One of the more incendiary films to hit screens this year is Bitch—written and directed by lead actress Marianna Palka, the Scottish-born auteur who studied at New York City’s Atlantic Theater Company, the off-Broadway mainstay founded by David Mamet and William H. Macy. I was first exposed to her work through her 2008 directing debut Good Dick, which she also wrote and co-starred, along with Mark Webber, Charles Durning, Tom Arnold, and then-boyfriend Jason Ritter. That film premiered in competition at Sundance and got a great deal of attention on the festival circuit that year.
With a couple more directing efforts under her belt, Palka returned to Sundance this year with Bitch, also co-starring Ritter as Bill, a neglectful husband who must re-learn the value of his marriage to Palka’s Jill if he wants to save her from a deep psychotic break that has left her taking on the properties of a feral dog, living in their basement.
In my original review of the film, I called Bitch one of the most purely feminist films I’ve seen in ages, a sentiment I shared immediately after the Sundance premiere with producer Elijah Wood, whose production company SpectreVision is one of the film’s backers. Sometime between that conversation and the day I sat down with Palka for this interview, Wood had passed on my comments, and I was greeted by her with the words “I’m going to hug you now,” and I was initially at a loss to understand why.
Palka, who many now may know as Reggie Walsh on the new Netflix series “GLOW,” was joined during our interview by an old friend of mine, actress Jaime King (Sin City, My Bloody Valentine, Mother’s Day), who plays Jill’s exceedingly patient and understanding sister Beth, who helps Bill with his marriage issues. I got to know King and husband Kyle Newman over the many years of us attending the 24-hour mystery movie marathon Butt Numb-a-Thon in Austin, Texas, in various combinations.
But it’s been a few years—and a couple of children for King—since I’ve seen either of them in person, so this was especially nice to talk to King and Palka about such a great and powerful work at Sundance.
Please enjoy my talk with Marianna Palka and Jaime King…
Jaime King: It’s so good to see you. I feel like it’s been forever. It’s so weird not having seen you for so long, or email with you or talk to you.
I know. But yeah, I mean, it’s a strange movie because as much as it is like this I think a huge feminist statement, the character arc is Jason’s. He’s the character that changes and has to change. At the beginning of the film, it’s about him asking “Why is she doing this to me?” And he has to get to the point where he’s like, “What have I done to her to make her this way?” And that’s the journey. It’s the best thing I’ve ever seen him do, dramatically.
Marianna Palka: For real. For us too.
It’s a woman story, but the man has to be the one to make the change for her to come out of this state of mind.
MP: Well, that’s what I like about our movie. I like that it’s a feminist film, but it’s also conservative. So whoever you voted for in the election, you’ll like our movie. I’m a feminist, and some of my strongest feminist friends in my life are men, and they would love it. I knew they were going to get it and just dig it and be into it. I thought, let’s do something where we’re getting everyone else as well and we’re inclusive and we’re not making something that’s just for people who are cool and already love us. It was like reaching out to the other side and not saying, “Screw you,” but being like, “This is a movie about you. This is your movie.” It’s their movie as much as our movie.
JK: I was reflecting upon this last night after the second screening—Jason [Ritter] and I weren’t allowed to see the film before Sundance, so you can imagine we were fucking terrified.
He told me. I was there on the first night.
JK: It was a crap shoot. We had so much investment on like a deep heart-and-soul level. You always have a deep investment, but some films just like grab you by the metaphorical balls because of the people who are involved. When you deeply love and care about each person on a human, real-world level, that impacts you, as far as making the film, so much more. You can’t let it go. What I was reflecting upon was that when she first wrote the script, which was seven years ago, all of this stuff was in the bowels of our society. Women and men had been fighting for equality and fighting for things for a very long time, but it wasn’t the story of the day, and she was already writing this story. So let’s talk about that first and foremost.
There was already this natural grasp of well roundedness, and she wrote it from a place that is ultimately her. Right? Because for a filmmaker, every character is her and to bring whatever is her is out into the world. I look at it now, and it’s just almost like a crystal ball for what’s going on. It’s interesting now because, yes, we can say that it legitimately speaks to every single person and it legitimately is feminist, which means just being equal to all. There’s a stigma to the word “feminism” now. That’s the power of cinema. That’s the power of a great artist. That is the power of these performances. That is the power of the writing and this filmmaker, who just writes from the heart, and then of course it would come out, and we would premiere on inauguration night. Of course we’d be doing our press with people that we love so much. Waking up and seeing you as the first person today is like so perfect.
