IFC Films’ The Tribes of Palos Verdes, starring Jennifer Garner, Maika Monroe, Cody Fern, Justin Kirk, and Alicia Silverstone, will make its world premiere at the 2017 Hamptons International Film Festival.
We recently caught up with Emmett Malloy, who directed the film with his brother Brendan Malloy, about the challenges of adapting a book into a feature film, the film’s cast, the facade of a seemingly perfect neighborhood, and more.
The film is based on the best-selling novel by Joy Nicholson. Had you read the book before signing on to the project?
EM: Yeah. I grew up a surfer in California and that book was a pretty seminal book for anyone who had read The Surfers Journal magazine. I read that when it was in the mid-90s when I was fresh out of high school and it was a super memorable book to me. It was unique because it was a surf story told through a female perspective, a young female, so I always remember it making a cool impression on me.
What attracted you to this project?
EM: As a director you always look for: did you make the material up? Did you write it? The next phase is whatever the material is: could you add something to it? Is it a world you could make your own? This project, the fact that I knew the book well gave me an immediate interest, and then when we got into the fact that they wanted to make a great family drama and not a surf movie, that’s what got us interested. We have done so much in the surf space – that’s kind of our background and how we came into making films. We used to make surf documentaries with Kelly Slater and Jack Johnson and all the highest level and most well known surfers. For us, it’s a very sacred world. We just wanted to make sure we made a film with a great story and great characters. We knew that surfing would be a real nice visual addition. We had no fear of getting that part of the movie right.
What’s it like working with your brother?
EM: It’s pretty cool. He’s a pretty good guy. We’re real tight, we grew up just a year apart from one and other so we’ve always been stuck together our whole lives. We’re from a big family – there’s five kids – so I’m older by a year, but this is a business where there’s so much fluctuation in projects and the crews that we work with that it’s always nice having a very honest source of feedback at my side and vice verse the whole way through. I feel like we have big differences in our personalities like all brothers do, but we have similar tastes, so at the end of the day I think we more or less would make the same decisions if you gave us an a and b option. For us, especially with this film where we had to shoot a whole feature film with very limited resources in 21 days, so you’re moving fast and have to shoot three scenes in an hour sometimes, having a partner in that process is hugely helpful and important and then just having a brother to always be like: “Does this suck?” “Yeah it kind of does.” And know that you have somebody to help pull the rip chord when you’re a little off track or be blunt to you is such a great resource. I think that this job and making movies, you can use the extra support and help with it. I think that Brendan and I have always found a nice rhythm of feeling like we’re our own person, but we have a great partner – you really need that.
When adapting a book to a movie, what challenges do you face as a director?
EM: I think you have to honor it. You have to always remember that you have a book and an audience that we’re serving. The good thing was this wasn’t Harry Potter or 50 Shades of Grey where it was just so current and had so many rabid fans of the book. I think that this was a little more of an underground book, which gave us a little more freedom and then there’s the simple challenges like this book was written in the 90s and takes place in the 80s. We couldn’t afford to do a period piece. I had to get creative with it. We said if we can’t be of the era, let’s make an eraless movie. The neighborhood feels that way, so it offers cool creative assists. Things that were us trying to stay true to the book, but having the realities of what we could afford to make this movie. I think most of the challenges for that come on the writer. The writer has to adapt it and we were able to take a script and put our strengths and personalities behind it. I felt like we got to work with something that already had a degree of separation from the book. Just little things – like Maika, she was signed onto the movie before us. She’s such a tremendous young talent. She’s very different than the character in the book who’s more like a grunty tomboy that had trouble fitting in. Day one we’re served a beautiful, young California spirited actress that we had to find a new version of the character with. I think we were able to get the sentiment of someone who was an outsider, someone who liked to sit on the outside and look in and felt more observational about life. Those things are typically big shifts from the character on the page and then my brother and I have to make something with the version that we’re dealing with. I think early on we saw we just have to trust our gut to make our movie and we honored the book. I think we got the spirit of what the book is trying to say, but just had to do it in such a different way. We ended on the same place as far as the commentary on this sort of neighborhood and as to the hardships that young families can go through, the basic sentiment of the book that surfing becomes this salvation for her. When we went in we researched all the people that Joy grew up with, we ended up being from California knowing a lot of the same people and Brendan and I dug in deep and really researched the area and the kids and what it was like to grow up there. We grew up in a similar neighborhood – Hancock Park, which is more in the city – but we surfed and had friends that grew up in Malibu and the Pacific Palisades, Palos Verdes, Newport Beach and they all had shades of this sort of situation where a lot of the kids got into drugs real early, a lot of the kids felt like there was an abnormal rate of suicides in those neighborhoods, compared to ours. When we dug in and really researched that time and the place – that was the truth. These areas were different. It felt that way growing up near them and when we investigated we found out that that was truly the case. These kids reminded us of a lot of the kids that we grew up around.
