Getting her due

Marianna Palka on the debt industry, making room for women, and Collection

by Jennie Kermode

Collection poster
Collection poster

A thriller set in the world of debt recovery, Marianna Palka’s Collection tells the story of Brandon (Alex Pettyfer), a recovery agent who has been behaving increasingly ruthlessly in order to stay in the game whilst struggling to deal with grief at the loss of his son. When he meets immigrant single mother Christina (Shakira Barrera) his life seems poised to change for the better, but she’s in trouble over debt herself, and as her trust breaks down and his colleagues start circling, Brandon must decide what he really wants. As Marianna prepared for the film to hit US cinemas, we met up for a chat about the film.

The Glasgow-born director has lost neither her accent nor her attitude during her years in the US, and she’s pleased to hear that I’m in Paisley, just a few miles away from her hometown. She tells me all her Scottish fans were excited because Collection became available on Amazon UK before opening in the US, and we agree that that makes a nice change. She’s really excited about the film and can’t wait for more people to see it, evincing an enthusiasm that seems to go way beyond artistic or financial ambitions.

“It's so massive,” she says. “The scope of it and the scale. That's so great. I love the set, the size of it. I want to make bigger films than this even but like I loved doing all the car chases. I'm really an action director. I've always been that way. They offered it to me and I was like, ‘Yes, I do want to do this film.’ But the reason I got attached to it emotionally is because it's sort of like a Romeo and Juliet love story. I mean, I love the story to Alex's character – Alex Pettyfer and Shakira Barrera – she's so good – and their bond. And it just seemed to me like a really beautiful thing to do, to be able to take Juliet through a story and be like, ‘Oh, this is also anti ICE.’ And it's pro immigration, and it's anti these debt collectors, which is why it's called Collection. And everyone I know is basically in debt and dealing with these guys. So it's a really interesting story. It's very real, it’s so cool, and I just had such good times.”

It's quite rare for thrillers these days to have that kind of emotional depth. I ask her about how she worked to bring out their humanity.

“Todd [M Friedman] wrote the script, and he's such a great writer. I thought it was really good,” she says. “I thought it was really, really well crafted in that sense, like the authenticity of the characters. Sean Connery said to me once, ‘Only do stuff if you love the script.’ He said ‘Only do stuff that's good for humanity, you know?’ I can be a cog in a wheel as a director on the bigger studio films, but I can also have this sense of, even with the big studio movies, there are ways to make those films really human and really good. And people are wanting to watch it because it is mirroring us in some way.”

It’s odd, I say, that although debt is a huge issue in many people’s lives we don’t see much about it onscreen. A couple of years ago I spoke with Tanya Wexler about Buffaloed, but there’s hardly been anything since then.

“Yeah, when we were working on it, some of the cast members were like, you know, this has happened to them or they know someone that this has happened to. Jacques Colimon came on board. He's really good. Mike Vogel was really impactful in it. We really surrounded Alex Pettyfer and Shakira Barrera with an amazing cast, you know? And they all were saying that it was amazing to be in Alabama shooting. I love Alabama so much. We were in Birmingham, Alabama, but it's the most creative place I've ever been in my life. There are people making lace there, there's all these carpenters. Birmingham, Alabama specifically is really cool. And then it was really inspiring, because I knew there were lots of debt collectors there on the ground.”

She and Shakira were doing Glow together when news broke of the US separating migrant children from their parents and keeping them in cages, she says. “And I remember I was just so sad about it. And I was looking at Shakira, like, ‘Look, you know, we're going to have to do something about this. We have to make a film about it. We have to do something that's going to help everyone who is dealing with these real situations, you know?’

“I think because I'm from Glasgow. I mean, to be Scottish, we do have this thing where your whole family, your whole community is egging you on to just do stuff continuously that is really good. Not just big but good. You know? So it's big and good.”

Shakira came on to the project because they knew each other from Glow, Marianna says, but it wasn’t an automatic choice.

“I was thinking ‘Who can play this Juliet character in America today?’ and then I was, like, ‘Oh my goodness!’ It was so great. I had a lot of Ken Loach Carla's Song vibes, because Robert Carlyle is so good in that film. I'm looking at all my past films that I’ve seen. Because my family are Polish, I had a lot of Polish cinema as well as Scottish cinema. And I just remember saying to Shakira, ‘This is a moment where we're casting you as a movie star.’ And she’s playing a Nicaraguan woman, because she hasn't been able to. She's been cast as a lot of a lot of things but she's never been cast specifically as being from Nicaragua, which I think is really interesting. The more you can give people an actually specific voice, I think the better.

“This was so specific to her. She's such a dancer, naturally. And we shot this scene when he falls in love with her as she's dancing. It was like the modern version of that first moment when Romeo and Juliet see each other. It’s this cyclical thing, where you can use a love story to tell the pain of what's really going on in a drama or a thriller, which is what this is. And when they fall in love with each other, oh, my goodness, it's just so much cool.”

I tell her that it strikes me that we often hear about ICE in the background of films but we don't very often get main characters who are affected by it, because there is such poor representation, and she nods.

It’s such an anti-ICE film, because, you know, Mike Vogel plays this character who basically comes into Shakira Barrera’s house – she's a single mom, she's very working class – and he blasts in, and you know, he's a debt collector, he's not really from ICE, but he's scaring her to the point that she thinks he is, and she knows she’s going to get deported anyway. So it's one of those really deep situations. And she's trying to protect her kid. And it's one of those things that I felt was really profound.

