Hello ladies and gentlem, Muldoon here with a pretty neat treat today. You might recall the clip I posted last week for CATFIGHT, a film starring Sandra Oh, Anne Heche, and Alicia Silverstone. The film's director was willing to do a Q&A with me for the film, so of course I jumped at the opportunity. I genuinely love picking the brains of filmmakers, and I realize I likely say that exact same thing every time I post an interview, but it's the truth. Circumstances are different on every project, with variables that simply can't be reproduced given the talent from all parties involved, actors... DPs... Production Designers... Locations... timing... The list goes on. It's pretty cool of Onur to have taken the time out of his day to chat with me about his project, so hopefully you folks enjoy the read. I know I did. CATFIGHT is now playing in select theaters and on VOD, so if the chat below hooks you in, check the film out (and feel more than free to share your thoughts on it in the Talkbacks below!) There's a boatload of solid adivce and genuine answers below, so before we jump in - I truly want to than Onur for taking the time and choosing to go as in depth as he did!
The rivalry between two former college friends comes to a head when they both attend the same glamorous event.
Can you tell us a little bit about how the project started? Was CATFIGHT something you thought up on your own or something that fell in your lap? I’m curious to hear how the story came about in the first place and what made you want to tell it.
Nothing has ever fallen in my lap. I sold a vampire film called Summer of Blood to MPI Media Group in 2014. They liked it. They distributed it. A few people saw it but it wasn’t a financial success. And no one really reviewed it. But MPI got my sense of humor. My films are dark and angry. They like that kind of stuff. They asked me what else I had. I gave them two scripts. One was for a dark comedy called Applesauce. Another one was a script I wrote in 2013 called Catfight. It was about women in their twenties fighting over a guy. MPI liked both scripts and gave me an informal two picture deal. We made Applesauce first. MPI liked it and put it out. Then they said, “let’s make Catfight.”
When I reread my original script, I hated it. I didn’t want to make a movie about young women fighting over a guy. The culture has shifted. I wanted to make something more relevant. I rewrote the script with more experienced actresses in mind, fighting over something radically different than a guy.
Provided you have some top-notch talent in the film, award-winning individuals who have proven what they’re capable of, how open were you to going off the page? Did you allow for much adlibbing or did you have your cast stick to the script? Who would you say had the freest reign to rewrite his or her dialog, assuming anyone did?
Sandra Oh, Anne Heche and Alicia Silverstone have decades of experience in film and TV. The supporting cast - Amy Hill, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Dylan Baker, Titus Burgess, Craig Bierko - again, so much experience. Ariel Kavoussi is a bit new on the scene, but she’s incredible. The actors could stick to the script if they wanted. They could improv. Whatever they wanted. We shot this in 16 days so we had to move fast. We were all cloistered together on set, trying to figure it out. I find the role of directing a movie like this, more like managing the creative forces on set. If you have this much knowledge on the production, you’d be foolish to ignore it. But I will say that the big reason Sandra Oh played Veronica was the script.
Anne Heche liked the script too, but what really excited her was the chance to act with Sandra. Alicia Silverstone liked the script but she really wanted to act with Anne. Once you get top-notch talent attached to your movie, its easier to find bigger actors to play smaller roles. Still, I’m a nobody. I never felt wor- thy of being on the set with all these great actors. So, everyone had the freedom to do whatever they wanted. An example of this is with the baby in the movie.
The baby was always scripted to be in a stroller, but Alicia suggested the baby be strapped to her chest. It was a fantastic idea. The last fight scene was supposed to be the bloodiest of all, but Sandra and Anne felt like it needed to be more about earth, and dirt, not blood. Again, great ideas. I was lucky that everyone cared. I wasn’t going to stand in the way of that. That doesn’t mean we always agreed. And I’m certainly not one to say “yes” to something I don’t want. But on my sets, everyone has a voice and I’m open to almost anything.
Of your cast, whom were you most surprised by in terms of performance? Clearly you hired them for a reason, but did anyone stand out as a “Whoa, I had no idea we were go- ing to get that level of performance out of ____.” In the sense of perhaps there was a rushed scene or the sun was going down and you absolutely needed that “one take” to nail it – who was that MVP for you?
