By Danny Peary
If you happen to spot a bearded and slightly mad man handing out cards this week near the Cinema Village on 12th Street off University in Manhattan or the Spectacle Theater, at 124 S. 3rd Street in Brooklyn, please don’t cross to the other side of the street but take one and engage in conversation. That imposing yet gentle soul is actually one of New York’s finest independent filmmakers, having written and directed Richard’s Wedding, Summer of Blood, and Applesauce, my choice of best narrative film at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival–all slightly demented and hilariously written and performed low-budget comedies that deal, mostly, with betrayal between friends, grudges, revenge, selfishness, the fickleness of relationships, interchangeable characters, failure, self-hatred, and characters on downward spirals. All were personal films for Onur Tukel, in which he reveals what he thinks are his worst traits. None made money but they deservedly earned Tukel a following, me included. And so now he’s out on the streets, as Spike Lee was for Do the Right Thing, to alert people that his new film, Catfight, will be opening at those two theaters and eight others around the country, and be available on VOD, this Friday, March 3. For the first time, Tukel has lured name actors to star in his film and I can say that the perfectly cast Sandra Oh and Anne Heche give courageous, nothing-held-back performances. In the near future, as a new war rages in the Middle East, Oh plays Veronica Salt, a slightly alcoholic wife (of a war profiteer who has had enough of her) and mother (of a sweet, artistic teenage boy who loves her) and Heche is Ashley, a struggling, self-important artist who is about to have a baby with her lover, Lisa (Alicia Silverstone). The two angry women come across each other at Veronica’s husband’s party, at which Ashley is helping a caterer friend, and they still hold grudges against each other from something that happened years before when they were college friends. And they fight. If you’ve seen the trailer, you know they really go at:
Not once, but three times in the film. The fights are only some of the film highlights—some may say delights—only some of many WTF moments. On Monday I finally got to sit down with the cool, amiable, and charming Onur Tukel. As we munched on Cuban sandwiches at a restaurant on Bowery, we had this freewheeling conversation.
Danny Peary: What’s your background?
Onur Tukel: I was born and raised in a small town in North Carolina called Taylorsville, which is about an hour from Charlotte. Everybody but my immediate family still lives in Turkey. I was born in 1972, and was the youngest of three children, which I think is why I never want to be told what to do. In 1990, I went to UNC, in Chapel Hill, about two and a half hours from Taylorsville. I was a radio-television major. That’s when I discovered Woody Allen, and the low-budget films of Whit Stillman and Richard Linklater. After graduating, I moved to Wilmington and made some independent films. One was so bad that it crippled my confidence and I lost my nerve to make more films for awhile. I moved to Durham and worked in public television for about seven years. I lost my job and moved to Charlotte and was hired as a graphic designer. I could work from home, so I decided, at 38, to move to New York before it was too late. I had visited New York quite a bit and felt connected to it and always wanted to make movies there. I have always loved the magic, energy, chaos, and the structure of the city. And that it’s a melting pot with people from all over the world with different philosophies on everything. I’ve now been here about six and a half years, of which the first four years felt like I was at the university again. In the seven years I wasn’t making films, I was trying to write and illustrate children’s books. I was sending them off to publishers and getting rejected by everyone. Then the week before I moved to New York, a publisher in Terrytown called to let me know they wanted to publish one of my books. So the first couple of years I was here, I worked on a couple of movies and two children’s books. That was cool.
DP: Are you a full-time director now?
OT: No, no. I did graphic design for one company for several years. I’m still doing graphic design and freelance projects when I can. I love graphic design but it would be nice to do full-time film work and that is all I’m doing for the next few months.
DP: I’m surprised you’re not in Catfight because you’ve acted for other directors, including Alex Karpovsky in Red Flag, and starred in your own films, Summer of Blood and Applesauce.
OT: When I was making films in North Carolina it was more about aesthetics than acting. I didn’t understand acting. I learned about acting when I was in Red Flag and Richard’s Wedding. I’d watch my performance and the performances of the other actors and see that I was the weak link. It was heartbreaking and embarrassing but it made me understand what good acting is. I learned so much from Alex Karpovsky and I’m decent in Red Flag. And I’m good in Applesauce because I was doing an extension of my own personality. I’m aware I’m not an actor, I’m a performer of myself. If you’re not self-conscious in front of a camera, you can give a good performance. I wouldn’t be able to cry because that’s a skill, but anger is easy for me because I have a lot of anger. I just play what’s natural to me.
