It wasn’t uncommon before scenes were filmed for “The Tribes of Palos Verdes” for actors to pace around the set like boxers, shaking out their arms with their adrenaline left nowhere else to go as if they were spoiling for for a fight. Brendan Malloy, who co-directed the film with his brother Emmett, even remembers at one point feeling more like a cornerman than a helmer, particularly when tending to one of the film’s young leads, Cody Fern, who feels as if he bears the weight of his entire family on his shoulders as their prodigal son Jim.
“This was a big role for him,“ Malloy recalls. “He was somebody that we found through old school casting, just somebody who came across really well and we kept challenging him with bigger parts in the movie and eventually felt really confident that he could play Jim. I remember so many times sitting in a dark room with him, kneeling down speaking to him, like somebody before a big event, like a freaking Gladiator and and he’d be in buckets of ice just trying to get himself numb to play this role. It was very intense. We were hoping it would get there, but that’s not something you could ever assume will happen.”
Yet the Malloys were ready for it, as was everyone else involved in the adaptation of Joy Nicholson’s fierce study of a young woman named Medina (Maika Monroe) who finds calm in learning to surf at the nearby beach while turbulence roils back home, given the time it took to bring it to the big screen. Fitting for the story of the Mason clan, who are lured to California from Michigan when its patriarch (Justin Kirk) believes the warm weather might prove rejuvenating, particularly for his wife Sandy (Jennifer Garner) who is growing distant and mentally fragile, many were drawn over the years to an elegant screenplay from Karen Croner (“One True Thing”) that was long held in high regard, only to be possibly scared off by the sharp edges that lurked inside of it, full of juicy parts to attract top talent but arriving at a time when such dramas had fallen out of favor at studios exclusively looking for blockbusters. After languishing in development for some time, Croner bought the rights back to her script after initially being hired to write it, spearheading an effort to get it made independently.
She wasn’t the only one with something to prove, however, as “The Tribes of Palos Verdes” also marks a long awaited second feature from the Malloys, whose gift for capturing extreme sports led to an opportunity to direct the 2001 ski comedy “Out Cold” that wasn’t the ideal showcase for the emotional richness of their nonfiction work. After becoming prolific directors in the ad world as well as music documentaries (the sensational in any sense “Big Easy Express” and “White Stripes Under Great White Northern Lights”), the brothers’ return boasts the spiritual fusion they often make with those who appear before their lens, joining the Masons and specifically Medina as they trudge through continually treacherous territory in the struggle to understand one another, but in allowing an audience to meet them on their own terms, gives them the dignity of being understood by someone.
Shortly before “The Tribes of Palos Verdes” hits theaters, Croner and the Malloys were in Los Angeles to talk about getting on the same wavelength as complicated characters and realizing what they could do with such a strong cast, as well as making a movie that was worth the wait.
How did this film come about?
Karen Croner: It’s a very personal story to me, so I had a mission that I wanted to make a movie with this message – I can’t talk about what the message is because that would ruin the ending of the movie, but it was a movie that almost got made every year and then fell apart. Then finally [producer] Robbie Brenner came on – she can get anything done – and she got it made, with these guys. So it was worth waiting for.
Brendan Malloy: All things considered, we came on pretty late in the process. Originally, we had some conversations with Robbie and Karen about the script and the project and it was something that we were very passionate about. We had been aware of [the project] for years and had read the book and [since] we grew up in Southern California and were pretty involved in the surf culture, we knew it that way, but once we got onboard, all the conversations were really about the characters and the dynamics of this family. Obviously [surfing] was a big part of it and a big outlet for the young girl in the film, but [our attraction] was really more about understanding the characters because we wanted to make a great family drama.
Even though this is told from Medina’s point of view, the film does a really great job showing the perspectives of the entire family, creating private spaces to observe them. Was that difficult to achieve?
Karen Croner: The biggest challenge was externalizing Medina’s internal point of view, but I think that was done in the movie very cinematically. It was really a personal project – there’s scenes from my life in it, so to see it come to life was completely satisfying. And the script was very traditionally dramatic, but then to watch these guys bring this kind of lyrical, impressionistic and poetic cinematography to it and see it elevated in such a beautiful way, so that was a big success I think in adapting the book and getting into her head.
Emmett Malloy: With the amount of time that Karen had with the material, eventually, you need to hand it off and we need to make it something where we embody all the beauty of the story she adapted and the personality of the characters. But we needed to make it ours too and a big thing for us was how are we going to make this process work for the actors? How are we going to know all the answers when they ask us what is my character – Jennifer as Sandy – what is she up to now? We wanted to have all those answers. We felt we would get the visual side real well – we knew we’d get the surfing as good as anybody and it wouldn’t bog us down, but for us it was about getting into these characters and the development of the story.
I did want to ask about Sandy, who seems like such a fragile character. Was that a real tightrope to walk in terms of developing her?
Karen Croner: It was interesting because there were changes made from the book, but what Jennifer [Garner] did was astonishing. She made Sandy her own and she really went in in a way that explored her depths in a different way than had been explored in the book. Her performance was beautiful, to the point that sometimes she would improvise and her improvisations were so good, she would do the scene, but she would improvise [after where it would feel like an extension of the character] and that’s like every screenwriter’s dream. So she was able to help create a specific kind of different arc for Sandy that was very true.
Was that interesting for you to work with actors in that way?