I expected the performances to be amazing, and they were. Sandra Oh and Anne Heche are actors of the highest order. They’re beyond brilliant. Alicia Silverstone is the same. Brilliant!
Ariel Kavoussi and Dylan Baker murdered it! But Myra Lucretia Taylor, whom I had never heard of because i’m a cultural idiot, fucking blew my mind. She plays Veronica’s (Sandra Oh’s) housekeeper in the movie, and she’s just wonderful. I’m obsessed with her now. I want to cast her in everything I do. Plus, I want to write a movie with her in the lead. She’s a genius. She’s middle-aged, round, brown and gorgeous. You don’t see women like that leading many movies, do you? Amy Hill was the same way. Brilliant and unique! She took a character like Aunt Charlie (the tree-hugging hippy-dippy character) and lifted her to a great place. That char- acter could have come off as preachy and annoying but Amy Hill made her funny and charming.
Speaking of casting, can you give me a little insight on how you went about attracting all that talent? Were there any characters you auditioned for and had difficulty casting, or flipside – were there folks who you met with and instantly had a connection with, hiring on the spot?
This is all very simple. Before committing to the budget, MPI gave me a small bit of start-up money. I used this money to hire a brilliant New York casting director named Stephanie Holbrook, who started sending the script out to agencies. She found our three leads, Sandra Oh, Anne Heche and Alicia Silverstone. The brilliant producer Gigi Graff dealt with the managers and agents and voluminous contracts. And the next thing you know, we have three brilliant movie starts for a very small movie. When that happened, we were on our way. The budget fell into place and we fast-tracked this thing. Sometimes you have to work fast so the money doesn’t get taken away. That shit happens all the time. Spend the money before they take it away.
Stephanie Holbrook went to work finding the best and brightest actors in New York. We held auditions for the smaller parts, like the art collector and Veronica’s husband. We probably saw 25 New York actors. The entire time I was in the room, I felt insanely guilty, because they were all so brilliant. I felt shame during the entire shoot. The only reason we were able to find such remarkable talent is because there aren’t enough great roles in Hollywood for more expe- rienced female actors. The budget of our film should have been Sandra Oh or Anne Heche’s salary. They’re as good as anyone out there.
What were some lessons you brought on to this film that you learned from your previous films? What did you learn this go-around that you couldn’t have accounted for before you signed on? (If anything.) How did making HOUSE OF PANCAKES, SUMMER OF BLOOD, or APPLESAUCE (for example) make CATFIGHT better?
House of Pancakes is my first movie. So the lessons I learned there are pretty obvious. Record great audio and cast great actors. I think the no-name cast of House of Pancakes has its charm, but I had no idea how to direct actors then, so I wasn’t able to help them with their performances. So my first film has some bad acting and bad sound. What I learned from Summer of Blood and Applesauce is that no one wants to see me act. I like those movies very much.
I’m proud of them. I think the cast is quite good in both movies. I think I’m quite good in both movies. But had I cast someone a little more known in both roles, you know, they may have gotten more attention. There will be sequels to Summer of Blood though. There’s too much potential there. I’ll be revisiting that in the future. Both Applesauce and Summer of Blood (and Richard’s Wedding) taught me how to shoot with two cameras. They taught me how to shoot fast, how to squeeze energy and madness out of a tight schedule and budget. Performance is everything in a movie. The production of Catfight was designed around Sandra Oh and Anne Heche. It was all about them. How would we be able to get something authentic, funny, primal
and sad out of of these amazing, underutilized actors? It turns out, it wasn’t hard at all. Just set up the shot and get out of the way. I’m still in awe at what they did.
Given you’ve acted, directed, written, produced, and handled multiple departments – you likely see a bigger picture than an individual solely focused on one of those tasks. I can only see that as a positive, given you inherently know how to shift towards efficiency, but... I’m curious if you ever find yourself wishing you had focused on one singular role. Examples being “a writer shouldn’t be concerned with meal penalties or if an actor didn’t receive their Per Diem...” or “A graphic designer shouldn’t worry about an actor’s per- formance or how much a Producer has budgeted...” Do you ever find yourself wishing you’d taken the blue pill (doing one role only) instead of the red (doing it all)?
