Deconstructing Penelope


Blockbuster moviemaking would be the expected career path of one of Michael Bay’s former employees, but Mark Palansky has never been one for doing the “expected” thing. In facting, spending the early part of his career on the sets of such big-budget projects as Armageddon, Pearl Harbor and The Island helped this Toronto native make the most of a $12 million budget on the quirky Penelope. A modern day fairytale about a cursed young heiress who sets out to find love and acceptance, the film—which stars Christina Ricci, James McAvoy, Peter Dinklage and Reese Witherspoon (who also produced)—is finally hitting theaters today after a series of delays. MM caught up with Palansky to discuss his philosophy of film.

Jennifer Wood (MM): Unlike many directors, your background is not in filmmaking but in fine arts and philosophy. How do you think combining your education—and passion for—philosophy, sculpture, design and photography has helped you stand out in the moviemaking community?

Mark Palansky (MP): Um, I wouldn’t say that I yet ‘stand out in the moviemaking community,’ but hopefully one day. When I made the choice to study fine arts and philosophy, I very consciously knew that I wanted to think, question, challenge and process who we are and how we live. That was really the philosophical side of me, and while that was fulfilling, it didn’t provide me with the creativity that I wanted. I was always very much into art. I’m pretty terrible at the basic skills, but I loved conceiving and ultimately bringing to life a sculpture or a painting. It’s that similar “conception to
creation” feeling I get from film. It starts with a idea and grows into its own little world. In some ways, I feel like a film is like a gigantic diorama. Except a lot more clay, yarn and sometimes even real trees.

MM: Hollywood seems to be scared of movies that are hard to classify into one genre, and Penelope is certainly an example of that type of film. There are elements of fantasy mixed with comedy, romance and drama. What was it that attracted you to the project? As a director, do you think it’s important to consider things like the “marketability” of a movie when considering a project?

MP: I was really drawn to Penelope’s character. She in so many ways embodies the classic Monster Myth, but her strength melts away the stereotypical pitfalls that those characters can sometimes fall into. It’s as though she read Shelley’s Frankenstein and decided that she didn’t want that ending. I very much believe that in these times, we all have ‘deformities’ in one way or another. Life becomes about how we choose to live
with them.

As for thinking about the films “marketability,” I usually don’t. Once my mind begins whirring with the emotional and creative possibilities, it shifts gears. There are infinite factors that go into directing a film and for me, I just tried to make the best possible film with the material I had. As we all know, great films go by unseen every year and alternatively, bad ones make bundles of dough. Marketing is certainly an enormous factor in the process, but I feel it’s best to start devoid of those thoughts.

MM: Considering that you spent the first several years of your career working directly with Michael Bay, who has made some of Hollywood’s most expensive movies, it seems ironic that your first feature film is a much smaller indie film. How has working with one of Hollywood’s most successful moviemakers helped you be creative with a smaller budget? Were there ever any occasions where you wished you had a $200 million budget?

MP: Ah yes, the Michael Bay question. I was in art school when the opportunity arose to work in his office. Being that young, I quickly realized that it was a chance to be inside an incredibly well-oiled machine. Ultimately, the principles are the same on a blockbuster as on an independent film. What matters most is what the celluloid sees as it flies through the gate. Is it compelling? Is it dramatic? Is it funny? Is it sad?

My time working on those gigantic films set the technical standard extremely high. The production designers, cinematographers, editors, etc. that work on Michael’s films are the best in the world. So from that, I applied the same standards on my $12 million dollar film. There were certainly times I wished I had more money, but overall, the budget I had forced the entire crew to work overtime to find the most creative way to achieve the vision. More money would not have necessarily made a better film.

MM: Budget aside, the greatest asset any director has is a talented cast—and Penelope is certainly blessed with that. But what’s amazing about the film—and I know it’s something you’ve noted yourself—is that much of the acting is done with the characters’ eyes. With Christina Ricci and James McAvoy in particular. Which poses a rather unique challenge as a director. How did you work with your actors to address this need?

MP: I was definitely blessed with my cast. Honestly, they were a dream come true. I can’t take credit for their greatness. I think that the time I spent with James and Christina before filming really provided them with a sense of what I was looking for. I didn’t want for the scenes to be too saccharine or sappy. These are all flawed characters and that needed to show. So, whenever there was a time that a word or sentence could be
conveyed silently, we went for it. When you are as lucky as I was to have Christina, James, et al, the best thing to do is provide a good current in the water, but let them steer their own boats.

MM: Something I find interesting about the film is that it’s truly an international affair. You shot it in London and assembled a team that includes both Hollywood and British actors, a French DP, a production designer from New Zealand and a British costume designer. The film has such a fairytale quality to it, and this seems to be one of the factors that plays into that. Was this an intentional decision on your part? (Knowing you’re a former philosophy major, I’m guessing yes.)

MP: Absolutely. Obviously I didn’t set out to find people from those regions specifically, but it was paramount that they bring a different sensibility to the table. Every different culture has the things they’ve grown up with: A toy train or a kind of cereal, or a tree that they used to climb when they were a kid. I think all that informs each person’s craft. If everyone comes from the same place, that can(not always) limit the potential.

The other vital component to the international quality was the story itself. The story is about being different. So as a viewer, if you’re distracted by the accents, and fabled metropolis, then perhaps you’re missing the overall point. In every major city we have multiple races, accents, colors, looks, architecture, classes. The list goes on and on. My goal was to blend peoples differences so they eventually become meaningless.

MM: Penelope made its premiere at the 2006 Toronto Film Festival, where is was picked up by IFC. The release date has been set and changed a few times since then—with the film finally releasing today. Considering the talent attached to the film—both in front of the camera and behind it—what have been the major obstacles for the film?

MP: How much space does this article have? Seriously, I think the biggest obstacle was (going back to your previous question) the film’s marketing. Countless time is spent by the film’s distributor figuring just who this film is meant for. I intended it mostly for teenagers. That angst you feel at that age (still do) and trying to find your place in the world are the emotions that should connect. If the distributor feels that the film will
connect best with farmers or kids or accountants, then that’s who they market it for. A lot of time goes into that process. Much more than people realize.

MM: What’s up next for you?

MP: I’ve got many projects that I’m working on or writing with others. A couple of projects with Peter Dinklage, something with Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket) and a few stories of my own. Not sure which one will be up first.

MM: What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned so far in your career?

MP: I’ve learned that I have a lot to learn.

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