Palmer: “I know what it feels like to be left alone.”
One of my dearest friends is a top chef, and a few days ago I was surprised to hear that he was making mac and cheese for dinner. “Roger, once in a while we need some well-made comfort food,” he stated. He went on to say that he was nursing a broken heart, and that he tends to listen to what his body and soul needs. A big plate of the equivalent of a warm hug is sometimes needed. He went on to elaborate that he cooks all day very complicated dishes for discerning palates, and that once in a while he likes combining high end ingredients to make something simple.
I’d been hearing about the film “Palmer” (2021) from several friends whose tastes I trust, including my stepson. It was Saturday night, and after a long week of foreign films and other challenging subject matter to which my longtime companion gamely subjected himself, he suggested we watch it. My hesitation was that I knew where the film was going even before I pressed play, but I reminded myself of my first rule of movie-watching: ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover.’ Besides, “Palmer” is directed by Fisher Stevens, who has done some very good documentaries including “Mission Blue” (2014) which opened SBIFF in 2014, and he won the Academy Award for producing “The Cove” (2009). And turns out, I found it quite touching. My better half stayed awake through its entirety (trust me: that says a lot), and he was brought to tears.
Eddie Palmer is a former hometown hero in the fictional town of Sylvain in St. James Parish, in the north shore of Louisiana. His football career ended after just a year of college ball at LSU, and addiction to oxycontin spiraled into a prison sentence. After doing his time, he’s returned home, guarded and clenched jaw – resigned to the fragility of his existence. “You know the conditions of your parole?” he’s asked by his officer. Palmer gets a job at the local school as a janitor cleaning the same halls he once roamed as king. His former friends are polite but keep a distance from him. “Look who it is…Palmer,” one of them exclaims.
He moves back in with the grandmother who raised him, Vivian (the unequaled June Squibb). On her property, there’s a mobile home that she rents out to a troubled drug-addicted single mother, Shelly, and Sam, her seven-year-old child. “If it wasn’t for her little boy, I’d kick her out of her trailer,” says Vivian. Shelly tends to disappear for days on end, and Vivian has become the de facto caretaker.
Sam plays with Barbies. His face is framed with geeky glasses and a barrette is in his hair. He dresses in rainbow clothes and watches his favorite show ‘Penelope the Flying Princess.’ For Halloween he dresses like her. The residents of the town do double takes at his behavior, laugh behind his back and bully him. “There’s something seriously wrong with that kid,” says a neighbor. None of this fazes Sam. He’s comfortable in his skin. Palmer points out to him that there are only female princesses in the cartoon. He asks Sam, “What does that tell you?” “That I can be the first,” he responds.
When grandma dies, Palmer finds himself looking after Sam during evenings, and given his day job, he can also keep a watchful eye over him at school. He has no issues with the young boy’s non-conformity, but he’s concerned about the repercussions. “Listen son, kids are mean,” Palmer tells him, “especially when they see something they ain’t used to seeing.” His care for him is noticed by Miss Maggie, Sam’s teacher. It goes without saying that Sam starts making an impact on Palmer’s somber life, and that Sam’s mother will make a return to reclaim her child. Nevertheless there are lovely moments, and the film has really good intentions. There’s a noteworthy scene where the two ostracized men of this town share a swing on a porch. It’s a familiar southern sight, made particularly poignant by the redefinition of manhood it presents.
Justin Timberlake had done commendable turns in films with auteurs like the Coen Brothers (“Inside Llewyn Davis”) and David Fincher (“The Social Network”). His performance as Palmer is assured, commanding and proves that there is quite a promising career in film ahead of him. Juno Temple is believable as the unraveling mother. She’s not a monster. You actually feel for her. Ryder Allen makes his film debut as Sam, and he’s some kind of wonderful – actually the movie feels the same.
Palmer: “Truth is I haven’t felt I was good at anything until Sam.”
