Interviews

INTERVIEW: KATT SHEA

By • Jun 8th, 2010 •

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Roger Corman has produced over 350 films and has helped launch the careers of many of Hollywood’s biggest name directors such as Francis Ford Coppola, Jonathan Demme, James Cameron, Ron Howard, and Martin Scorsese. This became known as the “Roger Corman Film School”, and in a way was the test of a director’s talent. These filmmakers were all given a limited budget and shooting schedules to make films that would normally be produced much more extravagantly. Many of these “B movies” turned out to be just as good, or in some cases much better than their A-list counterparts. The name Katt Shea might not be as household as the aforementioned directors, but she sure as hell passed the test.

It is known that Roger Corman was split down the middle. Half artist, half business man. This, I believe, is the way he wanted his directors to be as well. In her early films Shea displayed a perfect balance of delivering the genre goods and creating strong characters. This way they were both marketable and have substance. Her films managed to be gritty, funny, sad, and even existential.

In 1992 Shea wrote and directed POISON IVY, which was a Sundance hit. Again applying the same experimentation. The film opens with a voice over of a young girl over a black screen. Our first image is a young and beautiful Drew Barrymore swinging from a rope tied to a tree, hanging over a fall that would kill. Seductive and dreamlike, with a narration that turns this erotic thriller into a coming-of-age confession. The audience knows within seconds that this isn’t going to be run-of-the-mill.

Although this is the chronology of her career, it wasn’t necessarily my order. My first exposure to Katt Shea was in the theaters opening day of THE RAGE: CARRIE 2. I was only twelve years old at the time of its release and already a fiend for horror movies, the original CARRIE ranking high on my list (and still to this day). This usually leads to disappointment, but when the credits rolled I ended up more than pleased. I watched enough teen horror films of that time to know that this one was unconventional. Even though it was supernatural, it was strikingly realistic in it’s portrayal of the different social classes that divide high school cliques. From that point on I was a Katt Shea fan.

It was recently announced that she would be climbing back into the director’s chair after a nearly ten-year hiatus. Her new film, THE LIST, is set to go into production this summer.

I’m thrilled to conduct this interview of a filmmaker I so admire.

DAVID GUGLIELMO: Let’s start at the beginning of your directorial career. STRIPPED TO KILL: Did you have any film experience prior to this? Did you do any short films?

KATT SHEA: No I didn’t, I was just writing. I shot a little bit of second unit on a movie that I was [acting] in for Roger Corman in the Philippines.

D: Did he approach you with the idea or did you have the script ready?

K: I came up with the idea. I made a bet with my ex-partner about muscles. We were having dinner, and he said that muscles were poisonous at a certain time of the year and I never heard of that before and I thought he was just yanking my chain. So I said I don’t believe you and he said let’s make a bet, and the biggest punishment he could think of for me if I lost the bet was that I had to go to a strip club. So that’s how it happened. I lost the bet, and went to the strip club, and I sat there watching the acts and I just loved what they were doing. It wasn’t like any strip club you could imagine; they all came out with costumes and they had stories. It was just really cool. I sat through both sets, even after my partner said we can leave I said no, I wanted to sit through the next set and see what they do next. I said nobody knows that a strip club could be like this and I want to make a movie and show that because it’s crazy and I love it.

D: That’s very funny. It must have made quite an impression because STRIPPED TO KILL, STRIPPED TO KILL II, and DANCE OF THE DAMNED all deal with stripper protagonists.

K: Yea, but that was not my choice. I was done with strippers after STRIPPED TO KILL, but Roger Corman said he wanted to continue. The whole stripper thing became so huge after STRIPPED TO KILL that he wouldn’t let me do anything unless it had a stripper in it. So I was kind of stuck with strippers, because STRIPPED TO KILL made a lot of money for him.

D: Well I just watched STRIPPED TO KILL again and boy does it hold up. It’s so stylish and the dialogue is really sharp. What interests me is how Corman would approach you with a project. Would he come at you with a certain genre and allow you to develop the story?

