Many movies adhere to a three-act structure, and in that sense, Onur Turkel’s Catfight is like many movies: It has a very clear beginning, middle, and end, with those parts broken up by act breaks. Unlike many movies, however, Catfight’s act breaks are all comprised of scenes in which Sandra Oh and Anne Heche beat the living shit out of each other.
Let’s back up. Catfight tells the story of two women, Veronica (Oh) and Ashley (Heche), who knew each other in college, and didn’t get along particularly well back then. Veronica is married to a war-profiteer, about to get rich off an impending conflict in the Middle East; Ashley is a struggling artist moonlighting as caterer, her art too angry and violent to sell. At a party meant to celebrate Veronica’s husband’s new deal, the two encounter each other, awakening both their own insecurities as well as the dormant feud that exists between them. Veronica gets wasted and Ashley gets upset, and then they encounter each other in a stairwell. Cue the Mortal Kombat sound effect.
While the movie is called Catfight, it could just as easily have the same title as another project that’s about to be released: Feud. Without giving too much away — the film’s true selling point, aside from its Ali-Frazier fights, is the way in which it unfurls over time, rewarding and subverting expectations — Veronica and Ashley’s rivalry becomes more and more freighted with meaning after each fight. By the end, it just doesn’t feel like a personal conflict: It feels like a clash between a superhero and supervillain, except each character is a little bit of both.
It’s also a showcase for Oh and Heche. Both actresses get to explore their characters’ emotional and narrative arcs over the course of many years, victories, and setbacks, but in that key twist, they get to do it while periodically engaging in fistfights straight out of an action film, complete with haymakers, weaponry, and plenty of blood.
Catfight being an indie film, there’s one significant difference from your typical action movie: There was no money. Even with actors of Oh and Heche’s quality, the production had to make due with what they had. That meant sharing a makeup chair, shooting in just 16 days, and being flexible, even when it came to the elaborate, and highly demanding fight scenes.
With the help of fight choreographer Balint Pinczehelyi and stuntwomen Kara Rosella and Kimmy Suzuki, the two stars would make it through the brawls two or three moves at a time. But don’t let the presence of stunt professionals fool you: It was really Heche and Oh out there, pretending to duke it out. “A high percentage of all the fights are actually us, and that’s because we just went all the way,” Oh says. “I was very nervous that we did not have rehearsal or training with that.” (Though Oh does admit she got some personal training before shooting started: “I’m someone who likes to be prepared, especially when you have to have to fake-punch a fellow actor.”)
Working with Turkel, the actors tried to put a different spin on each fight: One was more like a fistfight, one more like an all-out war to the death, and the other a completely different animal, in a much larger space and with a heavier sense of metaphor and symbolism — a look at what it meant for these women to be trying to destroy each other. As actors, Oh’s and Heche’s unbridled commitment to the roles, and especially the fights, is one of the clearest takeaways from the film. Both say that commitment was not just a choice, but a necessity, and one that the director and crew repaid in kind.
“You fucking have to do it,” Oh says. “If you don’t do it, just don’t do a micro-budget film, because you’re not going to get it done and it’s just going to be a shitshow, and you’re not going to get anything out of it. I think Anne and I got something out of it because of how hard we pushed each other, and because of the space that Onur and the crew created: He made this chaos and everyone did their jobs and then backed off.”
“I think Sandra and I both came in with an understanding of how far especially the first fight needed to go,” Heche says. “The poster is the moment where she and I both understood. I’m choking her and I’m going to kill her, and she’s going to kill me, and when our energy met at that moment, we knew it was going to work. And we knew it was going to work because that’s not only tragic, it’s funny.”
The two women’s joy in working with each other could not be more obvious: They finish each other’s sentences and laugh hysterically at each other’s jokes. In many ways, their relationship is a testament to the appeal for established actors of doing this kind of film. Of course, the material is more subversive and outlandish than anything that would ever show up on, say, ABC, but also they have the opportunity to play in incredibly close quarters with other actors — all of whom are there purely to engage with the project.
“These incompetent, self-centered women who are so lame that they’re violently taking their anger for themselves out on another human being — unfortunately, that’s funny,” Heche explains. “As we’re up against the wall, it was like we were panting in the same breath of understanding, This is going to work, which means we have to go further than we ever thought we were going to.”
With each fight, the duo tried to escalate that feeling of commitment and intensity, culminating with the final, exhausting conflict. By that point, their rivalry has warped and transcended the simple, misogynistic concept of a catfight: It’s the World War II of catfights, a pitched engagement spanning years and locations. And considering the trials that women face every day, it’s hard not to draw some symbolic resonance from the film’s titular struggle. Oh wants to leave the meaning of that symbolism up to the interpretation of the viewer, but regardless of where you fall on how much these women are victims and how much the creators of their own fate, it’s hard not to feel like Oh and Heche are the real winners.