'Undeniable' North Star: An Interview with P.J. Palmer

'Undeniable' North Star: An Interview with P.J. Palmer

Led by an extraordinary cast featuring Oscar nominee Colman Domingo, writer/director P.J. Palmer’s “North Star” was a top 5 selection in the 2023 Film Pipeline Short Film season. Pipeline execs called the short “undeniable” and a “stunning accomplishment across writing, acting, directing, and cinematography.”

In my opinion? It’s so difficult to produce a short drama that’s emotionally gripping. There’s just not enough space, typically, for us to truly bond enough with the characters. And although this short is on the longer side, we’re invested very early on.

What were some of the keys to pulling this off? Not merely with the script, but in everything that went into the film and its directing?

Thank you for asking this. Originally, I challenged myself to write something that was emotionally gripping AND without dialogue. So my first draft was essentially the first 10 minutes of the film: a lone rancher going through his morning routine which felt familiar and even comforting, but this version is new to us ... We’ve all seen white, male cowboys up before dawn caring for their animals (I even used a Dodge truck commercial for visual references, it’s such a common motif). But when have we seen a black cowboy doing this? And I purposely made the pacing of the shots and scenes at about the pace you would expect a feature to be at— inviting the viewer into this character’s life.

But then there are other new things we don’t normally associate with cowboys in American mythology: seeing him do domestic work, ironing the laundry while watching TV, the house having the touches of a warm home life—quilts, lace curtains, fresh fruit on the table ... he's seen dusting with a feather duster. Almost like, is this the Western version of "Downton Abby?" We don’t see this often, and I think that grips the audience. We start asking questions about who this guy is and what’s his story. And then the big reveal, he is caring for his husband, a white man, who is dying. And I think once we see that, there is no turning back. We need to see what happens next. We are seeing intimacy and love and caring in ways we have likely not seen on film before. It is all so familiar, and yet, so different.

Speaking of cast, every filmmaker out there most likely wants to know: how did you land these gems of actors?

Patience. It took a lot of time.

First, I made sure the script was in the best shape it could be in. I submitted to contests and festivals, paid for coverage and feedback, revised it a million times, resubmitted, and it started winning best screenplay awards.

Once I had several wins, I had something to stand on with people, including inviting producers to join me. Those wins gave me proof that there was something to this script. Something worth going big on.

I didn’t know the actors personally, with the exception of the incredible Laura Innes, whom I had worked with long, long ago on the set of "ER," but I was not a director then, so I didn’t know if she would be interested. I think I was most nervous about asking her!

As for the rest of the cast, I worked very closely with my casting director, Jeffrey Gafner. And we made offers to people (which was SAG Short Film rates of like $125 a day … so it wasn’t for the money!) that included a personal letter, the script, and mood boards. I kept saying to the team, the worst they can say is "no."

And we had some say no. Scheduling was the hardest part. In the end, the talent came on board for the script—and maybe my vision for it. I am so grateful that this cast trusted me. I still pinch myself.

Colman Domingo in North Star.

Sadly, this is an almost timeless story—this unwillingness by certain corners of America to invalidate the experiences and relationships between LGBTQ couples. What was important to you about telling this story against this backdrop in particular (a rural small town)?

So, in re-writes, I added the sister character, Erin, played by the wonderful Audrey Wasilewski, whom I had always wanted to play the role. And I added the televangelist roles on the TV as a sort of Greek Chorus to help get more of Erin’s internal world expressed to us in as condensed amount of time possible. I did this after reading a book on writing that advised: don’t write what scares you, write what will change your life. And I took that as meaning: be vulnerable, tell your truth, even if it alters how people see you.

And so, I added in things from my personal life with my partner. He and I are in a multi-cultural, same-gender relationship. So I made the main characters reflect that. Also, he and I have had to deal with some intense blowback from families because of our relationship. Families are not always easy. Especially when people don’t agree on what family means. That’s the theme of the movie, and it is a major theme in my life. It took time, but I finally found the courage to express it in art, in this film.

The backdrop of the film is the same as the one I grew up in: rural America and very religious. (In fact we shot the film in the same county in rural Northern California that I lived in during high school).

It was very important for the film to have LGBTQ+ lead characters who are expressing pure, undeniable love, and they are standing in their truth even in the face of adversity. It's something that I could have used as a young man, seeing a film like this, with these backdrops and themes. And I know there are MANY other people who can benefit from seeing a love like this portrayed in film—that they, too, can know that they can have pure, undeniable love.

What are your ideal plans as a filmmaker? What genres or types of stories speak to you most and why?

Drama is really where it’s at for me. I like to tell stories that turn things inside out and to do so in meaningful ways. And it seems that narrative drama is where I can do that best and feel the most inspired and fulfilled.

All components of a film have different values of importance (though you could argue they’re all intertwined with one another). What, to you, takes priority? Is it casting? Is it directing? If you absolutely could not pull back on one area, what would it be?

It’s the directing, hands down.

Because even when you have the greatest cast, a solid script, a good plan, excellent support, filmmaking is a wild, unpredictable beast—and the director is the one who holds that vision and sees it through. That's what I live for. Collaboration is everything to me. And being able to collaborate with every artist in the process of making the film from development through finishing is just the best thing in the world. Challenging, for sure. But that’s what makes it fun.

Standard last question: without thinking about it—you gotta be quick!—who was the most impactful writer or director influencing your own style, or sense of storytelling, and what’s one of the movies that opened your eyes to being a filmmaker?


And the movie that made me say "this is what I’m going to do with my life" was ...

Back to the Future.

Seeing that as a kid opened up something in me—like, I suddenly understood all the possibilities of making movies. I saw the joy of it all in that film.

In fact—this is funny—I recently watched it again and realized that there are so many personal influences from the opening shots of Back to the Future that are in North Star … the ticking clock, the light turning on in the farmhouse, the coffee maker in close-up dripping coffee, the TV droning on in the background, etc. Subtle, but they're there! I didn’t realize it until just recently, but it makes sense.


I love that movie.

Watch the short film "North Star" here.

*Feature image: P.J. Palmer at the DGA Awards

More posts by Pipeline Artists.
Partner at Pipeline Media Group. Oversees all divisions, including Script, Book, and Film. Conceived of Pipeline Artists to gather creatives "in a single ecosytem" and bring a fresh POV on the arts.
Los Angeles / San Pedro, CA
More posts by Matthew J Misetich.
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