The world might not have been ready for Marianna Palka’s sophomore feature “Bitch” as recently as its premiere at Sundance this past winter, but arriving in theaters this week as the conversation about gender inequity and sexual harrassment in the entertainment industry is reaching a critical mass, it is a movie that’s found its moment. Set in an idyllic suburban corner of Los Angeles, the horror comedy reunites Palka with her “Good Dick” co-star Jason Ritter as the unhappily married Jill and Bill Hart, a couple that has grown distant as they’ve raised four young children together — or rather, he’s become distant from her, taking any opportunity at work to make moves on his secretary, while she’s found herself unrecognizable from the woman she once was, with her pleas to take time away from the kids to go to an artist retreat falling on deaf ears.
While a failed suicide attempt dramatically opens “Bitch,” what’s truly horrifying is what comes after as years of neglect from both her brood and her husband take their toll on Jill, who disappears one morning, leaving an ill-prepared Bill to take on the domestic responsibilities that the missus took on so selflessly. Handing his children a $100 bill for lunch money before shoving them out of the minivan at the wrong schools, Bill immediately comes to appreciate what Jill has taken on on a daily basis, but it is when he comes home and finds that Jill has returned, albeit not in quite the same form, that he is forced, with the help of her sister (Jamie King), to come to understand her anew.
“Bitch” moves like a rush of adrenaline as it recasts what would appear to be the mundane daily routine of keeping a family on the right track as the world collapsing in on itself, likely replicating Palka’s own process of making it, feverishly writing the screenplay in the span of two days and turning it around from production to completion in less than four months. But the film takes care to create the space to reflect, finding a unique way into reconciling gender dynamics that have been lopsided for far too long, which is something Palka says has been driving a whole host of recent work, including her acting turn as one of the lady wrestlers on the ‘80s-set Netflix series “Glow” and a just-wrapped directorial follow-up to “Bitch” called “Egg,” starring Christina Hendricks, Anna Camp and Alysia Reiner. Somehow Palka found the time to reflect herself on starting a conversation with her latest film at a time when people seem finally to have opened their ears to listen, the importance of creating dynamic roles for both genders and coming up with the film’s loaded title.
I was trying to make a combination of a Disney movie and the kind of movie you could watch with a really interesting grandparent. I feel like my films all have a lot of human connection in them and they’re all about how to make the world a better place and be a better person. Especially in this period of time, I feel really important. I feel like if Donald Trump watched “Bitch,” he would be a different man just after an hour-and-a-half. If anyone’s like, “How do we solve the problem of catcalling?” It’s like, “Just have them watch ‘Bitch’ and then they’ll be different men.” Any problem in the world, we can just be like, “Watch ‘Bitch’” and it won’t be a problem anymore.
This was in production before you could know Trump would be president, has it been interesting to see the reaction because of the timing of it?
Yeah, people have been crying and men and women and whole families and everybody just love the film so much, it’s very good to watch together. And I feel like Trump is the boil on the top of what is basically sociopathic behavior of like, “I’m a billionaire so I don’t care about you” [whether it’s] sexual harassment or an addiction to capitalism or this sense that “I am in charge…” – whereas what the movie is saying is we all have to be together and let’s heal together, including whoever is the person that’s wrong or is bad. That’s why it’s a real dialogue to [Trump] – it’s direct. Like stop being like that with women. Don’t talk to women like that. No one wants to hear you talk about grabbing a pussy. No one deserves to be grabbed. And that message has a real bite to it because what’s happening is a real moral, ethical [quandary] to him and to men like him because they cannot go on. We’re not in medieval times. This is 2017 and for the President of the United States to be someone who has been sexually harassing women is disgusting. I don’t know anybody else who’s been accused of sexual harassment that’s been voted into the government, but it’s disgusting and horrible, and we have to remedy it. Movies are a way to do that.
Did the title come to you immediately? Between this and “Good Dick,” it just seems like you’re fond of provocative titles.
