Katt Shea Interview

Nancy Drew is a lucrative literary franchise, so naturally Hollywood would consider it for a film franchise. The latest incarnation of Nancy Drew came from a surprising source. Well, it’s not so surprising that Ellen Degeneres wanted to produce a Nancy Drew movie under her Very Good Pictures banner, but Katt Shea, director of ‘80s and ‘90s thrillers like Stripped to Kill and Poison Ivy, directed Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase, her first movie in 18 years.

It star Sophia Lillis plays Nancy Drew in this modern adaptation of The Hidden Staircase. Nancy still solves the case of Flora (Linda Lavin)’s haunted house, but an updated prologue shows Nancy give a cyber bully a taste of his own medicine with a locker room prank.

Shea spoke with /Film by phone about her career going from acting in ‘80s action, horror and sex comedy B movies to directing, including some spoilers for Stripped to Kill and Poison Ivy. After a boutique theatrical release exclusively with AMC Theaters, Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase is now available on digital and comes to Blu-ray and DVD April 2.

How did Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase originate?

It came through Jeff Kleeman who is the producer in charge of all of Ellen’s Very Good Productions. Chip Diggins, who produced the movie, I don’t know how he ended up bringing it to Warner Brothers because Warner Brothers already owns it. Chip had an idea and he brought it to Matt Bierman, a wonderful guy at Warner Brothers. They just kind of brainstormed and then it seemed like a right fit for Ellen which I think is absolutely true because it goes with at least the way that we made the movie about being yourself and not bending to what other people think you should do. It was a perfect fit. That’s what I know.

Was it always intended to be a theatrical release?

Yes. The deal they have in doing the Nancy Drew movies is for a theatrical release. The excitement about it made it so that we got like 100 more theaters so that’s pretty cool.

I looked up the box office figures but Nancy Drew wasn’t on the chart. How’d it do in theaters?

They tell me they can’t track it because it’s such an unusual way it’s being released, they don’t have any way of knowing how it’s doing. They can’t tell us. We’re getting some audience reviews on Rotten Tomatoes which I wasn’t expecting and they’ve been really positive so they must be going to the theater.

One thing that was obviously new to this adaptation was the cyberbullying case in the beginning, right?

Yes, which we’re getting some flack for.

You are?

There seem to be some people who don’t want any changes, so you know how it is. It’s a beloved book and they don’t want there to be any different and it’s really got to be, you know. So I figured, since we’re going to get flack anyway, we might as well go all the way.

There are so many teen movies where guys are spying on girls in the locker room. Did you think about how Nancy’s prank sort of evens the score?

No, it’s very interesting to me that you should say that. I’ve been in a boys locker room before in The Rage: Carrie 2, and I’ve been in a police men’s locker room in Streets so I have a past of being in men’s locker rooms.

And it’s not about exploiting the boy. It’s teaching him a lesson.

Yes, absolutely, it is. What I find so interesting about it is he’s a total narcissistic. So she’s simply taking advantage of his narcissism so I just feel like it’s so appropriate for the times.

I loved seeing Nancy’s deductive reasoning which really anybody could put together if they try. Does it teach kids that they too can have the powers of deduction like Nancy?

That’s really good. Thank you. That’s really, really good because yes, that was one of the big points that we made with the writers was we wanted the audience members to be able to work the way that Nancy did. We don’t want her to do something like a Marvel character that real people could never do. But, if you were perceptive and you were deductive, you could come up with it too. So thank you for noticing at. That’s awesome.

Oh good, you’re welcome. Was it also important to teach young viewers that using her powers revenge was not the best either? She can use them to lift people up rather than tear others down?

Yes, exactly. That was a big point with Matt Bierman. Here’s what happened. We had the prank in the movie and it was vengeance. Matt would say, “I just don’t think Nancy is the kind of girl who would do vengeance.” I go, “Yeah, but everybody makes mistakes. We sometimes follow our impulses and it’s not always our most shining moment. I didn’t want to take that away from her. The fact that she could learn from it said so much more than her not doing it. Let’s let her do it and she can learn from it. Over the process of the movie as she’s listening to her dad and she’s listening to her aunt and she’s thinking about it, she changes which I love. It really gave her an arc. It’s one of the things that I’m proudest about in the movie.

Are you hoping to do more Nancy Drew films with Sophia?

Yeah, I hope so. At the end they talk about The Mystery of the Lilac Inn. The girls are sitting around and Helen says, “My cousin Emily is getting married this summer.” It’s like, “What could be better? A creepy inn, the dark forest, etc.”  

Great, so there’s even a tease for the next book you hope to adapt. Have you been developing other projects to direct since 2001?

I wrote a novel. It’s called Batsh*t Black, quite a provocative title. It’s a nail color if you can believe it so it’s named after the nail color, and it’s on Amazon so if anyone wants to read it, they can. Writing a novel takes up a lot of time and also I teach. I work with actors and coach actors. That is a great passion of mine. I really love doing that and it’s not a secondary thing. It’s something I really love doing. If you want to look that up, it’s at KattShea.com.

Would you have wanted to direct movies for kids in the ‘80s and ‘90s?

No, I think I’ve changed a lot. I was doing a lot of movies that had violence and just dark stuff. As I grew up, I didn’t really want to do that anymore. Even though, for example The Rage: Carrie 2 has got a really strong message and I think it’s powerful and seems to be making a big comeback now because of MeToo, Times Up and everything, even that I don’t want to make movies about villains. This was so perfect for me because I have been offered things in the horror genre and that were pretty dark and pretty negative. I wouldn’t even read them. I said if it’s a great script I’m going to want to do it and I really don’t want to live in this world for over a year making this. So when Nancy Drew came along, it was just such a breath of fresh air and it was something so positive. I wish I’d had a movie like this when I was 10 years old and my 10-year-old self loves this movie. It was the perfect thing so I’m very, very grateful I got to do it.

