Jennifer Garner's 'Ugly Mother' Transformation for 'The Tribes of Palos Verdes' -- See the Poster (Exclusive)

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IFC Films

The moms that Jennifer Garner plays onscreen -- in movies like Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day and Miracles From Heaven -- usually feel cut from the same cloth. They’re doting, loving mothers with a smile on their face and a twinkle in their eye -- the type of mom you imagine Garner is in real life, too. In The Tribes of Palos Verdes, however, she plays Sandy Mason, a mother of two teenagers whose life spirals out of control after her husband leaves her for another woman. And in this poster for the film, debuting on ET, Sandy hovers over her carefree daughter (played by It Follows actress Maika Monroe).

The Tribes of Palos Verdes Poster
IFC Films

ET spoke with filmmakers and brothers Brendan and Emmett Malloy about what made them to adapt Joy Nicholson’s novel of the same name for the screen, why working on the movie felt like a therapy session, and which scene Garner shot "tripped [them] out."

ET: When I premiere a movie poster, I usually include the studio's official synopsis. But since I have you on the phone, I thought it would be nice to hear what it's about in your words and hear what drew you to the project.

Brendan Malloy: That's a heavy one, there. Sounds too overwhelming for two professional writers to discuss. [Laughs] We really were drawn to this book and this character just as a true coming-of-age story. It's such an original, fresh voice, we feel, in Medina [Maika Monroe's character] and we grew up in Southern California and had friends and even some family in some of these beach communities. We knew that as beautiful as a lot of these places were, when you start to peel back the layers, there are a lot of families having some real problems. That's what really drew it to us, is less of a surf film and more of a family drama that we really connected to.

How did you land on this image for the poster?

Emmett Malloy: We tried a lot of different things, and those were stills that I took on film while we were shooting the movie. The whole book is really about a mom, a suffocating mom...and the roles reverse where the mom becomes this very insecure, in-need-of-a-lot-of-attention type mother, and the movie's kind of her being up on the cliffs -- Palos Verdes is really best known for the cliffs. These big, striking, deep, intimidating cliffs that make for beautiful [scenery], but there's also, like, the highest rate of suicide -- It would go up against any town in America as far as suicide rates, and that's a staggering fact, considering how idyllic the setting and the lifestyle is there.

But the whole movie and book was really about her being up there really looking down on her kids the entire time that they were surfing or partying with their friends, and that was really a lot of the theme that Brendan and I took into making the movie. We wanted the poster to get that across: that this movie feels very idyllic from the outset by what you see, but when you dig a little deeper and pull back layers it's a very tortured life for this family.

Was Jennifer involved first as an executive producer or as an actress?

Emmett: I think both at the same time. I think she was just involved in this movie with Robbie Brenner, the producer, from the outset. I think Robbie got the rights to the script and Jennifer was the first person that she put on. So, she was on in both regards before Brendan and I were.

What made her right for this role? If you had cast that role yourself, what would have drawn you to her?

Emmett: I'll take the second part. She wouldn't have been on our shortlist of actors that we thought would've been the right fit for this role. Obviously, Jennifer usually plays the friendly mom next door, so I think it was Robbie's history with her doing Dallas Buyers Club, getting to know the depths of her as an actress that got us excited about it. It was really Robbie's enthusiasm for her and knowledge of her as an actress that got us excited, and I think now at the backend of this, I couldn't think of anybody better to do it.

She brought such an intensity [to the role]. Both Brendan, myself and Jennifer and her whole team of people that she works with really got committed to this character and it was cool to see such a great mom, somebody who cares so much for her kids and takes such amazing care of them, be able to turn it on and become a very ugly mother in this film. It blew my mind seeing her as an actress in that way, because I just didn't know her in that regard! I saw a glimpse of it in that movie Butter, where I saw her play somebody that I didn't ever think -- I mean, she became a completely different person in that movie! That opened Brendan and my minds to, like, "Oh man, obviously there's more than I thought," and certainly doing this movie, I just sing her praises.

What kind of conversations did you have together to craft this character?

Emmett: In the book, her character is undiagnosed with a mental disorder. There's no clearly defined mental disorder that she had that we pulled from, but we all knew that there was something that she had going on that was beyond just having a bad moment in her life, that there were some layers and some conditions that were causing her to act this way. So, we spent a lot of time talking with a therapist about the condition, what it would be. So, we did specifically diagnose her with something for her backstory, but we never reveal in the movie what her specific diagnosis is. Just because I think there's so many mental conditions that go untreated and go undiagnosed and they're so confusing and they're so hard on families and they're so hard, especially, on kids, so we wanted to keep it that way, so people can relate to having a family member, especially a mom, who has a condition that isn't specific, that you don't really know exactly what it is and how to deal with it.

Brendan: We also grew up around Palos Verdes and grew up in a group of people that knew the writer of the book, Joy, and her brother, Jay. This movie and book were based off their lives, and she lost her brother at this young age. We were able to also speak to a lot of the families and friends of them in real life, from their childhood and that also was incredibly helpful to bring to Jennifer and to everybody as far as getting some background on their true story.

