It’s not often that a writer/director/performer makes a splash by barking like a dog and covering herself in excrement, but if it was going to happen anywhere it’d probably be Sundance, and if was going to be done by anyone it might as well be Marianna Palka. The Scottish-born filmmaker’s last feature here was another provocatively titled film, Good Dick back in 2008, and since then she’s been helming both features and shorts that have found a vocal and enthusiastic audience.
With her latest film Bitch (much adored by BMD’s Editorial Director), Palka has crafted a subversive take on the nuclear family and the dreariness of the unfulfilled housewife. Mixing scatological tension with broad humour, the film provides another showcase for her talents. In this exclusive chat we talk about her work, her fans, finding her voice and whether she’d tackle a big blockbuster.
What prompted Bitch?
I really wanted to make something that was going to change the world. I like films that actually change people, you know? When I watch a movie I like it to change who I am, so I definitely wanted to make something that was dark that went to light, not dark that got darker.
Isn’t that a Scottish thing? That things are dark and then they get even darker?
Some films are dark and stay dark, and some films are dark and can get darker. I like making films that are dark and can get lighter. I think that’s alchemy. I find it to be kind of like a medicine for society.
Do you think your film changed you?
Making it definitely was a radical experience. Writing the script was a radical experience. Yeah, it was cool. It was very brave and everyone involved was being very brave and we all took a lot of risks, so it was nice.
Can you talk about those risks? I mean there's obvious risk in terms of the broadness of the performance, but there's also risk in general when trying to make a naked barking woman film that still speaks to an audience.
When you're trying to make anything, when you're putting anything out in the world, I think there's a risk there.
By that measure it's easy to see that it's a risk, but every film is a risk.
Yeah, I mean I think that the reason why I think it's different than anything else I've ever made on these terms – [The film] is reaching out to people who are Republican, people who voted for Trump, men who don't like the word feminism and don't think feminism is a good word, women who don't think feminism is a good word. I know that we have feminists who love the movie but we also have people who are very conservative who love that movie, who have conservative values. The character is very difficult in the beginning and very selfish and then he becomes very unselfish.
In some ways he becomes a traditionally better man, and at the end it's recreating an ideal nuclear family. In these ways it's actually quite a conservative film.
It's very conservative in that sense - pro-family, pro-marriage, it's pro-having great relationships in your family, great family relationships among sisters in-law. But I also think that reaching across and going, "hey, let's all talk about these themes and these ideas" is very different than saying, "Screw you! We made a feminist film. It's got nothing to do with anything you'll ever dig or understand!"
It's a very inclusive film and it's fun.
Yet another explicit reading of the film is that you have to, literally, be a bitch to get your point across.
Well everyone has something to say, it's true.
Yet you say stuff without saying anything. You say stuff by barking. As a woman in your film you have to become non-communicative in order for him to get out of his bubble. So do you feel there's a proclivity within a marriage, within a relationship, to actually communicate? This film actually says the opposite. It says by not communicating, by shutting down, you force the other person to confront their own limitations.
…By hitting rock bottom, yeah. The darkest part of the psyche, the underbelly of the house is the basement - Not upstairs where everything is put together. She goes into the dark energy to find her energy. Anyone who says that to someone in a relationship: "You can't paint," it's a rough thing to say to somebody. I don't think you should say that. I think you should say "You can paint. Let's do it. Where do you want the studio to be?" or "Which room of the house do you want it to be?" or "What corner of the house do you want to paint in?” I think we have to allow each other to have our dreams and have them fulfilled and help each other with them because you're going to crash and burn if you don't pay attention to what it is that's your specific purpose.
What have your dreams been that you've been reached out for and what are the ones that people held out in your way?
I am very different in the sense that all my dreams came true very fast. So dealing with that and being open and excited and grateful has been my life's work in that I was the youngest director I think at Sundance when I came with my first film, Good Dick, [and] I was the only woman.
How old were you?
I was 25 when it came here. Some people get that acorn - Robert Redford calls it an acorn, or your life's purpose. I've always known that I was going to be a storyteller. Other people don't get the acorn until they're 60, and that's fine as well. But everybody gets it at some point. And the not knowing what to do with it or being scared of it is not necessarily helpful. You want to just incorporate it in your life as much as possible because society needs it.
