Interview – Marianna Palka : a talk about being a dog, feminism and joy
There’s something utterly communicative about Marianna, a friendliness you can feel as soon as she says hello to you. As much as she’s effusive and outgoing, there’s a coolness about her that makes you feel like everything’s gonna be okay. A character trait borrowed from her career as a busy filmmaker.
Marianna released not long ago Egg, her 5th film as a director. She started with Good Dick when she was 25 and just got to L.A from Glasgow, by way of New York when she was 17 to study drama. And then there was Bitch in 2017, a feminist satire that masters the art of surreal black comedy – produced by Elijah Wood, who is according to Marianna « one of the most feminist humans alive », as if we needed another reason to love him !
Before even asking anything, Marianna talks to me about feminism in her work, and in her life in general. She’s what you can proudly call a woman in charge.
She recalled their screening of Glow Season 3 a few weeks ago at The Wing – a network of work and community spaces for women –where « you can find tampons in the toilets and you don’t have to worry about catcalling ».
Without transition, we land on the catcalling issue in New York that is « next level », not in a good way. As she directed an episode of the TV show Happy in New York, wherever she were, whatever she was doing, men screamed at her. Which she answered with an explanation rather than ignoring them « That’s illegal and no it’s a not compliment, it’s scary, no one likes it.»
Marianna wants to sit down and talk, she wants to be able to teach whoever can be taught, talk to people who aren’t converted but are ready to be. It’s a good thing that all her friends who are feminists are gonna love the subjects of her movies, but that would be too easy to stop at them. Marianna is a conquerer !
There you have it, a Polish Scottish American writer director actress producer feminist life enthusiast! And we got to ask her some questions…
Cacti : So, GLOW…
MP : Season 3 is the best season yet. (Ed. Yep it topped the two previous seasons that were already perfect.) The intersectional feminism is really happening. We’re focusing more on the characters who aren’t the white people and what it means to deal with racism and misogyny in the 80s. It has that Mad Men feeling where you can see what has changed now and what hasn’t.
What was your connection to your character Reggie?
Reggie was so bizarre for me because she’s so far from me. She’s an athlete. I would do yoga everyday but she’s next level athletic! My cousin Julianna is an athlete and won all those golden medals so I could connect her to Reggie. But if it wasn’t for my cousin I don’t know if I would have felt her as much. Because she’s so quiet, she’s an introvert and I’m such an extrovert that it was like a Zen master challenge to portray her every day on set.
How does being a director shape your way of approaching a role?
Directing films makes you understand things like continuity for example, which not all actors are aware of. I also always know where I am in the frame. I know that I’m an anchoring force for the editor because I try not to do something different in each take. I don’t know if I would have been as camera ready for an ensemble show as I was if I hadn’t been in the director chair before. And I keep my director spirit by supporting everyone! I love this feeling of being part of a community.
Let’s dig into that! First I love your titles, Good Dick, Bitch… Very straight to the point. I can see a common thread through your movies; it’s always about finding yourself after a trauma, and often in the midst of strange circumstances…
Finding yourself after a trauma… I think that’s what movies are about. How do you get through the worst things, how do you process the pain. I love when you can say I know how to heal something that I didn’t know how to heal before thanks to a movie.
Can you talk about Egg, your last film?
It’s all about women, in friendship, motherhood… There’s all this art in the movie and it’s all made by women artists. The crew was mainly female, we had like 86% of women on the set, I just wanted to do it all the way. It was like summer camp, it felt like going away to a fun place to be, nobody was difficult to deal with.
What’s your first and strongest memory of a film set?
I remember going to set to Peter Mullan’s film Orphans. He’s my mentor. I was amazed because the energy that he brought to the set was very maternal; he was genuinely nice to everyone, cast, crew, extras… He’s tremendously nurturing. When we did Neds together, my grandmother came to set and Peter Mullan put her in his director chair AND gave her his headphones. He talked to her, explained what the scene was about and stuff like that… He didn’t have to do all that, he just genuinely wanted to chat with my grandmother. I think that essence to just talking to people is really what my memory is, my memory is being given the gift of being just nice.