MP: Such a dream come true!
JK: It’s so wonderful.
This is how it went for me: seeing this as a midnight movie, go to sleep, wake up and there’s marching down the streets [the Sundance Women’s March]. That’s been the last 36 hours for me.
JK: Right? And it’s so beautiful because we get to be here and celebrate art. We get to be here and celebrate something that we love, which is the antithesis of hatred. It is everything about completely being vulnerable and giving everything of yourself. Those journeys are such magical and important ones because it’s a journey that every man and woman at one point goes on in their life, and it’s all relative to your own experience. It may not be this dramatic, but it is dramatic to other people. Within your own personal world, we all have these reckonings that we’re going through. It was so interesting because I read a review today that was talking about how it was such a powerful feminist movie, and then it said something that Beth was the judgmental sister. And I thought how fucking ironic that she’s the judgmental one when she’s calling him out.
MP: She’s just being very reasonable.
JK: Not even reasonable.
MP: She’s completely bashful.
JK: “Are you out of your fucking mind? You’re calling my sister selfish.” Beth is the one speaking the truth. We always have to have that voice of reason, the one that’s willing to push back, push back, push back. It was just so fascinating because I was like, how interesting that you can start with a headline, say all of these beautiful things and then totally miss a point of one important thing.
MP: Right. And completely cut it off at its legs.
JK: Yes. And that shows me where we have to go within our own point of view. It’s just fascinating to me because, if anything, that person is missing the love between them.
MP: The things that are together about them. They have these opposing opinions. The way that they deal with Jill’s situation is so different. They couldn’t be more different as people, yet they still love each other. They’re still in the same room. They still talk about things. They help each other. That’s family to me. I think that it’s a really conservative film in a way because it’s very positive about sibling relationships. It’s about being a good parent. It’s very pro-marriage. It’s an incredibly happy family. At the end of it, you feel very rewarded by the kids. The kids are not some annoying world; they’re absolutely the heavenly Shangri-La that Bill is trying to get to.
I think that when someone says something like “feminism” is a bad word, or a character’s judgmental just because they’re female and assertive, that’s the whole point of our movie. The whole point of our movie is that B-I-T-C-H is a word used by people, and it should never be used to describe anything other than an actual female dog. We don’t need to use bad words to describe each other. There’s so many reasons you can use something else. If you want to say that word to someone, you can just call them assertive. Say they’re being difficult or annoying or whatever it is.
JK: Or they’re using their voice.
MP: It doesn’t have to be so reductive. I’m always interested in making movies about people who are interesting. Ever since I talked to Sean Connery, who gave me an award in Edinburgh for directing Good Dick. I was talking to him about male and female energies in actors, and he was saying that he loved playing Bond because Bond made him very popular, but it was because he was playing the feminine, the vulnerability of that macho man. He wasn’t playing the macho, and that’s why people loved it. And I think people love Beth because she’s strong. She’s very vulnerable but she’s also strong, and those two things are what most people are. Most people are like, “I have feminine energy; I have masculine energy. What do I do in this world that wants to put me in a box?” I think that Bill starts out very much in this small range. He’s only playing the masculine and he moves more into feminine energy. That’s such an incredible thing for people to see because I think most people are having that reckoning, where Jill goes through this metamorphosis, and Bill is just having a reckoning.
Can you talk about the film as purely an acting exercise? One of the things that impressed me so much is just you commit to this idea and never let up. And how do you direct yourself being that primal?
MP: First of all, I was so lucky to have Jaime because I felt like I could rely on her so much. Jason also, I felt like I had this very easy family to work with. We were in such a collaboration that it felt like I was safe and I could do whatever I wanted. I knew I could go the distance with them and having a character who’s very put together at the beginning and is aiming for perfection, and then taking her into the basement into this very dark shadow side of everything, the stuff no one wants to deal with. No one wants to deal with anyone being anything other than perfect a lot of the time, especially in relationships.
Most marriages are like, “Let’s be perfect together. Let’s be kind to each other even with our imperfections. Let’s not try to hide our imperfections somewhere under the carpet.” You have to bring that stuff out into the world. I was thinking of all that; it just was instinctual when I was making it. It just felt like I wanted to show this vast arc for Jill. But also have her represented by her strong sister and her intelligent sister and her loving sister. I thought it was really wonderful to get to play all those notes for her.
