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Laura Dern and Producing Partner Jayme Lemons on Their Road to ‘Palm Royale’

Enlightened was more than just the title of the HBO TV series Laura Dern starred in from 2011-2013. It’s also the state of being the actress and her future producing partner, Jayme Lemons, found themselves in after Dern served as an executive producer and Lemons a first-time producer on the comedy-drama.

“Once we had that experience on Enlightened, we both felt like we have all of these other passions, maybe it’s time we focus more on getting these projects done,” Dern tells The Hollywood Reporter in the conversation below.

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Thus the creation of Jaywalker Pictures in 2017, Dern and Lemons’ production company whose projects span genres. From the 2020 documentary The Way I See It, about the life of former Chief Official White House Photographer Pete Souza; and the Academy Award-winning short If Anything Happens I Love You, about two parents grieving their daughter who was killed in a school shooting, released the same year; to Palm Royale, a TV series about Palm Beach high society in 1969 based on the 2018 novel Mr. & Mrs. American Pie by Juliet McDaniel, that released on Apple TV+ on Wednesday.

“There was no script when we first came on board,” explains Lemons. “Katie O’Connell gave us the book to check out, to see if it was something we thought we might want to develop, and it was a book that was delicious and presented such dynamic, complicated, interesting women in this sort of wild 0.0001 percent world that was fun and felt like a place that we would like to spend time.”

The duo tapped Tate Taylor (The Help) to assist them in building out the bigger world they envisioned from the book. He then called on Abe Sylvia, who wrote the original draft of the script and became the series’ showrunner.

“And then the question was, who will be our Maxine?” explains Dern of the lead role, which she was potentially slated to play yet couldn’t to take on due to prior commitments. She, instead, portrays Linda Shaw, a women’s rights revolutionary of sorts, in the series. “We didn’t even have to think. The only thought was, ‘would Kristen Wiig do it?’ Jayme and I reached out to her, and she fell in love with it, and that was just the best news in the world. And then we started adding our other dreams, like our hero Carol Burnett, like Allison Janney, like my own father, Bruce Dern, Amber Chardae Robinson, Ricky Martin, Leslie Bibb, Julia Duffy, Mindy Cohn and Kaia Gerber.”

“It’s just an embarrassment of riches to get to say that you’re producing a show with all these people,” adds Lemons. “Like, who does this?”

Jaywalker Pictures currently has two other series in development at HBO as well. The first is The Queen of Highland Park, a drama series inspired by Tom Foster’s Texas Monthly article of the same name about a group of elite brokers in the world of luxury real estate in Dallas. The second, The Dolls, is a limited series in collaboration with Issa Rae’s Hoorae productions, and Reform Media Group’s Deniese Davis about the 1983 Christmas Eve riots that erupted at a local Walmart in Arkansas over a shipment of Cabbage Patch dolls.

“Seven years ago, would I have thought that we would have this diverse slate of projects that we’d be managing? I can’t imagine that I would have thought so,” admits Lemons. “It just gets more exciting every day.” Below, Dern and Lemons talk with THR about the birth of Jaywalker Pictures and what they set out to achieve as producers as Palm Royale releases.

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When did you first meet and discover this shared passion for filmmaking that led you to create Jaywalker Pictures?

LAURA DERN Jayme has had a love of film and storytelling from the beginning, and that was her focus of study at the University of Arkansas. She was working on a film in Arkansas that I was in, and it was clear that she was the smartest person in the room, even though she had never been on a film production before. Then Jayme came with me to work on a Robert Altman film, and he fell in love with her. Every filmmaker, executive, writer, or producer that she would come across when she came with me to assist me as an actor or as a producer knew very quickly that Jayme had incredible ideas. She’s always been so unbelievably well-read and politically savvy with the most hilarious sense of humor. And all those things we know in storytelling and development are irreplaceable so in us getting to know each other and becoming dearest friends through that process, Jayme was the person in my life before we thought about a production company per se that would show me a book or an article and say, “why isn’t this a movie?” That clearly was her gift and her superpower. And then, even though we were developing and finding projects beforehand, it was on the second season of Enlightened, that Jayme became a producer on the show.

JAYME LEMONS Being a kid from Arkansas, I wasn’t really sure how any of it worked, but I knew that I loved being in that environment, and what made me know that I loved working with Laura is that I would be there to run and grab a tea or something like that, and because Laura made me and every other person on that set feel like filmmakers, it was made known to me that in getting that tea we were helping the movie get made. It was a collaborative process from the beginning with Laura and it has felt that way every single day since. The best film school in the world is being in her atmosphere and working with her every day.

