In Palm Trees and Power Lines, director Jamie Dack carefully sets up the factors that lead teenager Lea (newcomer Lily McInerny) into a relationship with Tom (Jonathan Tucker), a man twice her age. Her father is absent and her mother seems to only notice her when she’s in between boyfriends. There’s a disconnect between Lily and her friends at times. Then there’s old-fashioned boredom––idle hands are the devil’s playthings after all. Summer nights may consist of the drinking and hooking up one expects of teenagers, but suburban malaise casts a long shadow over the proceedings, creating the antithesis of a Linklater night out. 

So like St. Augustine and his pears, Lea and her friends dine and dash one evening, not for seeming lack of funds but just because. It’s here that Tom first makes contact with her, via a quick wink as he walks past her booth. When Tom and Lea begin to hang out and eventually enter a relationship, some of the red flags Dack and co-writer Audrey Findlay plant are subtle, others more overt. 

Dack and Findlay’s script is inspired by Dack’s reflections on some of her own relationships she began to view in a different light later, and in that regard it recalls another Sundance title, Jennifer Fox’s The Tale from 2018. Palm Trees and Power Lines also follows the five stages of grooming: targeting, access, trust, desensitization, control. But it’s not as if there’s a title card announcing each one’s arrival. They’re interspersed into moments that exist at the beginning of any courtship, where two people attempt to get to know each other––often clumsily. During a beach trip, Lea becomes upset after running into a high school friend, and Tom disarms Lea’s bad mood through light-hearted ribbing. But then we witness him assert his control over her, the joking quickly transitioning into a stern command to Lea to not see this “Tyler” boy mentioned earlier. 

I spoke with Dack on the eve of a busy weekend for the writer-director. Palm Trees and Power Lines opens in theaters and on VOD on Friday and then on Saturday, her debut feature is up for four awards at the Independent Spirit Awards. 

The Film Stage: The story incorporates the five stages of grooming. When did you discover these five stages, and how did they work their way into the script-writing process with Audrey Findlay?

Jamie Dack: So I wrote the short on my own, and then I began adapting it into a feature and I wrote a number of drafts. But it wasn’t quite where I wanted it to be, and I felt like I wanted to collaborate with someone else, bring in their perspective. I began working with Audrey, and right at the beginning we decided that it would be written to follow those stages of grooming. There were different iterations of the script as well––there was one that was just about an inappropriate relationship with an older man and that was it. But then I decided that I really wanted it to be about a more serious grooming and manipulation. 

Audrey always knew that we were trying to do justice to my story. When we began working together it was like a download session of me just sharing everything from my experience and what I was trying to do here with this film. But also the way it looked was actually really critical to how we were writing it. We weren’t going to write a scene that was set in a location that I didn’t want to film in visually. 

What was your approach to developing the visual style of the film?

Jamie Dack: My approach to the style was two things. I wanted it to be a naturalist drama grounded in reality and Lea’s perspective. But simultaneously, I wanted it to look photographic. It was inspired by a series of 35mm film photographs I was taking in that part of California, so I wanted every frame to be as composed and photographic as possible. Combining those two things was the style of the film.

How did you work with your DP to achieve that photographic look while shooting digitally?

Because I was taking these photographs on film, it would’ve been cool to shoot the film on film, but we shot digitally and the way it looks really stems from, first and foremost, location scouting. Literally driving around and going, “This donut shop has chairs that are red. This diner has turquoise booths.” Then I worked with an amazing colorist, Katie Jordan at Light Iron, and I showed her these photographs. (The DP and I also looked at these photographs.) But in terms of the color, I showed Katie the photographs, and we did a film stock emulation, and added grain––tried to make it filmic. 

Are there any plans to do anything with those photographs? I saw a few of them in the Sundance “Meet the Artist” video.

Conversations are being had now about publishing them in a coffee table book, and also doing a gallery of them as well. I’m excited to find the right way for them to go out into the world. 

Something that struck me about Tom when he comes into Lea’s life is: he’s charismatic and smooth, but he’s not too smooth. I imagine some of these lines wouldn’t work on someone his own age. It’s this fumbling courtship that’s mostly carried by his charisma.

