Interviews: Director Nicholas Tana Talks About His Upcoming Horror Movie Hell’s Kitty

Today’s greatest horror icons unite for the purrfect scare! Doug Jones (The Shape of Water), Dale Midkiff (Pet Sematary), Michael Berryman (The Hills Have Eyes), Courtney Gains (The Children of The Corn), Lynn Lowry (Cat People), Kelli Maroni (Night of The Comet), Ashley C. Williams (The Human Centipede), Barbara Nedeljakova (Hostel), Adrienne Barbeau (The Fog), John Franklin (The Addams Family) and a ‘Killer Klown’ team up for some Pawplay this March! 

Based on the web series and comic book of the same name, and inspired by writer-director Nicholas Tana’s experiences living with a professedly possessed cat, Hell’s Kitty tells of a covetous feline that acts possessed and possessive of his owner around women. The results are as funny as they are frightening! Nick (Tana), a Hollywood screenwriter, discovers his cat has become murderously possessed, and will stop at nothing to rid him of any women in his life. As his life unravels out of control, Nick must find a way to have his kitty exorcised of the demonic spirit haunting her and creating a body count. 

With characters named after classic horror movie characters (Jones plays Father Damien, Berryman is Detective Pluto, Nina Kate is Dr. Laurie Strodes, Barbeau is Mrs Carrie), and a tone reminiscent of some of the ‘80s greatest horror-comedies, Hell’s Kitty is undoubtedly the horror hiss of March! Hell's Kitty is written and directed by Nicholas Tana and produced by Denise Acosta. It will be available on all VOD platforms March 13, 2018 and on DVD March 27th, 2018 via Wild Eye Releasing. You can read our review here.

We spoke with writer/director/star Nicholas Tana about his film.

TMS: First off, can you provide us with a little bit of background information. Did you always want to be involved in filmmaking? What type of training or schooling did you have?

NT: As far back as I can remember, I wanted to create worlds and tell stories. I can recall having the neighborhood kids play fictional characters, which I’d make up in a completely fictitious world. I would be pretty obsessive about their participation and dedication to the story, too. I remember getting frustrated if someone didn’t truly understand their character; I’d go so far as to even make up test that included fake histories of the worlds, which they were required to pass in order to play. My own sister got really pissed once when she failed one of my tests (I think she was in the 2nd. grade and I was in fifth, and she ripped up her failed test and screamed in frustration: “why do I even have to learn this, it isn’t real?” To which I replied, well, just pretend it is).

As for training, I started in college with a paid internship as part of the Walter Cronkite School of Broadcasting program with KAET Channel 8 at Arizona State University. I worked on their local shows starting as a P.A. doing studio make up, cameras, teleprompter, character generator work, even floor managing. When I graduated, I worked as a P.A. for ESPN and within six months moved into being an Associate Director on international programs (I speak Spanish and Italian so this helped). I later started my own production company for which I’ve been shooting commercials, industrials, documentaries, web-shows, and now movies, too. Hell’s Kitty is my second movie technically, my first being a documentary on masturbation called Sticky: A (Self) Love Story, starring Janeane Garofalo and Larry Flynt, which was an Amazon Award winner in 2016, and is currently on Amazon. It screened at Harvard last year in fact. This all helped me to really understand production on many levels. If you can make Hell’s Kitty on what I made it on, you can do anything.

TMS: Did you have a lot of support when you decided to get into filmmaking?

NT: I think my parents for the most part supported my decision; however, they probably would have preferred if I were a doctor. I started pre-med in school actually, and then when I realized all the years that it was going to take before I finally got to work and practice as one, I reasoned that if I only had one life to live (not sure if there’s really more) I’d prefer to do something that would allow me to have more diverse experiences. I suppose filmmaking is sort of like living many lifetimes in one lifetime, after all, you create whole worlds and live in them before moving on to the next.

TMS: What’s up with Hell’s Kitty? Where can people see it? And what do you want them to know about the movie?

NT: The Hell’s Kitty web-series is already available on The best way to see them is on our website. We’ll also be posting all the latest links to where you can see the movie, which is set for release March 13th on various platforms to include: Comcast, Direct TV, iTunes, Vudu, Amazon, Google play, Sling, Dish, Rogers, and Xbox. The story is basically an homage to every type of horror movie ever made, with a host of iconic characters, playing parodies of the roles that made them famous. The story revolves around around the life of a writer, and his possessed and possessive pussycat named Angel. It’s very autobiographical with a lot of extra blood and guts tossed in for good measure. At it’s heart, it’s a bloody Valentine’s story and a buddy movie wrapped up in one. However, I’ve also taken pains to integrate famous characters from other fictional horror worlds into Nick’s haunted 1920s apartment, which serves as a portal to a whole spectrum of classic characters. There are a lot of subtle references and I play around a lot with reality, mystery and suspense, so you’re not sure what’s a dream, a nightmare, and what’s actually happening; who is behind the madness and mayhem so to speak, until the very end.

