On the sun-kissed coast of Cambodia, four young Australians party, explore and kick back and relax, soaking up the sun during the day, and sweating it out at night. But this idyllic backdrop holds something far more sinister in store and when only three of the four return home, so begins a mystery crossing national borders, and poised to fundamentally change the lives of everyone involved. So begins “Wish You Were Here,” a lean thriller from director Kieran-Darcy Smith, from a script he co-wrote with one of the film’s stars (and his wife), Felicity Price, in a picture that features two of Australia’s hottest exports at the moment, Joel Edgerton and Teresa Palmer.
And it’s the actress we caught up with on the phone last week to talk about the movie, made under the Blue Tongue Films banner, a production house of like-minded collaborators that has put its stamp on movies like “Animal Kingdom,” “The Square” and “Hesher.” And while we did touch upon her work on Terrence Malick‘s “Knight Of Cups” (read out that here) as well as some of her upcoming projects (which we’ll get to), the thriller was at the center of attention, and what caught Palmer’s eye in the first place, was just the chance to work with the Blue Tongue clan.
“I read the script and I immediately signed on because I loved the story, I loved the idea of shooting back in Australia again, playing this complex character, and just being involved in this film. I loved the Blue Tongue guys, I think they’ve produced some great quality movies, and I wanted to be a part of one of them,” she explained.
“It was very important for all of us to make sure that Steph isn’t the antagonist; she isn’t the villain in this film,” Palmer said. “She makes some really bad choices and she can be very irresponsible. We just wanted her to come across as a flawed human being; she really does mean well, she’s just lost and really navigating through what it’s like to be a 25-year-old woman. I think that if there was a second movie she’d be a very different person because [of] the experiences and it’s a fine line because she makes some awful mistakes, but then we also have to feel for her, too, so it was important to get that vulnerability right.”
And indeed, Darcy-Smith’s direction and precise script (“It’s actually a rarity to stick very close to the script, but this script was so good; it was already completely there on the page.”) adds textures to the somewhat, mercurial Steph (at least at first) in a movie that contains a very controlled tone. But this isn’t a bloodless movie by any stretch. Understandably, the drama that unfolds in Australian following the disappearance is a bit more raw, but the Cambodia flashback sequences — shot on location — spark and breathe with life and freedom, capturing what was a very loose run-and-gun approach.
“It was amazing,” Palmer shared about those scenes. “In the script it was [described as] loose montages in Cambodia, so we winged it when we were there. We got the camera and we were like tourists; we went into the markets, we looked around, and they just filmed us interacting with the locals. It was a really wonderful experience…They had loose ideas of where we were going to film, but we had no control over crowds. We didn’t have any extras, it was very much guerrilla style shooting, dealing with shots and walking through markets and really capturing our faces as we were holding on to these big spiders crawling over our bodies. We watched a snake get gutted and all these interesting things and they’re a part of the Cambodian culture. We got to experience that as they were filming the movie, so it’s very authentic.”
But, ultimately, it was the entire production — which shot a tight 26 day schedule — that inspired Palmer, who after starring in several bigger Hollywood films, found herself going back to the roots of the kind of movies she made at the beginning of her career. “It was very refreshing to me because I first started out doing movies in this way, and I loved making tiny, independent films and feeling like a collaborator and that’s what I could feel in this movie,” Palmer shared. “I felt a part of this family, and that I was making this film just as much as Kieran Darcy-Smith was and so it just feels very different. I felt like I had more of a say in my costumes that I wore; I had a say in my hair and makeup, and it was fantastic. It was really liberating as an actor to be able to have so much say in who you’re playing.”