There was no other title. I mean, what else would it be called? The other title would be “Lady in Basement.” [laughs] Like I wouldn’t know what the other title would be. The most important thing with “Good Dick” was how do you talk about sexual abuse in a way that’s actually positive? And I think if there are people out there who want a family-positive, pro-marriage, pro-good relationships vibe, they could watch any of my work because anything I do is like pro-connection.
Yeah, always. I wrote it for him because it was this homage to men in cinema – to Blake Edwards, to Jason’s dad [John], and to this idea that you can really be a complex male character on the screen and it doesn’t have to be “I’m just a funny guy” or “I’m just a weird, serious guy.” It can be “I’m funny, weird and serious.” What’s beautiful about great acting is you can play comedy and drama at the same time – those are the best actors I know and Jason is among them. I just think there’s so much to be said for [a character like Bill] who is sexually inverted and addicted to capitalism. That character is terrible and then by the end of the film, he’s cured of all those things. In a lot of ways, it’s like what America is going through right now. Like here is this man who figured out how to stay married, be a good dad and finds redemption through this story and I think that’s what is truly necessary as medicine in America [right now] is [to see] what is a great man, what’s a great dad and what’s a great husband? We know what those things are and it’s important to share them with the world.
When you write a character like this, which I imagine has to be such a challenge to play, do you think about that while actually writing it or do you only realize after the fact how crazy it might be?
Oh, I think it’s more I know what it’s going to be and I just do it anyway.
Knowing Jason’s in the role, it seems like you can get away with a lot, having this terrible character that you can’t turn away from completely. Did it let you go places you might not have thought possible?
Yeah, and Jamie King’s performance is really wonderful too. I just felt like it was on vacation in Hawaii to make that movie. We felt like such a family. It seemed like it was very connected. The performances in the film, the kids included — Rio Mangini and Brighton Sharbino — we have these really great, genius kind of Meryl Streep actors who can just do anything for you. They understood the story so profoundly, it was so beautiful.
What was it like working with the kids?
There’s just like no way to direct kids, other than for me at least to organically go with what they’re doing anyway, so I’d just be like, “Play games and do your thing, whatever you want to do.”
Was there a particularly crazy day on set?
No, because my sets are always really peaceful. I didn’t even feel like it was chaotic. It’s very cathartic and fun [to make a movie], so we just had a really good time.
I loved the score as well and the twisting of domestic sounds into the sound mix – what was that like to work with?
A lot of what we did was collect sounds from the house and in post, Jeff [Alan Jones], this beautiful sound guy, just did so much. For the sound mix, we stayed up all night doing it and it was really a beautiful, intense experience that connected us all so much. Like the acting, we just used every single thing at our fingertips, but instead of being like, “Oh, let’s use sound design as two percent of what we can do, everything we did was like 100%, so it was 100% sound design, not half-assed. [laughs]
The film has an arresting ending. Was it tricky to land on?
The ending was really interesting because you know how the end of a film sometimes keeps shifting in your mind, so you [keep changing what you think] the best thing is for it? If you have a Republican man and a woman that he’s cheated on, who’s not Republican, how do we want to end that story? [One of the film’s producers] Elijah Wood had said, “You know it might be really cool if she gets up and walks away,” like the real feminist fuck you. [laughs] And I [thought], “Yeah, but the whole point is we’re together in this.” We want to end it where there’s [a demonstration that] we’re connected in our diversity, we’re together in our separation [because] the point of union is to be different and still together. That’s the definition of the word “complex” where there’s all these different things, but they’re together in a tapestry, and that’s different from the word “complicated,” [where] everything is fucking separate and everyone hates each other and it’s not working together. They’re all just like little bits of broken tapestry on the floor and they’re never going to return to each other. So for me as a filmmaker, it’s really powerful to be able to have a message of unity and really make sure that we’re communicating with each other and staying connected, even though we have different opinions. That’s America, that’s the whole world, and there’s a way to stay connected, which is to simply not to call each other names. If people stopped using the word B-I-T-C-H for the rest of time, I would be so happy. That’s the point of the movie. Don’t.