Whether you’ve ever been in a fight or not–I’m talking a knock-down, drag-out, blood-spewing brawl–you know that it’s never a pretty sight. It’s raw, it’s sickening, and it’s tough to look at.
Those are the emotions that director and writer Onur Tukel wanted to convey in his new film Catfight, only with the added twist that the people brawling are women.
“It’s odd to say female brutality is refreshing, but it’s also hilarious,” says Anne Heche, who stars in Catfight with her co-combatant Sandra Oh. “I mean, the base of it being the rage that we feel and how we express it, coming out in such a brutal way. It’s shocking. I think that we both thought ‘Wow, if we can pull this off, this is really something new.’ Because we haven’t seen it, and I think part of why we haven’t seen it is because it’s so difficult.”
Outside of action movies, you generally don’t see women kicking ass on film. And Catfight, released in theaters and digital platforms this past weekend, certainly isn’t an action movie: it’s the semi-comedic story of two old college frenemies, Ashley (Heche) and Veronica (Oh) who reunite at particularly low points in each other’s lives. Ashley is a struggling artist whose girlfriend Lisa (Alicia Silverstone) is about to leave; Veronica is the wine-swilling wife of a wealthy businessman (Damian Young) who just landed a contract to collect debris in a burgeoning Middle East war.
They hate what the other stands for, and when they run into each other at a party–Veronica asks cater-waiter Ashley for a refill–the hate they have about themselves and each other sparks a brawl that involves punches that connect with crunching sound effects, devastating kicks, headlocks, and lots of staggering, wiping away blood, sobbing, and guttural screams the convey how truly angry each woman is.
That fight happens about 10 minutes into the film; it’s what happens next that’s just as interesting; Veronica wakes up from a two-year coma to find out that both her and Ashley’s fortunes have reversed. This leads to another confrontation, which is far from the final time the two come to blows.
When asked about whether she was attracted to Veronica’s journey or the chance to pretend to beat the snot out of her co-star, Oh joked with Heche by saying, “Tough choice, babe.” She then thought about it a second. “I was just about to say more about the character journey for Veronica, which I thought was full and complex and over the top and all great interesting ways it plays. But I would say 45% [of the decision was] the idea of being in a film where so much hinges on these few violent encounters. It’s so exciting.”
The film was shot in 16 days, and the fight scenes–one takes place in an auto yard, with weapons like hammers and tires used, and a third takes place in the bucolic Pennsylvania woods, where branches are swung and rocks are hurled–were done in sequence.
“We wanted them to be different,” says Oh. “The first one is very bloody and very reactive. Veronica is throwing the [first] punch because she’s drunk. Her sense of being is threatened by someone who obviously threatens her, and vice versa. The second one is really much more about tools, about elements of war, if I can say that. We’re in a tire shop. We’re both holding a tool, and it’s really brutal in that way. In the third one, Anne and I have discussed, we wanted to hurt each other with were things that were from nature.”
Heche and Oh worked with stunt coordinators to choreograph the fights, and there is some use of stunt doubles, “but it’s 95% us in the fights, which is why there is such a reaction [from audiences],” says Heche. “You can tell it’s Sandra and me fighting. It’s very important that you continue to watch us. When you’re not pulling away, specifically to look at a wide shot of two stunt doubles, you’re more emotionally involved, which is obviously very much our intent.
“But there’s no improv in fighting,” she continues. “The reason it can feel so brutal and out of control and raw is because [the fights] were so detailed and choreographed, and we had a really incredible stunt team that worked really closely with us, not only to help us and teach us and create fights that build on each other and become very different because they grow emotionally.”
According to Heche, where the stunt team really helped her and Oh is to guide them in making the subsequent fights feel different, to match Veronica and Ashley’s emotional development and relative desperation at the time.
“When we did the first fight, in our wildest dream of ‘Can this movie be what we want it to be?’, when we achieved that in the first fight, I think we were all like, ‘Oh, my God. This is going to be what we thought this was going to go by the third fight,'” she says. “Instead it did exactly what it needed to do; it got as extreme and intense as we ever thought it should get in the first fight. Where do you go from there? That’s where we really needed the team to help us.”
Oh described how the exhaustion set in as the fights were filmed, for both themselves and their characters. By the third fight, the two were desperately flailing at each other “Just think about the worst fights that you have with someone that you’re deeply close to, say, like your partner or your mother, and you can never let it go,” she says. “You’re throwing mud at them, you know? [The exhaustion showed] in the way of Anne and I were rubbing mud on each other. There was shit in our hair. It was like, ‘Let’s get uglier.'”
“Not that we were very pretty to begin with,” Heche retorts with a laugh, “But it definitely was like ‘Wow, if you continue this fight, guess what? You don’t get any better.’ This is the way that you solve your problems because you are incapable of looking at yourself and making a different choice.”
Even though the two of them didn’t fight for real, by the end of the shoot, they certainly felt like they went ten rounds. “We basically looked like we were hobbling around,” says Heche. “Our knees were wrapped, and our necks were wrapped, and we just looked hilarious. I would laugh at lunch about how and where and in what position we would be in to make our bodies be okay to go shoot this second half of the day.”
The physicality of how the women fought didn’t help matters, according to Heche. “One of my friends who saw an early [cut], said it’s so funny how girls fight, because they never put up their dukes to protect themselves. They’re such idiotic fighters, these two women; they’re so tired they don’t even put up our hands to protect their faces. They just take it and then muster all they can to punch the other girl again. I’m like, ‘This is so stupid.’ And that’s exactly how we felt. The last day, we fell down on the ground and just cried. We were so exhausted.”