Marianna Palka, Good Dick
Still only 27, Marianna Palka has achieved notable success early in her career because she knew what she wanted and showed an adventurous spirit in going out and getting it. A first generation Polish Scot, Palka grew up in the depressed working class Glasgow neighborhood of Maryhill, where at an early age she displayed an interest in theater and cinema. In her teens, she began making what she calls “video art” projects which depicted the world around her, such as By My Very Self, a portrait of her bipolar sister, Nina, and her father, who suffers from Huntington’s Disease. The title of another teenage effort, For My American Friends – which focused on life in Maryhill – referenced her long-held ambition to become an actress in New York and when she was 17 Palka did indeed relocate to NYC to study at the Atlantic Theater Company’s acting school. Since her graduation, Palka has lived in New York and London, but she is now based in Los Angeles, where she recently founded the production company Morning Knight with her partner and fellow Atlantic alum, Jason Ritter.
The intrepid Palka makes her big screen debut as writer, director and producer with Good Dick, an unusual and surprising film in which she also stars opposite Ritter. The pair play the movie’s lonely, unnamed protagonists, a sweet-natured, hapless video store clerk and an awkward, reclusive young woman who rents pornographic videos from him. Smitten, he forces himself into her life, determined make her love him despite her seeming ambivalence. The decidedly unconventional (non)relationship between these two damaged individuals is played out with sensitivity and subtle humor, making Good Dick a strange kind of romcom with characters whose neuroses and imperfections are drawn from the gritty side of reality. In front of the camera, Palka has real presence while as writer-director she demonstrates a mixture of assurance and raw talent that bodes very well for the future.
Filmmaker spoke to Palka about being penniless in New York, the meaning of “good dick,” and watching Wajda and Kieslowski movies as an embryo.
Filmmaker: From what I’ve read, already in your teens you were making films in Maryhill.
Palka: The video art – which was really just my own work for myself – came out of a necessity of being working class and voiceless. You’re just stuck there and there’s some kind of emptiness that’s there. But I never found it depressing to be there, I found it really engaging – there’s so much richness to every single moment because people aren’t really leaving. The stuff that I did specifically was for my friends to see, little videos – hour long movies or half-hour long movies, shorts – about Maryhill, the housing issues there, the way the buildings were left to disintegrate. There would be a family with little kids living on the second floor of a building where the rest of the building was totally falling apart, had broken windows and had so many health issues. It was very intense: there was one street that had row after row after row of houses like that and the kids would be playing on the street with broken glass. It’s just the reality of those neighborhoods that we don’t see on TV.
Filmmaker: Were you influenced by theatre as well in what you did?
Palka: Yeah, I was very influenced by Polish theatre, like Tadeusz Kantor, for example, was really an influence. Some Polish theatre companies would come to Edinburgh for the Fringe festival or visit Glasgow and they would stay with us when I was a kid. I was very intrigued by them and also felt like they could just, you know, change the world. They were all very physically fit, really articulate, they always stood up straight and I thought, “That’s what I want to do.”
Filmmaker: Did you have a conscious desire to escape to New York?
Palka: It was a need, you know? I really needed to do something that at the time was really courageous. Looking back on it, I didn’t know anybody and I didn’t have any money at all. If I had to be homeless on the subway, that was fine. My whole dream was to do plays and be a penniless actor in New York; that was the end goal of the move. When I found Atlantic, I found people who were really like-minded, people who understood me, who were very welcoming, and it was just a really incredible match.
Filmmaker: So did you go there with nothing and no place to stay?
Palka: Yeah, I told my mom, “I’m going to New York for two weeks. I’m going to stay in this youth hostel and look at places to study,” and then what happened was the Friday before the Monday I was supposed to leave to go back to Scotland, I was in Brooklyn looking at Manhattan and it was magic hour, and I had a sort spiritual moment. [laughs] I realized, “Man, if I go back, I’m going to have to work for a year before I can afford to come back to New York again. And that’s not OK.” So I called my mom and said, “I’m going to stay here, I’m going to find a school, I’m going to find a life here.” When I made that decision, I had $100. I was like, “This is great, Mom,” and she said [laughs], “I don’t know if this is a good idea…” I went home to Glasgow for the summer, worked as a waitress, and then came back out and started studying at Atlantic, and that work was really important to me and kept me very sane. It was a wonderful part of that time of my life.
Filmmaker: It seems surprising that you ended up in L.A., given your affection for New York.
Palka: Well, I like the sunshine [laughs], first of all, and the people that I know here are like my family, basically. My friends here are so important to me and I’m in this community of artists that are really incredible. You associate L.A. with bleached teeth and going to the beach and high-fiving or whatever, but my friends are really different than that. [laughs] Sometimes we high five, but you know what I mean. I think that they’re really important and I think that L.A. is a great place to shoot an independent movie and it was a great place to shoot a guerrilla movie. We made this movie for not a lot of money and we felt really supported here and that it’s the best place to shoot a movie, because you can be truly underground here. I just love it, and there’s a quiet and a peace that came into my life when I moved here that I had never had at all. The way that the city is set up, the fact that you have to spend so much time in your house, you can’t just go out onto the street to cafes and meet people and talk to people.
Filmmaker: The film tackles the subject of dislocation and the difficulty of connecting with people in L.A.
