Writer/Director and Michigan native Katt Shea (SCARFACE, POISON IVY) talks with TV STORE ONLINE about her films STREETS, STRIPPED TO KILL 2 and DANCE OF THE DAMNED.
It's become a bit of a cliché over the last century. It's been a story that is often told on the big screen, in gossip magazines, print biographies and on television specials. How many times have you heard the story about the actor or actress that packs up everything and takes off to Hollywood to pursue their dream of being in the movies? It's idealistic. It's gutsy. It's the stuff of legendary Hollywood mythos, and it often feels too good to be true. While we've all become very familiar with this story-line over the years, the difference between this well-crafted story and the story, history and career of Katt Shea is that it actually happened.
At 19 years old, writer/director Katt Shea packed up a beaten up Volkswagen in Detroit, Michigan. She left her job as a teacher and took off across the country to pursue her dream of working in the movies. Arriving and quickly finding work as a actress and model, Shea would land roles in now cult films like BARBARIAN QUEEN, SCARFACE, PREPPIES, PSYCHO 3, MY TUTOR, and the fun romp of HOLLYWOOD HOT TUBS.
Shortly after, Shea would penetrate into the Roger Corman camp of the mid/late '80s
. She would team up with fellow writer Andy Ruben and the two would pen some of the most interesting yet very under-seen and under-rated films in all the Corman library. The Shea / Corman films of the late '80s are sexy and fearless. Dark sexual tales, highly visual, dream-like, and wonderfully written character studies of tragic Californian deviance. Films like, STRIPPED TO KILL 2: LIVE GIRLS, STREETS and DANCE OF THE DAMNED are demanding, and are required viewing for any true cinephile.
Shea's work not only introduces the world to one of the most potent and dangerous femme fatale of the last forty years -- Maria Ford -- but it also transports it's audience into a perverse and wonderfully exiled, darkly dreamt sexy world, that haunts for many years after the credit's have rolled. This era of Shea's work is enigmatic. To date, these films have yet to be truly discovered. They're aching to be seen by their true and proper audience, so if you haven't seen them yet...search them out today.
In 1992, Shea would write and direct the critical favorite POISON IVY. The film would revitalize the career of Drew Barrymore and go on to span three sequels. POISON IVY would also garner Shea big acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival and would subsequently lead to her directing a successful and loosely based sequel of the classic Brian De Palma horror film, CARRIE. THE RAGE: CARRIE 2 remains perhaps the most fan respected sequel in the entire Stephen King catalog years after it's completion.
TV STORE ONLINE: So right off the bat, can you tell me the story of how you decided at the age of 19 to get in your car and drive from Detroit to Los Angeles to make movies?
I don’t know…how do you decide something like that? I was student-teaching at a high school in Detroit, and I knew that it wasn’t what I wanted to be doing. Although I loved the students; I was teaching every subject in high school to blind students and they were so cool and I just adored them but it was just not meant to be. So I had been thinking about it leaving for a long time and going to Los Angeles.
TV STORE ONLINE: So what were some of your influences in terms of films, actors, actresses and filmmakers.
KATT SHEA: You know, it was the foreign films that I really liked. I love Fellini; that was probably my biggest influence, honestly, but Sidney Lumet, too. I always went for the off-beat so some of the Italian filmmakers were really great. I’ve always loved Dario Argento—I had dinner with him not long ago so that was kind of cool—I learned a lot about color and how to use color from Dario. Its a hard thing to talk about. I’m always baffled by these questions and ask myself “I don’t know, how the hell did I do that and what were the influences?”
TV STORE ONLINE: Well was there ever a point where you catch something or you watch something and something just snaps in your head and you think “Now that’s what I want to do!"
KATT SHEA: A Brian De Palma movie did that for me. I was greatly influenced by Brian De Palma….I ended up acting in SCARFACE (1983) and shooting CARRIE 2 so it all came together.
TV STORE ONLINE: How did you get involved in SCARFACE and what was that experience like?
KATT SHEA: I just auditioned with a bunch of other actresses and I just happened to get a really small role in it. I ended up working with Brian. I believe John Alonzo was the cinematographer. He was very generous and was always answering any questions I had. I was always asking a lot of questions on the set. Some people liked that and some didn’t.
TV STORE ONLINE: So after SCARFACE you worked on R.S.V.P (1984) with the legendary adult film actors Harry Reems and Veronica Hart. What was that experience like?