Emmett Malloy: It was very invigorating for us to see that talent on display, especially Jennifer, who not only nailed the version of Sandy you see in the film, but nailed a couple other versions in every other scene that gave us a real nice variety [in the editing room] because when you shoot a movie this fast, I wish we had the chance to sit there and really develop every scene, but we had to shoot six of these heavy scenes a day throughout the course of 20 days and we shot a lot of the heavier moments in the first 10 days or so, so we were kind of able to take a breath and enjoy a different part of the process [later]. But it got real intense [initially] and you’re suddenly in the scene and you’re thinking, “Wow, this is the most important scene I can think of in the movie” and we had to shoot it in one hour.
Then Jennifer has to change from this version of Sandy to a version much deeper in the story and the most impressive thing about the level of talent that we were working with is that nobody lost track of who they were and how they were to be acting [in that moment]. That range was fascinating for us to work with, and it took us a minute to catch up with that because you get just bogged down because in this pace. By lunch of the first day, every idea you had, you’re like, “Out the window.” We just need to hustle and get these scenes and you gain momentum, but that was new terrain for us. We just wanted the process to feel like one of our [nonfiction] movies, for there to always be a realism. Maybe the quality that shines most in the work that we do is that everybody feels like we didn’t use any tricks and everything felt very honest.
Brendan Malloy: Yeah, in shooting some documentaries, we got to witness some really heavy things that were real. We were just there observing it and we would always pull back on a long lens and had a very observational approach, so we took that into a lot of the dramatic scenes here, where we were on a long lens, pull back and just let the actors act, let them go where they want to go in a scene and let them have the full space to move around. In a drama, you want things to be real – the actors want their performance to be real -and that’s hard. It’s easy to go to a big space and to scream and yell – that’s the first instinct. But to be able to pull things back and to feel the emotions of the moment, that’s a thing that we all had to discuss and look out for. Coming from a documentary space, I think we were able to step back when scenes were happening and really watch them and ask ourselves, “Is this feeling real?” And the actors would be able to come to us and have that open discussion, which is hard to do. You have to be open with each other – and they want you to be – and that helped us get to a good place.
As Karen alludes to, you’re also able to express so much through the camera – there is the occasional lens swap or squint that feels like an extension of Medina’s gaze. How did you figure that out?
Brendan Malloy: We really tried to shoot a lot of the scenes in the film from Maika’s perspective, essentially being the voice of the film and seeing what she’s seeing and not only with her mom, but her brother struggling as much as he is and how hard that is to see a sibling struggling.
Emmett Malloy: [Showing that perspective] was our upbringing. We had a big bag of tricks that we had honed over the years in the world of music videos, surf films and documentaries and onwards to commercials, and we worked with our best friend and DP Giles Dunning, who we had over ten years of history with and had tried just about everything. The visual side was something we were excited to find, but we never wanted it to be distracting. We wanted to take the process of how we shoot documentaries and have an environment to really let moments happen. But you had to somehow cinematically get across drugs and [certain] emotions, and there were just some things that felt right in the moment that we leaned on and they ended up being another layer of the movie.
Brendan and I saw clearly on the first day that we had a real superstar in Maika [as Medina] and that if you just filmed a closeup of her, it had so much to it. We saw quickly that that was our avenue in which we could find our way through this pace in this film [because] our camera could always go to her and we knew that that could be an expressive part of that scene. That just became the anchor for us and you know, she’s just an insanely amazing talent that will just keep doing better and better things.
What I’m proud of most in this movie is the intensity that we were able to capture in the story and the performances, but I also love that the surfing and some of these visual things and the music give it an uplifting spirit because at the end, this is a story about a girl who made it to the other side. And we knew this was a heavy story, but we wanted to make sure that there were a lot of uplifting and enjoyable things to watch in this film to make the experience not one note.
Karen, did you get to be on set for this?
Karen Croner: I was there every day [since] I was a producer on the movie as well. At times, there were rewrites and the production was a bullet train, but it was a complete pleasure because I could go out on this amazing deck and do whatever rewrites were necessary, looking out on the ocean with surfers, so it couldn’t have been a better experience.
The relationship between the siblings is one of the most beautiful things in the film – was that part of the attraction, knowing how intense your own relationship must be in working together?
Brendan Malloy: Yeah, it’s a lot. It’s probably something that we do, like if something goes bad for [Emmett] or if anything is going on with any of our siblings, it really affects me and vice versa, so we knew that that was a powerful connection, [particularly with] twins who share the womb together.
Emmett Malloy: Yeah, and before the movie everybody gave us tips [on how to direct a narrative feature] like, “Be unified. Have one of you speak to the actors while the other is [handling another responsibility]…” And we were open to honoring that, but we’re a little different. We kind of go back and forth, and whoever’s got the hot hand, we let them go, but on this movie, we found that there’s a mom and a dad on very opposite ends of the spectrum and you’ve got a brother and sister on very different paths, so when these scenes would go down and there’s a break, [we’d say to each other], “Okay, one of us needs to go to speak to this [actor] and the other the other, because you can’t give them comparable notes.” It really was helpful that I could go to Justin Kirk and Brendan could go to Jennifer [Garner] and even switch it for the next scene because it was like, “Who can help me here? Which Malloy?” It ended up becoming a real great advantage for there to be two of us, considering there was such opposition in every scene, and one of us would [always] feel competent. We knew where we were at and we would just alternate and find our way. It was part of the whole family experience that made the vibe special for all of us making the movie.