TMS: What was the inspiration behind this story? 

NT: In short, my cat Angel. She would sit on my lap and make it difficult for me to get up so in a way she kept me grounded and writing. She also would act demonically possessed and possessive of me to the point of chasing away nearly every one I tried to get romantically involved with while living and working as a writer in Los Angeles. I suppose she wanted me to stay focused. Anyway, they say one should write about what they know, and well, I did. Angel very much inspired it all; she was my muse. The whole movie is dedicated to her because she passed a way a few years back and I want this to be sort of her memorial. I can’t imagine what I’d create if I ever had children.

TMS: How long did it take to get out that initial draft?

NT: I wrote the drafts in pieces because I originally wrote the scripts episodically. I believe Charles Dickens did that with much of his novels; they were published in a serialized format at first. The feedback he received from readers also may have influenced his writing. This is much the way, I developed the script. I’d revise the scripts to cater the characters coming in and out of Nick’s life in a manner that would fit the iconic actors available and interested in taking the roles. For every one scene you have in Hell’s Kitty, I likely wrote four to five other versions for other actors, who decided not to take the parts. In the end, I think everyone I got was puuurfect, so it all worked out.

TMS: How much did the script change over the course of the next few drafts?

NT: The overall story/plot didn’t change much but the myriad of scene details did depending on the actors involved. For example, Detective Pluto originally was the cop played by Ron Perlman, from Stephen King’s Desperation. However, when Ron Perlman wasn’t available, I changed the script around several times, writing a version for Kevin Smith, Louis Ferrigno, James Hong, and Bill Moseley, until I got Michael Berryman to commit to the role. The song Chainsaw Kitty, which I co-wrote with composer Richard Albert, originally was written for a scene with Louis Ferrigno who is famous for playing the Detective. In that scene, Angel’s claws were going to turn into actual chainsaws that would chase him away, but when Mr. Ferrigno didn’t work out, I decided to use the song several times throughout because I thought it was so much fun. The detective was still going to discover that the finger was fake, and he was still going to disappear by the time Nick woke up.

TMS: Is there anything you found more challenging when penning the screenplay? 

NT: I thought it was very challenging to write it in a way that kept the apartment (85% of the location) interesting, and also so that the guest stars would be able to contribute to the overall story, but in a way that didn’t require too much of their time. It’s not easy to “pen” a script on such a low budget, you have to be very creative; you have to really understand production almost like a line producer. Since I have experience wearing almost every hat in filmmaking, I was confident that I was more than capable of accomplishing this with what I wrote.

TMS: Are you a horror fan? If so, some favorites? 

NT: I love horror films but I am particular about execution. I think there are plenty of boring, formulaic, horror films out there. That said, I pretty much parody some of my favorite movies in the film. In order to fully appreciate Hell’s Kitty, you have to be familiar with a bunch of them like Psycho, The Exorcist, Pet Sematary, The Hills Have Eyes, Children of The Corn, Cat People, Night of the Comet, Drag Me To Hell, Killer Klowns From Outer Space, Friday The 13th., The Human Centipede, Paranormal Activity, The Fog, Creepshow “The Crate”, Buffy The Vampire Slayer “Hush”, Hostel, and even The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

TMS: How long of a shoot was it?

NT: We’d usually shot on weekends over a period of two to three years. This proved to be a real challenge for maintaining continuity. I had to pretty much keep my cloths, my haircut, and make sure to stick around the same wait, as did a number of the other actors like Adam Rucho who plays Adam in the story, and to some extent Nina Kate, who plays Ms. Strodes. Angel my cat chose to always wear the same fur coat anyway so that made it easier. I remember Lisa Younger who plays Lisa Graves, actually moved from L.A. to New York, and so we had to try to shoot a bulk of her scenes all at once, even waiting for her to fly back while shooting another movie (this way we didn’t have to buy her ticket!). It was a lot of work and we had to be very creative.

TMS: How did you come about finding and securing your filming locations?

NT: I mostly shot everything in my apartment so that I didn’t have to deal with location rights or company moves. The only other scene was shot in a cemetery, and a few exteriors in my apartment complex, including a neighbor’s apartment a few floors down. The mysterious neighbor’s apartment was really an eccentric neighbor’s who had all that stuff in there. We didn’t even have to dress the set. We took advantage of his eccentric sense of interior design. I’m telling you this story was art reflecting real life, and vice verse. I think this helped to create a surreal Poe-like dream-within-a-dream-quality I hope audiences pick up on as well.

TMS: Can you talk about some of the initial ideas for casting?

