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Q&A: ‘Penelope’ Director Mark Palansky

Mark Palansky's debut feature film, Penelope, is a modern take on a timeless conceit, entrenched in classic monster mythology. Cursed with the snout of a pig, Penelope (Christina Ricci) must learn to love herself exactly as she is. (Try as I might to get Palansky to admit this theme of nose shame has a Jewish subtext, he demurs). Penelope's rough road toward self-acceptance is made all-the-more bumpy by a well-meaning but hysterical mother, a looks-obsessed society, and a pivotal love affair. The film's palette is rich and textured, taking cues from visual artists such as Mark Ryden, and its talented ensemble cast includes James McAvoy, Catherine O'Hara, Peter Dinklage, and Reese Witherspoon. With the film opening in theaters February 29, Palansky took a moment to offer his insights on monsters, curses, little people, and the myth of Sisyphus.

In some ways, Penelope can be looked at as a stereotypical metaphor for growing up Jewish: Penelope is cursed with a big nose and an overbearing mother. She has to find a way to fully love and accept herself in a world that tells her she’s different. What personal experiences did you bring to this aspect of the film? The personal aspects I brought are actually devoid of religion. They're just about feeling how you feel: Everyone feels different in one way or another, whether it's religion or race–whatever it is. So I think that's what I brought to it–just that sense of understanding her character. I don't factor religion in, really. I'm not religious, so I don't really think about it. Did you have any concept of yourself as a Jew growing up? It was peripheral. My parents are both Jewish, but they're atheists. It wasn't like we were decorating Christmas trees or anything, but it wasn't a part of it. In retrospect I think it's probably good that I didn't feel even more separated from the world.

What attracted you to this script? I liked the classic monster mythology of Penelope's character. I liked that she was sort of stuck up in the attic, not to be seen by anyone. It was, of course, a spin on that, but that was what immediately attracted me to her. I thought that her strength was a modern interpretation of the classic monster, like whereas Frankenstein is kind of chained up and not empowered, Penelope has kind of empowered herself in spite of her disfigurement. She's not sitting in a corner, she's motivated.

Catherine O'Hara portrays Penelope's mother with just the right mix of warmth, motherly concern, and utter hysteria. How did you develop Catherine’s character? Did you base her on anyone in your own life? No, I didn't base her on anyone in my own life. Catherine and I spoke a lot about the character, and really tried to add that layer of depth to her so that she's not just this 'ice mom.' She's neurotic and hysterical, but warm. It was very important to Catherine, as well, to show that parents do the best they can. That they're not always right, necessarily, but that they're trying.

You've worked with both Jason Acuna and Peter Dinklage. Is that just coincidence, or do little people represent something for you? I have a couple of projects now with Peter Dinklage as well that I'm working on, possibly even my next film. I guess in some ways I feel like some sort of kinship. I don't know exactly what it is, but it's like, "What is normal, what is average?" Peter is a great looking man and immensely, ridiculously talented, so why should he be different from anybody else in the grand scheme of things? I think one of the things I've come to realize is that I want to film things that hopefully make people forget about the differences. In Penelope, I hope that you forget that she has the snout of a pig and after the first 20 minutes you're just watching this girl, and this relationship. Those other things should become inconsequential.

Towards the end of the film, we’re offered the insight that it’s not so much the power of the curse that influences our lives, but rather the power we give to the curses that challenge us. As an artist and a Jew, what kind of personal curses have you empowered in your own life, and how have you ultimately unleashed yourself from them? I definitely don't think I have unleashed myself from them. I think that those "curses" are kind of with you from a young age. Sometimes I feel creative frustration with the environment I'm in, which doesn't allow me to think in ways I want to think. It's really about trying to find your voice. I've always felt kind of different, and not necessarily in a good way, and I think that that's the curse you kind of live with as you try to push forward. You build the walls that you claim for yourself. You're the one building them.
What are some of your favorite films or books? As a kid, I remember really loving Time Bandits. I loved Rushmore–if we talk recently–I liked Eternal Sunshine, I loved There Will Be Blood this year. In terms of books, I liked The Myth of Sisyphus.

Do you identify with Sisyphus? You know what's funny, is that I don't find that to be a pessimistic story. I really don't, and I'm always surprised when people do. I feel like his spirit to keep pushing the rock up that hill is a really important thing in life, but people find it so depressing because it's fated to roll back down, but what would be really depressing is if he let it roll over him. He doesn't do that, he pushes it back up. I find it kind of uplifting and inspirational. I was going to get that tattoo for a while, actually.

What are you working on now? Anything on the agenda? There are a few projects that I'm working on. There are three things I'm writing with others, all of those are original stories that I've come up with, and there's a couple of Peter Dinklage projects that I didn't write. One of them is a Brothers Grimm-style fairy tale–a dark, dark, atmospheric, very cool fairy tale. I'm also working on something with Daniel Handler, who is Lemony Snicket, which is also a very cool project, and he's great. I don't know which will go first.

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