM: Really? That makes me so happy!
I have been so impressed with how she has gone about obliterating stigmas regarding sexuality and mental health, and I am wondering if all of you share a similar aim as artists, since this film provides a safe space for us to grapple with topics often too difficult to approach in our everyday lives.
JD: Yeah, for sure, but I would just say that I think we’re still fighting that fight. For a lot of people, this film has been too dark for them, whether that was in the stage of trying to get it financed or in the stage of our distribution. A lot of people can be afraid of certain things that I personally don’t think we should be afraid of and that we should be exploring as artists.
LM: And I think Jamie did a really beautiful job of setting that precedent of fearlessness and openness around these topics. After the film premiered at Sundance, a lot of people have come up to me and are like, “Wow, that was such a brave role!” I never really understood that because I never had a second thought when reading this script as to how important it was and how urgent it is to actually be discussing this.
I never hesitated for a second because the way it was written and the way that Jamie created this film set a really beautiful example of openness and vulnerability. I never second-guessed the film’s importance in the greater conversation, and that’s something that I hope to continue throughout my career. I look forward to taking on more roles and working on projects that continue to push those taboos and create dialogue that will hopefully lead to change.
JD: But I do think you were both very brave.
LM: Well thank you! [laughs]
Jamie, you had told my wife that you filmed the prolonged wide shot in the hotel room “five or six times,” and it is one of the most harrowing unbroken takes I’ve seen. How did you and Chananun go about conceiving of it?
JD: I just feel like sometimes, particularly in the case of the specific shot you’re talking about, that it’s more powerful what we don’t see or what we hear behind a closed door but aren’t actually seeing. In many ways, I think that approach is almost inspired by horror films, and so for that scene, I wanted to be really removed from it and far back without cutting away from it. People who have responded to that scene seem to think that it’s very powerful, and it’s really just this one wide shot followed by a close-up on Lily’s face.
JT: Jamie comes from a visual world. The film was based on a series of photographs that she took, and they were incorporated into some of the conversations that we had onset about composition and photography. Jamie shared a lot of those photographs with us, and there’s something about the transient nature of Southern California, which is where Jamie focused the original project on, and what she was able to bring in terms of composition and framing and light to the film that does have quite a bit of loneliness.
While there are palm trees and power lines and blue skies and sunshine and the beach, there are also all of these people living behind closed doors in $39 a night motels up and down the 5 freeway, the 405 and the 101. All of these things that seem to connect us in California actually create a false picture because there is so much loneliness and so many things happening that we don’t know about. I think Jamie did a beautiful job, both in terms of the subject matter and also on the visual side. There is a very particular connection with what those shots were going to look like and how powerfully they would resonate.
Whereas my Managing Editor Brian Tallerico said that “his soul left his body” during this scene, I felt as if I could see the precise moment when Lea’s soul is snuffed out while lying on the bed, which is a testament to the brilliance of Lily’s performance. In some ways, it feels like a piece of Lea never leaves the hotel room. How did Jamie and intimacy coordinator Rebecca Johannsen create a comfortable space for you to be so vulnerable onscreen?
LM: It certainly helped that I had a lot of time with the script and with Jamie and Jonathan to build a friendship in the days leading up to our time onset, as well as a lot of time in private to prepare for this. For a while, we had been aware that this scene was coming, and that it would be a big day. Jamie went above and beyond to make sure that this particular day of filming was as comfortable as it could be, even just in the way that it was scheduled toward the end of the shoot, so I had as much time as possible with the cast and crew.
My scene partner, John Minch, was incredible. He was so comforting and approachable and did everything in his power to make what is such a harsh scene as enjoyable as possible for me as an actor, so I am very grateful for this scene partner and for Jamie’s casting of him. Jonathan was also extremely comforting, and the same was true of everybody on that day. It almost felt like overkill, not that it ever could be, but in a way, I came into this knowing exactly what I was getting into. Yet the people around me were so overwhelmingly caring that I just felt like I was surrounded by so much love.
JT: For Lily, I think that there will be a certain period of time—maybe in ten years, maybe when she gets married or has kids—where she’ll look back at what she did and appreciate the fearlessness of her work. She’ll appreciate it not just with what we see onscreen, but she’ll also know how remarkable her behavior was on that day in how she made everybody else feel comfortable in an uncomfortable situation. I am excited to be her friend.
LM: Aw, thank you, Jonathan!
JT: We were all telling you how brave you were!
LM: The truth is, this is why I do it. I feel like it is an enormous privilege to be able to represent these stories. To compromise my comfort for a moment in time for the sake of storytelling is nothing at all like the lived experience of people actually going through these situations. I think actors are incredible, but I don’t think of it as anything as remarkable as surviving in real life.
Jonathan, you have worked with so many accomplished directors, including my wife’s all-time favorite filmmaker, Sofia Coppola. What qualities did you sense in Jamie that made you excited to work with her?