K: He didn’t approach me. In the beginning I stalked him! Because I had acted in a couple of his movies I knew his habits, I knew when he went to lunch, so I would just wait in my car and when I saw him walking down the street I’d get out and pretend I’d accidentally ran into him. And then I said “Roger I got this great idea for a movie and it involves strippers!” And I’d describe how the poster would look, with a girl’s leg up a pole.

D: I love how the pole is a blade.

K: Oh yea, but I didn’t know at the time that it would be a blade. He said come into my office at eleven o’clock Monday morning. It took me a year to really convince him to do it because the idea was that a guy would have to pull off being a stripper, and this was long before THE CRYING GAME. He wasn’t convinced that a guy could pull off playing a [female] stripper. It took me a whole year to convince him to do it, and I kept sending him crank mail. I would send him pictures of a girl and then a guy who was pretending to be a girl in very skimpy clothing and I’d write “which one is the real girl?”

D: Did he ever get it wrong?

K: I don’t know I never heard back. The other thing is, I was acting in PSYCHO III and my makeup artist was Mike Westmore who did RAGING BULL, so I got Mike to write Roger a letter that he would make the prosthetic breasts. Mike offered to do that, which was so nice. It was incredible. That went a long way.

D: Although your films feature women as protagonists, they are in genres that cater to a mostly male demographic. Did your gender ever play an issue in getting a job? Did you ever have to prove you were right for the job?

K: I think you always have to prove it, but I don’t think it had to do with gender, no. Roger loved to hire women because he could pay them less.

D: Your film DANCE OF THE DAMNED has gained a cult following over the years. With the recent vampire craze in pop culture, has there been any more attention given to it?

K: No. (a moment of silence, then laughs) I’m sort of surprised because I see a lot of the influences in other people’s work and I’m surprised nobody mentions it.

D: Yea sure, TWILIGHT and TRUE BLOOD-

K: Oh I especially see the influence on TRUE BLOOD. Not TWILIGHT. But in TRUE BLOOD I see a lot of stuff I did.

D: It was remade in ’93 as TO SLEEP WITH A VAMPIRE. Did you have any involvement in that?

K: Not at all. See this is the thing; When Roger does a contract, he then owns your work so he can remake it whenever he wants and bring in other people.

D: So he didn’t ask you to write it?

K: No he didn’t. He just wanted to use the script. He probably didn’t think I’d be interested in remaking my own movie.

D: But you wrote RUMBLE IN THE STREETS didn’t you?

K: No I didn’t. They just used the script. Wait, was it STREETS that they used for that?

D: I haven’t seen RUMBLE IN THE STREETS but it’s listed as a remake of STREETS

K: Ok, It must be a remake of STREETS. Every time he remakes one of my scripts though I hear they’re terrible. It’s very funny because the script is really important, but for some reason they don’t work out too well for other people.

[STRIPPED TO KILL was also remade this way in ’92 as DANCE WITH DEATH]

D: One theme you consistently portray very honestly is alienated youth. STREETS, POISON IVY, THE RAGE, and SHARING THE SECRET all center around teenage women who are in many ways “outcasts”. They are lonely and above all looking for a connection because they can’t find it within their families. Forgive me if this is too personal, but do you draw upon your own life to create these characters?

K: I think you always draw from your own life, but I don’t create characters that are me. They are people I know, or they’re composites of people I know. You use yourself but you also use a lot of other people…and just life. There are certain similarities in my characters though. I do kind of write the same character over and over again, and I see that so I guess it has something to do with me.

D: In my research I found this, and I think it’s really interesting. You’ve stated that your favorite film is DOG DAY AFTERNOON, and that you didn’t know it at the time, but that all your films were influenced by it. You said “I was always trying to write characters that you shouldn’t like but learn to love because of their humanness, their human frailty.” I think this is especially true of POISON IVY. What I find so great about the movie is how sympathetic Ivy is throughout the whole film. We don’t like what she is doing, but we understand it. And she never comes across as malicious. There are no clear-cut good guys and bad guys.

