“I Think Characters on the Fringe Are More Interesting”: ‘Poison Ivy’ Director Katt Shea on Strippers, Runaways, and Exploitation Cinema

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Filmmaker Katt Shea started her directing career on the Roger Corman track to fame. The “King of the Bs,” who helped launch the careers of Francis Ford Coppola, James Cameron, and Martin Scorsese, produced Shea’s series of films about characters on the fringe — a subject she’s remained fascinated with her entire career.

Stripped to Kill portrays erotic dancers as artists in their own unique world. Dance of the Damned reads like a low-budget, suicidal version of Before Sunrise. Streets is a downbeat look at teen runaways fighting for their lives against a maniac cop.

It was Poison Ivy that put Shea on the map in the mainstream world, starring teenage Drew Barrymore when she was still making the cover of tabloid magazines for her bad-girl behavior. The film was nominated for the Sundance Grand Jury Prize in 1992.

Now an acting coach, and with a few projects still up her sleeve, Shea will be a guest of honor at Film Forum’s Genre is a Woman series, which screens June 3 through June 16.

Flavorwire recently spoke to Shea about making her way in the male-dominated world of exploitation cinema, and why loners and outsiders are so personal to her.

Flavorwire: Your films are populated by loners and outsiders, particularly your female protagonists. But every film contains weirdos and freaks who flit in and out of the movie, and yet we remember them — like the driver in Poison Ivy, who says he stole the clothes he gives to Sara Gilbert’s character. They’re so genuine in how they express themselves, their language and motives. It often feels like you created them from a group of your own friends. How personal are these characters to you?

Katt Shea: I write the movies with Andy Ruben. We are both former outsiders, so it’s not hard to tap into that. The characters just kind of come to life through us. I believe in past lives, and I think we lived through everything. I think we have lived so many different lives — and we have been horrible, we’ve been murderers, we’ve been rapists, and we have been everything, until we finally got to this point. So I think it’s very easy for me to tap in, identify, and then just write from there. Not that those characters you speak of are terribly violent or anything like that, but they are on the fringe. I think characters on the fringe are more interesting.

I do, too. What were you like growing up? Were you a loner then, too?

Oh yeah. I didn’t have any friends. Everybody at school made fun of me — and that was actually really great, because I started putting on plays in my backyard for all the smaller kids in the neighborhood and charging their parents to come see them. Then I would film them and charge extra money for that. I made all this money. Directing these smaller children who didn’t know that I was the outsider . . . they thought I was pretty cool. I have been doing it ever since.

You started your career as an actress, so you’ve had a range of experiences in terms of being a woman in the industry and in exploitation cinema. What kind of obstacles did you face as a woman in the genre?

I feel like I was a 12-year-old writer-director. But then I came to Los Angeles, and I started acting. I wanted to see if I could do it — if I could actually act at all and book anything. I took a stab at it, and I was terrified. I was shaking at auditions, but nobody could tell, I guess? I was pretty good at hiding it, and then I actually booked some stuff. I studied with the big acting guru in LA at the time, and then I booked nothing. My acting just got worse and worse while I was with the big acting guru. Then I discovered Candy Kaniecki, who I rent my studio from now, because I teach actors. There were these exercises that got me out my head. After that I started booking stuff, which was really cool, because I just couldn’t believe that I was acting in these movies. I just didn’t think that was possible.

I was known more as an actor than as a writer, so it was a little bit tough — just because the perception at the time wasn’t like it is now. There were very few female actors who were doing any kind of writing or directing. But I was doing it with Roger Corman, who is very, very opened-minded about that. He’s not judgmental. He doesn’t put you in the box. I was not playing the serious, studious type. I was the mud wrestler or the tough girl, stuff like that. It wasn’t something obvious. Nobody would say, ‘Oh yeah, let her direct, the woman in the bathing suit.’

I pitched this idea to him, and I was really passionate about it. And then I worked him over for a year about it. He was really into it, but he didn’t think it was possible — because it was Stripped to Kill, and it was this female impersonator who passes off as a real woman. And this was before The Crying Game. I would send him pictures of a real girl and a guy passing off as a girl. I’d say, ‘Ok, which one is the real girl?’ Finally, I brought a female impersonator into his office, and this young guy starts telling him how he tucks it in graphic detail. Roger is proper in his ways, a real scholar. And when this guy went into intimate detail, he threw us both out of his office. He was like, ‘Ok, ok, you can do it, just get out of my office. You can make the movie.’ Then he called me a couple of hours later: ‘No, you really can’t.’ And I just said, ‘No. You said I could do it, and I’m doing it. We’re doing this.’ I couldn’t believe I was talking to him like that, but he let me do it.

