Under Pressure: With Her Bitingly Excellent Horror-Comedy Bitch, Filmmaker Marianna Palka Wages a War Against Time

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Sometimes a logline just calls your name. “A woman snaps under crushing life pressures and assumes the psyche of a vicious dog,” went the one for Marianna Palka’s feature Bitch at the Sundance Film Festival this January.

Yes, a good logline has let many a festivalgoer down. But Bitch, a story about female stress and its weirder repercussions, lived up to its promise and then some for me. It was resonant, gleefully satirical and—best of all—surreptitiously poignant and profound; one of my favorite films of the festival. Now, almost seven months later, with the film playing tomorrow in Downtown Los Angeles as part of Sundance’s NEXT FEST screening/concert/comedy series (which pairs Bitch, to perfection, with the noise pop band Sleigh Bells, along with comedian Kate Micucci), I’m thinking a lot about its strange wisdom.

Bitch centers on suburban housewife Jill (played by Palka, who also wrote the screenplay), whose day to day is entirely overwhelmed with looking after her emotionally absent husband Bill (Jason Ritter) and their brood of four. Already suicidal at the start of the film, Jill’s misery soon takes a peculiarly different tack, to her family’s confusion and horror: She emerges one morning from the basement on all fours, naked, growling and smeared with shit. Bill suddenly finds himself forced out of his domestic negligence—in a humorous moment some male Sundance viewers I met found insultingly broad, and the women found all too realistic, Bill can’t remember the names of his kids’ schools—and with assistance from Jill’s concerned sister (Jaime King), gradually learns to live with his new responsibilities, and his new canine wife.

As MovieMaker’s Deputy Editor, I like to think I know a little about stress—about the pressure to be superhumanly productive in a limited amount of time—but Palka’s own urgency has an entirely different dimension to it. Documentarian Lucy Walker’s 2014 acclaimed short film “The Lion’s Mouth Opens” followed Palka as she got tested for Huntington’s disease, an incurable genetic disorder that typically results in death 15 to 20 years after diagnosis. Having the Huntington’s gene has been described as feeling like a death sentence. Scottish-born, L.A.-based Palka is just entering her later 30s, and in the remarkable focus and speed which with she works—Bitch was shot in September 2016, just four months before its Sundance premiere, during which Palka was also a castmember in Netflix’s female wrestling series GLOW—it’s hard not to read a defiant determination to make art on her own terms in spite of the physical and neural degeneration hovering on her horizon. She’s fascinated, she told me, with “people who just want to get stuff done,” who are “brave enough to finish things.”

“The Lion’s Mouth Opens” is devastating, all the more so for Palka’s grace and honesty in the face of possible catastrophe, yet Bitch is uplifting, full of life and disarmingly sweet. I can’t remember the last Midnight movie that made me tear up—though some may find the “Midnight” tag a little misapplied to what is essentially a genre-ish dramedy, notwithstanding the fact that Elijah Wood, Daniel Noah and Josh Waller’s horror company SpectreVision produced the film. Watching Bitch, and talking to Palka and Ritter afterward (the two, whose early collaboration Good Dick was a Sundance hit in 2008, dated for years and remain close friends and co-creators), underscored for me what Walker captured so effectively in her documentary—the strength of the community rallying around Palka, the evident admiration and respect her friends have for her. While it dwells in some dark territory, and has a bite you shouldn’t underestimate, Bitch is clearly a movie borne of that love.

Kelly Leow, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Tell me about the genesis of Bitch.

Marianna Palka (MP): Making a movie about family values was something I was really interested in. I thought it’d be good to promote the idea of healthy relationships, and explore the story of this character who has a psychotic break, but through her husband. Bill’s really the person that we’re following; it’s his film. We see how he deals with it. He starts out the movie as not the best father or husband, and then he turns into the best father and husband, so he has a tremendous arc. We made the film as a feminist film—yes, it’s definitely a feminist movie, but it’s also conservative in its values. The message is that it’s great to be a good family member and a good husband, and that marriage is something you can fix. So it’s very pro-marriage.

MM: In the survey you completed for MovieMaker pre-Sundance, you talked about a painting by Portuguese artist Paula Rego inspiring Bitch.

MP: It’s one of her Dog Woman paintings, and it’s so cool. I saw it and I was moved and profoundly inspired by it.

MM: Which came first, your idea for a woman who turns into a dog, or you coming across the painting?

MP: My idea.

MM: That’s an amazing coincidence.

MP: Yeah. Stuff like that happens all the time to me! I had the idea, then wrote the script in Lake Tahoe over two days. I talked to my friend Bryce [Dallas] Howard about it a lot; she was basically a guiding light for the script.

MM: Is a two-day writing period usual for you?

MP: I don’t know anyone else who does what I do. I don’t really sit at the computer and think about it a lot. I never write an outline. It’s fermenting in my mind, and when I’m ready I just sit down and write it, which is what happened with all my scripts. The last one I wrote was a comedy called Rad Dads and I wrote that in four hours. If I tell my screenwriting friends that, they hate me and can’t believe it! I see the whole movie in my head first and then put it down on the page. It’s a very bizarre process. Once I’ve put it all down on the page, I see the shots and transitions. Other people are more organized, I think.