KATT SHEA: I had a really small part in it and it was through a modeling agency, actually that sent me on the interview. I remember meeting Harry Reems and Veronica Hart. Veronica Hart was a very nice and she was a mother; she had her nanny on the set with her baby. And Harry Reems was just about what you’d expect (laughing), kind of a rogue character. I don’t have any judgements about that, it never bothered me. It was just this little R-rated romp so it was nice for me to be in it and I liked everybody. I believe I had several of the porn stars over for Thanksgiving dinner that year.
TV STORE ONLINE: Around 1986 you team up with Andy Ruben. I was wondering if you could talk about that writing team and how it got started?
KATT SHEA: He was on location with me in the Philippines when I was acting and we started writing together in our off time. We just started coming up with ideas together and that’s just kind of how it happened.
TV STORE ONLINE: I'm really a huge admirer of STRIPPED TO KILL 2: LIVE GIRLS (1989) not just because it's this extremely well executed film from a story standpoint, but because of it's visual aspects. I wanted to see how you came to devise this sequel?
KATT SHEA: It’s so funny you should say that because Quentin Tarantino is such a big fan of STRIPPED TO KILL 2 too and the funny thing is -- I didn’t have a script. I was almost shooting it and making it up as I went along. So when people tell me they love that movie so much I just kind of go ‘why?’ I didn’t know what I was doing! I was flying by the seat of my pants completely! And it just amazes me because these other scripts that I've worked so hard on, I expect people to like them but STRIPPED TO KILL 2, I was writing it as I went, honestly.
TV STORE ONLINE: Well maybe that’s why it works so well. It's because it’s this oddball story of hallucinogenic drugs, murder, strippers and it has Eb (Lottimer) and Maria (Ford) in it, no?
KATT SHEA: Well you know, Eb was my assistant prior to shooting that film.
TV STORE ONLINE: What about the visual aesthetic of STRIPPED TO KILL 2? Especially the opening sequence -- the camera movement and tones of that film's opening sequence? What was the inspiration behind the film's storyline, look and feel? Being a fan of those '80s and '90s Roger Corman movies, I’ve actually seen bits and pieces of your opening sequence from KILL 2 pop up here and there in other Roger Corman movies.
I know he uses my footage all the time in other movies. I’ve heard that there was a table with all my movies on it in the editing room and they just would take…it’s very flattering, actually. That aesthetic, people have compared it to Ingmar Bergman and I thought that was really cool. I think it’s more Dario Argento looking to be honest, just with the colors and that whole in-your-face look to it. I’m not sure because when you’re flying by the seat of your pants -- you're just going, and not trying to take from any of your influences, you know. It’s really subconscious at that point, whatever comes out.
TV STORE ONLINE: So in the early '90s you had your strip club films, then you had the films as well of Maria Ford and Dan Golden, why do you think this strip club genre was so interesting or so successful around this era?
KATT SHEA: Well before I did STRIPPED TO KILL you had never seen a girl dancing on a pole, no one had ever seen that in a movie, to my knowledge. Girls swinging around on a pole--that had not been done yet. So I think that was spectacular; it was crazy, it was wild. This is how it happened. I went to a strip club for the first time in my life and I saw a girl swinging around on a pole and I thought, ‘Oh my god this has got to be in a movie!’ I mean, nobody knows this goes on except a bunch of guys with dollar bills, so it just had to be exploited, I guess. I thought they were very artistic and I just loved the girls, they were real artists and they were just using this particular venue to explore their art.
TV STORE ONLINE: Personally what really pains me about these films is that they are really very artistic and I feel like they’re just begging to be discovered by the right people.
KATT SHEA: Well STRIPPED TO KILL and STRIPPED TO KILL 2 played a few years back at the Museum Of Modern Art in New York.
TV STORE ONLINE: Yeah I know, but I guess I'm referring to back when they originally came out back in the late '80s and early '90s. They never got their deserve on initial release would you agree?
KATT SHEA: I don't know. In addition to playing in New York, they've played the British Film Institute too, and I mean that’s a small audience but still they broke through to that level, so that was really nice. And I’ve been told that they’ve been studied in film schools.
TV STORE ONLINE: So you went on to make DANCE OF THE DAMNED next. What was the genesis for that idea?
KATT SHEA: Well Corman wanted to use a strip club again and he had a haunted house set that he had left over from another film. So Andy Ruben and I came up with an idea to shoot in those two locations. Of course we changed the haunted house into this really modern, amazing, great house.
