Marianna Palka is the writer/director/actor of “Good Dick,” a film which premiered at Sundance in 2008. “Good Dick” had its UK premiere at the Edinburgh Festival, where Marianna was honored with the New Director’s Award. Marianna was most recently asked to be a Sloan Juror with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.
Jocelyn: What was the inspiration for your screenplay, “Good Dick”?
Marianna: I was really frustrated at that time with some of the auditions I was going on as an actress and felt like I could do more. I had been doing a lot of theatre in New York, where I had felt really open and relaxed with my job as an actress. I wanted to do something on film that was more interesting than anything that I’d gone out for before. So it was that kind of frustration that made me decide to write the script in secret. I wrote it and showed it to people, which was a good way to have the script evolve. It was an organic process, it was not something that I planned really.
Jocelyn: Had you ever written anything before?
Marianna: It was the first thing I ever wrote. I was really driven to write it for another reason; I heard this statistic that one in three women are sexually abused before the age of 16 so that was overwhelming to me. It was shocking.
J: How long did it take you to write the first draft?
M: The first thing I wrote was 60 pages. After a read-through of it I realized it was a feature and it needed to be longer. All in all, it took me about six-months to write it.
J: You knew you wanted to act in it, but did you know you wanted to direct it right away?
M: Not initially. I thought that your brother (Nicholas Towne) was going to direct it.
J: Oh, that’s right!
M: Yeah, I thought, Nick will direct this and it would have been great, but then I realized that I could do it. I was a little bit scared, but then I realized that there really isn’t a set of rules, that you don’t have to go to film school in order to be a director, you can just direct a film and then you’re a director.
J: How did you go about finding people to work with you? How did you find your producers?
M: Jason (Ritter) and I were at a party- Jason and I already had a production company and knew we were going to produce the movie- so we were talking to Cora and Jen (of Present Pictures) about what we wanted to do and they were really interested in it. They were about to start shooting “The Babysitters” in New York, so they went and did that. They were still talking to me and really excited about it. I met them in the February before the fall shoot so it was very fast.
J: So once you had them on board, how did you start assembling the team?
M: In my mind, the actors were the most important people to first find along with the dp. Cora and Jen introduced me to Andre Lascaris(director of photography) and Christopher Kroll(editor). With the actors, I had written the parts for people I knew so everybody in the film was basically my friend. I gave them the script, they were excited about doing it, that’s how it all came together.
J: What was your meeting like with Andre? Is he the only dp you met with?
M: He was the first and only because the minute I met him we just clicked. He just understood it, he understood what it was that was required from him. He hadn’t ever worked with anyone who had directed something that they were acting in, but it was clear to me that he got what that would require. We had an instant rapport and that was my most exciting journey with the entire film. I could say that, creatively, working with Andre sort of birthed me as a director.
J: Did you audition anyone for the film?
M: No. The only person I didn’t know was Martin Starr, and I had originally written the part for my friend, Jeremy Strong, but he was the lead in “Humboldt County." I met Martin for coffee, he had read the script and liked it. And he was also driving a red Honda Civic, which is the car in the movie, so clearly (laugh), it was meant to be. This is how I make my decisions!
And with the actors, I basically had the opinion that we were doing a play for the crew so that we could have done “Good Dick” the play as we began shooting on day one.
J: How did you begin to prepare yourself- as an actor, as the director?
M: My plan was to be as prepared as I possibly could be because I didn’t know how much energy it was going to take, what it was going to mean to direct it, but I did know what it was going to take as the actress. I knew a lot of variables were going to come up while shooting and there was going to be a lot of stress. People tell you that on your first feature as a director, whether you’re acting in it or not, you’re going to meet with challenges. I knew if I was as prepared as possible with Andre beforehand then we would be telepathic on set. And with the actors, I basically had the opinion that we were doing a play for the crew so that we could have done “Good Dick” the play as we began shooting on day one. Everybody knew their lines and what the point of every scene was. We also didn’t have a lot of time, we shot for 17 days so… Pre-production was more stressful in a way than shooting because it took a lot of energy and you’re not getting a final product at that point.
J: Could you talk more about how you prepped with Andre?
M: We met many times. I remember him showing me an image early on of who he thought the woman was, the vibe of her world. It was really dark, there was something about it that was kind of gross, seedy. And that wasn’t her world. I showed him a picture of a naked woman who was very well lit in a white room, there was something about it that was very intimate and beautiful. And I said this is what we’re trying to draw out from her. He instantly got what I was talking about. And that the sexy in the film has nothing gross about it, there’s a sort of innocence to it. We talked about how Jason’s character brings light into her life and so the entire film goes from dark into a much lighter place. Andre was initially shocked that I wanted to shoot everything in wides. He said we couldn’t only do that. And thank god for him because if we had shot the whole thing in wides, it would not have become the film that it did.
J: What exactly did he say to you about that?
M: He said that we were going to want to be able to cut into stuff, we would want those options, of close-ups on people, and have inserts.