I love ethical men ! My work is alchemy, it’s turning bad to light and getting bad men to be not just better, but good.
What was your journey from Glasgow to L.A?
It was like the American dream I guess! I wanted to go to New-York and die on the stage! I think when I got to New-York I realized that the biggest dream wasn’t in plays. I needed to explore something new. And that something new was movies. As a kid I went to a lot of plays but I was obsessed with cinema because all we had were those new wave movies my parents brought us back from France, we didn’t watch TV.
So when I moved in L.A it was very much based on that instinct. I knew I was going to direct and do something visual that was gonna last longer that plays because plays just go away after you do them.
You often write, direct, produce and star in your movies…
Oh my god I know!
But that’s a good thing! How does it feel to fill all those roles? Other than tiring and fun?
Yeah, it is fun! You can experience it with your magazine too I guess, sometimes you do some stuff and it’s easier to do it yourself than delegate. The roles were so specific for Good Dick and Bitch, I could do the performance and explain it but not explaining it so someone else would do it. In a way the doing of it explains it… Writing, directing and acting is as profound as it is simple for me.
How cool is it to play a dog (in Bitch)?
I associated it with my own body and not with dogs. Why does she need to do this with her body? Like how far into herself is she receded? There’s a whole rage of what is a dog.
My mom read Women Who Run with the Wolves as I was a teenager and I remember this part where this woman feels muzzled and chained. They weren’t talking about the physicality of becoming a dog but it all made sense to me that the next step is just that you’ll lose everything and don’t have a psyche anymore in order to survive. It’s almost like a suicide, better even because she doesn’t have to kill herself she just kills her soul. I thought that was so fascinating.
And my mom also sent me this painting called Dog Woman by Paula Rego ↓ and I just thought THAT’S IT! She doesn’t look like a dog but my feeling is that she looks like she is being a dog. I’m all about those feelings!
Never make a movie with kids and dogs…!
We had so many kids and dogs in this movie and the kids just get it. People always go « kids aren’t gonna understand », but THEY explained to us what that story was about. In the audition I was like « do you know why she becomes a dog? » and they were like « YEEEAH! Of course she has to! »
Do you think a good atmosphere on set helps making a good movie?
I think you can feel it, if the experience and the energy on set are good then the movie is amazing. And if the energy on set is off, you can feel it when you watch it. I love playing games on set, I make sure everybody is happy and feels welcomed.
What’s the most important thing about making movies?
The tailoring of storytelling. I steal from all sorts of different arts! Bitch came from that one painting, Dog Woman. Good Dick was really about this idea that one in three women are sexually abused as children so how do they deal with intimacy growing up? And I built the film around this one lady being able to be intimate again. Like what was for her a huge move, like someone washing her hair being life changing. So these concepts, the epic nature of being a real character in a movie, not having a little piece of a character but having a full spectrum of what a character is…
It’s strong and spiritual to go through life helping people with stories. That’s why I got into it first and that’s what keeps me going.
What’s in it for you?
You want to be healed as an artist. You’re doing it thinking it’s gonna help people but what you don’t realize is that it’s also helping you. It helps me to go to set every day. I think everyone has emotional PTSD from something that happened in their lives, and if you make something of it, it heals you and empowers you so deeply. It challenges politics and society, so it makes the world a better place. It’s important to keep going.
Could you stop working?
I noticed that I’ve been able to use work as a release valve, like « oh I can put that into work » and then pouf, it’s all gone. I’m very zen in my life, everything’s beautiful and I have a paradise experience everyday when I wake up with my beautiful dog (ed. a rescue Shih Tzu named Marlowe Monet)! And then in work there are always these interesting stories where there’s not a sense of peace. So yeah if something happens in life, it becomes very easy to express all those things into work. I don’t know if I would be as calm if I had done a different job.