“It’s like a full circle, cathartic moment when you can bring stories that mean something and say ‘Look, here's what we're talking about. Here's how we're making it beautiful.’ The cinematographer [Meena Singh] is so incredible. 80% of our heads of department were female, making this movie, it was like 80% heads like department were female. Sally Levi and Tora Eff, my production designer and my costume designer, were ladies. So you're looking at a film which has been crafted by women so beautifully and is really like a symphony.”

Her cast and crew were confused, she tells me, because the production was so well organised ahead of time that although they were booked for 12 hours a day, she only needed them to be there for eight. “They were getting really freaked out. We couldn’t do anything with the rest of the day because we had just basically over-achieved, you know, over and over again. And it was a magical time. It was right before Covid, it was just so free to get to do it without masks and stuff like that. Because it was right in the autumn of 2019 that we shot it, right before I went back to Scotland for Christmas. And I was so happy when I was in Scotland. I was like, ‘Hah! I just made the best film ever!’”

Buffaloed is an obvious exception, but mostly when we see films about debt and that kind of industry, it's all about men and the female characters are sidelined. Was it important to her to be able to raise those voices and talk the people who are more often at the sharp end?

“Definitely. Geena Davis, who was on Glow with me, talks about this. You know, you need to have 50% female characters in your film, otherwise you're not representing the world. 52% of the population is women, so you want to cater to the idea that women exist. I like to talk about the great female in mythology, you know, and the great male in mythology, because regardless of gender, those are two themes you can work with really well. It makes work really interesting.

“I talked to Sean Connery about this. That's what they were doing with the Hitchcock film that he did, Marnie, which is really similar to Good Dick, my first film. Just this idea of having a really strong female character who is weak, but she's strong as well. It's like, in the films of the 1970s, in American cinema, there were all these incredible characters, female and male characters who were so dynamic. And guys, as well, were allowed to be interesting. You can be a great dad carrying a baby, and you can know how to change a nappy or a diaper. That's more interesting.

“It kind of belittles us all when people try and make characters just a sliver of the human being. It's not funny to me. I mean, the funniest thing is when someone's a full human being, and you bring that to it, so that these are real people. And then you add to it. I'm very intense about it, and I really want to female representations. I think it should be a mandate, I think we should have female characters, no matter what you're doing, just to make up for lost time. And also, you could put 100% female characters in your film if you wanted to for a while, and see what happens. Disney has been really good about it. Marvel's getting better. Everyone who's big is pretty good about it. It's like the people who are in between are like...” She screws up her face.

“Geena Davis also makes a point like, why is Tinkerbell in a bikini? Why can't you do your job with a suit on? Because you're not seeing Peter Pan going about in a speedo for no reason. There's a lot of scantily clad female characters. So a lot of the time what I'm doing is just putting real people in something, and I think people appreciate that. Actors appreciate it, certainly. It's more interesting for them to play something that's deep, that they can bring themselves to.”

I'm quite a fan of Seventies thrillers, I tell her, and I think we have lost a lot of personality since then. In thrillers now the characters often seem to be mere cyphers for what's happening with the story.

“I know,” she says. “I love those movies. You know, the women in those films, Oh, my goodness! Like, Mean Streets, Scorsese's first movie, is so tactile and amazing and beautiful and so, so close to his heart. And the female characters are just so full as well. He was raised by all these really interesting Italian women, and I can sense that. I love it so much.

“I definitely think that in my cinema, the idea is very European but it’s very based on rules that worked in American theatre back in Vaudeville, you know? I like justified camera movement. I think it's really good as a director to stay true to what the film’s about. Like, Good Dick was about two people. Bitch, my movie that I did with Jaime King, is about a whole family. So you follow her into the movie, and the camera kind of follows them around. And if they're not moving, then then you don't move.

“I care about that a lot. And I care about colours, textures, I care about what's happening in the frame as people are walking, so we have power blocking based on where they are in the frame. It's like a painting. I take it really seriously. Even the textures in the film. With Collection, you get to step into a world that is specifically the colours of what the characters are going through, specifically the material – I mean, everything was like silky soft. Everyone has a gold chain. No-one was messing around.

“It's a fully fledged movie when you take care of all those things, and when the camera has a point of view. Directing is really just listening to that visual language and doing justice to it.”

Looking ahead, she has a lot lined up, she says.

“You know, with your first film you do something to prove yourself to yourself as a filmmaker and as a director. And then you get to the point where you're just having fun. And that happened to me really fast, because I proved myself really young. Good Dick I made when I was like 25 or something, and I went to Sundance. It was very amazing to be able to do that and set the bar that high, just get employed off that one for the rest of my life. And I've never taken that for granted.

“I'm always like, ‘Wow!’ I'm always waking up like, ‘This is amazing.’ And also I’m the kindest director I think anyone's ever met. I think kindness does a lot for performance, and a lot for people who are in the crew from like, the top to the bottom, I don't see it that way. I see it as a circle of people making the movie, and I think the crew really appreciate that. And they feel like they're watching something as it's going down, you know? They're part of it. And I always like to do stuff that's really, really fun as well. And it's all about respecting everyone. So I think I was born to do this.”

Collection is in US cinemas from Friday 17 September.

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