TV STORE ONLINE: What’s interesting about DANCE is that it could work as a stage play, if it had to. Was that ever a point of interest for you with coming up with the concept? Do you think maybe you could try to translate something of this nature to the stage if you wanted to down the road?
No, not at that time but you certainly could do it with DANCE OF THE DAMNED (1989). I’ve been working on a remake of DANCE lately. I’ve spent four years teaching actors how to put energy into their performances without hurting their performance, keeping it really alive and keeping it compelling and having energy….That’s what I want to translate into this new version of DANCE.
TV STORE ONLINE: With 1989's DANCE, how did you come about your cast -- in particular Cyril O’Reilly and Starr Andreeff?
KATT SHEA: They auditioned. They both came in. Let me just tell you that it was really hard to find that vampire. In fact, Cyril came in so late I thought he was delivering a pizza to my house. It was really late at night and I thought ‘God, we’re never going to find a vampire’ and he walked in. He was the first one auditioned who didn’t sound like he was doing a stage play; and he didn’t sound like he was doing a period piece or something either. He just talked like a real person and I said "Okay this is the guy!"
TV STORE ONLINE: Looking back, I wanted to see if you were going stand firm that Cyril's mullet in the film was a great idea at the time?
KATT SHEA: No, I don’t think it was a good idea at the time. The long hair...see that was before mullets were called mullets. So we didn’t know they were coming.
TV STORE ONLINE: One thing I really enjoy about DANCE OF THE DAMNED is how you begin with these long stretches of visual atmosphere. You implement this technique in several of your other films as well. DANCE has something like seven to eights minutes at the front end with no dialogue, as does STRIPPED TO KILL 2, and then STREETS. It's sort of non-conventional to extend so long without dialogue….Is this written out in your scripts?
Oh yeah, it’s all written in the script. All the narrative is written.
TV STORE ONLINE: Writing a vampire film like DANCE, you're sort of playing with vampire conventions as well. You're not writing in any way a traditional vampire story. Was that notion something that attracted you to the idea in the first place?
KATT SHEA: I don’t think we went at it like that. To me, it was just sort of an interesting story. I love how compelling it is to have two so completely different people spend an entire evening together and really, basically, fall in love. They start out doing something much different than that. You see what I’m saying? I don’t try to be unconventional, I just am.
TV STORE ONLINE: With DANCE and the STRIPPED TO KILL films, you've focused on these pasty white troubled females in bad situations. I was curious to see what attracts you to these types of stories and characters?
KATT SHEA: I don’t know because I have a tan (laughing). Seriously, I just like soulful people so I guess that translates as pasty white. As an artist you pick certain things that you like and I like the contrast of white skin against other things in movies; I think it looks really cool. And it’s obviously symbolic of something, maybe purity? Maybe some insecurity? Maybe some sort of illumination from within coming out? I would say that’s definitely got to be part of it; the glow, that illumination.
TV STORE ONLINE: So after DANCE you came at us with what I think might be my favorite film of yours, STREETS (1990). What was the inspiration behind the story and these characters for you as the writer?
That was me just exploring the underside…I tend to really like to explore people I don’t know and so I started doing research on the streets and talking to people who lived on the streets. I did a lot of research and they thought I was a homeless person and I hung out with the kids and stuff and then wrote from that research. I knew a girl who was a heroin addict that we based "Dawn" on her. She lived on the street or sometimes she lived with a very rich boyfriend, which was very very strange.
TV STORE ONLINE: Also, in terms of how your films are lit, I'm just so in love with your colors in STREETS in particular. Was the saturated yellow tint of the film some unintentional homage to John Huston’s REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE (1967) in terms of style? Where does that sense of style come from?
KATT SHEA: I designed the colors from what I saw in my head. I just painted my script, with those colors. Every page would have those colors on it and it changes….It changes from that pale yellow and then it becomes orange and then it goes all the way to red at the end. So I was gradually changing it. The production designer would look at my script, and at what I’d painted. It was so hard to do, it was a feet of production design. It was so low budget and we didn’t have any permits for a lot of the shooting.
The production designer would be pushing cars out of the shot that were the wrong color that were parked on the street. If there were blue or red cars on the street we had to get them out of there because I was in my yellow phase. You have no idea how difficult that was.
