‘Palm Trees and Power Lines’ Writer–Director Jamie Dack on Trusting Your Casting Choices

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Photo Source: Eric Ray Davidson

The following essay was written by Jamie Dack, who won the U.S. dramatic directing award at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival for her debut feature, “Palm Trees and Power Lines.” The film is now up for four Film Independent Spirit Awards: best first feature, first screenplay (which Dack shares with Audrey Findlay), supporting performance for Jonathan Tucker, and breakthrough performance for Lily McInerny.

I remember in my first semester of film school, a professor told us that casting was half of a director’s job. I can’t say whether it’s half or what percentage it is, but I can say that it’s hugely important; casting can make or break your film. 

In making “Palm Trees and Power Lines,” I learned to trust my gut, my instincts, and my taste in so many areas, but especially in my casting choices. I wanted to see these actors onscreen. I wanted to photograph them, observe them, work through a scene with them, and spend time with them. I wanted them, specifically, to bring the characters I’d written to life. 

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I’ll start with Lily. I was in love with her face, mannerisms, way of speaking, wide-eyed beauty, and youthfulness, but also her dedication. Lily had never been in a film before, yet I trusted her when she said she wasn’t afraid to make this thing with me. And in the end, she meant it. Lily memorized the script so well that I half-jokingly confiscated it from her shortly before shooting. I wanted us to remain fresh and unexpected. But the point is, Lily knew that screenplay like the back of her hand and honored and respected the words I’d written on the page with all of her being. She didn’t hold back and gave one of the most powerful performances I’ve ever seen—and as Jonathan always says, we got a front row seat for the whole thing. The proximity was breathtaking, and I am forever grateful to Lily for this. 

I am forever grateful to Jonathan, as well. What Lily and I often say about his performance is that in some ways, it was harder than what she had to do. It’s not a competition, but Jonathan had to be brave in his own ways. Audiences may not think about this when they watch the film. Lily’s obstacles as an actor are obvious, but we can’t forget about what Jonathan did. I know it was a challenge at times, but he navigated it with such grace and professionalism that he put everyone at ease—me and Lily most of all. 

This is all part of why I’m honored and unbelievably proud that both Lily and Jonathan have been nominated for Independent Spirit Awards for their performances in the film. While I learned more from making this movie than I’ll ever be able to accurately or fully articulate, I’m writing this now to emphasize the importance of casting—and of trusting your taste and inner knowing when it comes to choosing your actors.

This story originally appeared in the Mar. 2 issue of Backstage Magazine.