The first time auteur tells us how he brought this modern fairytale to the big screen
First time director Mark Palansky is making his big screen debut with the modern day fairytale Penelope. In the film Christina Ricci plays Penelope, a young blueblood cursed with a pig snout. Her parents' attempts to find her an honorable suitor go horrible wrong. Then, one fateful day, a handsome imposter (James McAvoy) gives Penelope the courage to venture away from her dungeon-like home for the first time. During her travels, she learns to love life and herself. She also discovers the fine taste of beer and befriends a beautiful upstart named Annie, played by Reese Witherspoon.
With his debut full of whimsy and laughs, the film proves Palansky to be a true visionary artist with a unique eye for the macabre. Mark got his start working as an assistant on such films as Armageddon and Pearl Harbor. He then worked as a second unit director on The Island and The Amityville Horror. He has now moved into the realm of feature film directing, and he brings a distinct, fantastical style to the world of Penelope. The film clearly marks him as someone to watch in the near future.
We recently met up with Palansky to talk with him about the making of Penelope. Here is our conversation:
I want to ask you about the ending of the film first. My interpretation of the situation is that, in the end, we learn that Penelope's parents never truly loved her. And I thought that was incredibly sad. But Christina Ricci told me I was looking at it in the wrong way. I want to know what your interpretation of the ending is.
Mark Palansky: The perfect thematic answer is that you are both right. Her parents didn't unconditionally love her. That is why the spell was never broken. They were always distracted and fixated on everything else that was going on. They never removed that and wholeheartedly loved her. They did love her in base parental ways. Not in the unconditional, accepting kind that she needed. That came up between Catherine O'Hara and Richard Grant on the set. There was this issue with the ending. They didn't accept her. It is a bit ambiguous. In the end, they didn't love her wholeheartedly. That is why they were never able to break the curse on their own. Perhaps Christina was thinking about it in other terms.
I guess I just took something different away from the ending, and she was looking at it from another point of view.
Mark Palansky: No. I think you are right. But looking at it too deeply, you have to get into definitions of love, and all of that. It's like if your kid was addicted to drugs. And you enabled him or her for their entire life. You love your child, but there are certainly a lot of layers of love missing at that point. While she wasn't addicted to drugs, or anything, there was so much other stuff going on. The real affectionate feelings got muddled.
How hard was it for you to conceive a new modern fairytale for today's jaded audiences?
Mark Palansky: The challenges were in that I didn't want this to be happening in any specific time or place. I wanted it to have a certain style. I wanted it to have a hipness. The kind you don't see in these types of films. To be honest, that was done with the casting. When you bring Christina Ricci, Catherine O'Hara, and Peter Dinklage, even James McAvoy into something like this, they are all really great, cool actors. They did a lot of the work for me. In my mind, I had always envisioned that this was happening somewhere near us, rather than in some far off place, in some far off time. I wanted things that would be relatable to us now. I also wanted things that were nostalgic as well. But it needed to have a modern classic quality to it. Rather than "a long time ago". I don't know. Does that answer the question (laughs)?
I think it does. Leading into that, watching your film, I didn't realize that James McAvoy was Scottish. I think I heard his real accent for the first time on the Oscars last night. With this being such a fantastical film that could be taking place anywhere, at any time, why didn't you let James keep his real accent?
Mark Palansky: His accent easily could have fit. That was certainly something I had thought about. Its difficult to understand him all of the time. I went with what would be the cleanest and clearest way with all of that dialogue he had. It really was a decision based on that. It wasn't because I didn't think his Scottish accent wouldn't fit into that world. There was just so much dialogue. And it was important that you understood it. Secondary to that is, I had always envisioned his character as a young Tom Waits. That was before James became involved. This is what I saw in my head while I was reading the script. Once James became involved, I told him that. And he really responded to that idea as well. Tom Waits really has such an American background in terms of his trials and tribulations. James responded to that aspect of it. We both settled on that as a good archetype to follow. It is funny. I have been criticized for the time and place and actions of the film. I find it funny, because the point of the whole movie is that you don't see differences anymore, whatever they may be. Whether it is a pig snout or a British accent. Some people are still pretty preoccupied by that. They can't get past, "Huh? What city am I in? I don't understand." It is hysterical. They want to find a place for it. Even though anyone that lives in a metropolitan area deals with different accents all of the time. Are you in Los Angeles?