I couldn’t have had a better teacher, and I think, hopefully, we’re able to put that education into practice with each other now.

Palm Royale
Laura Dern (right) in Palm Royale

Enlightened came to an end in 2013 and you started Jaywalker four years later. What was happening in that in-between time and how did you decide 2017 what the right time to launch?

LEMONS I was working, trying to make a living, and we were trying to figure out what was next. I was fortunate by virtue of knowing Laura and being in her orbit to meet a lot of great people. I was able to meet and get to know Courteney Cox and work in development at her company, Coquette. I also worked with the extraordinary Mary Steenburgen and Ted Danson, who I got to know through Laura, and a number of other folks, but in the back of my mind was always wanting to pursue this goal of continuing my work with Laura and looking for opportunities to do that.

DERN That’s what I meant by people would meet Jayme and then want to develop things with her, be it Robert Altman, who at the time was building his own production company, or Naomi Watts, who you worked with on The Ring and then developed a relationship with, people just loved your taste and your ideas. I think once we had that experience on Enlightened, we both felt like we have all of these other passions, maybe it’s time we focus more on getting these projects done. We were offered opportunities to do it exclusively, but at the time we also had the opportunity to start to build and develop projects at different places as well, even though I think HBO always felt like a first home to us. HBO was always very generous in supporting us to find other projects after Enlightened, some of which have taken years to grow, and some of which were a bit more expedient. And then Platform One and Katie O’Connell, the executives there, gave us an opportunity to have a first look deal, just as producers, not tied to me as an actor, to start to find projects where we could continue the work we loved doing with HBO and look for work and opportunities in other places, especially as we wanted to lean into documentaries and animated shorts so that we could discover storytelling in many areas.

Did you feel, then, that you were taken seriously right out of the gate and that people understood and championed what you were trying to do?

DERN Having been raised by an actress mother and her friend Jane Fonda, and a group of amazing women that I watched, I mean, I remember being 7 years old, laying on the rug of my godmother, Shelley Winters, while my mom and Jane and Gena Rowlands and Maureen Stapleton were all talking about projects that they were trying to get made and how would people take them, quote, “seriously” as producers when they were actresses and how to get stories told. So it’s a continual conversation. I would say the great news from my micro-perspective is watching all the storytellers who I grew up with, who have been beating down doors and trying to get stories told, working and making movies and being the showrunners and executive producers now, and in some cases, if they’re actors while also acting. Also, it’s exciting in terms of growth to think about how my title as co-creator and executive producer of a show, Enlightened, was considered like background noise and I was just the actor in the show. I don’t remember a journalist at the time asking me about how I was involved in those areas. And now, there are so many women, and certainly actresses who are also producers, and the producing is a very serious job. Even producing and producing partnerships are seen in a different way than even when Jayme and I first started thinking about it.

LEMONS I have seen a shift in terms of perception and communication and, frankly, a seriousness, where it felt sort of perfunctory at the beginning maybe, like, we’ll include them because it’s the proper thing to do. But part of it is, I think, proving your work. I think showing up and doing the job is reputationally what helps grow the credence you have because now when Laura is an EP on something, the perception has shifted. Most folks know now that when she is an EP, she is an executive producer of the project, period.

DERN And it’s not just the work you put in in production. What’s shifted is connecting the producing with the people who found the material— the IP, the article—or grew the seed of the idea and found the writer, director, or showrunner, depending upon the project. There are plenty of people who are offered a producer credit because they’re acting in something, and that’s wonderful and that gives them an incredible voice. And if they’re attaching themselves, they’re helping build an amazing cast and crew around something potentially with their commitment, especially in small independent film. So those things matter. But in the areas that we’ve been working in these years to find material, that’s what’s being known more. The ultimate goal is, you don’t need the credit, but it’s a great way to just build projects so that you can get them sold, and what Jayme and I always dreamt of is fulfilling dreams of other diverse storytellers and female storytellers who needed support to get their project seen. A great example of that is the animated short, If Anything Happens I Love You. To feel like you can participate in making the difference in getting it seen, in making sure it’s a team of people in the promotion of it that’s behind it and supporting it by not only name, but in who the right partners are for a project to really get the most people to see something that matters politically, emotionally, in terms of climate, gun safety, all the things that we’ve tried to look into telling stories about.