Jonathan was the perfect actor to play this role––he is one of the most charismatic, charming people that you meet. But also I knew from others roles I had seen him in, that he wasn’t afraid to go to some of the darker places that Tom needed to go to. So, I think a lot of what you’re asking about comes down to the casting and just simply his ability to straddle those two things. 

What was the process between Tucker and McInerny? Did you rehearse or save interactions for the camera? How was that dynamic between a first-time actor and a veteran? 

Of course, Lily doesn’t seem like a first-time actor at all from watching the film. But she was, and I felt like that dynamic between a first-time actor and a veteran actor was going to lend itself to the power dynamics that are at play in the script. That was intentional and worked out nicely. I did not want to rehearse that much. I wanted to keep things fresh and discover them on the day. But because we shot out-of-order, as most films do, there were times when we were shooting a scene where they are just meeting and it was near the end of the shoot. I had to remind them, “Guys, I know you’re comfortable with each other now, but separate. Sit at opposite ends of that bench.” So I was tracking that while we were shooting. 

As the director of a first-timer, how do you work while filming some of the more difficult scenes?

It was first just bonding with Lily in a real way. It was me sharing my experiences with her and why I wanted to tell this story and her sharing her experiences with me and why she identified with Lily and wanted to play this character. It was just making clear to her that she could come to me with anything at any time, just to be completely comfortable. It was also making sure that she and Jonathan were extremely comfortable with one another. So it was really about building a connection between the three of us. We had meals together, we’d hang out, we had a text chain that we still have that I always say truly goes off at all hours of the night––sending each other ridiculous things. 

I’m often intrigued by the dynamic created when teenage girls hang out together––Spring Breakers is a film that comes to mind. It’s obviously a completely different film, but you both capture this unique dynamic. What was the process like creating this? Were you drawing on your own experiences or working with the actors to create it?

I was 100 percent drawing on my own experiences, and it always makes me laugh when people talk about how much they loved the teenagers in the film and how real they feel, because I’m in my 30s, and there are things that are ripped directly from my teenage years, whether it’s something one of the teens says, or just a scene of what they’re doing. And somehow all of these years later, it’s relevant and feels very real to people. I’m drawing on my own experiences but modernizing it. We obviously live in a time now where there’s technology that wasn’t there when I was a teenager––whether that’s like the filter they’re using on Instagram. 

Talk about the music: there’s Aphex Twin’s “#3” in there and a Michael Ireland song I hadn’t heard before, which is in both the short and the feature. Were these songs you listened to in high school? They’re from an era that’s before what you expect Lea and her friends would be listening to. 

The Mike Ireland song, it’s very serious––it’s literally talking about depression and alcoholism. I was very serious and emo as a teenager, and so I thought there was something funny about her singing something so weighty. Mike owned a bar in the neighborhood I lived in Brooklyn, and I asked him if I could use the song. I was listening to his music at that time, so that’s how that came about. Aphex Twin, I’m just a huge fan. I feel like I didn’t start listening to Aphex Twin until college. But that song, #3, I’m not even exaggerating, is one of the most beautiful songs that exists, period. I made the rookie filmmaker mistake where you put in temp score and then nothing else works. So I had put that in and was just obsessed with it. I could not replace it. So I wrote him a letter and he said I could use it. 

Regarding the end of the film: I was impressed by how you didn’t choose an empowering ending that might elicit a “good for her” response. It feels like it could be a scary choice. 

I just really saw truth in that ending––it felt very real to me. In my life I have stayed in relationships for longer than I wish I did, as have so many women in particular (and men as well). I identify with that. There’s also the statistic of how many times it takes for someone to leave the person that’s abusing them. It felt more real to me than if she walked away empowered and I tied it up in a neat Hollywood Ending bow. 

It’s a powerful thing for people to see a story like this onscreen. The film deals with things that are taboo, that people may have experienced that they may feel shame or guilt around. For people to be able to see that portrayed on a screen can be really validating for them.

Palm Trees and Power Lines is now on VOD and in theaters.

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