JT: During the very first call that I had with her, I knew right away that she was the real deal. There’s just a sense that there is no distance between her intuition and her decisions that she executes or she makes. Jamie has that sense of clarity and understanding that she’s enough, that she doesn’t have to pollute who she is by trying to be something more than she is. These are very rare qualities, and they are magnificent to see in a director. After the first time we had a zoom, I said to myself, “I’ll follow her anywhere,” and she hasn’t deviated from my initial assessment in any way, other than she’s just proven herself more and more capable, talented and special.
To what extent was it a challenge to make a film this monumentally unsettling watchable without letting the audience off the hook?
JD: I just felt that since our protagonist is going through this, the audience is going to need to go through this as well. That was just my basic belief system for showing what I did. I really wanted people to be completely grounded in her experience.
The film pointedly doesn’t have the exploitative male gaze and excessive nudity that has contradicted the supposed intentions of similar films over the past decades.
JD: That’s the other thing that I find really interesting in terms of people’s reactions to the film and to the scene that we keep talking about. There are so many other films that have had similar scenes that show so much more and are so much more violent and vulgar. And yet, somehow, there are some people who can’t tolerate being put in this teenage girl’s perspective. That’s literally what we’re doing and it’s just unbearable to some people. But really, I’m not showing you as much as so many other scenes in other movies do show you, so that’s very interesting for me.
That’s because the film never objectifies Lea, but rather, causes us to feel as if we are her. It’s fascinating to watch Jamie’s 2018 short film of the same name back to back with the feature, and one of the intriguing connecting threads is the song, “Kentucky Death,” that the lead girl sings, which I feel functions as somewhat of a Greek chorus.
LM: We had actually discussed using different songs for the feature film, but it was really just my vocal range and my affinity towards the original that kind of kept bringing me back to it. I am not a very naturally gifted singer [laughs], but I would be sending Jamie voice memos of all of these other options leading up to the shoot, and I just kind of kept on going back to the original and landing right back where we started. So I think it wasn’t totally intentional, but it worked out in the best possible way, because now I can’t imagine it any other way.
JD: Yeah, I forgot about that. We did try some other songs, and in the end, we went back to the song from the short. The short is quite different from the feature in some ways, so the song is a nice little wink to the genesis of this feature. There’s a musician, Mike Ireland, who had his own little side project called Spirit Houses, and he recorded that song and some others in his apartment. That song is about depression and alcoholism, and is so sad. I thought it was funny for this teenage girl to be singing about something so serious, and so that was kind of why I liked it.
What has been some of the most rewarding feedback you have received from audiences who have finally gotten to see the film on the big screen?
JT: I have loved getting to see people recognize Jamie and Lily’s work. It’s such a privilege as an actor to be onset because many times, I have a closer seat to a performance than even the camera. Often I have the closest seat in the house. I’ve had the opportunity to have done that a handful of times with some pretty magnificent people, and Lily is certainly one of them. I felt like I had a bit of a secret with both Lily and Jamie that other people didn’t know, which is how remarkable they are, what an extraordinary talent Jamie is and what careers both of these women are going to have.
Here I was tucked away on this tiny little movie where we were shooting around LA, changing our clothes in our own personal vehicles and scraping together our dinners here and there. I can see Jamie giving me that little side eye as I’m saying this, but it was part of the community of making movies. I think it’s wonderful to tell smaller stories with smaller crews and finding the right actors for the roles versus some of the economics that get brought into these processes. Then to be in a theater in Deauville or some of the screenings we’ve had here in Los Angeles and to watch other people getting to see now many months later what I got to see on a little film set in Los Angeles feels very gratifying.
JD: What has been most gratifying to me when seeing the film with audiences are people’s responses to Lily and Jonathan’s performances. It was this amazing, crazy, exciting day when we got our Spirit Award nominations, but truly, from the bottom of my heart, out of the four of them, the ones that mean the most to me are their two nominations. I remember when I was in film school, during the very first semester, a professor said that casting is half the job of the director. I don’t know if it’s half or what exact percentage it is, but it’s a huge part of what you do as a director, and I clearly made the right decision here.
LM: I’ve never watched the film all the way through when it has screened, but I have had the opportunity to see it in a theater, and I couldn’t have asked for a more special film to be my first. Your first is already an extremely sort of transformative experience, but having it be something that I feel is so important and so urgent and so impactful as Jamie’s work and Jonathan’s work with me is wonderful. As you said, there was a delay between its initial release in festivals and its opportunity now in having a wider audience.
Especially since festivals like Sundance were virtual last year, it almost felt like the film was in this alternative universe and it didn’t really feel tangible. Now after having some interactions with audience members directly after these screenings, it just brings everything full circle and puts the work into perspective. There’s nothing more special than actually getting to feel and hear that feedback from another person that you’ve touched. It’s magical.
You have truly created a gift to the world with the film. Those who have been in Lea’s situation, many of whom aren’t yet ready to share their story, will watch this movie and feel less alone.
LM: Thank you so much! We appreciate it more than you understand.