DP: You mentioned discovering Woody Allen when you were in college. Your movies are nothing like his—though one can draw some comparisons between your comedy of ill manners, Applesauce, and a couple of his films about troubled marriages–yet people still link you to him. Maybe it’s because of your self-deprecating humor and New York sensibility.
OT: We share the same anxieties, too. Woody Allen is my idol. This is a man who has made a dozen brilliant films. My favorite film of his is Deconstructing Harry. There’s this angry, angry side of him in that movie. He used all these vile, disgusting words and I think his anger was directed at Mia Farrow. There’s also that duality that in my films: I love and hate myself equally. People say I need therapy. It’s true but I’m in denial.
DP: You have made comedy horror films so I’m guessing you are a fan of An American Werewolf in London.
OT: Oh, man, that’s a big influence on me. I was watching it in middle school and I could just picture me and my friends walking on the moors in England. Being young, being silly, and then being ripped apart by the wolf. I like mixing genres and in that film the horror and the comedy mix so beautifully. It’s not necessarily the craft behind a movie that I respond to, it’s the heart behind, the energy, the attitude, and I like a little rock ‘n’ roll, a little grittiness, a little imperfection. John Landis also directed National Lampoon’s Animal House, which I also loved. Most of my influences were the horror films and action films I watched in the 1980s starring Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. I lived for their films. In terms of tone, which I’ve never been good with, I think of Rocky III, a great film from the eighties that has, like Catfight, three fights and is at times goofy and silly, sweet and endearing, and full of tragedy and despair. It’s a roller coaster ride of emotions. The tone is all over the place, which is why a lot of people don’t like it, but I like the unpredictability that comes with that.
DP: What’s the genesis of Catfight?
OT: Devoe Yates, who is the musical supervisor on Catfight, and I came up with the idea of making a movie with that title. We were talking about a great eighties movie called Three O’Clock High that ends with a showdown between two teenagers. We thought it would be cool if we did that with women. I am really drawn to two distinct, antipodal personalities going at it. It’s one of the things I love the most. In my own personality I have two conflicting sides. I have a generous, giving side and think about other people. Also I have a selfish asshole side and thinks the world is shit and wants it to explode.
DP: But in Catfight, Veronica and Ashley are both selfish assholes.
OT: Yes. I tried not make either of them the hero. But in the original script, the two women were different from the ones Sandra Oh and Anne Heche would play. The two women pitted against each other were in their twenties, worked at an advertising agency, and were sleeping with the same guy. They w3re in a love triangle. I wrote a couple of drafts of the script and gave it to MPI, a really wonderful media group out of Chicago that specializes in genre and action films. MPI had bought Summer of Blood and read my scripts for Applesauce and Catfight and gave me enough money to make both movies. Applesauce didn’t make any money but they liked it and loved my script for Catfight and wanted to make it. I re-read my script that I’d written a year and a half before and didn’t connect with it at all. I didn’t want to make a movie about women in their twenties anymore. MPI was fine about my doing a rewrite, assuming I’d just tweak the script to make it even better. At the time, I never thought I could get name actors because of the low budget. But then I read that Maggie Gyllenhaal had been passed over for the role of a mistress of a man played by an actor in his fifties because she was 38. Who cares what her age is? She’s beautiful. Any guy with a libido would want to have her as mistress. A light went off in my head. It was a shame that women in their late thirties and forties were being passed over for leads in movies but it presented an opportunity for me, a low-budget director who had never worked with a “star” before. My new goal was to write a good script about two women in their forties and try to find two really good name actresses that age who might be willing to do something on a much smaller scale than they were used to because they liked the script and wanted to do good work.
DP: Catfight is just about two women who are pitted against each other, but you made sure to include political content in your script, which is why it can be called a satire.
