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Arts and Entertainment

Hubbel Palmer, Actor and Screenwriter

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In 2007, a little movie called American Fork made the film festival rounds, garnering rave reviews and some awards as well. The story, written and staring Hubbel Palmer followed the life of Tracy Orbison, a grocery stork with aspirations of being an actor and changing lives. LAist got a hold of Hubbel to discuss the changes in his own life, as well as some of the themes that run through out the film and emerged in the course of the discussion, such as friendship, disillusionment, alienation, and the little victories that bring us joy.

What was the inspiration for the film and what was your objective when you actually set out to make it?
I worked at a grocery store in high school. I was always fascinated by the people who had chosen this as their "career." Since then I have wondered what my life would have been like if I had stayed at that job and never left town. When I thought about what I wanted my first film to be like, I always had this feeling it should take place in a grocery store and that it should focus on a character like Tracy. In film school I got really excited about the idea of using film to tell the stories of everyday people who usually wouldn't merit a movie. I feel like everyone's life could be a movie if you found out what they really cared about. So that's what I set out to make.

And when'd you decide to make acting your career?
I acted in many plays in high school, but was never as committed to it as other people were. I studied film in college and screenwriting in grad school at USC. Whenever I acted it was because I got drafted into it by friends who were making movies. When I started writing the script for American Fork, I didn't intend to play the character of Tracy. But because I was writing about things I knew and a character I could relate to, I really felt I could do justice to this part. The hardest part of the process was convincing people to take a chance on me as an unknown actor. I had been in a few films but I didn't have a lot of high profile stuff that I could show people.

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How is it that you convinced people to take a chance on an unknown actor?
There was a lot of enthusiasm for the script from most of the people who read it. It was obvious to anyone who read it that I had written this for myself. It helps that there aren't a lot of other actors who you could think of for this part. I mean, how many 400 lb. actors can you think of? So it became a matter of assuring people that I could act. Luckily, I had done a film the year before where I displayed some of the same colors as American Fork. I had about a half hour of screen time in that movie so it was just a matter of letting people watch it.

So, what aspects of the film parallel your own life?
The film parallels my own life in the following ways: I grew up in a town like the one in the movie, I have had a lifelong struggle with my weight like Tracy, and I worked at a grocery store. Beyond that there may be some similarities, but there's not much more that could be called autobiographical.

How do you feel about the costumer-employee relationship?
I have strong feelings about customer service. When I was trained in my first job (at Baskin Robbins) and then later as a courtesy clerk (fancy name for bagboy) at Smith's Food & Drug, they instilled in us that "the customer is always right." I took that to heart and always endeavored to give friendly service and would go out of my way to help customers find items and carry their groceries out to their car. We were instructed to turn down tips if offered and I DID, assuring customers it was, "my pleasure to serve." It's rare to find good customer service these days. I know from experience that service industry jobs can be a drag, but I always felt the time go by much faster when I looked for opportunities to make customers feel special.

Tracy gets disillusioned quite a bit in American Fork. How much disillusionment have you experienced in your life and are there any particular events you can share?
Tracy is an optimist who assumes the best about people. Someone like that is bound to be disappointed in life. I'm much more cynical than Tracy. I guess the biggest moment of disillusionment was when my parents divorced at age 14. My family was not perfect, but I never figured that my parents would actually want to call it quits. I remember they sat us down (there were 7 of us) and told us that they were thinking of splitting up. They wanted to know our thoughts on the matter. We took a vote. All the kids were in favor of the family staying together. The next morning, in spite of our vote, my mom moved out. That was tough. After that, all bets were off. Anything could happen. I know this is a common sentiment to have about a common experience, but that's what it was like.

Tracy also becomes quite alienated in parts of the film from his acting teacher, friends, community, job, and even his family. Alienation in general seems to be running rampant in America today. What do you make of it and how do you deal with it?
Alienation is a problem that has always been there and always will be. I myself have felt alienated at different times in my life. The key to overcoming alienation has always been the same--reach out and make a connection with someone else. The best way to do that is to serve somebody, do something unselfish for another person.

At the end, however, Tracy finds joy in a victory that seems miniscule compared to the hardships he's gone through, but it fills him with such great quantities of joy that the previous hurts seem inconsequential by comparison. Do you see the power of the little things in life as being at all diminished by the grandeur of the 21st century? I suspect many people don't even have time for the little things anymore.
I think you're right that people have less and less appreciation for the little things in our day and age. I wanted to show that happiness comes not with big successes but when you change your attitude. It's the attitude change (acknowledging that he's a "good person") that enables Tracy to take joy in the small things.

Both you and Tracy like to bring change about in your own lives and the lives of others. But unlike yourself, there weren't that many people in Tracy's life. What sort of effects did having a large family have on you and what do you see as the effects of not having a lot of people in one's life?
Growing up in a large family can be tough because you always have to fight for attention. It's easy to feel like you're getting overlooked. But it's also good because you realize it's not all about you. An added bonus is that your brothers and sisters become your closest friends and you feel less alone as an adult. It can be very difficult to live without a support system of friends and family. Even in a big city you can feel alone and forgotten. Having family to turn to helps prevent that.

What do you think of people in general?
In general, I think people are good. If we have a problem in society, however, it's complacency. People don't do all the good that they could do. It's so easy to get wrapped up in your own problems and the daily struggle of just getting by that you don't take advantage of opportunities to lift and help others.

