The rivalry between two former college friends comes to a head when they both attend the same glamorous event.
Hi Onur, thanks for talking to TNC, how are things going in New York, are you able to keep yourself motivated and not get too worried or stressed out?
I live in the Lower East Side, and before the virus, you could hear a constant stream of New York noise outside my window - cars honking, people yelling and laughing, garbage trucks, chanting from the yoga studio below me. The only reliable sounds now are the ambulance sirens in the distance. The streets are eerie and empty and when I walk past someone, there’s a disconnect. It’s like some invisible force has pressed the mute button on the city. What makes New York so special is the energy that connects everyone. This virus has removed that and the city feels dead.
Are you using this time productively?
Yes, I am writing scripts and working on children’s books. I am reading books and watching movies. Some days are better than others. Sometimes I can’t focus, I just sit in front of my laptop like a zombie perusing social media or checking the bylines of websites for new information. Some days it’s hard to get out of bed. Some days, there’s a voice in my head that says, “Why aren’t you working? This virus isn’t an excuse to be lazy. If you don’t work, you’re going to regret it.” So I work, but it’s more about desperation than inspiration. I’m trying to stay distracted. None of the things I’m doing feels especially exciting. There’s a futility to it, like I’m going through the motions.
Rather than follow mainstream filmmaking you have gone the independent filmmaker route, what was it about indie film that interested you so much?.
In the 1990s, I saw the early films of indie filmmakers like Richard Linklater, Kevin Smith, Jim Jarmusch, Neil Labute, Robert Rodriguez, Spike Lee, Rose Truche, Hal Hartley, Lloyd Kaufman and Whit Stillman, and I thought, “Maybe I can do that too.” Their films were gritty and raw and they had a singular point-of-view. There was a heroism to being an outsider then. Now, it feels like a stigma.
Indie filmmakers used to be celebrated for taking bold risks and telling stories that the mainstream didn’t have the balls to tell. That’s what drew me to it. If you were original and daring, you were rewarded. It doesn’t feel that way anymore. Mediocrity is now championed as brilliance. Pluck and fearlessness no longer fuels indie film. There are a few distributors out there taking chances, but not many.
How much has your background as an actor, artist and author, helped you with your filmmaking projects?
Performing in front of the camera has helped me empathize with the vulnerability of actors. Acting in front of a crew is nerve-racking. So as a director, I try to make things comfortable for actors, though I’m not always successful. I lose my patience sometimes.
When I have time to design and shoot cinematic scenes, my background as a visual artist is very helpful. I used to storyboard my earlier films. When I was 28, I made a movie called Ding-a-ling-LESS, shot on 35mm in 2001. I storyboarded the entire movie like a comic book. It was a joy and a pleasure. Before we shot the fight scenes for Catfight, I sketched out every punch. It was helpful for the fight choreography. It gave us a blueprint to work off of. But for the last 10-years, I haven’t really been interested in film as a “visual medium.” I’ve focused more on telling stories with dialogue.
I feel lucky that I can write fairly quickly. I struggle with reading, though I read a lot. I struggle with conversations because my mind wanders so easily. So I feel pretty stupid most of the day but I rarely feel stupid when I write. The characters speak, the story moves along, and I often surprise myself. Clever things happen that I don’t even feel responsible for. If you write a scene fast enough, it’s like watching the movie play out in your head.
"Our budget was tiny and it’s hard to get agents and manager interested when you can’t offer actors any money, but somehow they got the script into Sandra and Annes’ hands."
Does your background, particularly that of an actor, give you a greater connection and understanding of your actors?
I am not a real actor. I feel like I’m very good at performing my own dialogue, but I don’t have discipline or the skill set needed to be a real actor. I learned this after working with Sandra Oh, Anne Heche, Dylan Baker, Trieste Kelly Dunn and Max Casella. I’ve learned a lot from observing them. Actors appreciate direction. If you can give them insight into their character, they’ll use it to better inform their decisions. But when I did act for other directors (Michael Tully, Alex Karpovsky and Berdnt Mader), I learned even more. A director doesn’t have all the answers for the actor. You discover the scene with the actor, you talk about it, you ask questions. It’s a puzzle and you build it as you go.