JK: With the sister relationship, I have two older sisters, and my dynamic with my sister [in the film] was so important to me. The consistent communication that Marianna and I had about how much adoration I had for my older sister was really what I kept conveying to Marianna, and the way that I feel about Marianna. It helped inform the way that the two related. But Mari’s process, at least watching it, everything was so graceful on the set and safe. It wasn’t like she had to force herself to become something. It was very fluid. I think that’s when you know when you’re in the right space. When you’ve worked on something long enough, she’s already tapped into that shadow side. She’s already tapped into all of those layers. And the way that she utilizes space, from being in the kitchen, in the bedrooms to then being down in the basement, really shows your level of consciousness. It’s very symbolic of what she has to go through.
MP: What’s going on for us on the surface and what’s going on for us underneath are two very different things. So the house is a representation of that, and we definitely showed it very differently. When the characters are upstairs, they’re in a completely different situation than they are when they’re downstairs. When Beth goes down, it’s a completely different situation. She’s not in the same reality.
JK: In that basement scene, that was basically improvised. I had asked her about a song. “What song do you like? Is there a song from your childhood?” I wanted to sing her something with a melody that she would remember from her childhood. It ended up working really well because it was creepy, and as I was singing this melody, it really tapped me into her. It was just really powerful. That kind of stuff was happening all the time.
MP: Incredibly elaborate connections and communication.
JK: Dreamwork and discussions.
MP: Dreamwork. And it was very healing. It felt like we all went in this capsule and took off into outer space and we’re on another planet. We’re all different people because we went through something that was a very magical experience. It felt very blessed, especially to have the kids. Everything people always say not to do is what this movie is in a sense [laughs]. “Don’t work with dogs. Don’t work with kids.”
We had four kids and all the dogs. There was a dog lady. The dog that we had, Jaime had worked with that dog before on another movie previously, and it was like this magical connection. That dog was perfectly behaved, hit his marks every time, did everything we needed him to do. There was not like one moment where we were like, “Oh my god, this dog is taking time.” With he kids too, I felt like they needed to be in their organic places and not told to be presentational, but more be themselves in a sense and go from there. If they were laughing, we would roll the camera and then do the scene. If they were pushing each other, then we would roll camera and go into the scene.
JK: There were no trailers. We all were in the house in the kids’ room. We were all together in one space. We shared two tiny rooms for the whole film. What’s so beautiful about that is everybody really was in the house, stuck in the house, but we loved being in the house. Normally you would think it would be like “This will help me feel like I’m going crazy,” but everybody wanted to be together anyway.
MP: On all my movies, I like to generate a lot of fun and have that feeling of creativity constantly. Laughing is completely something that happens all the time. I like laughing with the crew as much as the actors. I’m very kind to everyone. I know everybody’s name. I talk to everybody one-on-one. I think it helps build that sense of family and communication. The crew were very supportive and totally involved as much as we all were as well. There wasn’t really a crew member who wasn’t awesome, which is also magical.
The power of the storytelling here is so strong that if you had ended the movie without her having come out of this, it would have been just as satisfying to me.
MP: Oh that’s good. That’s a great compliment.
It felt like she was in good hands either way.
MP: Right, which is nice, right?
JK: Just by her standing up. That was huge.
Jason said you actually filmed a final moment where you said something, and then you didn’t use it.
JK: Didn’t you say hi?
MP: I said hi, which is a great thing to say. That’s ambiguous. You hear the audience at that point go, “Ahhh,” like they feel her coming back.
The more ambiguous the better.
JK: I know. It’s so important.
MP: When you put it in the audience’s hands, you’re like “What do you think happened next? What did she say to you? What do you think she says next? What do you think the next day was?” I make movies that are dark. It’s alchemy. It’s dark and it doesn’t get darker. It goes into light. That’s why I like making films. I like watching films that are dark and get darker. I love different filmmakers who aren’t doing that. I do take a lot of responsibility for each of my movies in the sense of what they’re actually saying, what they’re actually doing in the society, and what the vitamin pill actually is and how it’s coated, what it’s coated in in order to be digestible for everyone. I really know what the movie’s about and I know how it’s going to help people.