J: Why did you want it to be in wides?
M: I was coming so much from scenes from 1970s films, that are just allowed to play out. I like the audience watching a shot of the entire scene as opposed to being manipulated by coming in closer. It was also driven by the sense that it’s a very voyeuristic film, that she’s watching videos all the time and he’s watching her all the time. Thank god we had the close-ups!
J: Did you have a shot list?
M: Yeah. Most of the time we knew how it was going to be framed. But practically when you get into the room, you have to make adjustments sometimes.
I wanted it to look like a specific camera that my Mom used when we were growing up, which she still has. My Mom calls her Nikon her first child.
J: What camera did you use?
M: Sony F900. I wanted it to look like a specific camera that my Mom used when we were growing up, which she still has. My Mom calls her Nikon her first child. She’s a photographer. She had this very specific way of taking a photograph and it was the way I wanted the film to look. I showed Andre a lot of those images. I like the depth of field that she used and that’s what we did.
J: Did you do any re-shoots?
M: No. Probably because we didn’t have any money, but also we didn’t really need them, it never really came up. I remember on day 18, the day we were done I was sitting in my pajamas, watching tv and I realized that I’d gotten everything I wanted as the director. I had this pre-conceived notion that I wasn’t going to get some of it because it was an indie film. And when the cast is well-rehearsed you’ve got something really elegant because you’ve got the actors bringing different colors to it and they found five different ways to do the scene, so if you can shoot those five different versions then you have choices.
J: How much did you say to your actors during rehearsal? And was there a learning curve for you as you figured out how to communicate with them?
M: I told them they had to be off-book for rehearsal. We did the scenes over and over again so that they were able to find different colors. I really believe in giving actors time and I think everyone works differently. I gave them bios and explained their relationships to each other and what specific lines might mean. It was such a pleasure and would encourage them when I felt that they were really on the right line. I don’t like to be critical of actors, I don’t think that it’s helpful. You just have to encourage what’s in them that’s really unique, that no one else could do, then that becomes what the character is and that becomes what film is. It’s a combination of everybody doing their best.
J: You have a bunch of scenes that are just you and Jason, how did you work on those? Were you two alone?
M: We had a friend of mine, Amberlee Colson, come in and she was on-book for us. That helped us too, because we were in our apartment so it helped that she was there.
J: Did you record any rehearsals so that you could watch them?
M: No, I knew that I could do that if I needed to, but I felt that finding the character’s journey through the script was enough. After rehearsals, I would just review the scenes in my mind. And that muscle was another sense that I didn’t know I had, and it became the barometer that I used when I was shooting.
J: Did you end up watching much playback when you were shooting?
M: Initially that was the plan, I was excited about it as a concept, but then we got to the day and I watched it and I thought, yeah, that’s great. Then it became unnecessary to watch playback and it was time-consuming and it was fun to keep moving.
J: There are so many highly emotional scenes for your character, did you feel that you were preparing while you were directing or did you have to take time out to prepare?
M: I got to this place in rehearsal where I had a varied number of ways to play each scene. By the time I got to the day, it became about just doing those different things. If it was really emotional, I couldn’t talk to Andre or the costume designer or the make-up artist. It was not much time, I would just take a little moment.
J: Did people instinctively know to give you space?
M: Everyone’s doing their job, asking questions of you as the director. The only time I really had a quiet moment was in the make-up chair. I remember those were meditative moments. And when I would go to sleep at night, those were the only quiet moments. Everything else was calm, but not quiet. It’s interesting to have to do a really emotional scene and then joke around after, but as actors we do it all the time.
J: I got to visit your set a couple of times and it was amazingly focused and calm. It looked very meditative.
M: That was the plan, I’m glad it worked.
I think everyone has those panic voices in their head. Because you have to jump off a cliff and why would you want to do that? Why would you want to go there when you could just stay at home in your pajamas all day?
J: Did you have any doubts or worries while you were shooting? Any personal freak outs?
M: I think everyone has those panic voices in their head. Because you have to jump off a cliff and why would you want to do that? Why would you want to go there when you could just stay at home in your pajamas all day? It’s scary. I knowMeryl Streep, every time she gets a part, she thinks, “Oh I’m not an actress. I can’t do this.” I think it’s incredible that she admits to those voices. You just have to turn them down, and turn up the volume on the voices that tell you that you can do it. I felt like I had a purpose too, to give voice to people who have been sexually abused. The important thing is to be confident and you forget that you fall off the cliff. It’s good for the captain of the ship not to be freaking out because I’ve been on sets like that.
J: I know you watched a lot of films before you shot this and that you watched certain ones over and over again. Which ones?
M: I watched a lot of erotica, but that was separate. I really like Krzysztof Kieslowski and any Polish director from the 80s like Agnieszka Holland, and I would watch them on mute. It enabled me to see the film from the shots only. That was enlightening. I like to do that with any film that’s impacted me.
