Sean Akerman’s The Diary of Preston Plummer glides along like a hazy summer dream—but that’s just on the surface. As the film unfolds, you begin to see the cracks in the island’s pleasant façade, holding a family’s long-kept secrets. The writer/director’s sophomore film tells the tale of the titular Preston Plummer: a melancholic genius who meets the anxious but tender Kate on their last night of college. On a whim, he agrees to drive her home to her parents’ resort on an island in Florida. Preston winds up staying at the there, where he and Kate find themselves falling for one another—spending their nights strolling the island’s beaches, uncovering each other’s pasts and confessions from their youth. But after Preston meets Kate’s estranged grandfather, he begins to sense that the family’s secrets are far deeper than he imagined. As Preston becomes more entwined in the mystery of their family and more enamored with Kate, the pleasant nature of the film begins to unravel into a dark look at one family’s betrayal and how both Preston and Kate must deal with the chaos of reality. We chatted with Akerman and dove deeper into his intention as a filmmaker, the challenges of independent cinema and the Lynchian undertone of the film.
Your first film, Straight Line, was made on a very micro-budget. How did making this film differ for you?
Straight Line had a small budget and had no professional actors in it, whereas Preston Plummer had some more money, which was still not much on this movie. Because some people who had seen Straight Line saw potential there, I got a lot of value for nothing. So most of the actors that came onboard worked for little to nothing and so did the crew.
You open the film with a really beautiful scene in which pieces of the living room furniture set are slowly descending into a pool. Why did you choose that scene to begin the film?
I don’t remember how the idea of it came out, but it was one of those things where every time I picked up the script and I read that on the first page it made me think, “I need to make this at some point.” I think the movie pretends to be entropy but I think it’s really sort of about the opposite, at least in the beginning. I think the furniture falling in the disorganized kind of fashion in the pool really sets the tone for that entropy theme.
Why was this the story you wanted to tell? Where did this come from?
It’s a script that I optioned to a large studio in Los Angeles right after film school. After a year of creative differences, there was a time that they said, “Either you go in this direction or you go.” So I left. The script sat on a shelf for about a decade and I would come back to it on occasion. But every time I came back to it, there was something about it that still pulled me in. I kind of did that with a few scripts, but this was the one that stuck around the most for me. I only plan on making a movie every five to ten years, so it has to be something that contains a theme that I find really valuable in terms of who I am and what I’m trying to say.
And what was the theme that you were trying to convey with this?
That’s a tough question because you always want people to figure that out on their own. Without saying too much, I guess I’m interested in how many of us have our very basic needs met and are comfortable. It’s about how people can have drastically different interpretations of whether or not this is a life that is a beautiful life to live or really full of fear and a life that many people don’t want to be a part of. I guess I am curious as to what helps people decide between those two lives. I just met a lot of people with very similar existences but very different levels of happiness and satisfaction and that’s what I’m curious about.
In the beginning, the film seems like it could just go this one way and be a love story but there was something dark that was revealed that made it unique. The fact that it was shot somewhere so beautiful was a nice contrast to the darker emotional undertone of it. Where did you shoot it?
I shot it on Amelia Island, which is the northern-most Atlantic island in Florida. It’s a very small island but it’s also very strange and I think I like that contrast for the story. That’s what drew me.
How long were you shooting for?
Twenty days. But I had been there on and off for the last decade on various vacations, primarily because I have a friend from film school whose parents owned a couple restaurants on the island and it was a really cheap vacation in film school to go and crash on that family’s couch. And I think I just found the place to be magical in a Florida-postcard-kind-of-way, but there was also a lot of quirky, strange, almost Lynchian things that would happen there on occasion that kept me coming back.
Any specific examples?
My friend whose family was from the island, on the first week of film school, I was talking to her and she had a piece of food stuck in her teeth. At that time, I had very little personal boundaries, so I went for it with my thumb and her tooth popped out. It turns out when she was six years old playing kickball in her hometown, she had been hit in the head with a kickball, fallen and knocked her tooth out. That was my introduction to the kind of people that live on this island. Then I got there and I think there was just more of that quirkiness and the darker underbelly. Like, you know in Twin Peaks, there’s constantly the old mill that hovers above all this Pacific Northwest forested beauty? Well in Amelia Island there’s this pulp mill when you drive in on the bridge that you see and that sort of… you can be looking at a beautiful sunset, then turn 90 degrees to the left and there’s this reminder of industry and a different side of the place as well.
That’s a really interesting way to look at the film.
I think if you watch the movie there are other influences that are more obvious. I have really been seduced by Terrence Malick.
A lot of the most beautiful scenes in your movie took place in sort of that magic hour and that’s sort of his specialty.
But I mean at the same time, the movie does surround someone who is carrying around a dictaphone all the time so that’s definitely a reference to Dale Cooper.
Speaking of which, how did you go about casting Trevor Morgan? He’s been acting for a while but this was the first time I felt like I was really seeing him as an adult and I thought he was fantastic.
I met him and almost immediately wanted him to play the part. He had everything I was looking for. I was hoping Preston would be a blue collar guy who was also obviously intelligent and Trevor really is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. His memory is ridiculous; he can talk anybody under the table in terms of film history, but he’s also pretty self-effacing, very relaxed, and has a great sense of humor. This character was at risk for being quite pretentious so I really liked the sort of sense of humor and looseness that Trevor brought to it.
What about Rumer Willis?
I think she’s somebody that you hear a lot of things about in the popular press and I think a lot of people have judgments about her because of that. But I have to say, she was so willing to work on it not for financial reasons. She didn’t know how many people would see it or not see it. She did things like cook the crew dinner sometimes and she swam in shark-infested waters during hammerhead mating season for us without really asking a question. So I think that, for me, she was a really dedicated actress who came onboard just to be a part of making a good story. And it’s hard for me to see her not be represented that way in the mass media sometimes.
I thought they had a really great chemistry together. How has the reception been?
The reception has been good. My main is issue is that I want more people to see it. I think we’ve done better than I thought we would do. We’re such a small movie and we did have a small theatrical release. We’re playing in about eight cities in the country and for such a small movie, I think that was a big triumph. Warner Brothers bought our digital distribution rights so that was a good thing, we’re on every place you can possibly download a movie. Digitally, we are there. And that’s great so we’ve exceeded our expectations.