OT: To me, Catfight represents the anger and bitterness that I still feel from the war in Iraq. The politics crept in because I’d been thinking about it since the war in Iraq. That was the time I was most angry, when I lost friends and argued with family members. I read a wonderful book a few years ago by Naomi Klein called The Shock Doctrine that talks about disaster capitalism and not trusting capitalism when it’s built around misery. So when I was doing the rewrite I was thinking about disaster capitalism during war. To me, Veronica, the wife of a war profiteer, represents money and consumption and capitalizing on destruction. I’m not anti-capitalism because as a filmmaker I’m trying to make money, but I’m against making money off other people’s misery, like the despicable people who have capitalized off the war in Iraq. There is so much money to be made by the defense industry and huge corporations.
DP: Were you upset specifically about the preemptive strike or the aftermath?
OT: The preemptive strike, the insouciance of the American public, the collective shrug saying “That’s okay.” The “fart machine” in the movie, which appears behind the right-wing television host when he talks about the current war, represents the collective shrug of the masses. I thought people, including smug liberals, were culpable in the acceptance of it all.
DP: Was MPI happy with your new script written for older actresses?
OT: They weren’t happy. For the original script with the young women, they were going to give me way more money than I’d ever had to make a movie. But this new script was angry, political, and had women in their forties. So they now offered me an insanely low budget. I was so passionate about the script that I said, “That’s great, I’ll take anything.” MPI had treated me well in the past, never interfering with anything I did, so I didn’t look elsewhere. However, my new goal was to get big actors to be in the movie so MPI would give me additional money. MPI gave me a little start-up money and I hired two geniuses, a casting director, Stephanie Holbrook, and a producer, Gigi Graff, and they got the script into the hands of the right agents and just by sheer magic and luck, Sandra Oh and Anne Heche read the script, loved it, and said they wanted to do it.
DP: Did you feel that you had to have two names?
OT: I could have had one. I was lucky to get two. When Anne saw Sandra Oh had already agreed to be in it, she said she was definitely in, too. They both wanted to play Veronica. Sandra got that part because she was cast first. If Anne had agreed to do the movie first, she would have been cast as Veronica and I’m not sure Sandra would have wanted to play Ashley. So it worked out beautifully. Then I met with Alicia Silverstone and of course she wanted to play Veronica, too. But I asked her if she’d play the supporting role of Ashley’s lover, Lisa. She asked me who was playing Ashley. I said Anne Heche and she agreed. But she told me, “It’s a small role and I want more on the page. She’s not there, she’s a flat character.” So I went off to write a stronger part for her. I can’t believe I got these three women.
DP: Did the actresses know you and your films?
OT: No, they never heard of my work. Although they loved the script, they wondered who I was and the tone I wanted Catfight to have. We showed them Applesauce so they could decide if I was a good enough director to work with. My question was, “If the quality of Catfight is the same as Applesauce, are you onboard?” And there was a resounding yes. Fortunately, they loved Applesauce—the energy, the madness, the naturalistic performances. So we were off and running.
DP: You shot your film at a lightening pace, so did you have time to speak to your actresses about their characters?
OT: Sandra and I Skyped when she was in L.A., and we’d go through the script line by line. She was so respectful, treating me as if I were Paul Schrader. If she wanted to change something, I’d say go ahead because even if I didn’t understand what she wanted I trusted that it was important to her. I never have known how to write for women. Sandra and Anne’s styles couldn’t have been more different. Sandra came in with a script where every line had been dissected. Anne is a very instinctual actress so she came in and figured it out. Anne said that if she and Sandra went on a road trip together, Sandra would have a map with every turn highlighted and Anne would just follow the sun or use a compass—and they’d both reach their destination at the same time. We had no time for rehearsal but we would talk about things if need be. It’s always the case that I want my actors to know their characters better than I do. That is due to both my laziness and that I always want to give my actors freedom to be artists. All I demand from my actors is that when they come to the set they should know their dialogue so we don’t waste any time. It’s very mechanical for me. Both actresses would challenge me. Especially Sandra. She taught me so much as a director. She loved the script, but I don’t know how she saw me as a director. I could sense she was annoyed at times. Sometimes I’d give a direction that wasn’t the best and I could tell they didn’t think it was the best idea. A bad director can get in the way of a good performance. They knew what they were doing. On most scenes we’d do just three or four takes but if the actresses wanted to go again I would. I never said no. I told them that Catfight would depend on the performances, and I was so open the whole time to everything. All my films are collaborative, but this was insanely so. The whole time it was about respecting them. I knew my place. They were excited that I always film with two cameras because it preserves the energy of the actors. When you have one camera and it’s on one of two people in the scene, sometimes only she is giving 100% while the one off camera is waiting for when the camera is on her. Because acting is so draining. I wanted to see them both at the same time, I didn’t want to miss anything Sandra or Anne or Alicia did.