Many of the crew members did multiple jobs. My production designer Estee Braverman needed a team of six people to do what she did. But she had one person to assist her. She was the production designer, the props designer, the props assistant, etc. etc. Charlie LaRose, the costume designer, needed a team of costumers and assistants. She did the entire job solo, except on the two days we had extras. On those days, she had one assistant. On a normal movie there’s an entire post-production team with editors, assistant editors, dialogue editors, foley artists, sound designers, etc. etc. etc. I edited the movie alone, on my laptop, in my shoebox- sized apartment and Marc Suarez did ALL the post production sound work, with the help of an assistant.
I’d rather employ a picture editor but it’s expensive to hire one for for 5-6 months. I won’t even go into the multiple roles my producer and line producer had to go through to make this movie. They’re STILL working on the movie. My films would benefit from having more hands in the various departments. It would also be nice to have money for a proper composition. I wanted to hire the great composer Michael Montes to compose an original score throughout the movie, something big and orchestral. Then I wanted us to go and record it in a studio with a 20-piece orchestra. But we didn’t have the money, so I used a sound library for a smaller amount of money. It would be nice to have rehearsal time.
I’d love to focus exclusively on writing and directing. I’d love to have the time to visualize a movie before we shoot. I love the aesthetics of film. I can storyboard a kick-ass action scene in my sleep. Give me proper time and budget to craft a scene, and I’ll design something better than anyone out there. But that’s impossible to do on a budget this low and a schedule this tight. Catfight is fucking raw. It’s not about the aesthetics. It’s about the performances. And we had to make it low-budget (with the seams showing) or not make it at all.
What were some crucial things you did in prep that made your life way easier during the shoot?
There are three fist fights in Catfight. I wanted them to be long and I wanted them to be brutal and bloody. And they are. But had the weather been icy, windy, rainy or really cold, two of the fights (which take place outside) would have been compromised. We would have shot them quickly and gone home. But the weather was great in December of 2015. A blanket of warm air rose up from the South and protected us during our entire shoot in New York. As a result, the fist fights are long and gnarly.
Also, life is easy on a director when you have a great cast and crew. When you cast great ac- tors, you don’t have to work as hard to get great performances. Sometimes scenes are tricky, something’s not quite working and you have to figure out what it is. For me, it usually justmeans changing the script, cutting some dialogue so the scene flows better and isn’t bogged down. I was surrounded by a team of creative geniuses during the film.
The key crew positions were mainly women - the producer, line producer, cinematographer, B-camera operator, production designer, costume designer, 1st assistant director, both key make-up positions, both stunt doubles - all women. I wanted to be surrounded by women to avoid the male gaze. Now, all I want to do is work with women. They’re better than men.
Can you tell me about the shoot itself? How many days did you have to shoot the film and what was the size of your crew like? Were these relaxed days or did you feel the pressure of being rushed to stay on budget?
16 days. Crew of 20-25. Women in charge. When there were extras on set (the party scene, the art gallery), I was never fucking relaxed. And before we shot the first fight scene, I was fuck- ing terrified. I didn’t know if Sandra and Anne would be able to pull it off. We had stunt doubles for all the fights, but I wanted to see my actors! After we shot the first fight, I was so excited. It was going to work! We shot each fight in one day. Now, if you compare that to a studio movie like Fist Fight, they had eight days to shoot one fight. We had three days to shoot three fights. So, you can imagine how stressful things got on our end. I was always worried about the weather.