TV STORE ONLINE: Well I want you to know that I sincerely appreciate the beauty of the design in STREETS.
I didn’t even think anyone appreciated it, like ‘okay we did all this work and no one even noticed’. We put pillars in the underground parking garage because I wanted it to be sort of cathedral-like so they made these paper-mache pillars.
TV STORE ONLINE: Yeah, yeah I wanted to ask you about that. If you were in your yellow phase how did the garage scene fit into that? It was almost like a strange homage to the lighting of PSYCHO (1960) with the light bulb swinging back and forth while Eb Lottimer is attacking Christina Applegate. Was that something you consciously decided to do -- to style the scene?
KATT SHEA: The cop had to be blue and a really cold blue at that. So the kids had to be really warm; they were warm the entire time even though the colors were shifting and the cop was always this steely cold blue so the underground parking garage was really a combination of the two because they were both in it.
TV STORE ONLINE: So this was Christina Applegate's breakthrough performance. How did you come upon her and on the decision for David Mendenhall to play the boyfriend?
KATT SHEA: Christina, I had saw on the show Married With Children and I thought she was a really good actress; She came in and read for the part and she was amazing and I knew in the first few seconds that she would be great. David Mendenhall came in and auditioned and I just loved him.
TV STORE ONLINE: One thing I love about STREETS as well, and it's something were when you watch it, you realize -- Jesus, how great is Eb Lottimer? He is such an under-rated actor on so many levels. That performance, and his stature and costume always remind me of Robert Patrick in TERMINATOR 2 (1991) for some reason. Have you heard that before?
Well STREETS was for sure influenced by the TERMINATOR
TV STORE ONLINE: How so?
I don’t know, it just feels like it to me…just like in TERMINATOR--they’re on the run.
TV STORE ONLINE: Also, whose idea was it to put Eb in that Dance Fever jacket, that's just so brilliant, no?
KATT SHEA: Oh, it was in the script--we had written that.
TV STORE ONLINE: Was there any flak or controversy over the love scene and the drug use with Christina and Daniel? I mean she was - what nineteen at the time? That's of age, but she just looks NOT of age. Which I guess is a huge credit to your ability to cast.
KATT SHEA: She was actually sixteen. No, I didn’t get any flak but the movie wasn’t released really, so I think that’s why. STREETS sort of got buried.
TV STORE ONLINE: I really am an admirer of the score for the film and the great "Dawn's Theme." How on earth did you come to find actress E.G Daily for that?
Actually Eb Lottimer knew her. I kept saying I wanted a singer with a tear in her voice and Eb said “Oh, I know just the person”.
TV STORE ONLINE: Now you and I have exchanged emails in the past about Corman's DANCE WITH DEATH (1992). I was wondering if you could talk some about that film, and why you decided to give up your credit for the script?
KATT SHEA: I didn't give up anything. I just didn't get paid for it. It was weird. Basically my script from STRIPPED TO KILL was re-worked and re-used by Roger Corman and a very bad movie was the result of that. That’s my opinion and I just don’t think that film was well done. I don’t like that Roger Corman does that. I love Roger, but I just didn’t like that.
TV STORE ONLINE: So it's here around 1996 that the Ruben/Shea writing team disbanded. I was wondering if you could talk about that?
I just think it was time. Sometimes you outgrow a situation and you just have to go off on your own. You know, you grow up. You grow up and you have to go on your own. I think Andy’s a really talented writer though.
TV STORE ONLINE: Now I've seen the commentaries that you've done on the Trailer's From Hell website. So I know you're a huge SHOCK CORRIDOR (1963) fan, I wanted to know if there was any truth to the rumor that at one point you were approached to remake that film?
KATT SHEA: Yeah. But, I didn’t think I could do it better. I think what Sam Fuller did was so unique and so amazing that I just didn’t want to screw it up.
TV STORE ONLINE: On that note, remaking DANCE OF THE DAMNED -- how will you improve on your original? What will you do so different this time around?
KATT SHEA: I’ve made it now into much more of a love story. I love the new script. I think the new script is much better than the old one. It’s much more of a progression of two people over the course of a night who want to kill each other in the beginning. He’s taking her to kill her later on and she’s trying to kill him as well. Then, and over the course of the night they fall in love. They truly fall in love. He tries to save her at the end. He’s trying to prevent himself from killing her. I think it’s much more accessible.
Interview Conducted By: Justin Bozung