“What is it to be a human being?” — On film-making, the shifted Hollywood climate, and alot more with Marianna Palka, director of Bitch
I caught up with actress, writer, and director Marianna Palka (GLOW) to chat influences, filmmaking, satire, the surprisingly frequent occurrence of people believing they are wild dogs (hint: police have a code for it), Harvey Weinstein, and her latest film Bitch.
Bitch tells the powerful and darkly humorous story of a housewife (Marianna Palka) who, after her philandering husband (Jason Ritter) and unruly kids (Brighton Sharbino, Rio Mangini, and Kingston Foster) break her psyche, upends the family dynamic by assuming the persona of a vicious dog.
Bitch is currently on Netflix. I highly recommend catching it as it is brilliantly written scathing satire executed by very capable acting, and a just as capable director.
Hello Marianna! Starting off, you have quite theatrical pedigree, and history, being a Scottish transplant who came to NY at 17, how does that shape your work as an actress, writer, director, and filmmaker?
In New York I was doing a lot of shows, for sure — that is kind of what was happening. I was in a lot of plays at the Atlantic Theatre Company, I was like a student there — a bunch of off-Broadway shows there, which was really exciting because that helped me realize what my dream was.
That was kind of my dream of coming to America initially: I wanted to get shows on Broadway. I thought I would be doing that for a long time — maybe until I was an old lady — and after I did that, I wanted to move to LA and start doing movies. Directing them, making stuff that was more broadly engaging — stuff that would have more of an impact on society because I felt like the New York stuff was in good hands, but there was a lot of stuff that needed to go on — especially in altering female roles in cinema right now — what a female character actually is — and just to be profoundly affected by the people you’re working with.
LA was the right place for me to do that also because I needed to experience what it is like to be at my maximum potential. I always try to do that. I go for what is the most maxed out way I can help the world with what I’m doing. It’s always about others for me. It’s not about my ego as a filmmaker, or my concepts on a cerebral level. It’s more like the feeling of what could be helpful to do in specifically America right now, you know?
That’s how Bitch plays in: how to be a good man in America? What it means to be a great man, a great father, internationally? That’s part of what the movie’s about, this word has taken a power over, taken a toll on, 51% of the population.
I think that there’s no reason for anyone to ever use that word. You don’t have to say it — it’s not about like saying words a lot. It’s about having conversations with each other that don’t involve that word, or name-calling in general, from men or women.
Favorite directors? Favorite films?
I love Agnieszka Holland, the Polish director, I was five when I auditioned for her — the first time I ever went in for anything was The Secret Garden — and I felt this power of being an artist with her that felt really wonderful to me, and I just wanted to continue it.
I love David Leveaux as a director, he has done just incredible work — on the stage and in films — he’s a wonderful, spirited, creative director.
Anyone who’s doing fascinating stuff — leading and inspiring people while simultaneously making a movie and that therefore rules the world, and is part of what I’m inspired by.
I love a lot of UK directors: Andrea Arnold, Lynne Ramsey, I love Peter Mullan — who I worked with in a film called Neds, which was again, like a world-changing film. He’s responsible for The Magdalene Sisters, he’s done so many incredible things as a filmmaker, and really changed the world, and altered the perception of the Roman Catholic Church.
I feel really connected and really moved on every level by the great directors who are using the language of cinema … I love all the Polish directors. I am very obsessed with film, I watch everything.
Once I’ve watched a film, I’ll watch it again on silent so I can understand what’s happening with it visually. Roy Andersson’s Swedish Love Story is one of my favorite films — I love just how each film takes you on this journey that’s genuinely different than any other one.
You’re the second director who’s mentioned Roy Andersson as a favorite to me. I’m going to have to check him out.
Swedish Love Story is a really good one to watch. He did another European film called Giliap that you should watch as well. Just using the language of cinema, you know?
Greatest challenges as a filmmaker? Greatest triumphs?
I think that my love for what I do and like my level of passion for it I think is my triumph. I think being able to have wonderful friendships and a close community of people making film has been really helpful.
I love being on GLOW, my TV show that is on Netflix, because it depicts females all empowered — all doing something that is wild and free, like where they are this like street-gang of women who are in the ring and let loose. It’s very empowering to be screaming and yelling and throwing each other down and stuff.
It’s a wonderful place to be, and I think that that’s a triumph in itself, to have already kind of slayed a bunch of dragons in terms of anytime there’s been something that’s been challenging for anyone who’s an artist, or a female, it’s either been a challenge in that situation or what’s been amazing about that is that we’ve been able to really push forward and not in spite of it, but because of that thing that happened.
So, I’ve always felt really empowered by that thing that happened that was off or felt like injust. I get very empowered by the injust and by people who are just not passionate or not doing very creative work — it makes me have a lot of drive and try to be very ethical, because the older I get the more I realize it is the truth that life is about the people who are ethical and people who are unethical.
