Good Dick

Marianna Palka and Jason Ritter talk about the inspiration for their film.

by Chris, and Amber Wilkinson

Good Dick is a story around some guys who work in a video store, and a girl who comes there regularly to rent porn. One of them gets her address from the shop records and is determined to get to know her. Eye For Film's Chris caught up with director/star Marianna Palka and co-star Jason Ritter at the Edinburgh International Film Festival to ask her what it was all about.

Chris: Where did the idea for the film come from?

Marianna: I was actually in that video shop in Los Angeles. It’s called Cinephile. I was trying to think what would rock those guys’ world. They spend a lot of time eating and watching videos. If a girl was coming in every day and renting erotica while everyone else is renting Fellini and Truffaut and Pasolini movies that would probably rock their world. That was the first scene, then I built the rest of the film around that.

Chris: Does that shop have erotica and normal films?

Marianna: Yeah. They’ve got a lot of artsy films like Kieslowski, but they also bizarrely have this section on erotica, these old VHS's that have never been turned into DVDs.

Chris: Have they seen the movie yet?

Marianna: No... I can’t believe I’m doing this 'cos I should be showing them. But they’ll see it when it’s released in Los Angeles, and they’re actually gonna see it at the New Art, which is the cinema next to the video shop. So it’s really cool. They’re gonna freak out, man! The actors didn’t base their characters on anyone that works there, but I made them all go there and work a shift or two.

Chris: I found them very convincing. I found it more of stretch the girl coming in and asking for erotica though. Then I thought, if it’s L.A., crazy things happen...

Marianna: Yeah, truthfully crazy things do happen in L.A.! You’re kind of anonymous there. It’s not like here where that’s your local video shop and people would know you. In L.A., you don’t really know anybody and nobody really talks to you. Which is why it’s so shocking when he talks to her!

Chris: You and Jason are partners in real life – did your personal relationship contribute to the movie? What about the bizarre stuff?

Marianna: I think that all the people involved in the production are close friends really helped. But in a way it doesn’t really make a difference. If the person is a nice person then it makes it easier. If they’re kind and open. As opposed to just an asshole. I think it would be very difficult to work with someone who’s not nice! There was never any stress and I found it a calming experience.

Chris: It starts off with almost a humorous tone. Which helps to offset ideas that he’s a horrible stalker. But then you drop the comedy quite quickly. How intentional was that?

Marianna: There’s comedy throughout. But when you’re dealing with things that are heavy, themes like sexual abuse, it’s helpful to have a lighter element. I do think tragedy is very funny and comedy is very tragic.

Chris: Were you inspired by early silent film? What were your inspirations and influences?

Marianna: I like Mary Pickford films, she’s really special. I like Kieslowski, and I also think there’s a lot of incredible British filmmaking happening right now, beyond anything cinema has ever seen before. Ken Loach, Mike Leigh.

Chris: You touch on some very dark themes. Did you do any specific research?

Marianna: I had a sense of what I wanted to say. I wanted to explore what sex really means, as opposed to what is perpetuated by the culture, and what is currently in films and believed. There’s a lot to human beings that still hasn’t been explored in film.

Chris: You’ve got the gender reversal theme, the masochism, the abuse...

Marianna: With regard to the gender switching it was more about showing a masculine character who’s genuine and patient and sensitive.

Chris: As well as being a lying stalker?

Marianna: I don’t think he’s a stalker!

Chris: So you’re not worried about a rash of creative stalking when the film comes out? Chris laughs. But in real life, if a guy got your details from your video store and then started knocking on your door, how would you react?

Marianna: The question would be, is he a nice guy or is he not a nice guy? If he’s a nice guy it’s romantic. In the beginning of the movie, we feel a little apprehensive. But then you’re engaged by the fact that he’s so kind. They’re both just real people. I’m interested in making films about real characters who have real problems as opposed to stereotypes where it’s difficult to understand anything about their emotional reality cos they’re only talking about the main male character.

Chris: I must admit, as far as real people go, I think they’re “very L.A.” – in other words, very weird! The theme reminded me of Venus in Furs. Jason, you were so much Severin!

Marianna: I’ll have to read that! It’s interesting that there are so many films where there’s a full range of guys, all different, and then there’ll be one girl without much dialogue and not really a full character and I thought it would be so much fun to turn that around. It would be so funny to have a huge cast of women and two 20 year old really hot guys who don’t say much!

Chris: Jason, you’re Mr Normal, the nice guy, the hot guy! How close to your real character is the character in the film?

Jason: There are a lot of similarities. One way in which I’m the same is I have a real hard time writing off another human being as trash or not worth my time. I would say I’m a good Christian.

Chris: Do you think the character promotes good Christian values? Do you forgive him for being a liar?

Jason: Do the ends justify the means? That’s the big conflict. It’s hard to excuse all the things he does. I do think that he saves her life. Or at least opens her up to feeling normal. He sees someone who is broken and damaged, and he says, “I love you. I forgive you.” That’s so powerful.

Marianna: Her own sexual history has been so submissive and deformed. What makes his character a hero is that he is very consistent. He has a very quiet strength and a real patience, which is an interesting thing to include in an illustration of masculinity. It enables her to release her past and release herself into the possibility of a healthy relationship.

Chris: I thought the psychology was very well worked out. Do you think she could be a positive example – not just for someone who’s suffered her particular trauma but for other women who have been abused in other ways?