Available to stream on Apple TV*
Written by Cheryl Guerriero
Directed by Fisher Stevens
Starring Justin Timberlake, Juno Temple, Alisha Wainwright, June Squibb and Ryder Allen
Director Fisher Stevens on Bringing “Palmer” to the Screen
“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.” (variety.com)
Director Fisher Stevens on the Look of “Palmer”
“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.” (variety.com)
Director Fisher Stevens on Casting “Palmer”
“Originally, I was going to make it with another actor and it just didn’t work out, it fell apart. And then, when somebody brought up Justin… I had done a few movies with Leonardo DiCaprio too, a few documentaries, and Leo and Justin are represented by the same people and they read the script and they suggested him. I was like, wow, he would be amazing. The fact that also Justin comes from the south (Memphis, Tenn.) like Palmer — and, yeah, once Justin said he’d do it, then yes, the movie immediately got made. But it still was not a big budget. We shot it very quickly, in 25 days. Justin, once he commits to something, man, he was amazing and he just completely dove in as he does. He’s a professional and his work ethic was incredible. This wasn’t the kind of movie with trailers — he was on set all the time, we changed [wardrobe] on set because we had to shoot this thing quickly. But once Justin said yes, we were good. But then we had this other big problem, which was to find the perfect kid.
We got so lucky. I’d personally read about 200 kids, plus watched a bunch of kids on tape, and we narrowed it down to six kids. And to be honest, Ryder was younger than the other kids and I was really worried about his age and his inexperience because he’d never done a movie before. We brought those six into the room with Justin, and as soon as Justin and Ryder read together, it was kind of like fireworks. It was amazing. It was a little bit of a bummer that Ryder was seven because you get less time with a 7-year-old than you would an 8- or 9-year-old, just because of the child labor laws. And we knew making the film on this low-budget, quick schedule that we [wanted to] try to get someone a little older, but once Ryder and Justin connected, that was it. They were it. They were incredible together and they just had that magic, that chemistry. And Ryder is so comfortable with who Ryder is like Sam. Sam is a beautiful soul and Ryder is a beautiful soul, so it just really worked.
The one element that I did want to make kind of stay in my vision was that I wanted it to be like you were watching real life, and because I’d really been spending a lot of time behind the camera making documentaries, I wanted it to have that kind of documentary feel. Casting a huge pop icon like Justin was super challenging because the first thing is, he’s Justin Timberlake and you’re trying to make this real, and I think that we just worked on losing the real Justin and making Palmer a whole different person. But even having Justin’s soul come out, because Justin’s soul and Palmer’s soul, they both are very soulful people. So I then, of course, had to abandon certain notions, which I like to do because I don’t like to tell the actors “you’ve got to do it like this” necessarily, I like to see what they bring. And to be honest, Ryder was not my original vision for Sam, either. I did envision somebody a little older, maybe a little different [look], and once Ryder stepped in those shoes, I realized the movie was talking to me through Ryder — he was it. Casting is important. I didn’t necessarily see Alicia Wainwright originally as Maggie, but as soon as she came in, that was it. It was a good process, the casting process, because I just got really lucky finding the right people. June Squibb, I have to say I was a huge fan of hers from Nebraska. Even though that was set in the Midwest, she was great in the southern accent. But imagine directing in a scene a 90-year-old woman and a 7-year-old boy. It’s not the easiest thing to do.” [Laughs] (ew.com)
About Cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler
Tobias Schliessler grew up in Germany before moving to Canada, where he studied cinematography at Simon Fraser University. He began his career shooting documentaries, before segueing into independent features, television movies, music videos and commercials. Schliessler has shot many notable films including Disney’s “Beauty and theBeast,” “Lone Survivor,” “Dreamgirls,” and Friday Night Light. He has also been honored by the Association of Independent Commercial Producers (AICP) for his cinematography on Audi’s commercial “Wake Up”, and Lincoln’s Financial spot “Doctor.” Both are now part of the permanent archives of The Museum of Modern Art’s Department of Film and Video in New York City. Most recently, Tobias finished shooting “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” directed by George C. Wolfe, and “Palmer” directed by Fisher Stevens. Tobias currently resides in Los Angeles, California.