Is it frustrating or energizing to be a storyteller given recent political events?
Because you feel the need for stories is even greater?
Yeah. For sure. That's exactly why the film is so poignant. It speaks to everything that's going on politically. It's kind of a medicine for that specifically.
How hard was it to get the balance right? Surely there were drafts when she was entirely unlikeable and he was irredeemable.
That's what's so great about casting Jason [Ritter]. He's so redeemable! He's in a healing state at all times trying to figure everything out. The drafts didn't change between us. The relationship stayed very similar, kinda locked it. It's not like we took them to some crazy place and brought them back or anything.
Weirdly, the structure is a kind of anti-Shakespeare, almost the inverse of The Taming of the Shrew.
Yeah, isn't it?!
It's through her self-deprecation that he sees his own faults, and then he has to struggle.
Yeah, he's like, "She left me," and then he's like, "Wait a minute, I left her first so I have to get us back".
You had to get that right, making sure that that came through, rather than he's an asshole and she's psychotic.
I always think that it's okay if characters are not likeable in the beginning, which he's definitely not. But then he has so much further to go.
Do you find her likeable in the beginning?
I think that she's so put upon because she has such a difficult situation. She's not able to do her dream. She's stifled, she's muzzled, she's being suffocated. So when you're being suffocated you go [*makes gasping sound*] the minute you can breathe. So his reaction to all of the suffocation is what it is in the movie.
What was the first image that came to mind when you were developing this story? Was it the dog staring at the house?
It was the house itself and the levels-the basement, the upstairs. The way it was going to be shot came to me. All of it comes to me pretty quickly when I'm shooting.
I just see the whole thing in my head and then put in on paper when I have a chance. I wrote it in two days. The last script that I wrote, called Rad Dads, is a comedy and I wrote it in four hours. Similarly, I had it in my brain and put it down there. I just thought about it for awhile. It wasn't like I just wrote a script in four days without thinking about it.
And you just know when it’s done it’s done
I am very adamant that if I write something, we're going to make it, you know? I'm adamant about that for everybody who is out there because I think we should all be making stuff and putting it out there. If you have an album that's done, it has to be on the Internet. Why is it not available?! Let's get this shit out there. We need that stuff! The stuff that's in people's closets that they haven't put out there, that's the stuff that we need as a society. That's the most important art.
Who facilitates you being able to put it out?
All my community of filmmakers and everybody who's supporting me and all the different companies that we work with have been so supportive. Like Spectrevision, Company X, MarVista, it's been incredible.
What were the movies that made you want to become a filmmaker?
Everything that Kieslowski ever did. Lots of French New Wave. Leos Carax.
So clearly filmmakers that were not necessarily interested in the multiplex but interested in finding their audience.
Yeah, and also anyone from America, anyone who's doing anything interesting. Like big studio movies from America were always really appealing to me.
Do you want to do the next Star Wars movie?
Yeah I do actually. I think it's amazing. I think directing on a large scale is huge and incredible and would be perfect for me.
You wouldn't be able to write a script in four hours though. You'd have a lot of meetings.
Which would be great because then I could actually focus on other things, you know? Yeah, I think it would be cool. I'm amenable, which is nice.
Were you always going to be the bitch in question?
We did a reading or two where my friend Jocelyn Towne did an amazing job reading the role in a reading at my friend Bryce [Dallas] Howard's house. We read it because I wanted to get a sense of what it actually was and get a wee bit farther away from it, which I didn't want to do by reading it myself. But yeah, I think I was always going to be that role for some reason.
How have those films though changed in your mind, now that you've made more?
I love them. I love the healing power that each of those movies has. I know what I'm doing as a filmmaker; I take ultimate responsibility for what the films are saying in the world. Each one has got its own healing energy going out into the world.
And you think that's important?
Yeah, I do think it's important to use the ability to make a movie to help others. Yeah.
Excellent. Well I certainly hope it does.
Awww! Thank you so much!