Palka: Right, and everybody’s so isolated in their car. The way that he meets her is so similar to what people are going through every day here. People are walking on the street and they don’t know where they’re going, and I always wonder about those stories of the people who are walking. Because if you don’t have a car in L.A., you’re kind of lost. I think if I’d moved here and I didn’t have the friends that I have, I’d have left.
Filmmaker: Where did your ideas for the characters in the film come from?
Palka: Well, I would go to Cinefile, the video shop which is a real place in Santa Monica, and I would rent videos from there. The guys in there would sit around, eat food and talk about films; they’re kind of like librarians, but also keepers of the kingdom, in the sense that they just know everything about every film that was ever made, good and bad. They can talk to you about a Fellini movie the same way that they can talk to you about a kitsch, weird, bizarro film that nobody’s ever seen except them and their friends, so I got the idea all of a sudden that it would be so funny if a girl came in and rented from their erotica section. I was thinking that would rock their world, so that’s where the idea for the movie came from. And then I started to write and research the film and I started to rent erotica, because I was going, “What is this exactly? What kind of movies would she rent?”
Filmmaker: How did people respond to you renting these pornographic movies?
Palka: [laughs] I was doing research for a film so… It’s interesting, I think a lot of women watch porn and rent erotica and do all sorts of stuff. I think there’s this weird exchange in Cinefile, because half the store is like wild, crazy films and half the store is really great, brilliant films and whenever anyone is renting from the dodgy section there’s an understood silence. Instead of “Did you see 8½…?,” there’s a quiet understanding of “I know that you know that there’s nothing to talk about right now,” and I think male or female, that’s the same. I think more and more as porn overtakes the internet and as the way sex is being portrayed in conventional cinema continues to happen we’re losing that gracefulness. There’s so many people who haven’t seen the movie who think they know what the movie is: “Oh, this chick’s renting porn – checks don’t rent porn!”
Filmmaker: What was it like being the director, writer, producer and lead actress on your first film?
Palka: Really easy, because I was prepared for every aspect of it from doing the theater that I’d done. I hadn’t ever directed anything before, but because I’m an actor I wasn’t weirded out about talking to actors. My mom’s a photographer, so I had an understanding about cameras and I wasn’t freaked out about talking to the D.P. There was nothing that was scary for me except that I knew that it was going to be basically a shitstorm crapshoot no matter what, so I had to be as prepared as possible. I prepared in every way that I possibly could and I was really compartmentalized. When you’re the captain of the ship, people are like “What’s this?” “Do you want the pink or the blue one?” “Are we doing it at seven or eight?” I think that if you’re saying something that you feel is important then it’s much easier to direct the film than if you’re just going there to get paid.
Filmmaker: The film, in terms of its subject matter, is quite intense, but all the behind-the-shots I’ve seen show everybody looking very happy and relaxed.
Palka: On set, it was very relaxed. I really believe in that, in everybody on set being equal members of a club. I hate this idea when you go on a set that there’s a hierarchy, because the reality is that everybody’s just trying to get the film made and if it wasn’t for the P.A.s, if it wasn’t for craft service, if it wasn’t for every single person who’s there that day then the film wouldn’t be what it is. This idea that the actors have to be treated with kid gloves and put in their trailer and all that stuff wasn’t anything that I ever jived with. I come from this school of thought where a film is a community of people making a little village, so it’s really lovely and everybody gets to be part of something.
Filmmaker: Was Good Dick always going to be the title? It seems very provocative.
Palka: The title Good Dick means different things to everyone, but for specifically these two characters it means positive persistence, or just persistence. I think that it’s wonderful in 2008 to explore sexuality in a way that has nothing to do with the one-dimensional version of what we’re offered. There’s way more to it and it’s interesting to talk about and it’s interesting to make films about. When I was writing the script, I was really asking the question, “What is sexy? What does that actually mean for people?” and in doing that, Good Dick was just naturally the title. “Good Dick” is… it’s like titling a poem or something. You have to title it, you can’t just call it These People.
Filmmaker: Talking of titles, I thought it was very interesting that neither of the two main characters have names.
Palka: That was just because I really liked the idea of us getting very close to them and feeling really intimate with them and then realizing, “Oh, we don’t even know them really. They could be anybody.” It’s going back to the idea of L.A. and seeing someone in a car next to you, or wanting to know people but not being able to. There’s a book called Rebecca and the lead character in the book is never named, and I read that in school and thought that was such a good idea. It really endeared me to her and I thought, “That’s me! If she doesn’t have a name, that’s me!”
Filmmaker: If you had an unlimited budget and could cast whoever you wanted (alive or dead), what film would you make?
Palka: It would be a well-written film [laughs], and I would cast Meryl Streep and me and… that’s its! [laughs] It would be me and Meryl Streep loving each other.
Filmmaker: What was the first film you ever saw?
Palka: It was probably a Polish film, either a Kieslowski or a Wajda movie. Probably Danton or Man of Iron. [I started watching them] when I was, like, an embryo. And then when I was born, I remember using my toddler toys in the same room as the TV was in. Other kids watched cartoons and stuff.
Filmmaker: Finally, what’s your biggest extravagance?
Palka: Organic vegetables and fruit. [laughs] Very expensive.