Jamie Dack on Capturing the Currents in “Palm Trees and Power Lines”

When it came to making noise, Jamie Dack was waiting until after “Palm Trees and Power Lines” was picture-locked and ready for audiences to see.

“It was difficult because sound designers like to put in a lot of sound, and I kept being like, ‘No, I want this very quiet,” Dack recalls of achieving the perfect low-level hum to accompany the entrancing story of a young woman looking to thrust herself into adult independence. “And people do often remark on how quiet the film is and how little score there is, and I think it just lends itself to the whole experience of watching this film.”

Set in the San Fernando Valley, it could be said that the writer/director has made her own “All Quiet on the Western Front,” evoking the private battle within the 17-year-old Lea (Lily McInerny), who has taken on enough responsibilities as the daughter of a working single mother (Gretchen Mol) that conversations amongst peers are mostly underwhelming and yet still a year away from emancipation, whether it be college or some other step away from the only life she’s known in the suburbs, puts her in an awkward position. It’s something that Tom (Jonathan Tucker), a charmer she meets at a diner, can clearly smell from a mile away, making an entrance that both endears and raises red flags when he helps Leah and her friend Amber (Quinn Frankel) out of being caught doing a dine-and-dash. When Leah is old enough to be taken notice of, but for things that seem a bit childish, it sets the tone for the relationship that she embarks on with the man twice her age, feeling genuinely dangerous even when it starts to appear that all the free time he has squiring her about town isn’t because he’s the repair and remodeling freelancer he claims to be.

Although the in-person premiere of “Palm Trees and Power Lines” was a casualty of the second wave of COVID that forced Sundance to go virtual in 2022, it nonetheless was the kind of electrifying debut that announces a major new talent and sent shock waves that couldn’t be denied, ultimately picking up the festival’s Directing Award in the U.S. Dramatic Competition. Anyone who saw the short that Dack adapted into the feature of the same name might’ve seen this coming, displaying a remarkable eye for arresting compositions where one can feel the pressure to fill empty spaces when the air often feels so burdensome and a keen ear for dialogue, investing casual conversations with the kind of life or death stakes that one feels when there’s so much life ahead that the unknown still frightens.

Dack may have started out in photography – and so did her debut feature, it turns out when she couldn’t help but notice the palm trees and power lines that somehow found their way into the backdrop of every still she took – but she excites in how consummate a filmmaker she proves to be, gracefully guiding McInerny and Tucker in and out of treacherous emotional territory, with both delivering ferocious performances for her troubles, and drawing on all the senses to make sense of such an uneasy situation. Before the film arrives in theaters and in VOD, she took a moment to talk about how she established a trusting environment where her actors could be comfortable taking risks and why she pushed herself to keep plumbing the depths of dark material to create a knockout drama.

You’ve said that this actually stemmed from a series of pictures you took. How did it coalesce into a narrative idea and evolve into the feature?

Yeah, I’m a photographer as well as a filmmaker and I have been taking 35-millimeter film photographs in Southern California that I feel really captured the suburban malaise that one might feel living in in this sort of neighborhood or location. I also had some ideas for this story about a teenage girl and thought, it’s just the perfect place to set this [when what] she was feeling living in this place is one of the vulnerabilities that she has that allows her to be manipulated by this man that she meets. I had had my own experience where at a certain point in time, I looked back on this experience I had as a young woman – or as a girl, I should say, and realized ways in which I had perhaps been manipulated, so that was one element of it and [then] when I was writing the short, there was more that I wanted to explore that I could only fit so much into a 15-minute short film. [After] the short was seen on the festival circuit and it was a Vimeo staff pic, people were contacting me who had seen it online, specifically women, and were sharing with me stories of experiences they had had that were similar or ways in which they identified, so that was really validating for me and sealed the deal in terms of me wanting to explore this further.

It’s been striking to hear Jonathan and Lily say in other interviews how open and inviting the set was when between the careful compositions and the intense subject matter, those elements would seem to be at odds with one another. How did you pull it off?

Even though I’m a writer/director, I’m not obsessive about the words that are written on the page, but I feel like [Jonathan and Lily] both honored it in many ways. There’s definitely moments in the film where they just brought the characters to life and did things that were amazing and unexpected that made it into the final cut of the film. And I’ve heard them both say that they agree with this, [that] the way the film was shot was an exciting challenge for all of us, specifically around blocking, because I’m mostly using a locked off camera with very composed photographic frames, so they had to know that they could only fit into this frame and they couldn’t move outside of it, or they could and come back in, so it was just something we were all aware of.

As someone who lives in the valley, the color scheme captures the feeling here exactly right. I don’t want to ruin the movie magic too much, but could you come by it naturally or was it something exciting to work on in the color grade?

As I said, this stemmed from photographs I was taking on film, but we did not have the resources to shoot on film, which would have been awesome, so we shot digitally, which has its own benefits. A lot of color comes from the locations you choose, so I was driving around California looking at every donut shop, trying to find one that had a chair in the color I like or the diner with [just the right] turquoise booths. So color really starts with location scouting and production design and costume, but additionally, I worked with Katie Jordan, an amazing colorist at Light Iron and I shared these photographs I had taken with her and we did a film stock emulation and added a little grain to make it look as filmic as possible.

It looked sensational, and there’s a great song “Kentucky Death” that Lea sings in the film to show she’s really starting to open up to Tom, though it’s a pretty troubling tune if you actually listen to the words. Was there a story behind finding that perfect track for that moment? It’s something you carry over from the short to the feature.

Yeah, I love Mike Ireland’s project that he calls Spirit Houses where he recorded a bunch of songs in his apartment and I was listening to those songs at the time that I made the short. It was indie filmmaking where I thought, “who do I know that I can ask permission to use a song that they’re going to let me? I knew Mike [a little] because he owned a bar in Brooklyn in the neighborhood I was living in and I reached out to him and he was just so generous. He said, “Here, use the song,” and I particularly liked that it has such serious lyrics. It’s talking about depression and alcoholism, so to have this teenage girl singing it about such serious things was funny to me and reminded me of myself as a teenager and how kind of serious I was.

It’s generous of yourself to reenter this headspace, which I imagine is pretty dark, for the time you’ve shepherded this film from the series of photographs to the short to the feature. Did it feel like a weight was being lifted as you were finishing it up?

It’s funny. It is obviously really dark and I lived in it for years, trying to get the film made and the years [I spent] writing it and the years shooting it and editing – I’m still living in it now. But I think I’ve developed a way to separate myself emotionally from it in order to survive the experience. It’s being released March 3rd, and we’ve played some festivals and we’ve had some screenings, which have been awesome, but I’m very excited for it to finally be truly out into the world very, very soon.

“Palm Trees and Power Lines” opens on March 3rd in New York at the Village East and in Los Angeles at the Laemmle NoHo 7 and on demand.

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