K: No there aren’t.

D: It’s my personal favorite of your films, and I keep going back to it and finding new things. Like the production design for instance. I just recently realized that Georgie’s bed is surrounded by bronze Ivy-looking plant decorations, and the blankets on her bed have vines and leaves on them. This is so foretelling. What is your relationship like with the art department?

K: Oh it’s really close. Really, really close. I paint my scripts for them so they know what colors I want to use. We talk about how the camera is going to move and all that stuff. Before I start shooting, the production designer knows exactly how I want every detail to look.

D: What did going to Sundance with POISON IVY do for your career?

K: It got me a lot of attention. I met with everybody in the town. It was very positive.

D: There are two versions of the film. The R rated and the unrated. Which do you prefer?

K: I worked much longer on the R rated version, to really get it perfect, and the unrated version was really quick. They just threw a lot of stuff back into the movie that I didn’t get to finesse…which version do you like better?

D: Well the reason why I ask is because the R rated version has the hairpiece scene and I was wondering why it was omitted from the unrated.

K: I didn’t know it was.

D: Yeah, the scene with the toupee. I really like that scene.

K: You know what, I’ll tell you something; I don’t think I did the unrated version. I think New Line did that. They took it away and did that themselves. I would have never taken out that scene, it’s my favorite scene.

D: Do you think that POISON IVY has had an influence on other films of the genre?

K: Oh I know it has. I see it all the time.

D: After the success of POISON IVY you went back to do another movie with Corman, LAST EXIT TO EARTH. What made you decide to do that?

K: As popular as it was, I didn’t get offered another film after POISON IVY.

D: Why do you think that is?

K: That’s a good question. A lot of people would say it has to do with being female. That’s what a lot of people did say, in fact. I don’t know why. Maybe I just wasn’t ready. I don’t know.

D: It says on IMDB that you directed an episode of JOE BOB’S DRIVE-IN THEATER. What is that and why can’t I find it?

K: That’s not true. IMDB has a lot of mistakes. They don’t know my birthday, there is a lot of stuff wrong with IMDB. I never directed that. I don’t even know what it is to tell you the truth.

D: I didn’t know until I listened to the commentary how quick the pre-production process was for you while doing THE RAGE: CARRIE 2. [ Shea was called in last minute after the original director was fired] What I find really interesting is that the script feels like one that you would pen. All your themes are present. Even the Tattoo Rachel has is reminiscent of Ivy’s tattoo, and they share similar symbolism.

K: The writer was really influenced by my movies. He told me that. He said he was trying to emulate things from my movies. Interestingly enough they didn’t ask me to direct it (laughs). Not until the other director was fired.

D: Did you change the script at all? Did you have a relationship with the screenwriter while shooting?

K: Yes. I did a quick pass on the script before shooting. I think I got there on a Thursday and was shooting on Monday. So it was a really quick pass. The kind of thing where you’re just staying up all night and working on it. Then I did some things while I was on set to improve it. Luckily the writer was there so he could participate too.

D: What does Brian De Palma think of it?

K: He was very supportive of me, so that was nice. I know that Sissy Spacek really liked it. I never got a real comment on it from De Palma but I wouldn’t have because I’m not really in touch with him

[Shea had a small role in SCARFACE]

D: Has he been an influence at all in your career?

K: Oh yeah, I think so. I love DRESSED TO KILL. STRIPPED TO KILL is named after it. Definitely.

D: Who are some of your other influences?

K: Don’t you think you’re influenced by everything in a way? (thinks for a moment) Well, obviously DOG DAY AFTERNOON. Sam Fuller movies, he’s always been an influence. Certainly Brian De Palma…nobody’s asked me this in a really long time. It’s hard for me to answer it well…I love Martin Scorsese. I grew up on foreign films so I certainly was influenced –

D: Which ones?

K: Fellini.

D: That’s interesting because in STRIPPED TO KILL II I can definitely see Fellini.

