Cat Scratch Fever, the impressive debut feature from Brooklynite Lisa Duva, is about about two best friends who become addicted to watching themselves online (in other dimensions). The film, which plays at the Brooklyn Film Festival this Saturday and next Friday. is like a contemporary Daisies or Celine and Julie Go Boating, but with some Charlie Kaufman/Kurt Vonnegut sci-fi sharpness.
Though we live a few miles away, I interviewed Lisa through email and g-chat, trying not to be distracted by the constant windows and updates on my screen. The night before, I had fallen asleep watching her film on my laptop, and then dreamt of the interview. So by the time I got around to our actual dialogue, I had a virtual sense of deja-vu, eerily reminiscent of the one that drives the characters in her film into a dysfunctional and hilarious insanity.
How did you first see Celine and Julie Goes Boating and Daisies? How and when did you decide to make a contemporary version?
I didn’t actually set out to make a contemporary version of either film. That just sort of happened. It’s like we were psychically channeling Celine and Julie. So much of the similarities in the film were purely coincidental. My original intent was to make a sci-fi film about how the internet, new forms of communication (like texting and Skype) and the fast pace of our media had completely saturated my life.
About three years ago I was not in a very good place. I was vaguely employed, I felt like I really didn’t have many skills or much to offer the world, I had barely produced any work of my own. I spent all day looking for jobs, going on Facebook, reading blogs and getting sucked into the internet vortex. I wasn’t really leaving the house. At a certain point, I realized that I had lost days of my life staring at a computer screen and I wasn’t even being productive. That’s where the idea came from. I wanted to make a film about having almost limitless options in life, but being too paralyzed by your own fear of failure/laziness/commitment issues to take the first step in any one direction.
Around that time I had seen Primer and was really excited by the idea that I could make a sci-fi film with no special effects. I had also read Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Veldt,” which really helped clarify the ending of the film for me. And I was watching an insane amount of reality television, notably Intervention, which definitely influenced the story arc of the film. Stripped to its bones, Cat Scratch Fever is an addiction story. After I had the initial concept of the film, I took it to Andrew Luis and Katherine Nolfi, who shot and produced the film; Katherine also co-wrote and helped edit. Katherine suggested I watch Celine and Julie Go Boating, but it’s very difficult to track down. I ended up watching most of the film on YouTube, but in French, so I didn’t understand 50% of it. I didn’t actually watch the full film with English subtitles until after I had completed Cat Scratch. Katherine is the cinephile, and she also handed me Daises while I was editing, because I was getting frustrated that the third act wasn’t, for lack of a more eloquent word, weird enough. I completely fell in love with Daises and it ended up informing a tremendous amount of the editing and reshoots.
What formats did you shoot (or find) to produce the different dimensions’ looks? Or were those looks altered in post?
To get that “alternate reality look,” we just shot the footage playing on the screen of my laptop. I love the way it looks. We tried to stay away from computer effects and animation as much as possible. I wanted the film to feel really homemade and sort of skuzzy. We didn’t spend a lot of money making it, so I wanted to embrace that aesthetically, instead of trying to fight it.
How long was the production? How did the story evolve through that production?
The production took us about two and a half years, off and on, nights, weekends and early mornings. The story changed pretty drastically. Only a handful of scenes from my original outline made it into the film, and even they ended up drastically altered. The only scene from the original outline that remained was the ending. I was so protective of that scene, I never even really explained it to anyone except for Katherine. I saw it so clearly in my mind, I wanted to preserve it, so I ended up inadvertently keeping my lead actors, Kara Elverson and Starsha Gill, in the dark about it. It’s pretty remarkable that so many people went along with this project for years without actually knowing where the script was going. But that last scene was my beacon. Any changes to the script were fine (some of them were really painful for me, but eventually I came around) as long as they served the final scene, ’cause it’s the punch line and the heart of the film.
How did you cast it?
Kara and Starsha and I went to Sarah Lawrence together and ran in similar circles, but I was always intimidated by them; they were both so cool and beautiful. I never knew Kara as an actress, but I knew Starsha acted, and had seen her in plays, but I had to convince her to come read. Kara is her real-life best friend, so once she was on board, Starsha decided it would be ok. I knew I wanted them to play the leads almost instantly. I love the way they are together. Everything they do makes me laugh.
I also REALLY wanted to work with Sophia Takal and Kate Lyn Sheil, but I knew they wouldn’t have the time to work on and off on the same film for over a year, so I wrote two supporting roles for them that they agreed to play, which they do brilliantly. But the script ended up changing significantly over the course of shooting and editing, and I ended up with only a brief scene with the two of them at the end.