I think everyone in the world knows that Jennifer was going through a very public split while you were working on this movie, so I assume this must have been a somewhat therapeutic experience for her.

Emmett: I would think so. I think it's one of those things where, you know, this movie had to go so fast, everybody just dove in and there were no trailers or any budget that would allow any privacy. We were all just really in that therapy session together. But certainly we were aware of it by the amount of cameras and paparazzi that followed her around daily. That made you even more aware of it. But it was very clear, but it wasn't anything we got deep into the motivation. That was more her journey. But I think Brendan and I saw clearly that her emotional and whatever -- what she brought every day just had some other level of shit to it that we were just riding. [Laughs] It was just something that was real [and] brought a lot of depth to her character, just something tangible that we could never really say this, that or the other about. But it's a woman going through a divorce and having a marriage that's falling apart that, at the same time, is so different from who she is. This is a character who does everything wrong for her kids and plays the victim the whole time and that couldn't be further from who Jennifer is as a person.

Jennifer Garner, Maika Monroe, 'The Tribes of Palos Verdes' Premiere
Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images for Hamptons International Film Festival

Then there's Maika. Tell me about what drew you to her and what it was like working with her?

Emmett: Again, she was somebody that Robbie had onboard as we signed on, and it was a little odd for Brendan and I, because in the book, the main character is this runty tomboy, and Maika is anything but that. She's a beautiful, stereotypical California girl, but she too, just the depth of her as a character was just so obvious. The first day we were filming, Brendan and I could clearly see that she is our saving grace. When anything's happening, as long as we see it through her eyes and experience everything through her, she just had that look where right away you could tell she could command the camera. Just filming her in a close-up staring off was enough, and we saw that clearly on day one and it was so exciting. Because like anything -- like any music video, whatever we've done -- when you see the lead singer has that gift and that power with the camera, you feel so comfortable. You're like, Oh, we got this!

That was something Brendan and I saw in the first minute of shooting that just became this great crutch for us through making this movie. And she's somebody who, in It Follows, I felt that was a real breakout role for her, and I think [after] that movie, she gained a lot of popularity. We were just happy that our lead character had such amazing energy about her. Weirdly, she was also a pro-kiteboarder from Santa Barbara, so with that just came this amazing comfort in the ocean. And the waves were really big the whole time we were filming, so to know that she could get out there and allow us to film her in kind of tumultuous situations was just an amazing asset to have while making this movie.

Brendan: Yeah, she's this really pretty blonde girl, but she has this Jodie Foster, kind of quite disposition to her that really drew us to this character. Like Emmett was saying, she wasn't meant to be this really pretty girl that was going to fit in easily. In real life, she is, but she has this disposition that allowed her to really be this character.

This is quite a dark, emotional movie. Did you have time to unwind at the end of the day or stop to keep the mood light on set?

Brendan: I would say just in real life, Emmett and I are, like, total smartasses and love to have fun and we're always laughing and goofing around on set. But for the sake of the actors, we really had to create an environment where they could really be in the moment. We did start off shooting the heavy scenes, for probably the first 10 days or so, it was very intense. They'd come on to set and the actors would be pacing around and be in the room and wouldn't want to come out, so they could really be in the scene. They wouldn't want to come out and look at the lighting or mess with the hair and makeup or anything like that. So, we really tried to create a scene and try to keep as much of the crew back as possible to where they could come on and perform.

It's tough that way, because we had a movie set where we had a million things going on and we're trying to keep the train moving and do all the things that you have to do in a day, but first and foremost you have to just create an environment where the actors can be in that moment. And they really were that way. Like Jennifer and the kids especially really wanted to have that time to get lost in that moment, to be that character. So, we really had to create an environment where they weren't in any way thrown off by all the distractions of a movie set.

Emmett: I think it stayed pretty heavy the whole way through, to be honest. Like, it was new terrain for Brendan and I and I think we were up for it, we had prepared for it. I think the one thing is that we shot most of it in this house or right around the house. I feel like we'd be cool, everybody would be pretty as they were when they're getting oatmeal in the morning and just saying hello while everybody's getting ready, but when we walked into the house, it got real thick -- the energy -- in a good way, where there was an intensity that you wanted. That's why the movie was able to be as dramatic as it is, because when we checked into that house it was on and we became versions of who we had to be to pull off this movie.

When Jennifer was in those seminal scenes, like her husband leaving or on the tennis court where she confronts him, some of those emotional outburst caught me so off guard. I was just watching them and as much as we were paying attention to it as a scene, she got so-- Like, when she turned the corner and came in on some of those scenes, they completely floored me. They made me feel like I was really in this moment where a long-term relationship with kids is ending and, as somebody at the forefront of that in their lives, it tripped me out. It left a permanent mark like, "I don't really want to f**k up like this."

The Tribes of Palos Verdes opens in select theaters and is available on demand Dec. 1.