I feel like meeting with the people who are ethical and making stuff as artists is going to eventually help the people who are unethical become ethical. I think that’s really the power of story-telling — like what we get to do with GLOW, what I’ve been doing with Good Dick, Always Worthy, Bitch, I’m seeing all these movies that I’ve made have all been about not staying the same essentially — that is exactly what that kind of triumph of art is for me, which is doing well.
Bitch is a profoundly sad film while being brilliantly written and executed satire too. As someone who has dealt with mental illness, I identified with Jill Hart especially at the beginning.
I’m curious what the spark of inspiration was for the project.
The thing about it is, everybody has dealt with the mental aspect: they have it themselves, or they know someone who has, or a family member has. It’s a family-friendly film on that level because you happen to be talking about what it means, and how we treat people who are mentally ill — the way that we put them in a box, it doesn’t help the situation. I don’t think they have the problem, its society that has the problem, or the situation that they’re in is their problem, the relationships that they’re in could be the problem. The problem is not something that they need to remedy.
It’s like Jill is the one with the issues as she’s pushed into a corner — and it’s a nice loving, pro-family, pro-marriage, pro-sibling film that shows an example of how to be a good family member and really stick through anything we can think of in society, or that has been taboo before, or deemed “imperfections” — really are not imperfections — they’re just ways that we can connect with each other — share our own vulnerabilities, the ways that we are different, how we disagree.
I think there is a profound message in the film about how it is to be a great parent, and really an ethical person. Bill is not a great person at the beginning of the film, and by the end he really becomes one.
There’s this catalyst. Jill’s situation becomes a catalyst for growing in the family, and brings everyone into a reality, that makes them understand that their definition of “people” doesn’t have anything to do with their fancy house but that they actually are a group of people who want to play cards together and dress up in silly costumes and be together, you know what I mean? They just want to spend time together.
That’s one thing I find unique: there’s a real honor in the ordinary and being there and supporting the people who are in your life. I think that’s a big part of how we become better as a society.
I definitely agree with that too.
What do you think makes the best satire? The most effective? One thing I found most effective about Bitch was the relative simplicity of its premise.
Right. I think that’s what I go for. I have a simple idea and then I explore it, like with Good Dick. Good Dick’s about a woman who has been sexually abused, and the film asks, “what does ‘good dick’ really mean to this woman? What is intimacy for her?” after she’s been sexually abused. If a man holds her hand, its gonna burn right? So like, why would she want you to have sex with her? How’s she gonna have a relationship? Here’s what you have to be to have a relationship with this person.
With all those dynamics of Good Dick in it: the questions of what “sexy” really is, and I love that in Good Dick, the biggest thing that happens is that he washes her hair, that’s the most amazing, intimate thing that happens to them as a couple: he cleans her, you know? [Laughs]
I found that to be just like a simple exploration of life’s intimacies and similarly with Bitch it was kind of like, what is a family? When we have this simple idea of “mom’s a dog”, how do we deal with that? How does that manifest in the family? How do we then connect after something like that has happened?
When there’s a situation that’s imperfect — seemingly — or tragic, how does that then heal the family? And in what ways is that funny? Because their life goes through the things that make us laugh.
You know, when you’re at a funeral, the things that I love about a funeral are the reasons we can laugh at funerals — because that, in itself, is the best story-telling. Some things happen in the craziest, hardest moments, and like Gena Rowlands’ character in A Woman Under the Influence, where they think she’s crazy, then the hard situations, and they think she’s not crazy. She’s really not crazy.
So, when she’s not crazy, and she’s just a person in a situation, then they can have a conversation. When we deem her as “crazy”, or we deem all these people in society as “crazy”, or when we call someone a “bitch”, you don’t have to think about who they are as a human being. If you were to take responsibility for your intention, and you don’t just say like a bunch of insults, and not take responsibility for what you’re saying or doing, but actually mean to never use that word again, that’s going to make the world a better place — the way you talk to people, men or women, not having an intention of malice, you’re just having a conversation.
Really all the films I’ve made are connected in that way. Asking, what is it to be a human being? What are we doing here? Who do we choose to be with in our life, and why? If you feel terrible, and they aren’t someone who is treating you well, should that be remedied through growth in the way that the marriage in Bitch is? The film is largely about having a better marriage and them coming closer to each other, and going through it together. It’s a look at healthy relationship dynamics in that way.
What was the research like in writing the film and in preparing to play a character with the idea of being a wild dog?
The thing that was that everyone I talked to knew about that. They were like, “I’ve seen that before!” It wasn’t something that was odd to them, or crazy, or weird, or “that would never happen. It happens every day.
We just had to go to downtown Los Angeles and look around: you’re gonna see stuff that isn’t the perfect white picket fence concept, but that’s being a human being. If you dump these poor people out into society like that, you’re going to have a difficult time, you know?