DP: They gave you their A performances.
OT: They pulled the best out of the crew, which was mostly women, and the women in the crew pulled the best out of them. Even though it was a small crew, everybody was so passionate and into it. We wanted to make something really good. A film like this is never made by one person and I’m beholden to how fucking great my crew was.
DP: Some directors keep actors who play antagonists away from each other between takes, but do you care about such things?
OT: Oh, no. Anne and Sandra are social butterflies. They were excited about working with each other and became as thick as thieves. They had such mutual respect, that you can sense as well as see. My sets are very social. I like people to have conversations. If it’s quiet, I can’t focus. I need the chaos. At times my actresses will ask that I tell everyone to be quiet so they can get into their head spaces before shooting. My job as a director is to make my actors as comfortable as possible so they’re not in their heads too much but in the moment. The only time I remember asking for quiet was the scene in the cabin late in the film. That scene is very heavy and we were not social while shooting it. It was very, very quiet and everyone got into a meditative, intense, dramatic mode.
DP: Were both actresses on the set the whole time?
OT: Actually, for just six days, filming three fight scenes and three face-to-face scenes. Anne’s last few days were at this cabin in upstate New York and her last scenes filming were literally the last scenes in the movie. The first scene that Sandra shot is the scene when they meet at the party, when Veronica asks Ashley to serve her a drink and they recognize each other from college. I’d shot all Alicia Silverstone’s scenes first and then we filmed the party scene on the third day. Sandra came in and we shot her close-ups with Anne, six pages of dialogue. No rehearsal, the two actresses had known each other for about fifteen minutes. Pretty intense, right? For that scene I did six takes and took chunks from two or three them.
DP: That’s a pivotal scene in the film because we learn that Veronica and Ashley have been holding a grudge since something happened in college between them. That’s what started their feud.
OT: We talked about the history between Veronica and Ashley, and what the catalyst was that set them off. I felt that I knew what happened but they didn’t want me to tell them and they didn’t want to discuss it. They felt it was better left unknown.
DP: Their response is interesting because I’d have thought they’d ask you if you forgot to include a line in their conversation that explained their split years before. I’m sure it had to do with Ashley being a lesbian and Veronica either pushing her away or making a call that got Ashley into trouble at school
OT: Right. We debated whether to put a line in, but they said no. Even though we don’t know, I think it’s a pretty clear assumption that, as you said, it is tied up to Ashley being a lesbian.
DP: Your movie characters are always stuck in the past.
OT: Interesting. I hadn’t thought about that, but if a character is holding a grudge they obviously are diseased by something they can’t get over from the past. Someone hurt her and she’s still lashing out because she can’t heal.
DP: One of your recurring themes, including in Applesauce, is revenge. Your characters never forget about what happened, no matter how many years have gone by.
OT: Revenge is a dirty, horrible thing but I’m a vengeful type of person. The way I rationalize it in my head is that it’s about delivering justice. I feel that if someone has wronged me they can wrong other people in the same way, so I have to put them in their place. I tell myself it’s not about trying to make myself feel better or make them feel bad, it’s about teaching them a lesson. It’s very satisfying to see people get what they deserve. But it’s just not the way it is in the real world. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld weren’t punished for the Iraq War. Now that Trump is president, it pisses me off that they are being treated like martyrs and heroes and I feel it’s my job to remind everyone what they did and what we went through because of them.
DP: In addition to revenge in Catfight, there is an escalation of the feud and things get worse and worse, just as in your previous films.
OT: Sure. General mayhem. I’m a mischief maker.
DP: Jennifer Prediger, one of your frequent cast members, told me that she hopes to make a film with you like War of the Roses, the prototype film about an escalation of violence between two everyday people who once got along. That’s man vs. woman. And Jennifer thought of that before you made Catfight.