You managed to release If Anything Happens I Love You and The Way I See It at the end of 2020. Did the pandemic affect your momentum as a company at all?

LEMONS We really had set a hard and fast promise to ourselves that that movie would come out at a particular time, and we committed to keeping it. We had to shift into a different gear and into a different mindset because we were locked down and we had to finish the film in a way that none of us knew how. It was a crazy, crazy time and we were learning as we went. So yes, it slowed everyone’s momentum in terms of just being isolated from each other, but it also kicked momentum into a whole new gear because we had a movie to finish, and we were really proud of the fact that we were able to do that and get the movie out to have whatever impact it could.

DERN I’m so passionate as an actor and finding projects and characters that we feel are vital and have a story to tell and feel like as producers we found something that otherwise wouldn’t have gotten made, that is so fulfilling. But when other people were like, this is where you should spend your time because this is what will actually make a difference, either financially or in success as producers, we launched with this seemingly political doc and animated short. The emotion and feeling of gratitude and success in so many reaching out to how The Way I see It impacted voter participation, reminders of nobility in the White House on a nonpartisan level and what that looks like from both parties. To feel Netflix calling us and then sharing the news that If Anything Happens I Love You has become this TikTok sensation of youth culture understanding the horror and crisis in and around grief due to gun violence and everyone talking about it, and sharing it, and watching that grow, and then it winning an Oscar. Those moments of feeling like by producing we can reach people that might not have seen something or had access to something, that’s when you just feel so proud.

Palm Royale
Kristen Wiig in Palm Royale

How does Palm Royale continue the narrative of what you set out to achieve with Jaywalker?

LEMONS: We felt so thrilled when Katie O’Connell gave us the book to take a look at, because we were looking for opportunities to highlight women’s stories and present women of all ages and backgrounds in ways that were unique and also fun and to not always just be issue driven. And we want to do commercial things that are super entertaining where you can just dive into a world and Palm Royale offered all of that. It’s just a delicious treat of a story and it felt like an opportunity to say a lot of things in a really fun way and give audiences a place that they can hang their worries at the door and enter a world in a different time and be consumed by the spectacle of it all and the fun of it all and lose yourself in a story. I think that perfectly aligns with all that we are as a company. What a gift to be able to spend our days working on something that provides opportunities for actors of all age ranges to get to come and play together.

DERN Also, then finding a showrunner like Abe and partners like Tate Taylor, and then, of course, Kristen Wiig to make sure that the storytelling does lean into this world you can escape to and look at all these women. But, look at what was happening around them that they weren’t even seeing to also reflect the similarities of today and remind us of how we can create spaces to escape and be blinded from what the rest of the world is feeling in our bubble. And that that can be done, as Jayme said, in this delicious way, but also feel subversion and reminders embedded in it, which is what’s great as you develop something. And to be there to influence and participate in diverse characters, in equity and diversity in crew, in the directors, in every aspect of production in ways that when I started as a 10, 11-year-old, never existed on a set. I grew up with parents commenting on it to me all the time and to feel like you can make a difference, even with sustainability practices on set. It’s exciting, I hope, more and more with this new generation, that they’re embedded in all areas of the industry so that the world actually looks like itself everywhere you enter.

LEMONS And also really leaning into training programs across all departments. We had sound trainees, and we reach out to guilds and different departments that can really bring in a new generation of people from all backgrounds who want to have access to this industry because it can feel like a closed-door place and those doors should really be open and accessible to people who might feel like it’s not an easy place to enter. Listen, I’m a kid from Waldron, Arkansas, and I couldn’t have dreamed a life this big, and I want to have any small part in helping other people know that you can do this.

Are you where you expected to be seven years since starting your company?

DERN The most exciting part of it for me is looking forward, is feeling like we’re working with so many really exciting places and homes to tell stories, and all the different people we’re getting to work with because of it, executives included, who really care about all the things we’re talking about. And it’s exciting to see how the industry is shifting in that way, be it HBO, a first deep home for us, from developing a Texas Monthly article we love, to a project we have with Issa Rae there, and of course, Palm Royale with Apple TV+, just to get to have this kind of, frankly, broad reach in terms of the audiences that these stories can find and therefore have more opportunity to help other people get their stories told. All of that is just a continual gift.

Palm Royale has released the first three episodes of its 10-episode season, with new episodes releasing weekly Wednesdays on Apple TV.

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