So, the Police Department calls it a 5–0–5–1. People acting like dogs happens all the time, we don’t know if they have a construct of their being or not, but we know that they do it.
Has to be a really scary situation, you know?
I’m curious (because of the film’s satirical element) if reactions to the film have changed after all the news of sexual coercion against powerful men in Hollywood broke on Oct. 5 with Harvey Weinstein.
Men, grown men, go and see our movie and it makes them cry. It’s a conservative values film — if you watch Fox News, you’re going to like our movie, because Bill is basically you, you know what I mean? It’s not like he’s some left-wing guy, he’s a conservative man, who has conservative values. It’s a very pro-male, pro-being a good father, pro-connection film.
I think the truth about what’s going on is that there is a predatorial reality, there is an absolute disgusting way illegal dynamic happening where it’s such a boil — it’s such a festering, disgusting, horrible part of what we’re dealing with today.
But, what’s beautiful about it is that we ARE dealing with it. We are dealing with it TOGETHER.
My favorite thing about it is the good men who are coming forward in support of women, and men who have been sexually abused. Good men doing good stuff get me very excited because I love good men. It’s not that like “all men are bad” or “let’s exclude men from the conversation” : we need good men.
If you are wondering whether you should come forward and support someone, you should, you know what I mean? If you’re thinking of calling that person and asking them if they’re ok, YES you absolutely should. You should call them up: they need your support.
There’s such a long road to slay a dragon like that — you need to be able to have the support of people on your side, and women gather, you know what I mean? They come together, and talk about stuff, and figure out solutions. Women I know are so solution-based, in much the same way as the best men I know are as well.
The fascinating thing about right now is not like the, “oh! It’s changing! The tide is turning!”
No, it HAS changed. It HAS changed. Therefore, it can no longer be the way that is was. And it’s never gonna be that way again.
That’s what’s such a relief about it. We keep getting all these awards, and rewards, for the good work we’re doing as ethical people in this world, because I’ve never done anything that was unethical on that level.
Like, my favorite thing about being a director is that I’ve never sexually abused anyone! [Laughs]
My favorite things about being a director, is that I always see people, whether they’re an intern, or whether they’re Jaime King, as a human being: I need you to be here, you’re supporting our project — I need you to do the best that you can do.
I inspire people on that level because I’m not sexualizing them — that’s not what I do as a director, that’s not part of my job description because I’m not a pervert.
So, to say like “oh, that’s just what musicians do,” “it’s the music industry so it’s OK that that guy grabbed your ass” — it’s like “no man, that’s not the music industry. That’s that guy!” There’s many musicians who think you’re beautiful who don’t do anything like that! [Laughs]
There’s so many music managers who are just incredible human beings and it’s good that people right now are deciding to be represented by people, or work with people, or be financed by people, who aren’t doing that, who aren’t perverts.
I love that freshness — it’s not like “oh, that’s the way it is, we have to just deal with it”.
No, I met Harvey Weinstein and I looked him in the eyes. I was like, “that guy is not a good person, and I don’t want to work with him, and I don’t want to be financed by him.”
I didn’t even want to attempt to be within his world, because I found it so unethical. Literally within the first moments of being in the room with him — but it’s not only him — I’ve had that happen with other people to. All men, who have just been so… off.
And they’ve twisted themselves — it’s not society that’s done it to them. No, they did it to themselves.
The cool thing about it is, when you’re empowered, when you’re working from a place of loving filmmaking, and you’re doing stuff because you are a good parent, you are a good person — I am a good daughter, I was raised by my mom who never saw me for what my body was or what my face was, my mom goes, “you’re a good artist. Go out in the world and change the world.”
Because I had that support from my mother, that level of belief in myself, meeting Harvey Weinstein all those years ago, it wasn’t for me a situation where I was like, “oh shit! He’s my only option. I am going to have to sleep with him.” I was like I know I have enough power within me not to have to like deal with him on that level.
Being honest, I was probably lucky, you know what I mean? I find it so profoundly illegal and like its not even a conversation of how it could flourish — no, it was illegal and what he has done is so sociopathic that it’s opened up conversations about everyone and how maybe there’s other stuff going on in other areas that we’re only seeing right because it’s bringing up all this wonderful stuff like the #MeToo hashtag. That’s my favorite thing that’s ever happened on the planet. Like genuinely. [Laughs]
I’ve been waiting for shit like that to happen and GLOW I think is part of it, there’s this huge feeling of not having to feel like you can’t talk about something or like, “My boyfriend was with me. We were drunk. I don’t think I can bring it up.” It’s like: fuck that!
It’s about, if you didn’t consent to a situation, then that situation was wrong. It’s not confusing, you know? It’s a black and white situation.
I completely agree.
Last, what is next for you?