OT: Really? It would be terrific to make a film like that.
DP: At the beginning of Catfight, Ashley, the antiwar artist, seems to be sympathetic. Meanwhile, Veronica is anti-art, advising her son to give up his drawing and conform. That’s the worst thing to say. We don’t realize Ashley’s an awful person until we see her verbally attack her assistant Sally for no good reason. Are we supposed to like one woman over the other?
OT: I think that by the end you definitely like Veronica more. She has learned so much.
DP: But has she learned the key thing—not losing her temper around Ashley?
OT: She lost her son, then she heals because she gets her son back when she finds videos made by him for her on her phone, and then Ashley causes her to lose him again.
DP: Denial is another constant theme in your movies. Your characters complain and always blame others for what’s wrong.
OT: Absolutely. In this movie, the tragic flaw of Veronica and Ashley is that they blame the other one for what’s wrong in their lives. They’re always pointing their fingers and never taking responsibility for their own actions. SPOILER ALERT: Peace is right in front of them at the end. They break bread. And they lose it because they still blame each other and no one is taking their own responsibility. Veronica should have backed up her video file! Ashley should have apologized instead of implying it was Veronica’s fault for not backing up her file. END SPOILER ALERT Do you think the last sequence was set up a little like a western, with Ashley walking down the trail to the country house where Veronica now lives with her aunt?
DP: If you put her on a horse, I’d have seen it.
OT: That was deliberate. My cinematographer, Zoe White, who designed all the shots, and I had time to really think about shot construction. Even the music has some tribal drumbeat. That’s one of my favorite scenes. It’s a showdown between Ashley and Veronica, and all that’s missing are the holsters and on their sides.
DP: As in other films, seemingly different people can be interchangeable. Here Veronica is hospitalized and loses everything while she’s in a two-year coma, then the same thing happens to Ashley—and they both end up with nothing. Another theme of yours is failure.
OT: That’s a huge theme. I don’t ever want that to go away. So many creative seeds come from failure.
DP: All your characters end up worse than when they started, as in your previous films.
OT: Is that true? Well, it’s the story of my life. At the end of the day, no matter how successful we are, we’re all going to lose—we’re all going to die. So we’re all losers. Comedy is a way for me to avoid thinking about death.
DP: Veronica and Ashley put each other in position to lose everything by beating each other into comas, but they don’t actually cause the other’s losses themselves. Each loses everything while in their respective comas, two years apart, but it’s not the other woman who causes that.
OT: Yes. It’s all very much about denial, thinking you’re being true in a world that’s very fake. They ruin their own lives, self-sabotage, but keep blaming each other for that. That’s another big thing for me in my personal life. One thing about their three fights is that each time you think they’re over they keep going. It’s like when Bush stood on the aircraft carrier with the giant Mission Accomplished banner behind him and then the war went haywire. In the first fight, Ashley chokes out Veronica and they’re both on the floor in the stairwell and we assume the fight’s over. If Veronica just says, “You win,” that would have been it. But she backhands Ashley and Ashley goes nuts and beats Veronica to a pulp, resulting in her spending the next two years in the hospital in a coma. In the second fight, if Ashley just stays down, Veronica won’t continue to mercilessly beat her to a pulp and put her in coma.
DP: Did the fights turn out as you expected?
OT: Much better. There were a couple of fights that we used for reference, one between Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy in 48 Hours and another between Andrew McCarthy and Rob Lowe in Class. I love a good fist fight. The nobility of the fistfight is romantic to me: two people facing each other without there being collateral damage. I’ve been in a lot of fights. If someone says something that offends me, I can’t keep my mouth shut. I’m all for words and think we should have the power to express ourselves in any way we want. My mouth has gotten me into so much trouble, and it always has led to someone throwing the first punch at me. I never throw the first punch because that’s wrong and evil and cowardly. But once someone throws the first punch, all rules are off the table. Of course, I don’t want to kill anyone. I wanted Anne and Sandra to fight like men, without the hair pulling and slapping. I wanted long fights and it to be visceral. The impetus for the film was to see two great actresses give an emotional performance and a physical performance. Sandra and Anne delivered. We had two stunt doubles but they did a lot of the fighting themselves. I hoped it would work and it really did. For the final fight outdoors, it was winter but the days were warm, so we lucked out.