Yeah, it was definitely an atypical movie for that time period. Roger is known for giving a lot of women their start. He was really open to that, when a lot of guys weren’t at that time. But you still felt like you had to fight for that position as director, to be taken seriously?

I think everybody has to fight for it.

There was a long line in front of me that Roger should have been considering. All these graduates from USC and UCLA were vying to do a movie for Roger, and I got it by writing him and knowing him as an actor. I had just gone in for an audition. I was Roger’s second choice on a movie he was casting. And then I was helpful on the set. He was having a little trouble with the leading lady. I got in there as the go-between. He was very happy about that. He said, ‘You were really helpful on set, and I want to give you another role.’ So then I went to the Philippines. Cirio Santiago was directing over there. I wound up shooting second unit. I stood out because of that. The male actors were getting kinda jealous. I said, ‘Well, I have the time on my end since you guys are in all the scenes, and I am just the girlfriend relief of the movie.’ [laughs]

Penelope Spheeris told me that Roger wants sex or violence every ten minutes in his movies. Roger’s movies have this thread of social commentary, and sometimes they can be serious, but there’s definitely exploitation. How did you work within Roger’s exploitation-heavy structure? I ask, because you cast real-life strippers in Stripped to Kill. I wondered if that changed the way you approached things?

He really didn’t make me do anything. I understood what I was signing up for, and it was not hard for me to deliver that. He never had problems with me that way. Although, he always wanted more nudity in the film. I would hide the trim after I would cut the movie. He’d go, ‘Oh, are there more breasts here?’ And I’d go, ‘Oh, that’s all we shot, I’m sorry.’ And he would go looking in the editing room through the box trimmings, because he wanted the boobs in. I hid the breast strips in boxes that said “Hubcaps” or “Car driving away.” I did that so I could claim they were just mislabeled. He got plenty of that. There is no shortage of partial nudity.

That’s hilarious. In Stripped to Kill, the dancers were portrayed somewhat unusual for that time. We get a peek inside their lives. It’s about the dynamic amongst women. And there’s an artistry to what they do.

Yeah, they were like performance artists. I just loved them.

Andy and I had this bet. He told me that mussels were poisonous during a certain time of year, and I didn’t know that. I lost the bet, and his punishment to me was that I had to go to a strip club. So I am like walking, pacing back and forth in front of this strip club, going, ‘I can’t go in. I can’t go in.’ But I went in. I saw a couple of performances that weren’t just shaking ass in front of some guy for 20 bucks. They were really good. It was like they were frustrated artists, and this was their outlet. They were doing performance art. I said to Andy, ‘I know exactly what I am going to do.’

Your film Streets might be a surprise to B-film fans, because it becomes this gritty portrait of teen runaways and the life on the streets. You show us their camaraderie, but we also see struggles of drug addiction, prostitution, and homelessness.

I did a lot of research for the movie. I went down to the streets and hung out all day like a homeless person. I made friends with everybody down there. I went home at night, but sometimes I spent the night there.

What was the mood like during the shoot? Was everyone excited to dive into this super-serious material? And did you want to approach the movie in a serious way, or was that just how it turned out?

Oh yeah. People felt really privileged to work on movies that Andy and I wrote, because they were so much deeper. The movies didn’t set out to be exploitation. They had a higher purpose. We didn’t mind adding the elements that Roger needed, but we had a really strong point of view. The first thing we would talk about when we were writing was what was the point of view in the movie was — and sometimes that would change as we did research. But every single script, on the first page of the script, I wrote: ‘The reason for doing this movie is . . . ‘

Is that something you do with all your movies?

All of them, yes.

The New York Times called Poison Ivy a “commercial art film.” It balances some of the stuff you tried to do previously in your work, capturing an emotional resonance and offering a look at complicated women, but with bigger name stars. What did the big-studio experience teach you, and did you have to fight to maintain your vision?

Yeah, it was a big difference. With Roger, basically, as long as I delivered the goods that he wanted, I was free to do what I wanted. I have to say that with qualification though. In Stripped to Kill, because I came in long, he sat in the editing room and trimmed every freaking cut until I couldn’t take it anymore. I couldn’t watch what he was doing. It seemed so choppy to me. He was really chopping it up. But it was the last time he ever did that, because it went out and made more money than he had made in 15 or 20 years. ‘Katt makes art films.’ That is what he would tell to people, and it would make the other filmmakers mad.

Well, they are like art films.

With Poison Ivy, they really wanted to get in the mix more. We didn’t have an ending. I actually wanted Ivy to live. People like Ivy get away with stuff like that. I had her hitchhiking at the end to pick up the next victim. And Sarah Richard at New Line didn’t want that, so we killed her — and then they made five sequels that didn’t make any sense, because she was dead. I had nothing to do with those, to be very clear.

