Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Katt Shea, June 1992

I interviewed B-movie writer-director and actress Katt Shea in a hotel room during the 1992 Sundance Film Festival.

Standard-Examiner staff

PARK CITY - Katt Shea opens the door to her hotel room, just far enough to reveal her head.

"Hi," she says, smiling. "Wait just a minute, while I put on my pants."

Once clothed, she ushers her guest inside, sits cross-legged on one of the two beds, petting a rather large canine she insists is a puppy, and chats about her new film, "Poison Ivy." Shea directed and co-wrote the $3 million psychological thriller with her husband, Andy Ruben. It stars Drew Barrymore, Sara Gilbert ("Roseanne"), Cheryl Ladd and Tom Skerritt, and deals with a scheming teenager (Barrymore) who hastens the demise of a dysfunctional Los Angeles family.

After a Sundance Film Festival screening the night before, which was in January, Shea and Ruben took to the front of the auditorium and fielded questions: Does the film constitute male-bashing? Why is the poor girl depicted as the evil character? Is the sex between the older man and the under-aged teen proper? Is the film politically correct?

Shea, who cut her directing teeth shooting films for cheapie master Roger Corman, pulls her long, blonde hair away from her face and laughs.

"That's not what movies are about; that's not why we make movies, to make a political statement. You go out there to entertain people, to give them a good time. That was fun last night. This movie really presses people's buttons."

And so it does. But you would expect such reactions from a film that includes images of a teen killing her mother figure and of a man in his fifties sodomizing a 16-year-old girl.

"There's a lot of things we want to say," Shea explains, "and reflecting what's going on in the United States is a big one. I think everybody kind of knows that this country is falling, that we are in decline. And this family is just a reflection of that, that's all."

Furthermore, Shea says, pressing the bounds of taste and acceptable "mainstream" screen behavior was one of her objectives.

"I really try to take it all the way to the edge, really try to take some risks. But it's really scary, too. And you never know, I always thought I was crossing the line -- I thought they were going to come and arrest me. I expected the cops to come pick me up any minute -- really, I'm serious. After I shot some of those scenes with Drew, I thought they were going to be bringing in the handcuffs."

Barrymore, who was 16 during filming, fielded questions from the press two days earlier at a press conference.

"I guess taking off half your clothes and faking intimacy" is difficult, she said, but added she thought the atmosphere on the set was "family-oriented."

"Poison Ivy" has received a sporadic, unremarkable release in cities around the country over the past few months, but it was something of a hot ticket at the festival in January. Its three scheduled screenings were sold out, and a fourth was added due to increased demand for tickets.

The genesis of the film's story came from an experience Shea and Ruben had with a hitchhiker they brought home to live with them for a time. Shea describes the young woman as a manipulator, but admits she "kind of liked it." The girl eventually left for Seattle, and they haven't heard from her since.

Shea, who was raised in Detroit, worked as an actress in the early '80s, in such forgettable fare as "Psycho III," "Barbarian Queen," "The Devastator" and "Preppies." The main talent required by most of the films was a willingness to disrobe. Shea is horrified when reminded that she admitted being a former actress during the previous evening's question-and-answer session.

"Did I admit that last night? I don't usually admit it. I don't usually talk about it, because I was never comfortable being an actress. It was the most ridiculous thing; I am like the antithesis of that. I really, truly am very shy. ... I did it for seven years, and I can't believe I lived through that."

Shea's directing credits include the well-regarded, low-budget films "Stripped to Kill," "Dance of the Damned" and "Streets." "Poison Ivy" marks her first foray into projects with larger budgets -- the previous films were made for far less than $1 million each -- and a bid for wider recognition.

"We've gotten a lot better since 'Stripped to Kill,' " she says, referring to herself and Ruben, a former TV writer ("C.P.O. Sharkey"). "I mean, I really like that movie, it has a special place in my heart, but it's not really on the same level."

When it came time to cast "Poison Ivy," Shea initially declined to hire Barrymore and Skerritt. When Barrymore failed to show up for her audition, Shea decided the infamous child actor -- who wrote a book about her past drug and alcohol addictions -- wasn't right.

"I called her agent and told him I wasn't interested," Shea recalls. "It turns out she was out driving around in her Jeep or something. I mean, she's 16, OK?" The agent located his client, she rushed to Shea's house and was subsequently hired.

When Skerritt showed interest in the script, Shea says, "I told his agent that I thought he was walking through his parts." Ultimately, though, Skerritt was her choice. "I think he wanted something like this, because I think he was bored."

Shea says she's uncertain what her next film will be, but hopes for "something new."

"It's really hard work," she says. "In fact, I've thought about teaching for a while. But I'm afraid they'd give me some sort of test, and I don't know if I could still pass the math."