First-time feature filmmaker Jamie Dack is about to have a very big weekend. First up: Her “Palm Trees and Power Lines” hits theaters and VOD on Friday. By Saturday, the filmmaker and her cast and crew will reunite to celebrate four Indie Spirit nominations — including Best First Feature, Best First Screenplay, Best Breakthrough Performance (for star Lily McInerny), and Best Supporting Performance (for star Jonathan Tucker) — during the annual beachside awards ceremony.
It was worth the wait.
Inspired by her short film of the same name, Dack’s film premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival (which went virtual after the plan to return to in-person festivities had to be scrapped at the last minute), where it competed for the top prize in the U.S. Dramatic Competition and Dack won the directing prize in the category.
But despite that Sundance win, strong critical buzz, and a robust continuing festival run, Dack’s film didn’t get picked up for distribution until months after its debut. The emotionally nuanced film, which follows teenager Lea (McInerny) as she gets tangled up in a complicated relationship with the much older Tom (Tucker), might have scared some people — potential distributors, for one — but Dack never lost faith.
“It was super challenging, and the film deals with themes that I think some people were afraid of, unfortunately,” Dack said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “But I wanted to explore more. You can only fit so much into a short, and so it was about giving it more room to breathe and really exploring the grooming that happens over the course of this feature.”
Dack’s original short was made in 2018 and debuted as a Cinéfondation selection at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. And while Dack’s short was made just as the #MeToo movement was gaining momentum and recognition, the filmmaker said the responses from her audiences have been pretty consistent. Mostly, it’s been about recognition.
“I feel like what was happening with people’s responses to the short was similar to then what happened with the feature, just in the sense of people seeing either project and then sharing with me the ways in which they identified or had experienced something similar,” Dack said.
That includes Dack herself, who based the film partially on her own teenage experiences.
“I was working on this before #MeToo, and then #MeToo happened, and I started to really look back on this relationship I had in a different way. This thing was happening in the world, and it totally affected me,” she said. “I had this relationship with someone older than me, and when it was happening, I thought that it was totally normal and I was in control of it. ‘I’m mature for my age, and that’s why it’s happening.’ But then around #MeToo, something shifted in my brain, and I started to look back on it and question some of it.”
When it came time to cast the film, Dack faced other challenges, particularly when it came to picking her male lead.
Dack admitted that she expected casting the role of Tom would “not be hard at all” — there are plenty of great actors in their 30s looking for a juicy role, right? — but was surprised how difficult it was to find an actor willing to take on such a tough role. “When I started looking for what it was that I saw in this character and someone who was able and willing to do it, it actually was quite challenging,” Dack said.
Casting director Kate Antonini eventually suggested Tucker, which sparked something for Dack, who had admired his work on the MMA family drama series “Kingdom.” “He’s just such a brave actor, and he’s not afraid to go to certain places,” she said. “We met and had a personal connection, and he just really felt like the perfect person for the role.”
But what about Lea? “I really wanted to discover someone new,” Dack said. “I wanted people to get lost in this person’s performance and feel like they were watching a real teenage girl and not some actor they recognized playing a teenage girl.” Antonini also found McInerny, who had never acted in a feature before, and Dack was struck by her audition tape, which she couldn’t shake, even after seeing a slew of other tapes from other potential stars.
The first time she put her stars together was — of course! — over Zoom. “Lily and I were living in New York at the time, and Jonathan was in L.A., so we met over Zoom,” Dack said. The key to building a bond was “really doing things like that, group FaceTimes, then Lily and I got out to L.A., [and we were] hanging out in person, going to dinner, just really getting comfortable. But I feel like they hit it off right away.”
That connection is key to the film, which offers an honest and often upsetting look at the relationship that develops between Lea and Tom, which ends on an unexpected note. Dack read a number of books written by trafficking survivors, and — while she doesn’t want to spoil the film’s ending, an understandable choice given its incredible power and impact — said that it was inspired by one particular survivor’s story. “What I feel about the ending is just that it’s real,” Dack said. “People are like, ‘Why would she do that?,’ and I am like, ‘Because so many people do that, because I have stayed in a relationship longer than I wish I would have.'”
Even after winning the directing award at Sundance and going on to play at a wide range of other lauded fests, including London, Deuville, and Melbourne, “Palm Trees and Power Lines” didn’t lock distribution until the fall of 2022, more than nine months after its premiere. Dack is tactful when discussing that seemingly tough stretch of time.
“I think that Sundance being virtual definitely affected my film getting distribution, as well as other people’s films getting distribution. It just made everything take a little bit longer than I believe it would have if things had been in person,” Dack said. “This film deals with certain themes that a lot of people were, unfortunately, afraid of. We got a lot of feedback in the distribution stage where people would just be like, ‘We loved this film. We want to work with you on your next project, but we can’t distribute this.’ … It was challenging, but we did get multiple offers in the end, and the film’s coming out, and it’s very exciting.”
It doesn’t hurt that, just weeks after the film’s distribution deal with Momentum Pictures was announced, the film also earned its four Indie Spirit nods. The film will debut in theaters and on VOD March 3 — the next day, the team will be on hand to celebrate the Spirits together.
“If I’m being honest, it was something that I really, really, really wanted so badly, but you just don’t know, you have no idea,” Dack said of the nominations. “You’re like, ‘Maybe these people have never even heard of my film.’ It’s not like a festival where you get in and they tell you a month before and then they announce it. They literally don’t tell you. So I woke up at, I think it was like 7 a.m., and I just didn’t know if I was going to have the best day of my life or be super depressed.”
Dack got her answer pretty quickly. “Right out of the gate, the first nomination, I think, was Best First Screenplay, and they said the name of my film, and I almost couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” she said. And the hits kept coming, including those noms for her stars. “As a director, I’m so honored and excited that Lily and Jonathan are nominated for their performances,” she said. “That means more to me than the other nominations in some ways.”
With the film bought and lauded, Dack is prepping for the next step in her career. While she said she had “a ton” of meetings after Sundance, the Spirit noms brought in even more, and those meetings are already bearing fruit. Dack is currently writing two features and looking to move into directing for television, another big dream. Of the features, one is a 1947 Italian novella Dack is adapting, while the other is another original idea, one she said is “personal and therapeutic” for her.
Sounds a bit like “Palm Trees and Power Lines.” Dack agrees and seems committed to being as open and honest as possible when translating some of her own experiences to the screen.
“I have to decide in each moment what I’m comfortable sharing, although generally, I try to be as vulnerable as possible when I’m talking about things,” she said. “But with the writing, everything I am feeling goes into it. It is really therapeutic for me, whatever I’m experiencing, to be able to put it somewhere. I feel like that’s a big reason why I’m even a filmmaker in the first place, because it’s this thing I kind of have to do. “
Momentum Pictures will release “Palm Trees and Power Lines” in theaters and on VOD on Friday, March 3.