Do you have any rituals you stick to before you start a shoot?
Well, there’s no group prayer. I don’t carry a talisman. When I played football in high school, the night before a game, Coach Wilson would tell us to sleep with our hands “above the covers,” to preserve all our energy. The first day of filmmaking is very similar. You’re excited and nervous and you want to make sure you’re physically ready. Still, the night before production, I definitely sleep with my hands “BELOW the covers.” I mean, let’s be honest, once you start shooting the film, there’s no time for onanism. You’re too exhausted when you come home.
Back in 2016 you released Catfight, can you tell me a little bit about this film, how did it come about?
I conceived the idea with my friend Devoe Yates. One night, we were listening to vinyl music and drinking beer and talking about the fist fight movies that we loved - Three O’Clock High, Every Which Way But Loose, Rocky. At some point, we talked about how awesome it would be to make a female fistfight movie. Of course it would be called Catfight. I think we were even listening to the Three O’ Clock High soundtrack when we conceived it.
I should have given Devoe Yates a story credit on the film but it completely slipped my mind.
I wrote the script a few years later and pitched it to MPI Media group. They gave me a little seed money and told me if I could attach a great cast, they would fund it. I hired Stephanie Holbrook, the casting director, and Gigi Graff, the producer, and asked them to find me a great cast, and they did. MPI funded it and we made the film.
You have an amazing cast, led by Sandra Oh & Anne Heche, was it easy to get them onboard?
It was surprisingly easy from my point of view, because I didn’t have to do much. Stephanie Holbrook and Gigi Graff were the ones who masterminded this casting miracle, if you will. It was a casting coup. Our budget was tiny and it’s hard to get agents and manager interested when you can’t offer actors any money, but somehow they got the script into Sandra and Annes’ hands. They both liked the script and were looking for a project that was cathartic and against type. Luckily, they were both free in December so the timing was perfect.
Did they both have to do a lot of fight training?
There was no fight training before the shoot. The actors learned the choreography the day of each fight. Still, we were very careful to make sure Sandra and Anne were both safe. Balint Pinczehelyi was our stunt coordinator. Kimmy Suzuki was Sandra Oh’s stunt double and Kara Rosella (and Nikki Brower for the first fight) was Anne’s. We shot each fight in one day. So, three fights, three days. The stunt team trained Sandra and Anne as we shot. It was very loose and unstructured.
What was the inspiration behind your screenplay?
The first version of Catfight was about a group of women in their early twenties fight over a boy but that’s not the script we shot. The real inspiration for the final screenplay was a story I read about ageism in Hollywood. In the article, Maggie Gyllenhaal says, “I’m 37, and I was told recently I was too old to play the lover of a man who was 55.” When I read that, I no longer wanted to make the original version. Young girls fighting over a boy? What a cliche. Instead, I was inspired to write something about feminine pain, loss and anger. The women in Catfight aren’t young lovestruck college grads. They’re damaged by disappointment and middle-age. That’s something I could connect with as a writer.
"If you’re mocking the war with a big goofy smile on your face, everyone will laugh ride along with you."
Did you have any apprehensions about making a comedy/drama that had such an unflinching political narrative?
I wasn’t apprehensive at the time I made it because I’d been carrying a chip on my shoulder since the War in Iraq. It was a bit cathartic for me to funnel that anger into Catfight. Going forward, I’ll probably ease up on the politics in my movies. It doesn’t make them commercially viable. I think there’s a collective fatigue with politics in America. Most people want to watch movies to escape politics. They get enough of it from the news and internet. I think I learned this lesson the hard way when I made my follow-up film The Misogynists. It’s my best movie, very timely and politically charged, brave with incredible performances, everything an indie film is supposed to be, yet it took us three years to find a distributor.