It seems to be resonating with people who are Republicans. It seems to be resonating with people who are liberal. It seems to be resonating with feminists. It seems to be resonating with people who have had any kind of mental illness in their family, which is awesome. It also resonates with people who haven’t. People have these really amazing reactions to it. The Q&As have been so incredible because people are genuinely reacting how we intended. It’s such a great thing.
JK: There’s so many different genres that it’s almost genre-less. She seamlessly ties in all these different elements of genres in a way that’s really, really hard. When you look at the sound design, the sound design is genius because sound designing that movie is so hard. You can’t play horror music when it’s dark. You have to make it uplifting in the dark parts to make it work. The cacophony of the drums…
All I remember are the drums.
MP: I love the drums.
The maddening drum sound.
MP: Drums. Jazz. I remember when we were doing Neds—Peter Mullan and I made Neds together in Scotland. He’s kind of my mentor. We worked together for a long, long time. He always said that it’s so incredible when you’re able to hit…like in the fight scene in Neds, there’s a song called “Dancing Cheek-to-Cheek” that plays over the fight scene. It’s not like, “Dun, dun, dun, dun.” You can’t do heavy over heavy. You don’t want to be redundant. You want to actually be poetic.
The film lingered with me to the point where, I want to know where they are in a year.
MP: Me too.
I don’t actually want to know, but I will think about it. It’s going to be a hard-ass road for those two.
JK: That’s the most important thing.
MP: I feel like Jaime and I are like, “They have a great time.” [laugh]
JK: Yeah, exactly. They go to Hawaii. They’re fine. They love each other. They’re romantic.
MP: Jason’s like, “I don’t know what he does, what happens next.”
JK: I know, Jason’s so worried about it.
MP: “But it’s great. They have the kids.”
JK: That’s the difference between a man and a woman. Jason’s probably like “I think it’s really hard for them.”
It’s a guy thing. He doesn’t have a job anymore.
JK: I know. That’s that primal hunter-gatherer. “How I’m supposed to provide?”—the school and the kids and the cars and the house.
MP: While he’s going through his change, which is kind of like a Kramer vs. Kramer ascension in a way into being a great father. We don’t start him as an okay dad; we start him as a really terrible father and husband, completely absent. Then we take him to this place that is beautiful. He’s a great dad. He’s a great father. I love that arc so much. I love Bill’s character.
I think that having the chance to show that on screen, there are men in my life, when they watch the movie, they were like, “Whoa. You just tapped into my entire life. I don’t know my kids’ teachers’ names. Are you kidding? Am I supposed to know that?” All kinds of different dads are having these huge reactions. They’re like, “I want to be nicer to my sister-in-law.” I just think Jaime’s performance is brilliant. It’s so strong. There’s a brilliance in it and a genius in it that just ties the whole movie together. You can feel what she’s feeling. She defends Jill in this way that’s so profound, that’s such a human and vulnerable performance.
It’s great because you’re not against Bill. You actually want to make him a little better so he can be more functional in that environment.
MP: She’s so together with him.
One of the things I laughed at was when your husband shows up, he’s completely not what I was expecting. He’s this hippie…
JK: Yeah, it’s so different. What in your mind did you think he would be like?
I hadn’t really thought about it.
JK: She’s an artist, you know? She has an art gallery.
Not only that but the look in your eyes when he’s talking and spouting this hippie philosophy—you are so in love with him.
JK: It’s because Beth is that. But then Beth has to come in and understand that her sister is in there somewhere. But imagine if your relative, your child, someone that you love more than anything in the entire world has a dissociative breakdown, which does happen, and is in the basement covered in fucking shit, and you have your brother-in-law saying, “Fuck that. She can sit down there.” And all I’m thinking is “She’s on the fucking damp ground covered in urine, eating dog food.”
I think of it now, and it makes me want to weep. It’s that need to help her. She doesn’t understand why, why, why? It’s already been bad enough all the years that you’ve been coming home smelling like pussy and ignoring her and not letting her have any moment of freedom. That’s already bad enough. But letting her rot and suffer and be tortured by her own breakdown and mental illness, which was triggered by your behavior is unbearable for Jill.
MP: Isn’t it about acceptance? I think Beth and Brian are great characters because they accept themselves. They’ve accepted their lives. They’ve accepted their flaws. As a couple, they’re in love and they have shadow side that they’re dealing with and they’re talking about it but they’re also having a light side and they’re a great couple for that reason. Bill and Jill do not have that. They’ve been trying to be perfect for so long that it’s killing their relationship, and it destroys them essentially. The thing that’s so great about Uncle Brian is that he comes in and you think that he’s this hippie-dippie guy but then he says the stuff to Bill.
