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Palmer director on the ‘fireworks’ between Justin Timberlake and his young costar

Eddie Palmer is ready for a new start. Fresh out of prison, the former high-school football star will have to do so while living with his grandma in small-town Louisiana. It’s not the worst of circumstances, except that she’s also watching over the 7-year-old boy who lives in a small trailer on her property with his mom. His drug addict mom, who just skipped out of town on her latest bender.

Given that description of Palmer, debuting Jan. 29 on Apple TV+, it might be a bit odd to hear the making of the movie described as a “magical, magical experience”, but that’s how Fisher Stevens sums it up. The actor — perhaps best known for Hackers and Short Circuit — and documentarian, who won an Oscar in 2010 for the doc The Cove, made the most of a 25-day shoot and small budget, assembling a cast including Justin Timberlake in the title role, Oscar nominee June Squibb as his grandma, and Juno Temple as that troubled mother who abandons her son.

And then, there’s that boy, who Stevens calls the “soul of the film”, which was written by Cheryl Guerriero (her script earned a spot on The Black List, an annual survey of the hottest un-produced screenplays, in 2016). Played by Ryder Allen in his first feature role — and a fairly big one at that — Sam likes everything that boys aren’t expected or supposed to: his favorite show is Penelope the Princess (and he dresses as her for Halloween), he plays with Barbie dolls, he likes pink. But gender norms be damned, as Sam stays true to who he is, and in the process, challenges Palmer to accept his own faults and be better in spite of them.

EW spoke with Stevens about finding his leading man in Timberlake, his long search to find the right Sam, and much more.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I’m curious about the backstory of this film — was it something that had been around for a while, or one that came together quickly?FISHER STEVENS: Somebody sent me the script [to ask], “Do you like this kind of material”. I’m like, not only do I like this material, I like this script — I want to do it. And they’re like, well there’s somebody attached. I pitched my take on it — I just related to the script. Sam reminded me of my nephew a great deal, and one of my best friend’s kids, and I just felt like this character of Palmer was someone that I wanted to dig deep into, someone who comes from a different world than the boy, and these are two of the most unlikely people to come together. Kind of like what we’re seeing in America today of this polarization, I just thought this film really represented America coming together — two unlikely people coming together. So I got very excited about it, and it was very difficult to make, to get made, to raise the money, to cast. From the time I read it to filming till now was probably a three-and-a-half-year period.

Does that mean Justin Timberlake was not originally attached and then getting him helped with the financing side?For sure. 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.

Which was going to be my next question because that role — you found quite a gem in Ryder. Tell me about that part of casting.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.

You mentioned that you had your vision for the movie and perhaps had some preconceived notions about how this might go, but did that change at all once you had Justin and Ryder?For sure. 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]

There’s something really beautiful about those scenes between them because you see how accepting she is of Sam, how protective she is, and Palmer got how she treated him. So I’m wondering how much of an influence you think she had on Palmer and, in turn, the way he then cares for Sam?Yeah, that’s a good question. She was a very good influence on this guy, on Palmer. Palmer comes from a broken home, lost his mother when he was young, just like Sam ultimately does. Palmer’s soul, a lot of his integrity and a lot of his goodness, comes from his grandmother, even though she’s tough as nails. And actually, in the script, she was even tougher, but June brought more of a humanity to the role and more of a warmth than was on the page originally. What was interesting is that June — and she has a child that I think is older than me — I think Ryder really, really tickled her, and you can see that really happening on the screen.

Sam, like you said, very much knows who he is. He loves Penelope the Princess and plays with Barbie dolls, paints his fingernails — he enjoys these things that we’ve all established throughout our lives are for girls, not boys. But he doesn’t care, nor should he. So what was your approach in handling that aspect of his story and those scenes?Sam is just a boy. He’s just a boy who is who he is. The one positive thing about his mom, who is a disaster as a mom in so many ways, is that she allowed Sam to be who he was and she encouraged him to just be who he is, and she gave him this self-esteem and this kind of comfort. Sam is kind of the wisest of all. I think it makes Palmer feel like, you know what, I’m okay too. It gives Palmer his own strengths. And that’s what I loved about this movie, that Sam is kind of the soul of the film. He’s just very comfortable with his gender, doing whatever. I didn’t want the film to comment on that, I just wanted him to be who he really was. And that’s why we got so lucky casting Ryder because he just is who he is. Gender identity is a complicated issue, but Sam is just very comfortable with expressing himself.

Sam’s mom Shelly is, like you said, a disaster in so many ways. And when Juno Temple popped up on screen that first time — I think she makes any movie she is in 100 times better. What do you think she brought to the character that wasn’t even on the page?She’s the kind of actress where you go, “Man, I wish I had more for her. I wish she was in this more”, because she’s so good and she’s so committed. She really studied addicts and would look for people on location who were struggling. The other thing that she does, which is a dream for a director, is she’ll give you variations, constantly. I like to try to do this when I act, but she’s other level. You can do the scene going 100 miles an hour, 50 miles an hour, 25 miles an hour. You can do the scene 100 percent emotional, 50 percent emotional, 25 percent emotional. The edit was very difficult because there were so many good, different variations. And I liked watching her, so we would do a lot of takes. It was really exciting to work with her. And she’s British, and you’d never know it. We found her a vocal coach and she worked hard on the accent. She worked hard on the look — really, really specific on the tattoos, on every single element. She totally elevated the film. And, again, credit to Justin, totally Justin’s idea. I don’t think Justin had been in a movie, other than Trolls, but as an actor for like five or six years, and the last movie he did was Wonder Wheel with Juno. So he and [Rick Yorn], one of his managers, it was their idea for Juno to do this part.

In the scene where Palmer is arrested — it’s just gut-wrenching and so impactful watching Sam chase that police car. You had rehearsals, of course, and planned that out because of that camera shot and placement, but how did that scene fully come together in the way it did?We made the film very fast, and that night scene — I want to just say that I had a brilliant cinematographer who helped me tremendously named Tobias Schliessler who does a lot of the Pete Berg movies, he just did Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom — and that scene was planned. I had seen Joker, and there’s the shot where Joaquin Phoenix is in the back seat of the police car and he’s being taken away just sitting there looking out the window at Times Square and all that madness going on. And that kind of inspired me to put the camera there on Justin, except put it there where Sam is running and you get the wide-angle to see Sam and Justin at the same time. Now, the big problem was, you have a 7-year-old and you have a night shot, and your 7-year-old is having to chase a car, which is really scary, at night. So we rehearsed in the daytime, just to make sure Ryder was cool with it — not at full emotion or anything. He felt comfortable enough, but then, sure enough, it was still scary for me at night to see this boy chasing the car. He had an acting coach named Lori Lively who got him revved up. She was very helpful and we had to go right at that moment ’cause he’s all emotional, revved up. So he’s not only chasing the car but he’s also crying, and he really did and he got so emotional. It was incredible. All the hairs on our arms stood up and we just had something magical at that moment — everybody nailed it. I asked Ryder if we could try it one more time. And he’s like, [casually] “Okay”. [Laughs] We just did two takes. I would have loved to have done more but it worked out and we got it.

Palmer debuts Jan. 29 on Apple TV+.

Entertainment Weekly

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