J: You’re very inspired by the work of Peter Mullan and he’s been your mentor for many years. Did you talk to him before you shot this and did you ask him for advice? And if so, what was it?
M: I don’t have a memory of what happened before I shot the film, because I probably blocked it out. I’m not sure if I sent him the script. I think he knew I was shooting a film. But it was such an audacious move for me personally. I was in such an identity shift artistically that I don’t remember if he said something to me before. I’m sure he was really nice. I do remember him seeing the film, which was an incredible moment for me. I showed him the rough cut on my laptop, which was 1 hour 40 minutes. He had to wear headphones, I was freaking out. I left him in my hotel room in Scotland and then I came back. I was so terrified. I thought he was going to kill me, I mean he’s a nice man, there’s no reason why I would think that, it’s just that artistic thing of it could all be over. He said it was a gem of a film. That was really the end of something for me, his opinion is so important to me, I can’t explain it, it was so much, it was such a big deal. That was the first big epic shock of the movie. The hour and a half version went to Sundance. Peter had notes, he said that it was too long. He said that it wasn’t “War and Peace.”
J: The Woman in G.D. spends most of the story trying to drive the Man away. Were you concerned with whether or not people would embrace her because she was pushing so hard against a very warm character, the Man?
M: I don’t know that I thought about it early on, but it became something that I had to think about because there are moments where she is both pushing and pulling him. I didn’t want her condition to be unrealistic, she’s not a normal character and neither is he. I think that by going full force with all of the moments, the ones that are beautiful between them are very beautiful and the ones that are difficult are very difficult. In the cutting room I could have made the version where she was this awful person or where she’s a very simple, sweet girl. I think that she’s both. And we were able to cut it that way. That’s how she was in the script anyway. The negative moments with her are balanced by the reasons he would stay with her.
J: How did you feel when you first watched the dailies in the editing room?
M: My editor assembled the rough cut on his own, it was the film as the script is written. He asked if I wanted to start from the assembly or from scratch and I said, from scratch. I hadn’t seen all the dailies yet. I wanted to be meticulous with it.
Someone said, you write one film, you direct another film, you cut a different one and then people see a fourth! It’s true.
J: Did you end up cutting any of it together that was not how it was originally written in the script?
M: Oh yeah. We made the director’s cut. Chris was great to work with, we were so on the page, and he was also so practical, he was able to give me stuff that I wouldn’t have been able to envision.
J: So you flipped certain scenes around?
J: And it worked continuity-wise?
M: It did. The third part of the film needed to have a drive that it didn’t have in the original order that it was written in, so moving some scenes around gave us a really sharp arc. That, along with the notes from Peter Mullan that it was too long, made me realize that it had to be an entertaining film. The script was entertaining, but it wasn’t necessarily what the film became. I would never have been able to do those changes before that moment. Someone said, you write one film, you direct another film, you cut a different one and then people see a fourth! It’s true.
J: I find that people’s first films are auto-biographical in a certain way, it may not be the story that’s auto-biographical, but perhaps a theme that is. Do you find that to be true in this story?
M: It wasn’t auto-biographical. It was based on people who I know who were sexually abused in their childhood and some of them cannot have a functioning relationship. That was so compelling to me, and such an injustice that that could be taken from them: that the thing that could heal them, they cannot do. It drove me crazy, I don’t know why it drives me nuts, but it does. It’s just not fair. I feel very lucky not to have gone through something like that, and I wanted to give a voice to it. The themes that love can heal your life, or that if you stick with someone through something that’s difficult they’ll come around or a possibility that they will. That’s definitely a theme in my life. It’s the way that I’ve figured out what love maybe is- that in the face of the worst possible demons or tragedy you have optimism, that’s love.
J: In what way has directing your first film informed you as a writer? You’ve now written two new scripts…
M: I think having a first draft of anything is great. I go for the first draft really quickly because I can’t do an outline, I lose enthusiasm, I’ve tried and I just end up writing the script. I am maybe now a little less precious, my reverence is not gone, but I have more of a keen ear for what will just get cut.
J: By ‘precious’ what do you mean?
M: It’s your darling thing you’ve made. It’s like everybody can sing in the shower. I know so much more what the spine of the work is, what’s important versus what’s extra. “You have to kill your babies.” I’m capable of doing that now.
...your masterpiece is your life and your life is long.
J: Have you ever gotten advice from a filmmaker that you remember? Do you have any advice to share?
M: I had great advice from what I read. I read and re-read Walt Whitman, Maya Angelou, listening to music, staying in the place of creativity and openness and not getting bogged down is really important. Once you’ve made something, you’ve made it and then you have to make another thing. And I think writers and filmmakers have that functioning in their brains at all times and so I always go back to Walt Whitman, it's not chaos and death- “It is form, union, plan—it is eternal life—it is Happiness.”
J: I like Walt Whitman...
M: Stick with the master plan: that your masterpiece is your life, and your life is long.