Last night I saw Logan, Hugh Jackman’s final Wolverine film, and the first of the series to be rated R. It’s filled with the kind of violence you’d expect from a movie about an angry, alcoholic superhero with razor-sharp claws buried beneath his knuckles and almost nothing to live for—heads are chopped off, throats are slashed, skulls are (repeatedly) pierced. It’s bloody and brutal, for certain, but as violence goes I was more affected by the on-screen brutality of Catfight, a new film starring Anne Heche and Sandra Oh as two women (neither of which are mutants) who, to put it simply, hate each other’s guts.
Oh plays Veronica, the alcoholic “trophy wife” of a Manhattan war profiteer (his company disposes of garbage in the Middle East) and mother to a bright 15-year-old who dreams of becoming an artist, much to his parents’ horror. Heche is Ashley, an old college friend she hasn’t seen in years, who is struggling to make ends meet as an artist in Brooklyn.
After bumping into each other at a party for the first time in roughly 25 years, a fuse is lit in both women, and they brawl in the stairwell of an apartment building that leaves Ashley badly injured, and Veronica in a coma. Two years later, Veronica wakes up to a world that has—on both a large and small scale—fallen apart. She vows revenge on Ashley and, well, you see where this is going.
The dark and hilarious film, written and directed by Onur Tukel, is cleverly broken into three distinct parts, each of which ends in a ferocious, minutes-long “catfight” between the two leads. This clever construction, in which the three fights are prevented as inevitabilities, allows us to focus on what’s going on inside these women’s minds when they aren’t beating each other to a pump. The tension isn’t about whether or not they’re going to go head to head one more time, but why they’re so enraged to begin with.
Their initial confrontation in the stairwell is funny at first—with both characters surprised by their first swings—but quickly becomes hard to stomach. The violence is raw and nasty, and real, life-changing consequences come with every blow. As one character says while observing Ashley’s paintings in her dingy Brooklyn studio, “It’s a little vulgar, but in a good way.”
Earlier this week, I spoke with Oh and Heche over the over phone. We talked about the act of choreographing the film’s three big fights, its unexpected timeliness, and why they’re so much more impressive than Tom Cruise. Below is a condensed version of our chat.
JEZEBEL: “Catfight” is such a loaded term. It’s something I associate with someone, usually a man, condescendingly referring to two women who are having an argument. Not even a physical brawl, like in the movie, which was often so violent I had to turn away from the screen. Have either of you ever been accused of being part of a that kind of catfight?
SANDRA OH: No one’s ever said to me, “Oh! She’s in a catfight.” [Laughs.]
ANNE HECHE: In the context with which you refer to catfight? No. Which I think is why Sandra and I liked this title so much. Of course we wanted to turn it on its head. Of course we wanted to follow in Onur’s footsteps of wanting to do that. And the brutality is a part of that. It being so real that you needed to turn away is a part of that. And the relentlessness of it is exactly what we’re talking about. Obviously we wanted to be hilarious and over the top—you know, you laugh, too—but catfight as in “oooh, those girls are going at it” I don’t imagine? I don’t think we’re very catty people.
HECHE: And I think that’s why we responded to this film. We want to say that, first of all, women have as many—and as powerful, and as deep—emotions as men do, and we are not often asked to express them physically. That’s part of why we thought what Onur wrote was so unique.
And how was it working with Onur, specifically to choreograph the fight scenes? They toe the line between farcical physical comedy and brutal, R-rated violence, and there are consequences to the violence, too! These women lose years of their lives because of it. Can you describe the act of filming them?
OH: Our terrific stunt coordinator, Balint Pinczehelyi, he took us step by step. There are a couple points I think you’re making there, one: because of Onur’s choice directorially to keep it going a certain amount, or to add props like a hammer—
OH: That can add to the absurdity of it. But Anne and I are not acting the absurdity of those moments. We’re really trying to kill each other. It was a very short shooting schedule, just 16 days. [Films with elaborate fight scenes typically] have more time! But what we lacked in time we made up for in trust.