Did the national opium crisis have any impact on the timing of this film?
EM: Maybe it did. The script’s been around for 20 years almost and suddenly it got made, but it’s ironic that that happened and we also noticed that all the surf drama in the area that has gained worldwide acclaim by the real stories of the territorialism of surfing in that particular surf break, that all was flaring up at the highest level when we were filming. For the first time people were getting arrested and there was major legal actions being taken. The stories were popping up on the front page of National Geographic, The New York Times, all that was happening while we were making the movie. All those things just helped make us feel that we were making something that had current relevance. If anything it put us more in zone.
Had Jennifer Garner, who plays a prescription pill dependent mother who can’t survive without her son’s approval, sign on before you and you brother?
EM: Yes. She signed on and fell off because of how long it took for us to get everything together. When she signed back on, that was when everything really snapped into gear. It was interesting because with her, knowing she was such a great mother and having to play such a dark type of mother and a terrible mom, to be honest, in the movie. It was interesting to work with her and to dive into that character in a deep manor. I think that was something that she grappled with the whole time. When she fell off, we went to a lot of actresses in that time trying to find an exciting candidate to take her place and the role was just too intense and dark for everybody. You forget that these actresses are mothers themselves. You only know them by the movie roles and you forget that some of them have just become moms. This character just seemed to be too close to home for a lot of them. Jennifer did great. I, like anybody else, had only seen what she had been in. I was impressed with her in Butter, that movie was kind of revelatory as far as seeing her as an actress and this movie kind of blew my mind with her commitment to her character.
A lot of the film takes place in the ocean, had Cody or Maika ever surfed?
EM: It’s cool, Maika is a pro kiteboarder, which is a really different disciple than surfing, but she grew up in the water. This movie didn’t afford us any of the luxuries of getting people to train and be on our time clock. Cody grew up around surfing in western Australia and knew the nuances of what it takes to be a surfer. They were able to put on their wetsuits right and they knew how to hold boards. We weren’t able to get them surfing, but luckily that’s the area that Brendan and I know well, so we really had a lot of opinions on how we wanted to double them. Unlike a surf movie, our kids were learning how to surf, so we got to embrace the simplicity of that. We didn’t try to make them expert surfers. But the biggest thing is Maika was comfortable in the water and we filmed this during an El Niño year so the waves were really big the whole time we were surfing and they were real present in the drama of our movie and being up on that bluff. So Maika was comfortable in big surf. She couldn’t get a lot of waves where she stood up, although she did get a few which are in the movie, but she was comfortable going out in heavy surf. It made all the difference because then we could film her in these heavy moments where she was a little scared herself, but they felt like real surf moments which is what we wanted – was for our stuff to feel authentic. We knew we were going to have to use a double, but we pushed it as far as we could. Being able to paddle out in eight-foot surf and being able to handle it was an amazing attribute for us in our actress.
What’s next for you?
EM: We’re going to do a Biggie documentary, we’re getting that up and running. We’re doing that with the producers of Searching for Sugar Man and 20 Feet from Stardom. It’s the authorized film on Biggie, so that’s the project that we’re jumping into and just a slew of commercials. We’d love do another feature. Whether it be big or small, we just have such a great time working with actors and having a little more depth to the story that we’re telling. We do a lot of commercials and music videos as well and they’re great – it’s very visual, but it was cool to be able to get into the emotional side of filmmaking. It’s something that really resonated well with us and something that we would like to do again.
Is there anything you would like to add?
EM: We just hope there’s waves in Montauk when we’re there. Nobody’s seen our movie so we’re pleased to sit in a movie theater and watch it. We’ve been sitting on it for a long time, we went through this intense experience making it, and then had to wait patiently for someone like IFC to come on and support it. We couldn’t be more pleased to see our movie in a movie theater.
The Tribes of Palos Verdes will screen at East Hampton UA2 on Friday, October 6 at 7:30 p.m. and Southampton SH1 on Saturday, October 7 at 12 p.m. Jennifer Garner, Emmett and Brendan Malloy will be in attendance at the East Hampton UA2 screening.
The film opens in select theaters and on VOD platforms nationwide on December 1st, 2017.
The 25th annual Hamptons International Film Festival will be held Thursday, October 5 through Monday, October 9. Founders Passes and tickets are currently available for purchase.
For more information, visit hamptonsfilmfest.org.