MM: So you have a first draft then, but how long do you workshop it?

MP: We went over and over and over this script before SpectreVision saw it, and then after they saw it, Daniel Noah and I worked on it for a year on and off. We still talk about it. This morning at our house at breakfast, Elijah was talking about how, in Austin a year ago when we were still developing it, he’d said to me, “Maybe at the end she could be the most feminist if she got up and walked away and left him.” That was one of his notes, and I thought that was such an incredible note to get from a male producer. It felt like what I would’ve done, maybe, before, but this film I wanted to be about marriage working out, and about healing. Not being like, “Screw you!” to the other side, but being like, “Come on in, we’re all in this together and even if we have different opinions we can all be in the same room and heal each other.”

MM: How did you first make contact with SpectreVision?

MP: We knew Daniel and Elijah…

Jason Ritter (JR): And I’d met with Josh Waller early on about some other movies we were looking at together. They’re such a great team, the three of them, and they really choose well and have different skillsets. Elijah is so wonderful in terms of character and acting and story. Daniel is a wonderful writer in his own right. Josh has directed. They are creative producers and they’re brave in terms of what they get behind. I mean, the film Cooties, which they made a couple years ago—Elijah Wood slaughtering toddlers? It’s intense! It’s great that they find a story and an artist and get behind their vision, and protect it.

MP: It’s really nourishing to work with them. It has such a spa-vacation vibe.

MM: At what point did you [Ritter] come in, and what was your take on the story?

MP: You cried when you read it! When Jason read it, it felt like, “Oh my God, he understands it completely.” I wrote it for him; I felt like he’d be amazing in it, and then he was! He plays funny tragically, and he plays anything that’s tragic with such humor. That’s my favorite kind of actor.

We redeem Bill in the movie. He has a reckoning and a salvation that’s so powerful. And I love that his kids are his heaven, and they’re not annoying or abrasive. The kids are actually part of the Shangri-La that he’s trying to get to. I love that I had Jason step into a role that’s so incredibly helpful in terms of what we need to see with masculine energy in cinema right now. I think his journey is really cathartic, and what the country needs to see. There’s a medicine in our movie.

Jason Ritter, Jaime King (foreground), with Brighton Sharbino, Rio Mangini, Kingston Foster and Jason Maybaum in Bitch. Photograph by Armando Salas

JR: First of all, I’ve never seen anybody write like Marianna does. And it makes me angry, too. I always try to write the final draft when I write the first draft—my friends are like, “Just take the clay out of the box and put it on the table, and then you can start shaping it,” but I’m trying to make the vase on the way to the table. The first draft of Good Dick was like 63 pages, but the core of it was there. Both that script and Bitch, those first drafts were very raw, but the heart of it is there, and you go, “Oh my gosh, I see this vision.”

There were times when things were changed at the last minute. And at other times we’d talk things out and end up going exactly with how the script was written. I’m really grateful for Marianna’s way of directing, her level of collaboration. There’s a huge collaborative aspect to filmmaking, and if you want to have control over everything you can be a painter; there are other things in art where you’re the only person there. If you hire a costume designer and you say, “This is exactly what I want,” then they shut down their creativity and you don’t get their full artistry. Marianna is really able to listen. She trusts the people she hires and hires the people she trusts, and really listens to them and measures their visions versus her vision. That’s really lovely, as an actor.

MP: Obviously you have to hire great people who understand the taste you’re going for in general. But when an idea is the better idea for the movie than what’s on the page, you have to go, “Wow, that’s the best idea.” There are times when it’s like, “No, this is the movie and that’s it.” You have to sort of gently let everyone know that this time it has to just be this way. It’s a give and take. You keep inspiring each other—it’s like if someone made you a mixtape. It’s like, “Oh gosh, they get what I’m going through. They understand the themes of my life.”

Mainly it’s about working with people who actually want to get things done, and are brave enough to finish things. I’m fascinated by people who just want to get stuff done. I love talking to people who are really active. Jason’s done a zillion performances; same with Jamie. It was fascinating to bring two brilliant artists together and see them go to bat. It was like a cool tennis match.

MM: Do you like to do any improv?

MP: With the kids there was a bit of energy improv. If they were punching each other, I’d roll on that; we’d go into the scene from there. If they were laughing, that’s where we’d start the scene. I’d never be like, “Stop laughing. Action!” You kind of have to be with them and meet them where they are first. It’s the same with adults, really.

JR: On an indie film, we’re probably gonna want to move on from a scene after two or three takes. But the nice thing was, even if we were a little behind, I always felt like if I said, “I think I need one more take,” Marianna would be like, “Yeah. Let’s do it.” Occasionally she’d go, “I watched it and trust me, we got it.” And for actors, as much as they claim that they want complete and total freedom, boundaries are comforting. You want to know where the wall is so you don’t smash your face into it. Marianna is good at that too. If you’re looking for feedback but everything’s just “great” and “brilliant,” then you’re like, “I don’t believe you anymore. I could’ve done a horrible thing.” And Marianna is never cruel or mean, but she’ll say, “Why don’t we attack it from this angle or try it like this?” But probably 95 percent of the dialogue is as written.

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