Mark Palansky: Of course you are. And wherever you go, how many different accents do you hear in one day? Just so many.
No doubt, where I live in Silverlake, I think every single person has a different accent.
Mark Palansky: Yeah, absolutely. In Silverlake, you can drive a half-mile in any different direction, and you are in these tiny separate cities. Like Little Armenia and Little Tokyo. Anyway, that part of it is fun to me.
It's interesting that you say James McAvoy's character is based on Tom Waits. I was watching an interview with him about this film, and he said that his character is dabbling in a lot of R rated stuff that we never see on screen. Can you elaborate on what else this character is involved in that we don't really see? Or is that something James is imagining to help him with his character?
Mark Palansky: This is something James and I spoke about in the very beginning. In theory, this character was in a band. He toured, played, and loved music. He then hit the bottle, went into the depths of this gambling addiction, and this gambling arena is this sort of underground seedy smoky environment. There is a lot that goes with that. He lost what he cared about. I think him just taking the five thousand dollars to go in and get this picture is something he needed at that point. He didn't even think about the consequences. Thinking about this character's back-story helped James think about where he came form and what he is doing there. It was certainly the gambling and alcohol that brought him down. It was those sort of R rated things. I don't think he was a bank robber. It was stuff that he couldn't get away from in his own consciousness.
James looked very mischievous when he spoke of this character's devious deeds. All kinds of things started running through my mind when he mentioned it.
Mark Palansky: Well, yeah. It is just helpful for him. We didn't speak about drug running or prostitution. Or heroine, or anything. But those things weren't far away. In his mind, if Peter Dinklage's character gave him five thousand dollars to take a bag of heroine to a client, he'd do it. I think James' character certainly has a moral backbone. It is just a bit lost at the moment.
I know this is the question you probably get the most, but I still found Christina Ricci to be quite attractive with her pig nose. I'm wondering how many different pig noses you had to go through to hit on one that wasn't too hideous or too cutesy?
Mark Palansky: (Laughs) All of the guys that have seen this film say the same thing, "She really looks good with that pig snout." That is a very male point of view about it. We went through about five different versions of that pig nose. We did several different sculptures right off the bat. I wanted to go through a few different extremes. We had one that was pretty hideous. It brought her cheeks and here eyes down, it made her face droop. It was really sad. Ultimately, what led me to the design that is in the film, is that it allowed Christina to come through. First and foremost. Secondly, I thought it was a more powerful statement to make it subtler. Our culture is obsessed with the smallest things on a person. If it was some sort of big, grotesque, fantastical appliance, I think it would really distract from the message of the film. An extra five pounds on a person gets blown out of control and taken out of context. That is ultimately what led us to this decision. The hideous first and second designs didn't allow for Christina's expressions to come through. No matter what was behind it, it showed the same thing every time. It just didn't move enough. It was definitely an evolutionary process to get to where we got. Christina does such wonderful things, you don't want to lose that or cover it up. That is how we ended up where we did. I wanted it to look like a deformity rather than an appliance. I wanted it to look like it could have grown from flesh. It is tough to see when you are watching the film, but it is fused to the flesh like a deformity or burn.
I actually did notice that, but I had read about the special make-up effects that went into bringing this character to life literally minutes before I watched the film.
Mark Palansky: Ah, so you were looking at it. The thing with make-up is that ninety-four percent of it is done on horror films or on special effects heavy projects. Prosthetics are used primarily in horror movies. I knew that Christina Ricci was going to be presented at fifty-feet tall. You would be able to see the make-up in the full frame of the film. So we got this process going early. It was an important part of the film. So we needed the person that created it to be there every single day. They needed to know how to light it, and how it moved. A lot of work went into the pig nose.
I'm someone that grew up watching both Christina Ricci and Reese Witherspoon. And it is weird to see them in a film together. It's almost like seeing Batman and Superman together in the same film. What was it like for you as a director to have these two woman come together and share the same screen for your project?
