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.
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.
Oh, was that, "No, we watched ourselves showering" line theirs?
Yeah, that was Kara's brilliance. And her scene where she seduces Gavin Bailey's character—that's all her.
That scene's so perfect. She's got some real comedic genius. The film has a lot of different tones: sci-fi, playful, addiction drama. Did the comedy come out more during the shooting or was that always strongly there?
I always wanted to make a comedy and a sci-fi film and an addiction story; I couldn't decide. I also sort of find being addicted to oneself sort of hilarious.
Well, many artists are narcissists, to some extent. But it's funny because you can only become addicted yourself when you're not producing. (Like, I'll find myself procrastinating against a heavy deadline by googling myself, to see if I've done anything new...)
Yes exactly! Once I'm working, I stop thinking about myself almost entirely. It's a real release from that. Everything becomes about collaborating and making sure that everyone else is comfortable. I become a facilitator. I think when I'm doing my best job as a director, I'm really just getting out of everyone else's way.
Did you think about things like fate, or karma, at all while making this?
Well, I'm a big fan of existential philosophy and I love thinking about god and fate and free will and identity. So, if there is a god, that implies that something is eternal, which implies that every thing in time, past, present and future, has already happened, we're sort of following our paths through the giant cosmic soup, but we're suspended in it—that implies that we don't actually have any free will. We're just observing our lives in a linear story.
This is getting heavy. I like it.
But if there isn't a god, or anything eternal, and time and space are "real," then we do (or may) have a choice in our actions, but then, that means that everything will eventually vanish and turn to dust and be forgotten and none of it matters. So all of our hopes and dreams and loves and ambitions are meaningless. So we might as well not even exist. But my ego is too big to really give into the void.
So how does the ending, the punchline, fit in all this?
Lisa and Ashley, ultimately, "grow up" and choose a path. They commit to being one version of themselves, but that ends up killing a lot of possibilities down the line. To me, that's what growing up is, you sacrifice a bunch of things in favor of another. It's like monogamy. You sacrifice being with the rest of the world for this one person, or a career.
Ah, so it's a sci-fi coming of age movie?
Yeah, but I guess coming of age is kind of sad for me.
How do you see female friendship usually presented in films or TV, and how is that different from your experience of it?
I feel like 90% of the time, the show or film gets it wrong. So often, women are portrayed as catty or jealous of one another or just completely obsessed with men and shopping and their journalism careers. (Why are they always journalists and why do they always have a sassy sidekick?) I feel no more jealously towards my female friends than I do towards my male friends. I love women and I value my female friendships very highly. This film is deeply indebted to my friend, Ashley, whom I lived with for four years, during college and then right after. During those years, she was my primary relationship. She’s still a huge part of my life. The main characters of Cat Scratch are named “Lisa” and “Ashley” because I’m completely unoriginal. The women I know are really smart, funny, silly, tough, vulnerable, affectionate, open, complicated, and they tend to show more layers of themselves when they feel like they are in “safe zones,” which are typically around other women they love. I’m not saying there’s never any drama with my friends, trust that I love drama, it’s just not typically the way it’s shown in the media. There’s no backstabbing. I’ve never been back-stabbed.