DP: I am guessing the stairwell wasn’t in the script, that you were looking for any space you could find for the first fight.
OT: That’s exactly right for all the fights. The first fight is intimate, in a cloistered space. It was supposed to take place in an elevator in a really high building. When Veronica’s husband tells her not to drink at the party, that was supposed to take place in an elevator going up. Then the metaphor was that in the elevator on the way down with Ashley she was going to crash in ways you couldn’t imagine. We just couldn’t find an elevator.
DP: It works in that they are fighting for their lives in the stairwell and behind the door people are partying.
OT: I hadn’t thought of that but it makes sense. The second fight takes place in a tire shop. The hammer and the wrench can represent military weapons, and there is the transportation industry and the oil industry. The third fight in the country represents man vs. nature, earth, birth. The third fight was supposed to be the bloodiest, but I’m glad Sandra and Anne didn’t want to do any more punching, but instead suggested doing heads in the dirt, thrashing around. I said, “Hell, yes!”
DP: It was a good idea because we don’t want either character to be killed. They are the only hope for each other. The need each other Ashley isn’t going back to the city.
OT: Then Veronica would take Ashley in, just as Aunt Charlie took in Veronica. They would have to work it out.
DP: Do you think Veronica and Ashley should be good friends?
OT: We shot another ending, in which they might remember they once loved each other. I won’t tell you what it is and I chose not to have it for my ending, but it will included on the DVD.
END SPOILER ALERT
DP: I think viewers will be surprised that the fights are hardcore, without the humor found in say a Jackie Chan movie.
OT: There’s a lot more drama in Catfight than anything I’ve ever done. In reality, I can’t do anything but comedy. I don’t have enough confidence in myself and I haven’t experienced enough pain to make something dramatic. I’m a lucky, entitled person. But I was working toward it Catfight. Because it does deal with war and the loss of children. It needs some drama for the fights to mean something. Veronica and Ashley have to be in some kind of pain. The drama is to make the pain real. If I haven’t lost the audience after the first fight, or the second fight, then I’ve got them.
DP: Are Veronica and Ashley metaphors for nations that will always be in conflict?
OT: I think so. I also think each of the fights is metaphorical to a degree. Sandra has her own ideas about that. I’m not a big fan of style over a primal feeling, and this movie is all about being primal and reaching inside instead of trying to manipulate external forces. It’s a very internal film.
DP: You made Catfight before Donald Trump was elected but if he hadn’t been running for president last year would your film be different? Was he on your mind while making Catfight?
OT: The Iraq War was on my mind the whole time. We shot everything before Trump was elected. The only change we made from the script to the film was adding the scene in which Aunt Charlie says two of her trees are named Hillary and Donald. We had some extra time after filming at the cabin and I wanted to add something with Amy Hill because I like her so much. So I added in that bit of her naming her trees. Catfight is a metaphor for the new war in Iraq. I just didn’t see a woman president as the person who would start a war.
DP: But doesn’t the film disprove that? We always think that if a woman were in office then she’d be sensible and calm and not macho so she wouldn’t go to war with anybody. But you see these two women, Veronica and Ashley, who can’t control their aggressive, violent impulses.
OT: Catfight is about female aggression but through my lens of the standard political foundations of patriarchy. A mellow president and a mellow administration start a war against a small, defenseless country and we never see it. All I was thinking about was America starting a new war and what kind of government had to be in place for that to happen. I thought Hillary would win but didn’t want to have a female president in my film who would start a war. It had to be a Republican male president. Do I think we’ll have a future war under Trump? Yes.
DP: I watched you online being interviewed with Anne Heche, Sandra Oh, and Alicia Silverstone and I was wondering what you were thinking as they were saying it is a feminist film but couldn’t really articulate why.
OT: I have the same problem explaining it. We’re talking about empathy here, feeling for the other person, and I think women, because they carry a baby for nine months, have a sacred connection to their children. I lost my dad and it was sad, but the thought of losing my mom cripples me. That would change me as a person. Any time I hear about young people dying, I think of the mother. The loss of children is why I thought I should use women, it had to be a profound loss and I can’t think of any loss more profound than a woman losing her child. While in comas, Veronica loses her son in battle, Ashley loses the chance to share a baby with Lisa.