Mark Palansky: It was pretty cool. I am the same age as Christina. So, it was kind of the same thing for me. I grew up watching her. I was off doing lame things while she was on a set somewhere. The Reese part of it? We were six weeks into an eight-week shoot when she came on. So, we were all into it. She had won her academy award three days before she came to film with us. My head was all into the depths of directing the film. I couldn't quiet step out of that tornado until I got some distance from it. I was aware of her, "Okay, Reese is here, great!" But I don't think it hit me until much later just how great it was. At the time, I was more worried about getting the shots and getting the performances. I wanted that relationship to work. I guess it hit me when we were shooting them on the Vespa, driving around London. It was pretty fun to get people's reactions. Once they realized it was Reese and Christina, it certainly caused a lot of problems. Up until that point, we were able to be the independent film that we were, and go about our business. But with Reese came this enormous press and paparazzi army that poured in. It seemed like S.W.A.T. teams dropped down from the sky. Looking at it now, it is a pretty great thing. I am impressed with the entire cast that we managed to get. I was thrilled to be working with Catherine O'Hara. She is someone that I grew up watching and loving. I really admire her. I was just so lucky.
With Catherine O'Hara, is it true that she taught Christina how to play drunk for those scenes where she tastes beer for the first time?
Mark Palansky: I heard that from Christina. Obviously there is a lot of time between shots. If they are not playing Suduko, they are just telling each other stories. And I guess Catherine gave her some advice on how to play the perfect drunk. Christina did a damn fine job, even with that scarf covering up her face. She looked pretty blitzed.
Now, did you actually have these two girls on the back of that Vespa?
Mark Palansky: Yeah, we did. It was funny. They both didn't really fit it. Because they are both on the shorter side. We did have to set up a rig, and we filmed them off the back of a truck. But they were both great sports about it. The worst part was that it was freezing cold. They are both wearing thinner clothes. Penelope's coat is form fitting. You couldn't wear thermals under that, really. The same went for Reese's jacket. We couldn't bundle them up. Even driving at forty miles an hour, it was completely freezing. I felt terrible. I didn't want them to be freezing. At the same time, you know what you need to get as a director. That was the biggest problem with them on the Vespa. Of course, we got what we needed with them at the end of the day. They didn't get hypothermia.
Did it ever freak you out to look through the viewfinder and see two of today's biggest actresses riding around on a Vespa. Like, they could crash at any minute?
Mark Palansky: Yeah. Yeah. I was certainly afraid of that. There are so many things that could go wrong. Actually, the scene in the film where James sees Penelope for the first time in the suitor's room, where he is playing piano? I don't know if you remember, but when he looks up and sees her for the first time, he backs up into a cabinet. He accidentally backed up too far and shattered the glass in the cabinet. There was real glass in it. It was a rented cabinet. It was really interesting. I am watching this happen. It is a really loud crash on the set. Nobody was prepared for it. But I didn't yell cut, because I could see that James was sort of flush from it. He was scared, but he kept going because I didn't say anything. I thought, if he is cut, I still have a few minutes before he passes out. I figured that it would be okay. That ended up being the take in the film. We were all a bit freaked out. We were concerned that he cut himself. I'm glad that is the take in the film, because I feel it is a real, genuine, physical scare that appears on his face. Rather than a manufactured one. That was probably a scary moment of thinking I had lost one of the actors. I did think he gashed his whole leg open. I'm thrilled that he didn't end the scene on his own. He worked through it. That was very interesting. That's one of those things you can't plan. It turned out to be a great piece of film, and it was entirely by accident.
I understand that you are currently working on two other films with actor Peter Dinklage. Can you tell me anything about those projects?
Mark Palansky: Yes. I just don't know which one is going to go ahead first. There is one that Peter brought to me called Mendel's Dwarf. It is a scientific love story. That is the best way to put it. It is a really beautiful film. Then the second one is called Hop Frog. It is based on a short story by Edgar Allan Poe. It is a dark, dark atmospheric revenge tale. It is really, really great. It is kind of like a Grimm's' Fairytale. It is dark like that. But it isn't really fantastical. It is just more from that time period.
Penelope has a very stylized look. Are you going to continue on with that esthetic in your next couple of projects?
Mark Palansky: The visuals are important to me as a director. I can certainly say that my next film will be less estrogen heavy in all ways. It was great with Penelope, but the stories I am attracted to are a bit darker, and they have more of an edge. That is first and foremost. The visuals will certainly be a part of it. I'm sort of preoccupied with that as of now. Its tough to say. There are a lot of different projects coming up. Some are very visual. But these projects start with a story that I feel very emotionally attached to. With Penelope, I cared about this person that was born into the world different from everyone else. Then the visuals presented themselves as a secondary part that proved to be exciting. I think with every story, it will be the same way. I won't do a film simply because the visuals are interesting. But they are an exciting part for me.
Penelope opens this Friday, February 29th, 2008.