What do you think of the state of people's relationships with one another in the 21st century?
As we head into the 21st century we're at an important crossroads. Developing technologies can either serve to connect us more to the rest of the world or isolate us and eat up all our free time. I'm very excited to see how the next fifty years pan out.

Did you ever feel compelled to help anyone in your area the same way Tracy helps the troubled youths in American Fork?
In high school I was known for taking people under my wing. In college, I volunteered with a Big Brother/Big Sister program. It was very rewarding. Tracy goes about it the wrong way, however. He makes too many compromises and leaves himself open to be taken advantage of.

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Has anyone ever taken you under their wing?
When I was in 10th grade and knew nobody at my new high school, these senior guys were very kind to me and let me eat lunch with them. They were the popular kids in school so it was a big honor to be at their table. I got to know a lot of people that way. Later, when I became a senior, I tried to do the same thing. I always made an effort to say hi to new students and people who could be considered "loners."

What were you like in high school?
In high school I was an average student but was involved in a lot of extra-curricular activities. I never went to parties and had few close friends. I lived far outside the boundaries for my school and didn't have a car, so I spent most nights at home watching TV.

So, when'd you first develop your interest in film?
The first film I ever say was THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING WOMAN with Lily Tomlin. I was four years old. From that moment on I can't remember wanting to do anything else but make movies. At first I pictured myself as an actor. But around age ten I started to realize I wasn't good-looking enough to be a movie star so I decided I wanted to be behind the camera. I was as much of a movie buff as you could possibly be at that age. It was all I talked about, all I read about, all I spent my time on. I considered a few other careers along the way, but it always came back to film.

What other careers did you consider?
My mom is a lawyer and my dad went to law school but never finished. I was bound to consider it at least once or twice as a potential career. The other thing I really thought about was becoming a psychologist. I took some family science classes in college and found them really fascinating. But I was never quite motivated enough to switch majors. Oh, and I used to be really into politics in high school. I was in a lot of youth political organizations and also really enjoyed student government.

Did you make short films growing up?
I didn't have a video camera growing up otherwise I would have made films. I did write a lot of short stories and primitive screenplays. I took the official film school route when I got to college.

What are some of your favorite films?
My three favorite films are THE APOSTLE, ORDET, and FARAWAY, SO CLOSE. There's a spirituality to these works that demands more of the viewer. They're almost sacred to me so I try not to overdo it with them. These aren't the kind of films you can watch over and over again. THE GRADUATE is an example of a movie that I can watch repeatedly and never tire of. I also like BILLY MADISON, BEING THERE, CONTACT, CHINATOWN, PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE and THE SPANISH PRISONER.

You're living in LA now. What inspired the move and what was it like to make the transition?
I moved to L.A. to attend graduate school at USC, but even if I hadn't gotten in I would have come here. L.A. is where you live if you want to pursue a career in film. It just is. Being close to the action helped drive my ambition. I also HAD to get out of Utah. It's funny about the place where you grow up. It can be your greatest creative inspiration, but it can also really bring you down. It has little to do with the geographical area, everything to do with the memories you associate with it.

How would you compare and contrast the people you've met there and in LA?
Moving to L.A. from Utah was great. L.A. was a wonderland and a dream factory. I felt grateful just to be here. The people in Utah are good people who are family oriented and seek to better their community. L.A. people are more fun to talk to, however.

What was the town you left called and how would you describe it?
I grew up in West Valley City, Utah. It used to be known as Granger. It's a lower middle-class suburb of Salt Lake with nothing remarkable or interesting about it. In Utah, it carries a stigma of being a "white trash" area. For the longest time I was ashamed to tell people where I was from. My parents were always trying to move us to a better neighborhood but could never get the money together. Even though I hated it at the time, I love going back there now. So many memories. There was a family down the street called the Hamptons. They had a bunch of mean teenage kids who all had red hair and were all into drugs. There were a lot of troubled families like that. But there were also a lot of gentle old people in my neighborhood who had moved there in the 50s after the war and hadn't bothered to move away even though the neighborhood went bad in the 80s.

So, what sort of films would you like to write in the future?
I want to make movies that take people to some place they've never been before. I'm not as interested in saying something that's never been said before as I am in creating a mood that transports the viewer to a strange, melancholy, or magical place. The movies that have had the strongest effect on me are the ones that do that. Like Bill Forsyth's HOUSEKEEPING. Every time I watch it I get this strange, sad feeling. It's kind of like the feeling you get when it rains on a Saturday afternoon. Just kind of a very pleasant sadness.

I'm working on a couple of projects right now, but it's still too early to talk about them. I can tell you what genres I want to work in. I really enjoy mysteries and detective movies so I think I'm going to attempt something in that genre. I also like science fiction movies like INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. I'm tellin' ya, If I could come up with a premise as clever and original as that first 'Body Snatchers' movie I'd be really proud of myself.

When will the general public be able to see American Fork?
Our producers are working out the particulars of a theatrical release for American Fork. Hopefully, it will be in theaters before the Fall. But I can't say definitively yet.

How has American Fork changed your life?
American Fork has changed my life in many ways. I've gotten opportunities as a writer and actor since making the film that I never had before. It gave me the chance to travel around the country and even to some foreign countries. Most importantly, it gave me the satisfaction of sharing a personal story with an audience. And now all I can think about is doing that again.

You can see the trailer for American Fork HERE.