The political themes within Catfight have remained salient due in part to the current US Presidents penchant for taking leads from Cable News shows and your use of a Late Night talk show host is fantastically placed. Did you imagine that your film would have such a lasting impact in this way?
I added the character of the late night host as a response to The Daily Show. When we were bombing Iraq and destabilizing the Middle East, Jon Stewart and his motley crew of anti-authoritarian misfits just keep telling joke after joke after joke. Anytime I watched it, it made me mad, even though as a liberal Democrat, I fit the demographic of the show’s audience. But something about it seemed so insincere. I didn’t buy the outrage, maybe because I didn’t see my anger represented onscreen. But self-righteous anger isn’t funny. Self-righteous sarcasm is perfectly acceptable though. If you’re mocking the war with a big goofy smile on your face, everyone will laugh ride along with you. That’s what the fart machine meant to me.
There’s a talk show scene that got cut from the final edit of Catfight. I regret doing that because it would be so relevant now. At the end of the film, after the credits, the talk show host celebrates his 1000th episode. He brings all of his writers onto the stage to thank them for their service. They’re all white guys in their twenties and thirties. The talk show host concludes the movie by saying, “These are the people writing your jokes, and telling you how to think, even though they have no political experience what-so-ever.” I should have left it as a post-credit scene. Maybe there’s a way to get it reinstated in the future. It’s included on the DVD and Bluray though.
In one of the kitchen scenes between Donna & Veronica as they discuss the 'war on terror' you capture how relationship can instantly break when ideologies aren't shared between those in support and those who are willing to 'questions' (I don't want to say against) a political ideology. How much of this insight comes from your own personal experience and conversations with friends?
Man, for about a five-year stretch in the early aughts, 2002-2008, I couldn’t have a civil political conversation with anyone who supported the War on Terror. I thought anyone who supported the Bush administration was an idiot. So that scene in Catfight was like a muted amalgamation of that period in my life. When Veronica criticizes the war, Donna HATES her just as I’m sure peopled HATED me when I spat on their convictions. I was such an insufferable, condescending prick. But that war was an immoral shitstain on America’s past, just like Vietnam. I’m a broken record about it. I sort of lost my innocence during that time. I lost my sense of humor. I think it’s important to remind people because they’ve swept it under the rug, Republicans and Democrats both. They try to play innocent, like they didn’t blow the trumpets for that war like they were at a pep rally. And the supposed fourth estate, the mass media? They were just propaganda machines for the Pentagon. I remember watching Wolf Blitzer on CNN discussing war strategy with U.S. generals like it was a game of fucking Risk. I’m sorry to get so worked up but I think about it whenever I hear Joe Biden speak. Democrats haven’t learned a thing. Here we are in 2020 and who are they picking as the Presidential nominee? A man who voted for that disgusting fucking war.
With that said, I don’t like Trump. I don’t want to get him reelected. But I don’t have that deep, dark malignant hate for him that I had for Bush. But hatred is a funny thing. And one night in a movie theater in New York, I shared a beer with his daughter Barbara. She was insanely charming and out of this world lovely. It was impossible to hate Bush after that. And fuck, when you compare his demeanor to Trump’s, he’s practically Socrates.
Classical music also place an integral role in Catfight, where did the inspiration come from to use classical music?
I’ve just always loved classical music. I’m not erudite when it comes to the songs or the composers, but listening to a powerful piece will bring tears to my eyes and make me momentarily believe in God. Plus, I wanted the fight scenes to be ridiculous. War is absurd. So it seemed delightfully absurd to have Sandra Oh and Anne Heche hitting each other in the face with hammers to “Beethoven’s 5th.”
What was the most challenging scene for you to film?
Oh man, the birthday party scene was kind of a nightmare. There were so many people and the space wasn’t big enough. We didn’t have a staging area for the extras to wait. So while we were setting up shots, we were all just crammed together for six hours and it was chaotic and claustrophobic. It’s always stressful working with extras but especially that day.
Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?
