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To the store for film idea

Marianna Palka's trip to pick up a video was the start of her quirky, low-budget movie, which emerged from the Sundance festival.

October 15, 2008|Mark Olsen | Special to The Times
  • PARTNERS: Marianna Palka plays a lonely young woman engaged by a video clerk, played by Jason Ritter, in the indie film. Palka wrote and directed the movie and, like Ritter ? her off-screen boyfriend ? was one of the producers.
PARTNERS: Marianna Palka plays a lonely young woman engaged by a video clerk,… (Stephen Osman / Los Angeles…)

She was somewhere near the Bergman section, or maybe it was in the Cs.

Writer-actress Marianna Palka was in the West Los Angeles video store CineFile looking for a movie to watch when she started to wonder about the odd etiquette of certain people behind the counter and the slightly off-balance conversations she would have with them while renting movies. In particular, she mused on what the dynamic would be like when a young, single woman rented erotic films from the stereotypically dorky and chatty male clerks.

"I got the idea for that scene and then built the film in my mind as I was driving home," Palka, 27, said recently while sitting for an interview in the back of the store, surrounded by racks of videos.

From that idea emerged "Good Dick," playing at the Landmark Nuart theater in West Los Angeles. Written by, directed by, produced by and starring Palka, the film had its premiere earlier this year as part of the narrative competition at the Sundance Film Festival.

When a lonely young woman (Palka) is engaged by a sad-sack video store clerk (Jason Ritter) while renting heaps of erotica, she initially rebuffs him. Slowly, she warms to his attention. The film features some outrageously frank talk about sex and porn while remaining endearingly chaste in what it actually shows transpiring between its young couple falling in love.

"While I was writing I was asking myself questions I wanted to answer by making the film," said the Scottish-born Palka. "Right now, it seems it's difficult to see anything sexy that's also real, it's all so plastic. I really wanted to illustrate a real relationship between two people that had nothing to do with that and was really about these questions I had: What's sexy? What is sex without love? What is sex with love? How healing is sex?"

Palka's partner on screen is her off-screen boyfriend of nine years: Jason Ritter, son of the late actor John Ritter and also a producer on "Good Dick." After the pair met producers Cora Olson and Jennifer Dubin, the film moved closer to becoming a reality. Shooting on digital video in fall 2006, the filmmakers had to stretch their meager budget of around $200,000 with resourcefulness.

Palka wrote not only with certain performers in mind but also with locations known, casting an eye on the slightly bland, easily overlooked workaday corners of West Los Angeles. Ritter's brother and grandmother appear in the film, and there are cameos by Ron Howard's daughter Bryce Dallas Howard, Dirty Sexy Money's" Seth Gabel, Elisabeth and Katherine Waterston and Charles Durning as video customers. Besides CineFile, the production also shot scenes in the apartment Palka and Ritter still share.

After they finished the film, they submitted it to Sundance, although neither Palka nor Ritter held out high hopes for getting in. "We had heard someone had to call on your behalf or your film gets lost in a giant pile," said Ritter, 28. "So we initially bought into that, and we were trying to find someone to call. We ended up not finding anybody. So we kind of let it go. Little did we know it was making its way up the ranks."

Not only was the film seen and accepted by the festival's top programmers, but Palka received an Annenberg Film Fellowship, which meant an additional $15,000 toward polishing the film.

While at Sundance, the filmmakers felt far less pressure to sell their film to a distributor than many of their fellow attendees, as the amount of money on the line was relatively small. When they received a few offers that seemed to be for too little money and too little creative control, they decided to distribute the film themselves.

"You work really hard on an independent movie and now it's time to make money, and the distribution company comes in and says, 'You need us. We know how to do this,' " Ritter explains. "And they have more money, and all the advertising helps, but they make you feel like if you don't go with one of them you're going to be cut out, like theater owners won't take your film. Then you realize they just have theater bookers like the guy we hired. You can get the same results."

Then there is the matter of the film's title; while superficially salacious, it takes on other dimensions -- emotional, metaphoric and, perhaps most surprisingly, even romantic -- as the movie unspools.

"I could have called the film 'Positive Persistence,' and it would have meant the same thing to me," says Palka. "I called it 'Good Dick' to title it in a way that's really compelling."The road for Palka and Ritter to bring the movie to theaters has found them frequently questioning their own assumptions about what is and isn't possible, breaking through what they call their own cynicism just as the characters in their film break down their defenses to find something more sincere.

"There were all these periods of time during the making of this movie, especially for me," said Ritter, "when the initial thought was, 'Well, we can't just do that.' We're just kids. Someone will come in -- I seriously had this image of some 60-year-old man with a top hat made of film reels telling us 'You forgot to fill out this piece of paper' and shutting us down.

"But we just kept on deciding if we're going to run into a wall, well, let that happen. We want to be the people to say, 'You can do that.' We'll just keep on saying yes."

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