There were times when we wouldn’t even have a location. We’d just be like, here we are, we’re shooting in the stairwell. We’s just have to make it happen. And immediately [Balint] would choreograph it on the spot. We’d have two amazing stunt doubles do a first pass of the choreography, Anne and I would watch, and then we’d do the fight—two or three moves at a time.
And the over the top-ness of, you know, bashing one’s head, is a double layer of hilariousness and then the brutality. I feel like there’s a rage that lives in all of us, particularly women, and when you’re able to see that expressed in ways that you have potentially not seen before, whatever you take out of it, I think there’s commentary in it.
I have a friend who recently started boxing at the gym—
It’s apparently good cardio. Very cathartic. Was there something you found enjoyable about filming those fighting scenes, even though they were so terrible and violent in the final cut?
HECHE: I think we were thrilled to do it! It’s really exciting. It’s not cathartic in that way that’s like, Aww yeah, I get to wail on another chick! I’ve been waiting to do that my whole life. It’s not about the release of something. It’s the challenge of it. And the physicality of it. Of course we loved it! I am not THAT girl.
OH: No, you are NOT that girl.
HECHE: I have always wanted to be able to do this. Not because I wanted to be that person in my life, but because it was an incredible physical challenge to learn these fights, do these fights. Just being asked to learn! I remember the first day [the director] was like, “Annie! Annie! What’s your problem? You’ve gotta PUNCH her! You’re BRUTAL!” I was like, “I don’t wanna hurt Sandra! I can’t do this!”
It was really challenging to put that much into a character who’s so awful and brutal and violent and figure out how to be safe expressing that. Every single thing in coordinated to the tee so that we’re safe enough to allow the emotion which is what makes the fights so funny. These women are so emotional. And that’s the challenge. It’s not like we’re just doing karate chops!
OH: [Laughs.] I just love that Anne said “karate chops.”
Correct me if I’m wrong, but these are probably your most physically demanding roles ever? Is that true?
OH: It’s true.
It reminds me of—well, I don’t mean to call out Tom Cruise—but he’s always given so much credit for doing his own extreme stunts for the Mission Impossible movies. It’s just always a talking point for him, you know, that we should be so impressed that he’s hanging on the side of an plane. But I was personally more impressed by these fights than I was by a typical unbelievable, ridiculous action movie stunt. You both seemed like you were in actual danger, but I’m never worried that Tom Cruise is gonna fall of that plane.
HECHE: Print that! Print that! Sandra, I don’t even care what interview we do next, I am only gonna say that you kicked Tom Cruise’s ass.
OH: I don’t think that’s what he’s saying, honey.
HECHE: [Laughs.] I absolutely love that, because, look, it’s absolutely hard to do what Tom Cruise does. Stunt choreography is a dance, and to learn it and do it well is part of the fun of what we had to do. But we are women in this movie who aren’t fighters. And it was very important for us to be women who weren’t fighters. Who didn’t know what’s coming that. It’s great to hear that it felt raw, because it’s exactly why we worked so hard to figure the fights out. So that you could feel the fight, not just watch the fight.
In the same way the character of Ashley’s work reflects global turmoil, the war that’s occurring in the world of the movie, I feel like the movie will resonate with a lot of people now because it could be seen as a reflection of how angry a lot of people are right now? People who don’t know what to do with their anger, especially.
When filming it, did you expect it to be this timely? I just feel like a lot of people will respond to this movie in a way they wouldn’t have had, you know, Donald Trump not been elected president.
OH: I agree! You know, we shot this at the end of 2015. The film was at [the Toronto Film Festival] last year, and we all thought, oh, if it went the way many of us don’t want it to go, uhhhh, that will be very prescient! We don’t want to be? You know, we don’t want this to be the case? But the film is aligned with that. You can’t predict anything! And there are plenty of films post-election that people don’t want to watch because they don’t want to be depressed! They’re looking for joy. You just can’t control it.
HECHE: I do think there’s a level of fantasy, too. I mean, not only about the race, but the fantasy of wanting to unleash like these two women do... But the last thing somebody’s gonna want to do after watching this movie is to go out and kill somebody. We’ve done enough. In a way, we tire people! If we could possibly make an audience less inclined to want to take their emotions out physically on people and think about trying to do something else, that would be an incredible response.
Catfight is in theaters now.