Do you have a fun/strange anecdote of a role you played?
I was in When You Find Me, a short movie directed by Bryce Dallas Howard (I was 17 when I met her), and I had to play a dead mom in her hospital bed. I just had to stay so still, with the kid actors who played my children crying around me. I asked Bryce if I had to stay stiller and she said « Oh no you look SO dead » And I was like « Thanks I guess! ». This job is so strange! I love how our journeys evolve. It was a joy to work with Bryce and now she’s doing Star Wars. She got the script and it was all guys and she was like « it’s gonna be all women » who interact with each other! If there was a line for a woman character that went like « Oh I don’t know what to do now », she gave it to a man. Yaaay Bryce!
Moving on to very important questions!
If you could live in a movie, which movie would it be?
*grunt*…It has to be one right?
Of course! I mean… I think like… To be in the greatest love story of all time is the idea. To be in something that is so collaborative and so wonderful. Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado about Nothing is the place I want to live in. You wanna have a community, great weddings… And Beatrice as a character is such a feminist. We all just want to be in that summer dream where people fall for each other. And I also just want to eat that food in that movie!
You’re stuck in an elevator, who would you love to be stuck with?
Oh wow! Well there’s so much to be said for filmmakers like Roy Andersson or Léos Carax. I love A Swedish Love Story. Roy Andersson is so good, I just want to talk to him and tell him « what the fuck? »! And with Léos Carax I remember Les Amants du Pont-Neuf and watching all these Juliette Binoche movies because my family is Polish and we grew up watching Krzysztof Kieslowski. He made Trois Couleurs: Bleu with Juliette Binoche and I was like « Fuck that, this is next level, we’ll never get to that place ! » I literally have in myself all these French films, everything Truffaut… When we were kids we were acting as if we were in those movies.
I love Binoche with the eye patch in Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, Carax would be a really good person to be in the elevator with because I’d be like « yo man you were in love with Binoche and you put an eyepatch on her ! » Who came with the eyepatch idea? It’s the greatest idea! And Binoche could be stuck with us too, she’s so incredible, vulnerable and open.
I’ve also been so passionate about these TV actors in the UK. There’s this guy Shaun Evans in this TV show called Endeavour, he’s so exquisite, he’s doing some kind of symphony of subtlety for his character. And I would also add Audrey Estrougo, a very talented filmmaker, I met her when we did our first movies. So that’s my elevator!
What is the one thing you want to change in the world?
I want people who don’t have compassion to be given it.
Dress – LoveShackFancy
And finally, what’s next for you?
I was so happy to direct two episodes of Happy with Christopher Meloni. It is my joy to be able to work on a TV show of that scale. For each episode we had enough budget to really go for it. I was standing on 6th avenue, shooting with Meloni, where I used to study as a teenager with my little backpack!
I also did this TV show called Good Omens with my friend Neil Gaiman. It’s an epic tv show, I’m in episode 3 and we shot in South Africa. Douglas MacKinnon directed the episode so supremely truly, he’s an actor’s dream ! Working with Douglas was being guided by a master’s hand in a Michelangelo sculpture of yourself. Neil, who wrote the book the TV Show is from, is my oldest friend; I don’t think he’s human! His brain is so interesting, he’s very imaginative, he’s not like other people! I was there for three weeks; I got to really experience the whole thing. It just feels like such a dream come true.
It’s so cool to see all those movies and TV shows directed by women, it’s about time! It’s good for the boys and the girls. I can’t wait for what’s next, I’m so here for it!
On the political side, I’ve been working on Scottish independence since I was 16 because I’m a member of the Scottish National Party, a party led by women, which is really helpful for the community and so exciting right now.
It’s Noon in L.A, 9pm in France.
Marianna probably went for a walk with her dog to get a Matcha tea and carried on with her day as a Super-Woman.
Still full of Marianna’s communicative energy, I went straight to my TV, turned Netflix on and binged GLOW. And she was right, it is the best season yet!