About Writer Cheryl Guerriero
Cheryl Guerriero was born and raised in New Jersey by two dysfunctional loving parents and an older sister who once threw a pair of scissors at her head. Thankfully, her sister missed. Guerriero, an athlete since birth, went on to college where she became a National Lacrosse Champion. Upon graduating, her mother insisted she get a job at Prudential Life Insurance company and get married. Guerriero promptly moved to New York City and came out as a writer and a lesbian. After Guerriero received her first check for writing, her parents got off her back about getting a real job. In 2006, Guerriero received her first produced screenplay credit with National Lampoon’s “Pledge This!” Guerriero who was voted “funniest” in high school co-wrote the screenplay with another friend who had been voted “most likely to succeed.” Sadly, the movie was neither funny nor successful. As one kind reviewer noted, “Don’t even bother. It makes you stupid” and “My brain tried to strangle me.” Guerriero continued on her way receiving various writing assignments and seeing her next original screenplay, “Hunting Season,” make it from the page to the screen. The second time proved to be a lot better than the first. “Hunting Season,” a mystery thriller, has aired on HBO/Cinemax, Lifetime and numerous TV channels around the globe.
Third time has proved to be the charm with Guerriero’s original screenplay “Palmer.” In 2016 Palmer made it onto the prestigious Hollywood Black List. In 2019, Palmer went into production with Academy Award Winner Fisher Stevens directing and Academy Award Nominee Justin Timberlake staring. Sydney Kimmel Global produced the picture and it will be released in 2021. Guerriero stepped into the publishing world with her debut suspense novel “Girl on Point.” In 2019, Italian film producer Aurelio De Laurentiis snatched up the movie rights and hired Guerriero to adapt. It is currently slated to go into production in 2021. In addition to writing, Cheryl also directed and produced the documentary short “My Best Kept Secret” and was invited onto the Oprah Winfrey Show as a guest to discuss the documentary. It was one of the season’s highest rated segments. Most recently, Guerriero has been hired by Like Minded Entertainment and Scott Free Productions to adapt the based-on-true-story of Jascon-4, with Mark Kassen directing. Guerriero lives in Los Angeles and when she isn’t writing she can be found playing poker or feeding her gullet. (heroesandvillains-ent.com)
About Director Fisher Stevens
With over 30 years in the entertainment business, Fisher’s career has included an impressive range of diverse projects. As an actor, Stevens has appeared in over 40 Broadway and Off- Broadway shows, including the Tony award-winning production of “Torch Song” Trilogy and “Brighton Beach Memoirs.” Some of his many film credits include “Short Circuit 1” & 2, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and the upcoming “F2014.” On television, Stevens was a series regular on “Key West” and “Early Edition,” with additional roles on “Lost” and “Damages,” among others. Stevens co-founded the downtown NY theater company Naked Angels as well as GreeneStreet Films, where he made his film directorial debut (“Just a Kiss”) and produced over 15 films including the Academy Award-nominated In The Bedroom and the acclaimed documentary “Once In A Lifetime.” He went on to produce “Crazy Love” and two documentaries for Louie Psihoyos: Academy Award®-winning documentary “The Cove” and more recently “Racing Extinction.” In 2010, Stevens co-founded Insurgent Media, which has since completed multiple films, including “Mission Blue” about Oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle. Stevens made his Broadway directorial debut with John Leguizamo’s “Ghetto Klown,” which he then directed for broadcast. He also directed the feature film “Stand Up Guys” and music videos for Jon Bon Jovi. With a passion for utilizing the entertainment medium for social activism, Stevens directed “Working the Darkside” – a multimedia presentation featuring Rachel Maddow, which opened a dialogue on torture and war crimes. He also directed a “United Nations Day Concert: A Tribute to Peacekeeping” and the powerful film “The War Against War,” which takes an in-depth look at the U.N.’s peacekeeping missions around the globe. (urtleconservancy.org)