DP: Almost all screen time is given to Sandra or Anne, or both, but you include a baby shower scene with just Alicia and actresses playing her friends. Her Lisa is a bit odd in that scene, complaining about each of the presents being dangerous to the baby.
OT: When Alicia asked me to expand her role, I read a few books on how to be a really responsible mother and I pitched the idea to her of having a self-reflective baby shower where we’d poke fun at Lisa’s helicopter parenting and how protective of a mother she is. And she got it and was excited to do that scene but said, “Onur, I don’t want her to come off as crazy.” But she does anyway. How could she not when she’s being so impossible?
DP: But if you read about her, you see Lisa is not that far from who Alicia Silverstone is.
OT: She is that fanatical about the environment. The truth of it is what makes it really funny. People really respond to it, and it’s one of my favorite scenes in the movie.
DP: Do you think Catfight will get you into the mainstream a little more and people in Hollywood will know who you are?
OT: I don’t care about Hollywood. It’s conservative and smug and they don’t give a shit about enlightening the culture. It’s about keeping people dumb and consuming. From the mass media news networks to Hollywood films, it’s about distraction and consumption and mind-numbing nothingness. I despise Hollywood. That’s probably self-sabotage. It would be great if someone came to me and asked me to make a film for $30 million. But that’s not realistic. And I wouldn’t trust anyone who comes to me. There are a lot of festivals that don’t want my films, a lot of people don’t like me. Hollywood doesn’t know anything about me and few managers and agents have come knocking on my door. Once they’ve had a conversation with me, they run the other way. I have always been a provocateur. It’s not that I want the attention, but what’s the point? And since I’m a low-budget filmmaker, the only chance my movies will be seen and have some impact culturally is if I to shake the nest a little bit. So if someone says not to do something, I always want to do it even more. I’ve always liked the misunderstood villain in movies, I like the bad guys. And I consider myself an outlaw. People say, “You’ll never be successful being that way.” For twenty years I’ve been making films and I’ve never made a dime off anything, but that has never stopped me and I feel lucky that I can make films and I’ll never stop whether I have success or not. However, I’m beginning to value myself as an artist and at least demand that I get paid. I do hope my films make money. I do hope people come out to see Catfight. Hurting investors who trusted me makes me feel bad. I was recently on a podcast and it didn’t go so well, so I hope I didn’t hurt the film, but we’ll see. I’m not good at the press thing because I’m a loose cannon and probably mentally unstable at times. So it makes me feel good that my actresses think enough about the film to be doing press for it.
DP: You’re a prolific writer, so I wonder how many unproduced scripts you have on your shelf. OT: I’ve been writing scripts since I was twenty-four, so I probably have about twenty-five.
I tend to write my first drafts pretty quickly, and I’m very focused for two or three months while I try to get the rewrites going, and then will do them in three or four days. I spend two or three months total time spread out about seven months writing a script. Then I will read it when I have some distance from it and may completely have forgotten I wrote it. In the last few years I’ve written four scripts that I want to make. They have different budgets. There are the $35,000 films, which, if I can never raise another dollar, I can find three or four friends with disposable income to contribute between $5,000 and $10,000. And there are movies that will cost three or four million dollars, my Holy Grail projects that I assume will never get funded. And there are middle projects what will cost $300,000 to $500,000.
DP: Are you already working on anything else?
OT: I’ve done one thing I can’t speak of yet. And in about a month and a half I’m going to do a one-location movie about two Trump supporters in a hotel room on the night of the election. It’s my favorite thing that I’ve ever written. I want to do movies that are completely outside of who I am as an insecure forty-four-year-old artist. The realistic plan will always be to get the best actors to work with. But there are no other plans other than to create new things. The most beautiful thing about humanity is a bunch of people coming together to tell a story. Film as an art form embraces that.
DP: How can people see Catfight?
OT: It will open on March 3 in about ten theaters, including Cinema Village in New York and the Spectacle Theater, a tiny theater at 124 S. 3rd Street in Williamsburg, and on VOD. And people can go to Itsacatfight.com and see the theaters where i