But yeah, it was a lot different, because we would do test screenings. People would fill out the forms, and then we would have to change the movie around. Bob Shaye wanted me to make the movie all about Tom Skerritt’s character. I had to go through editing that way, showing it to them. Ultimately, I did get the cut I wanted. But he cut out Tom’s most vulnerable scene, where he is bald and gets up in the middle of the night to make a sandwich. Ivy walks in on him, and he doesn’t have a toupee on. It is such a vulnerable scene, and you understand so much more about why he does what he does, because of her reaction to it. Bob cut that out after he approved my cut.

That was a little difficult to handle, but making movies is rough business. Somebody else is paying for it, so you fight your fights, but in the end — unless you have final cut, which very few of us do — you’re going to lose. Unless you can convince them how important it is, and I have been very successful in convincing them to go the way that I want them to, it’s not easy. It is a fight all the way to the end, the very end. I’ve had color timers take all the art out, and I’ve had to go in with just eight hours to re-time the movie so that it looks good. Even when I’m there in theaters, the projectors aren’t always calibrated right. It sounds just terrible. But you can’t go around to every theater in the country and fix that.

Carrie 2 was inspired by the real-life Spur Posse, a group of high school boys who essential got away with the rape/molestation of underage girls. This was a different film for you, in that you didn’t write it, but I wondered if the story resonated with you at the time?

I came into that movie so late. Someone was already shooting it, and I replaced them. But the writer told me he was really inspired by Poison Ivy, and that was kinda his template. So it was his dream that I come in and direct it. I didn’t even know about that story until I started directing the movie. But it really started to unfold and get interesting to me while I was shooting.

Going back to your acting career for a moment, you worked on films like Brian De Palma’s Scarface and Anthony Perkins’ Psycho III. What kind of hands-on filmmaking experience, if any, did you gain during your time on set?

It was very interesting, because I worked for one week in Scarface, basically to be in one shot. But the shot was so ambitious, it took a week to shoot. De Palma didn’t know he was going to get it on that Friday night at the end of a very long week. I overheard him say that this was going to be Universal’s first “no shot week.” The shot panned around the whole nightclub, and the entire place was mirrors, so it was a huge challenge for virtuoso cinematographer John Alonzo. I stayed very close to director and cameraman to learn as much as I could while I was there. The shot was finally successful in the final hour of the day. As an actor, I believe I’m on the cutting room floor.

On Psycho III, I told everyone it would be my last acting part (it wasn’t). It was a grueling role. I was put into an ice chest with real ice, thrown out a window to land on my chin, eyes open, directly in front of camera, dragged through a rainstorm with my head thrown back swallowing reclaimed water, and then thrown into a trunk. I told everybody who would listen that I was a writer, and I was going to be directing, because I’d just gotten Roger Corman to green-light Stripped to Kill — the title being an homage to my unaware mentor’s Dressed to Kill [speaking of Brian De Palma]. Mike Westmore, who won an Academy Award for Raging Bull, happened to be my makeup artist on Psycho III. He was so wonderful. He agreed to do the prosthetic breasts for my antagonist in Stripped to Kill. I’m sure it was one of the reasons Roger finally agreed to green-light the movie.

You work as an acting coach now, but one could say you’ve been a coach for some time since you worked with some of the biggest stars of today, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Angelina Jolie, and Drew Barrymore. What are the common traits that these actors shared?

I didn’t actually shoot with Angelina Jolie or Jennifer Lawrence. I just worked with them in the audition process of two different films I had written and that they each wanted to star in. Leo was just starting out, and Drew needed a comeback role. Christina Applegate was the most well known at the time I worked with her. She wanted to prove herself as a dramatic actress. She was so amazing. I knew three seconds into her reading that she was the one for Streets. I would say that Jennifer was the most confident of all of them, by far — maybe even a little arrogant. She’d only had a recurring role on a TV series at that time that she wasn’t happy in. What they had in common was each of these actors were very serious about their careers and their work. I wanted to work with them, because they just had that magic “it” for me — but it wasn’t obvious that they would become huge stars.

Your films aren’t known for their feel-good endings, and you’ve dealt with a lot of controversial topics, as in Streets. What are the essential qualities a director must possess to work with actors on this kind of challenging material?

You have to be compassionate and get that you are putting the actors through something very traumatic. It is real in the moment for them, so you have to be a friend and a bit of a therapist, too. Otherwise, you are just an asshole director who will do anything to get a performance — and you go to hell when you die, or you reincarnate into a stink bug.