Marianna: The whole reason I made the film was for that. To give people hope. Those are the kind of films I like to watch. One of the things we talked about was, how much pain can you go through and still remain open as a human being? Love can heal you in a very specific way. I think the film also illustrates the power of love and the power of healthy sex, a healthy sexual relationship.

Chris: It’s almost a textbook demonstration of how to make an effective movie on a tiny budget...

Marianna: Everybody who was involved was involved for creative reasons, as they obviously weren’t getting paid big bucks. The fact that we are self-distributing in the U.S. is also a big deal for us. There’s a way now if you want to, you can self-distribute. So the money you make actually goes to the filmmakers. That’s pretty radical and exciting. It’s a new reality. In the UK, The Works is doing the promotion; but in the States we’re largely doing it ourselves.

Chris: How long did it take to make?

Marianna: I was writing it for a year. We shot for 17 days. I cut it for a year.

Jason: There was also a conscious decision to not throw together a rough cut for the deadline of Sundance, the previous one. We decided to really get it perfect. I knew that if we started sending out this rough cut to film festivals and we didn’t get in, I would always be going, “What if we’d just waited?” We decided to put our best foot forward. That’s what we ended up doing. Till we felt totally comfortable with it.

Chris: You’re originally from Glasgow. How’s it feel returning to Scotland with your first movie?

Marianna: Bless you! It feels phenomenal! My friends in Glasgow are really chuffed!

Chris: A last question. The first thing I did when I got home after seeing the movie was to try and find Big Boots (the opening song) on iTunes. Where can I get it?

Marianna: The band is called Hello Stranger. You can get it off their MySpace page.

Chris wasn't the only Eye For Film writer to spend some time with Marianna, and Amber Wilkinson discussed a few other matters with her.

Amber: How did you come to get from Glasgow to New York?

Marianna: I left Glasgow when I was 17, to study in New York. I went to New York originally with $200 and I was going to go on holiday but it turned into three months because I didn't want to leave and I wanted to find a school I could study in. I found the Atlantic Theatre Company and that was the one I really liked. So I stayed there for three months and then I went home for summer. Then I came back and did two years at the Atlantic Theatre Company and did plays and fell in love with New York and was really in to it. Then I moved to London for a few months while my sister's baby was being born in Glasgow – so I was really happy to be living in Britain again, and, you know, watch Prime Minister's question time, drink tea.

But after that I didn't want to go back to New York, I wanted to do something else, so I went to Los Angeles and just loved the way of life there and really got inspired there about film. I'd always been doing my own documentaries and I ended up figuring out I could write something. And I wrote it and figured I could direct it. My best friend said: "You should just direct it. There's not an order of things. You don't have to go to film school – just do it." So when someone gives you permission like that, it's really helpful and you think, "Maybe I can do this."

Amber: It must be nice to have your partner Jason Ritter (who co-stars) alongside you working on the project – or does it feel a little like taking your work home?

Marianna: It's really nice. It's the first feature film that I've produced and the first feature film that Jason's produced, so it's been very exciting for us. I think only good things can happen when you start being brave in your work. It's just been a really good experience. It was just normal. We've always worked together and most of the people on the set were friends of mine, so it was very much in the family. Everything was very relaxed.

Amber: With regards to the film itself, did you find you had to do a lot of research?

Marianna: I was trying to think what is the difference between someone who has a healthy sex life and someone who has been abused and is having problems. The answer is that one person is loved and the other hasn't fallen in love yet. It's really about the healing power of love and the healing power of sex. What is actually sexy in this film is two people who are authentic when they are together.

Amber:Was it hard to get funding since the subject matter is quite difficult?

Marianna: I thought originally it would be really difficult to find funding for the film and I was looking just to do it myself but I realised when we found the financier – [producers] Cora [Olson] and Jenn[ifer Dubin] came on in February 2006, which was the February before we were shooting in the September. And the person who financed the film is very pro-women directors, pro-first-timers, so I was a first-time writer/director and a woman and the fact that I was foreign was great. And all my knowledge of cinema and theatre really helped in gaining that person's trust and respect. I think that they didn't want to have any input in the creative process. They realised I could do it myself and were happy to just hand it over. It was really like a miracle. They really think there should be more women filmmakers, it should be like 50/50 and it's just not. I talk to lots of people who are film buffs and they can't name off the top of their head 20 female filmmakers, whereas you can name 125 really good male filmmakers.

Amber:The shooting is understated and unfussy. Was that deliberate to let the characters shine out?

Marianna:I shot a lot in wide shots, so that the characters are far away and respected and we're watching them while they're watching each other and doing their own thing. There's something respectful about being that far away and you're also teaching the audience to think for themselves, because you're not telling them everything. It means anything can happen because you're not cutting away, that was the sort of titillating feeling I was going for. It is an immediate problem for her and it's something he is trying to fight with everything he's got, so it adds an intensity to film that I quite like.

Amber:What is it like, at 26, to be the youngest director to screen at Sundance?

Marianna:That's been really interesting. I didn't realise that until I got here. It has been a very special feeling because I don't tend to give myself a lot of pats on the back, but I've started to realise what I've done in the past couple of years by getting the film done. I've realised, first of all I'm a woman, I am young, I'm from Scotland and I haven't made a film before. I just think that's great, but it's a long road.

Amber:What's next?

Marianna:I'm playing a Scottish woman in Nick Towne's film and I'm excited about that because it's the first Scottish person I've played. Then I'm going to do another film called Forever that our producers Cora and Jen are doing. Tatia Pilieva [Sleepwalk] is directing that.

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