Marianna Palka on Bitch, GLOW & feminist films

Scottish actor-writer-director Marianna Palka talks about her role in Netflix's wrestling series GLOW, new directorial effort Bitch, Claire Denis, Girls, and making an inclusive feminist film "for everyone”

Feature by Josh Slater-Williams | 23 Jun 2017

The Skinny is chatting to Marianna Palka, the Scottish writer, director and actor, who's fresh off the close of the Sundance London film festival where her latest directorial effort, Bitch, has just played. Glasgow-born though largely US-based since her teens, Palka has her “finger in both pies”, as she describes it, regarding filmmaking in her two home countries. “I’m always working on getting stuff done in Scotland and getting stuff done in America at the same time,” she says, “so it’s kind of like whatever happens first happens. But there’s many plans to do many things here that are really exciting.”

Though Palka has appeared onscreen in Scottish productions like Neds and Scottish Mussel, she’s best known for her American work, be it a role in HBO’s Girls or her celebrated directorial debut, the offbeat romantic comedy Good Dick, which made the line-up of the main Sundance festival in 2008, when she was just 26. “I’m proud of myself,” she says of Good Dick, “to have done that when I was so young. I don’t know when I’m gonna watch it again, because it’s been a while. I think what I did was I set myself such a high bar with my first film, and I think that’s a really good thing to do. I think when you’re making your first film you should just be like, 'Oh, I wanna go this far and do everything that is my dream.' I think it’s a good jumping-off point.”

Dreams are a big part of one of the new projects we’re here to discuss: the Netflix series GLOW, from Orange Is the New Black creator Jenji Kohan. The ensemble comedy-drama – led by Alison Brie and also starring Kate Nash and Marc Maron – is a look at the personal and professional lives of a group of women performing for a wrestling organisation (Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, hence GLOW) in 1980s Los Angeles. Reggie, Palka's character, has a background rooted in the specificity of the period.

“It felt very empowering to play an actual Olympian, and to have her medals and feel the superb strength of that character as a winner,” Palka says of Reggie. “Going to the Olympics was her first dream, GLOW's all about a second dream. Having your dream come true in a way you didn’t imagine and being empowered by something that you would think would be completely uninspired or not empowering – like being in leotards and fighting each other seems like it would really be kind of oppressive or something, or being taken advantage of, when, actually, everyone’s very empowered on the show.”

Regarding getting the gig, Palka describes the long road to GLOW as her own dream fulfilment of sorts: “I had done [an episode of] Girls and, basically, I got Girls because I was at a wedding and my pal [Girls executive producer] Jennifer Konner saw me at the wedding and was like, ‘Oh my God, this woman is gonna be Jessa’s sister in an episode of Girls.’ And that was, I think, four years before they cast me in the show.

“The casting director was Jennifer Euston. Jen knew me from New York back in the day, and she also knew me from Girls. And then when GLOW was happening, I sent her a Twitter message. I wanted to do something on Orange Is the New Black before it finished, so I was tweeting her like, 'What are you guys doing? What’s going on? Do you need anyone in the new season?' And she was like, 'Well no, but you should read Jenji Kohan’s new show, which is about female wrestlers.'”

When Palka saw that message, any disappointment from missing out on Orange Is the New Black went out the window. “I was like, ‘That’s my TV show!’ I had this ‘it’s mine’ thing that I’ve never had with anything. I was possessive over it and obsessed with it and I couldn’t stop thinking about it; I was badgering my manager about it basically every week. It was one of those fascinating meant-to-be things where I auditioned for it and was just so open and definitely had so much self-belief. They’d be like, ‘Can you do a forward roll?’ And I’d be like, ‘Yes!'

"It was just such a funny experience. I’ve never had that before where I was like, ‘I have to get this and I want it.’ But it was in this way where it wasn’t like, ‘I’m desperate.’ It was like, ‘I believe it’s mine.’”