K: (laughs) People say the wildest things about STRIPPED TO KILL II. They say Ingmar Bergman –

D: It’s the dream sequences.

K: I didn’t really think about that. It’s another case where I had about two days prep. You’re really flying by the seat of your pants, it’s all subconscious. I don’t know about all these influences they give me credit for, but it’s very flattering. It really is. My God, being compared to Bergman and Fellini! I’ll take that any day. How lucky am I? …Crazy. Thank you for saying that.

D: You’re very welcome. It’s funny you mentioned Sam Fuller as an influence too, because you were actually asked to remake SHOCK CORRIDER. So what made you turn that down?

K: It’s very hard to do remakes. There is something very special about that original. I felt like it would be pretty impossible to do a good job, that’s all. I tried. I thought about it. It’s not like I instantly said no. I really thought about how I could do it…I think I might be more capable to do that now actually.

D: When was this in your career?

K: After POISON IVY

D: Going back to THE RAGE, if the situation was different and you had more time. Would you have changed things?

K: Oh yeah. It would have been different. No question about it, but it’s impossible to tell you how.

D: Of course. I understand that.

K: Yeah, you write and direct, you know. When you write and direct there is so much influence from other people’s comments and notes and things like that, and it’s not like they are writing it, because they aren’t, but the criticism you get in the screenwriting process can really change things a lot. It might not change the basic heart of it, but it will change a lot of the details around it. So much depends on what your basic idea is, what your point of view is. What do you want to say? That initial seed that drives you to want to write that script. That is the core of it all. All the details around it can change but if you’re a strong writer with a strong point of view and you know what you want to say, the core isn’t going to change. The script I have now that I’ll probably be shooting this summer I’ve been working on for five years! That’s just because it’s gone through different companies, and different producers were involved, and there are all kinds of notes that you get but the very core of the idea that I wanted to develop, and what I wanted to say, is still completely there. That is pure. The details surrounding it are all very different than the original treatment.

D: Sure, it’s the backbone.

K: Yeah, it’s like the trunk of a tree, but the branches are different.

D: I like that analogy. After THE RAGE you made SHARING THE SECRET, which was a made-for-TV movie. Is this because you didn’t like working on a big studio movie or is it all the same to you?

K: It’s all the same. [THE RAGE] was the number two movie at the box office but then I didn’t get another movie.

D: Again?!

K: It’s been very consistent in my career. POISON IVY was a big hit movie for its budget, and then I didn’t get a movie. I waited like ten years or something. Then Jeff Kleeman who was a huge fan of mine and never forgot, asked me to take over a movie that was in trouble, and that was THE RAGE: CARRIE 2 and then it started all over again. Luckily I was recommended to Robert Greenwald for SHARING THE SECRET and I really liked the script so I did a couple of TV movies.

D: I think SHARING THE SECRET is excellent, Alison Lohman is terrific. Congratulations on your Peabody Award.

K: Oh thanks. I really liked Alison Lohman

D: She’s been doing very well lately, have you seen DRAG ME TO HELL?

K: No I haven’t but I’m sure she’s great in it.

D: She is, both the movie and her are great.

K: I really fought for her. CBS didn’t want her because she didn’t have any credits. She came in for an audition and I just loved her. Actually the head of casting came to the set, after I fought for her and got her, and he thanked me for doing it, because they thought she was so good in it.

D: You’ve worked with some of the biggest cinematographers in the industry. Wally Phister and Phedon Papamichael.

K: Janusz Kaminski.

D: Oh right he was your gaffer wasn’t he? [second unit DP]

K: Yeah but he also shot a lot for me. He shot a lot of STREETS.

D: Did he shoot the action scenes?

K: He shot pretty much all the stuff with the cop.

D: Oh okay. Can you talk a little about your relationship with the DP? How do you go about choosing who is right for what project?