10-year-old Fred loves it too.

I’m so glad to hear it. If people would watch it in their 10-year-old persona, everybody would love it.

When you were acting in the ‘80s did you enjoy doing the action and sex comedy roles?

Not so much. That was what I was given. The comedy I loved but being the sexy girl was really kind of uncomfortable. You do it because you want the next acting role and people seem to enjoy it, but yeah, the comedy was much better for me.

I imagine when you got to direct Stripped to Kill, the producers might have had their own agenda to do a movie with lots of nudity. Were you able to make it your own and make it a calling card for directing?

Oh, absolutely. Because I was so passionate about my point of view, I think it came through. That point of view was that I never wanted to make a movie about strippers. It just happened that I lost a bet with my writing partner. He told me that mussels were poisonous at a certain type of year and you couldn’t eat them. I was like, “I’ve never heard that before.” I made a bet with him and if I lost, I had to go to a strip club. So it took me half an hour pacing back and forth in front of The Body Shop on Sunset Blvd. before I could go in. It was even at the point where he’d say, “Okay, you don’t have to do it.” And I went, “No, I lost a bet. I’m going.”

They thought I was an off duty stripper or something and it was like, “Oh, my God, this is really going to be horrible. I don’t think I can do it.” I was ready to run out again. I was like a college girl. I was pretty sheltered, honestly. I grew up really sheltered. So I go in and I sit down and start watching these acts. These girls are coming out and they’ve got costumes and they’ve got a whole theme. They’re really dancing their hearts out. They were spinning around poles and poles were not seen in movies yet. Nobody knew about this pole thing. I was just blown away by it and said, “I want to make a movie about this. This is really cool.”

Then I pitched it to Roger Corman and that was a whole thing too. I’d been in a movie for Roger Corman. I was the girl in a guy movie. I was the love interest for some guy. It wasn’t like I could just call up and set up a meeting so I parked my car and waited for him to leave his building for lunch. He had this big picture window in his office so you could see him when he got up and it was around lunchtime. So I knew he was going to lunch so I ran around the corner and I was just like, “Oh hey, Roger, wow, fancy meeting you here. I’ve got this movie idea and it stars strippers.” And he goes, “Come into my office Monday morning and give me a pitch.”

It was really hard too because this was also before The Crying Game. Not to give it away for anybody but the movie is really old now. It involves a guy passing himself off as a female and as a stripper. Roger didn’t think that was possible so it took me a year to convince him. I just sent him pictures of a female impersonator and a [biological] girl because the guys were so good. Then, I was in Psycho III and my makeup artist happened to be Mike Westmore, a little overqualified for putting on my mascara and foundation.

Mike wrote Roger a letter that he would do the prosthetic breasts for the movie for cost. Roger was just getting inundated with this stuff and he’s still saying, “No, no, no.” Finally I went to this club called La Cage Aux Folles on La Cienega Blvd. It was the best of the female impersonators. These guys were just awesome. One of the gentlemen who was there came into Roger’s office with me. I set up a meeting. I said, “Roger, I’m going to prove to you that this can be done.” Roger said, “How’s he going to wear a G-string.”

So this young man comes in with me and he’s so sweet. He sits down and he’s really nervous because it’s Roger Corman. He knows who Roger Corman is. He just goes into the most graphic gory detail about what he does with his junk to get it in there. So Roger turns purple and orders us out of his office. He goes, “You can do the movie but just get out.” Then he called me two hours later and goes, “I changed my mind.” I’m not even yelling at him. I go, “No, you said I can. I’m doing it. You can’t take it back.” Then he let me do it. It was just amazing but it’s such a funny story how I got my first directing job.

Streets came out at the height of Married… with Children. Why wasn’t that a bigger release capitalizing on Christina Applegate?

There are theories, I don’t know if this is true, but it was a Fox TV show and she plays a heroine addict in the movie. I don’t see that being a problem for Married… with Children but there’s rumors that they killed the release. I don’t know if that’s true or not. Roger didn’t do big releases but it is unfortunate because it was a good movie and she was so amazing. Christina Applegate is an amazing actress. I wish people could see that movie because she just killed it.

Poison Ivy came at the height of the ‘90s erotic thriller genre. Were you able to adapt to the kind of movies the industry was making at the time, adding a new taboo?

Yeah, it was pretty taboo actually. I don’t know if this is true, but it’s the first kiss like that between Sarah Gilbert and Drew Barrymore. I don’t know. I just wrote it from my heart. What are you going to do? I have this story. It just seemed right. It’s based on a true story. It was Melissa Goddard’s experience with a friend who she had move into her house. She didn’t kill her mother. Everything else is true, she just didn’t kill the mother.

It’s not streaming anywhere now. Are there some rights issues with Poison Ivy?

It’s coming out in Blu-ray with the whole series. I kind of hate that it’s associated with the sequels because it was really a standalone movie where Ivy died at the end. The other movies were so exploitive. I know the subject matter is pretty exploitative but I tried never to do it as an exploitation movie. I tried to just get into the heart of the characters and who they were and what they were all about. Here again, honestly I wouldn’t make Poison Ivy now because I’d prefer to stay with stuff that is more positive.

Carrie 2 always made sense to me even in the’ 90s, that every generation would have girls that are picked on and found their power. Did you agree?

Yeah, I always got it but when it came out, a lot of people didn’t. Now, they do. What can I say? I guess it’s ahead of its time.

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