From Corman to Classes: A Conversation with Katt Shea

Katt Shea's death in Psycho III shocked me as a kid, not that I didn't see it coming, the movie makes sure to let you know she's Norman's next victim, but the knife to her throat as she sat on the toilet was so real it made me gasp. In a much cruder slaughter than that of Janet Leigh's Marion Crane in 1960, Shea's character is then stabbed in the stomach as she collapses to her death, grasping the toilet paper that drops with her to the floor, much in the same way that the curtain did in the infamous shower scene... the moment capped with Norman, played for the third time by Anthony Perkins in his directorial debut, using his knife to stop the roll from further unspooling, which always makes the audience laugh from its intended silliness. It only gets stranger and more perverse from there.

I had the realization that Norman's victim was director Katt Shea long after seeing Poison Ivy, and making the connection was a gleeful moment. I immediately sought out her other films with an appropriate amount of guilt for not being aware of her work sooner. She seems to have flown under the Hollywood radar, but how? She has such a distinct style as a filmmaker, which I'm sure is why Ellen DeGeneres is producing her next effort, Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase, and tonight the New Beverly Cinema showcases three of her films, including my favorite of hers, Streets starring Christina Applegate. To celebrate the occasion, below is my conversation with Shea from 10 years ago when I discovered her work in 2009. 

Jason AndersLet's start with your acting career, specifically with being directed by the legendary Anthony Perkins. 

Katt Shea: Anthony was under a lot of pressure as he was starring in and directing his first feature film. Not only that, it was for a huge studio and part of a franchise, and that was pretty difficult to live up to. Psycho was a masterpiece, and Psycho III was memorably brilliant.

Anthony was appropriately stressed out. I had a relatively small part, and I think I created a little bit of respite for him. I was using being on the set as a directing lesson. I essentially became his leading lady, although I was dead for 3/4 of my screen time. I tried to make him laugh as much as possible, and it worked. It was a very flirtatious, by the nature of our parts, and fun relationship. He didn't really fall for my character until after she was dead.

I actually had a lot of interaction on the set. I knew I was going to be directing Stripped To Kill, and that this would likely be my last acting job. Mike Westmore (The Raging Bull) was my makeup artist, and he was instrumental in my convincing Roger Corman to allow me to make Stripped To Kill, which required prosthetic makeup, which Mike was willing to build for me for cost. The movie involved a male posing as a stripper, this was long before The Crying Game, and Roger didn't think it would be possible. Mike was part of my arsenal that convinced him. So Psycho III was a key element in my directing career. How funny is that? The guy who won an Academy Award for makeup in Raging Bull, exploding eyes and such, was applying my foundation and blush! Also Bruce Surtees shot the film, and he was very open to my asking him questions regarding shots.

You worked with Roger Corman more than once...

I wrote Dance of the Damned with Andy Ruben. It was always a process of including the elements Roger wanted into the script and story that Andy and I envisioned. We always had very high aspirations. Roger didn't discourage that, in fact I think he was proud of it, but he wanted to make sure his style of commercial elements were included.

When did you know that you wanted to be a director?

I was directing plays I'd written in my backyard when I was twelve. I was a total misfit and didn't have any friends, so that's what I did instead. I recruited younger kids from the neighborhood, and their parents paid me to put them in my productions. I made some pretty good money, actually. Helped put me through college. Yay for being a misfit! Yay for not having friends! As for enjoying filmmaking, I love working with actors and working with the camera, getting the good stuff on film.

What do you feel has been your strongest moment as a filmmaker?

I don't know what my strongest moment on film is. I guess that's for someone else to judge. I'll bet it is either Streets or Poison Ivy, although there was a really strong memorable moment in The Rage: Carrie 2.

Actors seem to have such high regard for you as their director...

Actors know that they are the most important part of the filmmaking experience for me. Even if I'm doing an incredible shot that takes precedence for the moment, they still know that I am with them all the way and there to help them give the performance of their life.

Tell me about your acting workshop. 

The workshop is mind-blowing. It puts actors in touch with their instincts in a way that is more effective than anything they've ever done before. It frees them up. Acting becomes fun again, it becomes the amazing experience they expected it to be when they started, and then the pressure of the business is taken away.

One of the reasons I started teaching again was because Angelina Jolie came and auditioned for the lead in a script I wrote. She'd already done Hackers, but she just couldn't deliver in the room. She didn't get the part. I knew she was wonderful and I knew she could do it, but it wasn't happening. That experience inspired me to put together the exercises that would free up an actor to deliver under any circumstances. Actors in my classes find their joy and really have fun again. If they haven't worked in a while, they often book a job.

What are three of your favorite films?

Dog Day Afternoon, The Philadelphia Story, and Pale Rider.

What is one important nugget of knowledge you feel that every individual who is trying to break into the entertainment industry should know?

The thing that is most often criticized about you in the real world might just be your genius in the entertainment business.