K: It’s all about the chemistry. It’s like picking a boyfriend. Your communication has to be really really good. It’s like a dance, it’s almost psychic. Then you can just get amazing things, when you have that kind of communication. Like the stuff in CARRIE 2 is really out there because we had such trust and communication. It was pretty surreal actually.

[THE RAGE: CARRIE 2 was shot by Donald Morgan]

D: Let’s talk about your new film THE LIST.

K: What do you know about it?

D: I know close to nothing about it, but from what I read, you should be getting into production now. Are you?

K: Where did you read that?

D: I forgot but it said shooting in Chicago in June.

K: That’s interesting it said June, it’s actually July. Has been for a long time. There was an actor who got involved that wouldn’t be available unless we did it earlier so they were trying to move the start date up but it just refused to happen.

D: So this is a “provocative teen drama”?

K: …yeah.

D: And you’re trying to keep it very mysterious I see?

K: (laughs) No, you don’t want to talk about something too much until it really goes.

D: I understand that

K: It’s really good. It’s really twisted and dark and subversive.

D: Will you be casting unknowns?

K: No they aren’t unknowns, they’re pretty known even though they’re young. Haley Bennett [THE HAUNTING OF MOLLY HARTLEY], Evan Peters [KICK ASS!].

D: Your reputation is very much that of an “actor’s director”. Actors who have worked for you have spoken up about their great experiences, and you always get such raw performances from mostly newcomers. Then they seem to blow up after working with you. You also teach an acting class in California. What are your methods and techniques when it comes to coaching actors?

K: I really get them out of their heads. So they’re not thinking about it so much. So they’re coming from a really gut level and its not cerebral.

D: So you keep the classes small?

K: Yes they’re small.

D: And do you use the same approach on set?

K: Yes. I’m very direct with actors. I’m really kind and I love actors and I want them to do their best. I’m really protective of them but I’m really direct with them too and they like that. They know what I want and what I want for them and from them. They are very relieved when they get my input. I’m not result-oriented. I try to help them to get to it.

D: Is this mostly in rehearsals?

K: Yes. Mostly in rehearsals. Sometimes if they get in trouble on set I’ll go into acting class mode and we’ll get it worked out. That works really well. Sometimes you have to stop everything. Take a break for five minutes and do a little acting class.

D: Would you say your approach derives from any school of acting?

K: No. I use these exercises that look really crazy but they work really well and it really frees the actor up. I can’t say it comes from a certain school of acting. Much of it is based on Viola Spolin exercises though. Viola Spolin was a pioneer of theater exercises and it’s come a long way since that but that’s the core of it.

D: What film are you most proud of?

K: I’m really proud of them all for different reasons. POISON IVY is obvious because it was so successful and I jumped into a bigger arena with that. It was only a three million dollar movie but that was a fortune for me, coming from fifteen-day shoots. But STRIPPED TO KILL was a huge thing. I told you how that came about. I really pursued that so relentlessly. It was so hard to make. Those are the two films that are most important to me. But I also love CARRIE 2. I didn’t write it so it’s not as close to my heart but I’m really proud of the fact that I was flown in on Thursday and started shooting on Monday. I look at that and I go “wow, how did I do that?”

D: That must have been hard working with the actors when they have already made decisions about the characters and here you are wanting to change things.

K: The actors hated me. They loved their director, and they saw me as the studio person who came to take over.

D: Did they already start shooting?

K: Yeah, they shot two weeks of footage and I threw it all away.

D: But they ended up warming up to you?

K: Yes they did. I just threatened them. (laughs) It ended up being really good, but it was rough. It felt like I was being thrown into a beehive. When they flew me in he [the original director] was still shooting. They hadn’t even fired him yet. It was craziness. Absolute insanity. The situation was they were going to fire him. I couldn’t save his job. I tried, and they said you either take this job or we’re shelving the movie.

D: Was he going over budget?

