Filmmaker Emmett Malloy on Dark New Film, ‘The Tribes of Palos Verdes’


Photos by Emmett Malloy

About five minutes into The Tribes of Palos Verdes you know things are going south, and fast.

“Well, I’m happier already,” says Jennifer Garner, and so begins the idyllic Californian family’s emotional freefall into drug abuse, infidelity, manipulation and mental instability. The film, which is set to premiere in a matter of weeks, explores the dark undercurrents that plague the affluent family of young Medina (played by Maika Monroe) after her father relocates the family from Michigan to upmarket Palos Verdes, nestled in amongst cliffs on an exclusive slice of the Californian coast. Adapted from a 1998 coming-of-age novel of the same name by Joy Nicholson, its screenplay was passed around for almost two decades until finally falling into the capable hands of director duo Emmett and Brendan Malloy.

Monster Children were lucky enough to host the Australian preview screening of The Tribes of Palos Verdes, held at the brand new, very schmick interiors of Palace Central in Chippendale, Sydney. With Emmett in attendance we were able to chat at length about his and Brendan’s history with both the novel and the upscale pocket of Californian coastline that is PV.

The Malloy brothers had both the cinematic and surf expertise needed to take on a project of this magnitude, having directed seminal surf films such as Thicker than Water and A Brokedown Melody, countless documentaries, music videos for the likes of The White Stripes, Metallica, Vampire Weekend, and a commercial portfolio that includes behemoths Nike and Google.

But aside from their impressive backlog of projects, Emmett tells me that he and Brandon had a unique connection to the screenplay from the outset, as they grew up surfing in Los Angeles and went to school with a bunch of kids from Palos Verdes. “We even knew people who grew up with the girl who wrote the story and her brother, and had old photo albums with Jay in them—in the movie his name is Jim,” Emmett explains.

JIM AND MEDINA, PLAYED BY CODY FERN AND MAIKA MONROE.

Jim (played by young Australian actor Cody Fern) is Medina’s twin brother and the two have an inseparable bond which at times teeters on the edge of collapse, thanks to increasingly manipulative parents who attempt to forge sides in the wake of a nasty divorce. The two discover a love for surfing, but as Medina turns to the ocean for solace, Jim takes refuge in self-medicating to numb the volatile family situation—a plotline even more relevant two decades after it was written, given the opioid epidemic currently engulfing the US.

Whilst the surfing that underpins the film was always going to be a drawcard for well-versed surf filmmakers like the Malloys, Emmett says they were more concerned with making it a “heavy family drama really focused on family and the relationship of twins, and portraying what it’s like being a kid growing up in these neighbourhoods”.

“We had cousins and friends that grew up really fast in these affluent towns where the parents were out socialising, and they were able to own the neighbourhood,” he says. “They surfed and partied and were more like Jay Adams types. They would have sex with your friend’s mom and you’d be like, ‘What? What do you mean, how could you ever do that?’ ’’

So when El Niño swept through San Pedro (where they shot most of the movie instead of Palos Verdes) and gifted them some of the most ideal winter surf conditions the area had seen in years, they still spent 20 out of the 23 days shooting out of the water, delving into the turbulent lives of the family in the house high on the cliffs.

Throughout the movie, the mood in the family home becomes increasingly claustrophobic as the mother (played by Jennifer Garner) sinks deeper into her own despair, pulling her children down with her. Contrary to the sweet girl-next-door persona she’s often been typecast, Garner is scarily good at being certifiably insane as her character relishes in being the antithesis of the country club housewives she openly hates—eating cheeseburgers at the tennis club and screaming at her husband’s new woman in public.

“She was so dynamic with her performance—there’s some really funny moments from her that get really dark and twisted,” says Emmett. “She’s got a real biting sense of humour. She’d go after things and say fucked up shit.” Even though he and Brandon grew up in a loving family, Emmett goes on to say, “I think everyone knows the feeling of a broken family, whether it be theirs or somebody else’s. When we were in these scenes we were all really in them, almost on the verge of tears.”

But when it all seems to be getting too heavy, the action moves back to the Malloys’ familiar terrain of the Pacific Ocean for some brief respite. Emmett says that because The Tribes of Palos Verdes was never supposed to be a straight out surf film, it stopped him from “falling down the rabbit hole” of pressuring himself to get sections and make it look perfect. “We just did a free session and no one was thinking, ‘Oh we gotta get this left, I’ve gotta get this barrel.’ We didn’t have to make our actors look like they were good. We got to film them falling in love with surfing, and it allowed our doubling to have character.”

Doubling obviously wasn’t needed for Alex Knost who plays a famous surfer that drifts into Palos Verdes for a little while. Not that the locals were impressed either way. “Sometimes we’d have Alex Knost out there and he’d be like ‘I can’t believe I’m being hassled by a dude with a soft top!’ ’’ laughs Emmett. “No matter what, we were dumb Hollywood people. That’s how our relationship began, then we evolved to a better place.”

In a case of art imitating life, the localism of the “Bay Boys” that threads through the movie also reared its ugly head while the film was in production. Emmett says that while they were shooting beach scenes there were arrests and “cops all over the cliffs”, all because one kid from the North Shore stood up to them. “He was like, ‘Fuck you, we’re coming here every day, you’re not gonna get away with this.’ And he did it in a peaceful protest way, and brought the police’s attention to it and got some people in trouble,” he says.

It’s the way in which the Malloys touch upon the era-less concept of antagonistic locals, seamless body doubling (no easy feat, by the looks of embarrassing attempts in too many surf films to count) and even the natural, flowing dialogue that shows this movie needed someone like Emmett and Brandon, who knew the territory and the history behind it. It’s not cheesy, and that’s why it works.

I ask Emmett about his and Brandon’s next project—one that’s about as far removed from the troubled wealthy families of the Californian coast as you can get. They’ve signed on to direct—alongside the producers of Searching for Sugar Man and 20 Feet From Stardom—the official Biggie biopic, or so I’d heard. “Yeah, I’ve just had lunch with his mum in a Red Lobster in the Poconos,” Emmett says. “We’re feeling all the right pressure to make something great, it’s one that people are going to be excited to see.”

Read more from the 2017 Photo Annual here, or to check out what’s showing at Palace Central, Chippendale, head here.

Sign up for the Monster Children Newsletter