Actor and director Fisher Stevens was shocked when Donald Trump won the 2016 election, but he wanted to learn more about America since he felt he was living in a “bubble.”
When the script for “Palmer,” now streaming on Apple TV Plus, landed on his desk, he knew that was the way to learn more. And so he set out on his feature debut adventure. Prior to filming, Stevens who built a career in documentary filmmaking also landed a small role in HBO’s “Succession.” and it was that experience that influenced his on-set environment.
“Palmer” stars Justin Timberlake as a former college football star who returns home after 12 years in prison. June Squibb plays his grandmother who allows Shelley (Juno Temple) to keep her mobile home on her property and often babysits Shelley’s son Sam (played by newcomer Ryder Allen). Sam is a kind and sweet boy who prefers to play with dolls and likes to dress as a fairy. Sam’s refusal to conform to gender norms doesn’t go over well in their small town, and Palmer soon finds himself the unlikely caretaker of the child, and the two form an unlikely friendship.
Below, Stevens talks about casting Justin Timberlake, exploring America and discovering Ryder Allen.
What was this experience like for you going from doc work to feature?
These actors trusted me and they were so committed. I’ve been in the business so long, but when you have a group who come together and are so committed to making something excellent, it’s the greatest feeling.
I had a very small part on “Succession,” [and will be back next season] but it reminded me of an old theatrical troupe. It doesn’t matter if you have one line or 10, the actors are so giving, it’s like you’re in an ensemble. There was something about the way that “Succession” worked that I brought into “Palmer” that reminded me of my old days at Naked Angels Theatre Company that I wanted to take from “Succession” into “Palmer.”
This story began as a script on The Black List, so how did it land on your desk?
I had finished a couple of documentaries, and I wanted to get an agent for my directing because I didn’t have one. Luke Rogers at CAA said he wanted to get a sense of my taste and sent me “Palmer.”
He asked if it was my taste, and not only was it my taste, it was a movie I knew I wanted to make. I fought to get it going – and this was in 2016, so it took a while.
I thought Sam was so much like my nephew Max, and like so many other kids I knew. Palmer was another character I loved. He was out to get a second chance after he fucked up when he was young. He made mistakes and got addicted to pills. Here he is 12 years later, and coming back to the town where he was the “it” boy. It was such a fascinating story about these two misfits who save one another.
How else did that story and those characters seem relatable to you since you mentioned Ryder’s character reminded you of your own nephew?
Trump had been elected president. I thought he was never going to be elected, and when he did. I thought I need to get in touch with my own country because obviously, I’m living in a bubble.’ I read that script and this is another part of America that I don’t get to go to.
Eddie is a person, a character that I can relate to, but I want to get to know him better. I was just interested in exploring who this guy was, and who his friends were in this world. As a documentarian, I wanted to take that, and put that into a feature film and create a fictional world, but make it as authentic and real as possible.
I really got to know the people down there. I did a lot of documentary-style interviews to create that town and learn about this part of America and these people.
I loved that documentary-style look of the film, how did you achieve that?
I couldn’t shoot on film because we couldn’t afford it, but I wanted that film feeling. I got Tobias A. Schliessler to shoot the film for me. He told me he had lighting packages bigger than the film budget.
He came to Louisiana with me and we decided to shoot on the Sony Venice camera but we used these old K35 lenses. It’s the same lens that Ridley Scott used for “Blade Runner” in the ‘70s.
With the production design, Happy Massee focused on redoing some of the houses and dressing them. He distressed the walls and make them look very deliberate. We had a very neutral palette – there are no bright colors – except for when Sam is dressed as a princess, and that was very deliberate. You were focused on the faces and the actors.
Your casting is incredible, and Ryder is such a great actor. That dynamic he had with Justin is priceless — what was your casting process like?
The key to the movie is Sam, if we didn’t have the right Sam, we would have been completely screwed. That was also a concern of Justin’s.
I went into prep in 2018 and had another possible actor to do “Palmer” although it wasn’t set in stone, and I had found a boy to play Sam, but that fell through.
I was shooting this movie with Leonardo DiCaprio, producing a documentary. I asked his manager to read the script and they read it. They suggested Justin Timberlake because they represented him too. I hadn’t even thought of Justin, but I loved his acting in “The Social Network.” He read the script and said we had to get the right Sam.
He said, ‘I’m going to give you two full days of casting, let’s just read with Sam.’ I brought in five, but I wanted a sixth. I threw Ryder in at the last minute, and the connection was undeniable. He brought so much depth to the role.