I was always worried that someone was going to get hurt, or get into a car accident driving to set, or that some stranger might walk on set and steal equipment. The final act of the movie takes place in a desolate cabin in upstate New York. We shot there for four nights. The entire crew slept in a hotel 10 miles away. I stayed in the cabin alone because I was afraid someone might break into the cabin and take our shit. I am always, constantly, perpetually wor- ried about the movie from the moment we start shooting, until all the footage has been synched up, and backed up on several hard drives. And until I have a rough cut of the movie, I’m never really relaxed. If I have a rough cut and I can see that there’s a movie there, then I exhale a little bit. Making films is stressful, but it’s so rewarding. Making art with a group of people. It’s a beautiful thing.
Did you have any happy accidents at all during CATFIGHT? I’m always curious about these, because you can plan and plan and plan – but if something you didn’t plan for pops up... you have to roll with it, and sometimes you get something better than what you had planned to begin with. Did that happen here?
The last day of shooting with Amy Hill (Aunt Charlie) presented a great opportunity. We finished up early and had a few hours to kill before she had to go the airport. So I decided to add another scene because I loved her so much. We were all brainstorming on set, trying to figure out what to do. It occurred to us that Aunt Charlie would probably name her trees. So I wrote the scene down on a napkin where Aunt Charlie does just that. The movie is so political that it made sense that we would squeeze in an election joke. I’m so glad it happened, because the movie feels even more zeitgeist as a result.
Years from now when you reflect on the shoot, can you give me one singular moment that you’ll forever reflect fondly upon? You may have already answered it, but years from now when you’ve have time to distance yourself from your “I’m directing at the moment!” headspace, what do you think you’ll be thinking of?
There was a moment during the hospital scenes when Dylan Baker arrived on set. And we in- troduced him to Anne Heche and Sandra Oh for the first time. The producer Gigi Graff and I stood back and watched them talking and we were both like giddy school kids. We were like, “Are we dreaming? Are we really making a movie with these actors, with this crazy script, and this insanely low budget? How the fuck did this happen?” It makes me happy just thinking about it. The thing about making movies is that you are manufacturing the dream world. Films are dreams. The movie theater still gives us that unique experience of entering the dream world. I’ve been in theaters and seen Sandra, Anne and Dylan in that dream world, multiple times. To be on a film set with them, it was an ethereal experience in itself. I’ve been making films for twenty years. I always thought actors like this were out of reach. But sometimes you find actors who do it for the art, not the paycheck.
What are you doing next? Do you have a dream project you’re working towards? If so, I’m curious to hear what Onur Tukel would do if given the keys to Hollywood.
I’ve got two projects I’m really excited about. I’ve shot the first four episodes of a 12-episode series called Black Magic For White Boys. This is a strange one, about a lot of different things. Man’s struggle with ego/power. Man’s domain over a woman’s body. Gentrification. It’s about an old magician and a small book of magic. A brilliant, but criminally underrated actor, named Ronald Guttman plays the lead. I’m so excited about it. I really hope we can find a home for it.
It’s funny, in Catight Q&As, audience members will congratulate me for making a film about strong women from different generations, backgrounds, etc. And when they ask what I’m doing next, I gulp and tell them that the next movie is called The Misogynists, and its about two insane Trump supporters in a hotel room on the night of the election. It’s not an anti-Trump film. And it’s not a pro-Trump film. It’s just an insane chamber piece that I hope captures the emotions of that night (from all sides). I really like dialogue-driven movies (often based on plays) that hap- pen in 1-2 locations (Tape, The Big Kahuna, Oleanna, Glengarry Glen Ross, Hurly Burly). If all goes well, we’ll shoot in the Spring.
Bob Byington has directed a script that I wrote years ago called Infinity Baby. It’s premiering at SXSW this week actually. I’m really curious to see what he’s done with it. Bob has a very dis- tinct sense of humor and it’s a strange script about babies that don’t age. His films can be very sweet and likable. I think I’ll learn a lot from seeing it. I need to lighten up a little!
If I had the keys to Hollywood, I’d probably find a way to lock myself out!
Bam! I really hope you folks enjoyed his answers as much as I did. There's a treasure trove of sincerity above, filled with solid advice for any aspiring filmmakers, as well as a lovely look behind the curtain for those curious about the film. It's in select theaters and VOD now, so check it out if you think it's something you'd dig!
- Mike McCutchen