K: I think he was behind, but they just didn’t’ like what he was shooting. And I tried to help. I said why don’t you get him a new DP, maybe that’s the problem? It just wasn’t going to happen. So rather than having them shelve the movie, I went in. I’d rather see everyone get a movie made. I’d rather see those actors and that crew have a finished movie. It’s good for everybody when a movie gets made. It’s good on so many levels that you don’t want it to be shelved. They didn’t give me any more time. They wanted me to use the footage they were firing him for. I said no, you’re firing the guy for it and you want me to match it? So I had to reshoot everything and stay on the schedule with the loss of two weeks. So it was back to my old stomping ground of doing everything fast and well and cheap. And making it look like much more.

D: Like I said before, you really put your stamp on it.

K: Thank you. I think I did too.

D: Although Corman is still producing, his days of discovering new directorial talents seem to be behind him. Unfortunately, there isn’t anybody to fill his shoes. What would you do now if you were just starting out?

K: Oh boy. Well, there’s a lot more opportunity in many ways. There have been people who have shot some really great original stuff and it gets discovered on Youtube. There are opportunities because of the internet.

D: Do you think that’s the best place for filmmakers to put their stuff?

K: Do you think so?

D: I don’t know. I’m trying to figure that out myself. I’m still doing the festivals.

K: I think that’s wise. You should be doing festivals. One of my students was in the movie THE MYTH OF THE AMERICAN SLEEPOVER and it got into the Cannes film festival, and it caught a buzz there. It was shot very inexpensively, no names whatsoever. It got into South By Southwest first then it made it into Cannes. Pretty amazing. The critics’ circle. So these things happen.

D: You don’t think the festivals have changed at all since you were at Sundance? You don’t think they’ve gotten more commercial?

K: When I see something like this little movie getting into Cannes I think it’s possible. I think it was always difficult. I forgot how many entries Sundance saw, the director told me at some point and it was something unbelievable. It wasn’t easy then either, but it’s possible. If you make a movie that touches a nerve. That speaks to people. If there is something special about it, something really original. If you cast it well, if the acting’s really good and you direct it with a lot of heart, I think those are the key elements. There really are very few movies that are made well.

D: That leads me to my next question: what have been some of your recent favorites?

K: JUNO. I love VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA. HURT LOCKER! I kind of liked KICK ASS! (laughs). I haven’t been seeing a lot of movies. The movies that the Academy sent out last year weren’t great. I loved this movie called CASANEGRA. It was a play on Casablanca, a foreign film. Really fantastic but nobody saw it. I loved it.

D: You’ve done a lot of genre films. So do you feel that there is a stigma attached to them, that they aren’t taken seriously enough as art?

K: I live in my own little bubble. I don’t really care about that. I’m sure it’s probably true. I know the directors are quite different. They are usually really down to earth, more blue-collar directors. They don’t have the arrogance, they are really amazing people. I think there has been a crossover though. A lot of the genre directors have become very respected. Look at Quentin Tarantino.

D: Who are your friends in the industry?

K: Mostly horror directors. Practically anybody in the horror world. We have dinner together every so often. We call it the “masters of horror dinner” The most famous horror directors on the planet show up and it’s amazing.

D: Do you still keep in touch with Roger Corman?

K: I do. I spoke to him right after Christmas

D: Does he go to the dinners?

K: No he actually doesn’t, but he certainly should, shouldn’t he? I will suggest that he be invited. That would be cool.

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2 Responses »

  1. Wonderful interview David…and may I say Kate is most deserving of praise since she has more than paid her dues in Hollywood. I remember vividly seeing her film DANCE OF THE DAMMED in preview at one of the cinema’s in Century City. Kate was there in person that evening introducing her film. The reception was very warm and positive , I knew then that this lady was on her way to having a career in this business……funny I was just thinking about watching my old VHS of Dance so having read this great interview that is exactly what I am going to do……

  2. DANCE OF THE DAMBED is actually one of my fave vampire flicks from the late 80’s (if I’m recalling the time period correctly). I’ll never forget the “simulated sunbathing” sequence, which has never been immitated (quite a claim to fame in itself). Thanks so much and kudos to you…

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