JK: He’s actually speaking the truth.
MP: After all that stuff, he’s like, “You should find your power,” he actually says, “You need to accept your life.” After that scene, Bill then does that for the rest of the movie. Bill goes into accepting his life and being essentially as integrated as Brian is.
JK: And is it interesting that we look at that type of male figure as someone that you don’t know if you should laugh at him or be on his side. But in all reality, he’s really speaking a very powerful truth.
MP: He’s like the secret sage of the movie.
JK: Which is ultimately what Bill does. He finds his power.
The only reason I really listened to what he was saying is because of the way you were looking at him.
MP: Right. She was really in love with him, giving him the absolute space. The quality of listening in a relationship also is key. Our movie is saying have good relationships, be a great person in your life, help people but also listen. Listen to your person. Whoever your people are, listen to them. Whatever they’re saying, listen.
If you had been looking at Bill in that moment, that would have been a natural thing to do. You’re looking at your husband in that scene.
JK: That’s a really astute awareness. Thank you for that.
MP: I was really pushing for that and pushing for this moment where she’s been this pseudo Jill and doing all this stuff that Jill did but hasn’t been Jill. She’s been cleaning and doing everything., looking after the kids, taking the responsibility. She moves back into her role of being with Brian because Brian’s there. It’s this very complex scene for those reasons. It is a scene where Bill feels abandoned for so many reasons because they’re taking Jill away, but he also is feeling like, “Oh my god. Beth is leaving also. What are we going to do?”
JK: You see the love in this scene also between Bill and Beth. That scene is a very complex scene to play. I tell him I’m taking Jill. It’s always the case as an actor where you look at your performance and you’re like, “Fuck, I really wish I could have done something different.” But I looked at it, I looked at every element, and you know what? I’m so grateful how that worked. You really feel the strength, the loving, how hard it is for her to say this to someone after they’ve been through this journey because it’s almost like now they’re married. She loves him so deeply and experience this thing. If you re-watch it, it’s really complex to play that out in a way where it’s not like, “We’re taking her!”
MP: It’s not like you’re a bad guy, right? That’s not how you want to play that scene. I just loved it. It was so profound to watch.
JK: That’s one of my favorite scenes actually.
MP: It’s so much one of my favorite scenes. Also in the house that I’m staying in right now [at Sundance], we’re living with Dan [Noah] and Josh [Waller] and Elijah [Wood, all producers]. It’s such a fun Bitch house. Everybody was saying that we’ve had two screenings and we’ve only heard great things. People have said only great things. They haven’t been like, “Here’s why I don’t like it.” All these people are like, “Here’s why I like it.” Everybody who was at our party yesterday was talking about how there’s this sense of it’s the movie that they’ve been waiting to see, that it is a medicine for this period of time. I always think that’s really fascinating. I think that some people are reading it like Bill is right-wing and Jill is America and Beth is left-wing—like it’s a triangle. I was aware of that but I wasn’t just going for that.
JK: We weren’t talking about those things on set at all. Legitimately. Every lunch break, we were just talking about our dreams and the shadow sides and the fulfilling of this. There was literally all this other stuff going on. Of course, we’re naturally political people, but that’s not what was informing our choices as characters or even what we were trying to say. We were just authentically telling and sharing this story, honestly, with no agenda. It is so interesting how the world has these glasses on where they want to see that everything is supposed to have this point of view from the very beginning. But I didn’t walk on the set with the intention of having any of that be a part of what I did. I just wanted to be real. That’s what’s powerful.
Movies aren’t made or shown in a bubble. You can’t control what’s going on in the world when someone sits down to watch a movie.
JK: But it’s beautiful the way that it worked out.
MP: It’s so true. I just love what you said about it. Last night, someone said like that you said it was the most feminist film that you’ve ever seen, and I was just like overwhelmed.
Did Elijah tell you that? I told him that during our interview yesterday.
MP: Yes, it was Elijah. He sent me like a video of this kid who was at the premier who had like four minutes of stuff to say on YouTube about it, about why it’s amazing.
Thank you both for talking.
Bitch plays at Facets Cinematheque through Thursday, November 23 and is now available on iTunes.