I started making movies with my friends when I was 12-years-old. And we made movies regularly until we graduated high school. But I lost interest in making films in college. I watched everything I could get my hands on and I studied film theory, but I didn’t have that driving passion to make anything. I was more interested in partying with friends. I got back into making films (on super-8 and 16mm) when I was around 23. From that point, you could say I was hooked.
Has your style as a writer/director changed much since you debut film?
I don’t think my writing style has changed much. My first film House of Pancakes was dialogue-heavy and filled with jokes and it mixed different genres - romantic comedy, horror, and action. And my movies since then have continued to combine different genres.
My first three films were shot on film with one-camera. Since then, I’ve shot my movies with two digital cameras. It allows me to focus more on performance than the cinematic aspects of the scene. But recently, I’ve found myself wanting to go back to one camera. We designed a lot of one-camera shots on The Misogynists. I miss the thrill of the moving camera, pulling the viewer in when you’re ready, or leading their eye to one part of the frame. I also studied design in college and composition is one of my strong suits. I just rarely get a chance to show it. This might be something I explore in the future if I continue to make films.
Now you can be reflective do you have any advice or tips you would offer a fellow indie filmmaker?
I remember a line from Hal Hartley’s Henry Fool. The titular character gives his friend Simon a piece of advice. “If you feel like you have something to say, write it down.” I’m paraphrasing, but that’s good advice for a filmmaker.
Maybe we should look at filmmaking like raising a child. I’m sure thousands of people have already made this metaphor but I’m going to go with it. You conceive an idea. The idea in your head is the embryo and it’s waiting to be born into the world. When you write the script you’re like the mother in labor, giving birth. The finished screenplay is the new born baby. The movie is now in its infancy. It’s up to you and producers to raise this child. Pre-production is preschool. Production is the teenage years. Post-production is when the teenager becomes an adult. If you’re a good parent and you have some luck, maybe your child (script) will grow into a good mature person (film). Maybe she’ll get into a good college (festival). Maybe she’ll go on to have big success (theatrical distribution). Maybe she’ll continue to thrive in middle-age (VOD, streaming) and if she’s really lucky, her twilight years will be rewarding (cult/classic status). But it all starts with the idea. When it happens, you have a choice, birth it or abort it.
I tell young filmmakers to get excited about their work. Once you’ve written your script and you’re happy with it, invite some friends over and have a reading. Order some pizza and beer and have a party. Readings are so much fun and they’ll inspire you to make the script better. And don’t write something too ambitious from a production standpoint. Keep it manageable. 5-10 characters. 4-5 locations.
If you want to make low-budget movies and you don’t have much money, learn to edit. I’ve heard so many stories about films that linger in post-production because there was no money left to pay a good editor. I spent 8 months learning how to edit when I made my second film, Sergio Lapel’s Drawing Blood (Thank you Chris Ackerknecht). I was obsessed. I edited all my movies after that. If you love films, then editing is a joy. Writing should be a joy as well. All of it should be a joy.
Finally, the best advice I have to give is to make movies with people you trust and love, people you laugh with and can be honest with. If you are not having fun, something has gone wrong in the apparatus.
And finally, what do you hope audiences will take away from your work?
I just want them to be entertained. And I guess that’s what The Daily Show was trying to do during the Bush years. They were just trying to lift our spirits in a dispirited time. And that’s what late night talk shows are trying to do today, I guess. They’re there to comfort us, make us feel a little less alone. “You’re not happy with Trump,” the talk show hosts say. “Well, neither am I!” But America is a land of contradictions. We all pat ourselves on the back for being so self-aware. But our behaviors don’t change. We think that laughing at America’s stupidity makes us less stupid. It doesn’t. If we were really plagued by the madness, we’d change our behavior. We’d stop buying things from Amazon. We’d stop enabling the billion dollar corporations. We’d read more books and turn off the fucking TV. We’d stop giving corporate media our attention. We’d unplug from the internet. But we don’t. We’re ironic idiots. “So, Let’s bring out the fart machine!”