On to Palka’s latest directorial effort, then. Bitch is the unusual tale of Jill (Palka), a depressed woman who snaps under crushing life pressures and takes on the psyche of a ferocious dog. Her cheating, absentee husband (Jason Ritter, co-star of Good Dick) is forced to begrudgingly accept responsibility for his part in her breakdown, becoming reacquainted with his four unruly children and sister-in-law (Jaime King) as they try to keep the family together amid this unusual crisis.

The dark comedy is a tonal mishmash that’s difficult to define, though some Scottish readers may recognise traces of one of psychiatrist RD Laing’s more famous cases in the synopsis. “I wanted to do a sort of Scottish homage,” Palka tells us, “because I always put something Scottish in my feature films – every film I’ve made has a wee shout out to Scotland. I feel like RD Laing was an influence because that story was so powerful, but then when I got to the States, the police there call it a 5051 if someone’s acting like an animal. And they were like, ‘Yeah, we’ve seen that before, that happens all the time.’ And I was like, ‘OK, that’s cool; I can make a movie about that, then.’”

Though programmed in late-night slots at both Sundance festivals, Bitch doesn’t exactly fit the midnight movie/horror mode, despite the plot-driving metamorphosis. That said, there’s a memorably gruesome element to its aesthetic that reminded us, in particular, of Claire Denis’ cannibalism horror Trouble Every Day: instead of an animalistic Béatrice Dalle pacing around an apartment prison that’s draped in blood, Bitch has Palka, near-perpetually on all fours, locked in a basement that, like her, is smeared in faeces – we’re assured this was actually brownie batter on set.

Palka seems chuffed when we bring up Denis’ film. “Yeah! I love Claire Denis so much, she’s like my dream. It’s so cool you got that. It was kind of a homage, but also I was trying to do some stuff where the basement is like the lower part of the psyche; like the darkness, the shadows that they don’t want to deal with, so they just hide it in the basement. And the upstairs is this place where everything’s fine – the sound design upstairs is totally different, the colours are different.

“It’s like two different movies, but it was always felt like the belly and the soul of the film was underneath in the basement, and as you went up in the house that changed. So I was definitely inspired by Claire, but took it to this other place, and I feel like she’d like it.”

Palka explains that she didn't want to make a film that was “a feminist ‘screw you’ to people who are conservative, or people who are not on the feminist side right now. Not even that there are sides, but I wanted to make a film that was gonna make a grown man cry in that way. Someone who really needed to see a film about this male character who goes from being all the things that are sort of ignorant and sort of non-feminist to, essentially, a feminist.

“And I wanted to see a conservative man, essentially, become more in touch with – if you like – his feminine side. But I just feel like everyone has those two sides in them, and – male or female – it’s really great to promote both those sides of it, instead of being like 'screw you' to anyone who voted for Trump or anything like that. You wanna be like, ‘Come on in, watch our film; let’s talk; what do you think about this movie?’

“I’d rather have that conversation, because I made it for them as much as I made it for all feminists I know, who are already gonna love the film. Then there’s budding feminists out there who are gonna watch it and it’s gonna make them feel so good. It’s already a feminist anthem without having to be exclusive. It’s way better to be inclusive in anything.”

As we wrap up, the topic of Palka’s proclivity towards provocatively-titled fare comes up. “That’s my thing,” she says, “I like swear word titles a lot. I like to title stuff and really title it; not just have like a crappy title, but really title it up. And that’s what I’ve done, and I like to think about why people say that word. Why do people use that term, and who are they talking about? Because they’re not really talking about a human being when they say that word. You don’t have to say B-I-T-C-H, you can say something else. Instead of being this, you’re actually being really assertive."

On that note, we suggest a specifically Scottish swear word for any film she may direct here. Palka says she’s pondered ‘Bawbag’ for a title. We submit ‘Fannybaws’, which is met with laughter: “Fannybaws. That is like my dream. In a parallel universe my movie’s called Fannybaws.”

All episodes of GLOW will be available on Netflix on 23 Jun

Bitch is currently seeking UK distribution

Good Dick is available on DVD through Universal Pictures UK