NT: I wanted to have as many horror icons in the project as possible. The concept was to have this strange world, where Nick’s apartment would become much like a haunted house, with an onerous cat that somehow attracted all these revolving horror figures from classic films. I had other folks like Tony Todd, who would have played a handyman who would appear every time you said the word “handyman” five times in an obvious parody of The Candyman. I also wanted people who had an association with famous cat scenes or films like Dale Midkiff (Pet Sematary), Lynn Lowry (Cat People), and Lee Meriwether (who was the only actress to play Cat Woman in both the TV series and the original Batman movie). Even Adrienne Barbeau voiced Cat woman in the animated series.

TMS: How were the main actors selected? How did you get so many iconic actors to make appearances?

NT: It was a very gradual process and a very big challenge. It started with Nina Hartley, who was in my previous film, Sticky: A (Self) Love Story, so we had a relationship already. She tweets and we get thousands of views. Then we struggled to fill the role of the Detective, eventually, landing on Michael Berryman, who was in the end the best person for the part. Once we got Michael Berryman, it led to Adrienne Barbeau, who he recommended and who like Michael Berryman’s sitcom like comedic performance in his scene. The money is not necessarily in horror films but there is money in TV and I’m sure that had an appeal. Soon we had managers calling us wanting to know how they could get their talent in Hell’s Kitty. I think the popularity of remaining relevant in a world of information overload is important, too. Now that Hell’s Kitty is coming out all the actors are benefiting from the attention, and their associated publicity to each other. In a world with so much white noise, almost any publicity is good publicity to help one stay relevant to a whole new audience consumed with so many viewing options. Now a younger generation is starting to see searches coming up in Google, associating classic films like Night of the Comet and The Hills Have Eyes with Hell’s Kitty. In terms of time on set, I didn’t ask any of the more celebrated actors to be in production for very long. Maybe, a half day at most. We shot on weekends often, and over a period of years, so we could cater to their busy schedules to make it convenient.

TMS: Were there any rehearsals prior to the shoot? Did you adjust any of the script after the actors were there? 

NT: In some instances, we’d do a very quick rehearsal but for the most part our first few takes were our rehearsal, as I wanted to keep the scenes fresh. I did rehearse more with the less iconic actors because they were more available to me and I wasn’t looking for them to parody roles they were already familiar with either. Robert “Corpsy” Rhine (Girls & Corpses Magazine) who only appears in the movie, improvised a lot on his takes, and he was great; I kept a few of those in there because they were very funny. I think he’s underrated as a comedy actor and I hope to work with him again, too.

TMS: What type of challenges are there when directing and starring in a film?

NT: It’s funny because I get asked this in nearly every interview. I suppose it’s pretty obvious that it’s a real challenge. You’re talking about two different mindsets. Directing requires an almost omniscient awareness, while acting demands a more insular, self-absorbed perspective. I prefer not to do them both at the same time but in this case because it was so autobiographical, and I was the only one who could literally sit near my cat (she was not a stunt cat, if there is such a thing) there was no other choice, unless we wanted our star to be torn to pieces. Doing both simultaneously in a project, is also a challenge in terms of time management. You’re basically working the whole time, especially, on such a micro-budgeted production where you often have to wear several hats anyway. Either you’re preparing for a scene, or in make up, or you’re directing the talent or blocking scenes with the D.P.. I also flipped between producer and director at times with Denise Acosta in preproduction, while writing the scripts, and I played casting director, in many instances contacting the managers and talent myself when Denise was busy with other aspects of production. Lastly, I was intimately involved in the creation of the music with Richard Albert, even sending some rough acoustic guitar tracks at times, too, and writing all the lyrics. Time management skills and the ability to multi-task are a requirement if you want to do both. I suppose you can say, I like to stay busy.

TMS: In terms of directing choices, anyone that you try to emulate? Or ones that have influenced you?

NT: I don’t like to emulate others; I prefer to be myself. However, I have been inspired by other directors. Blake Edwards, David Lynch, Elaine May, Alfred Hitchcock, Joe Dante, Sam Raimi, Julie Taymor, Philip Kaufman, Federico Fellini, Dario Argento, and Quintin Tarrantino have all inspired me in some manner. On the other end of the spectrum, Roger Waters, Roger Corman, and Lloyd Kaufman, too, for their sheer ability to have fun with filmmaking, and to transcend genres, while working in the confines of some extremely low budgets without studio backing. I’d prefer to have a bigger budget when making movies but I’ll work with what I have to tell the story; I think true creativity is the ability to create no matter what challenges (and there are many) will come your way. The best directors all seem to accomplish this somehow.

TMS: Low budget film productions have been historically known for being difficult and demanding. How was this production on the cast and crew? Any challenges or funny stories?

NT: I would say that everything that could have gone wrong did at some point or another. It’s the curse of Hell’s Kitty! There are far too many to list but I’ll give you a few highlights. On the day of Michael Berryman’s shoot, we had temperature in the record 100s in L.A. in late October, and he was wearing a coat; as we allude to in the scene, he suffers from a condition in which he has no sweat glands. We had to use a P.A. just to fan him down because there was no air conditioning on set. A prop broke in the middle of Dale Midkiff’s scene, and I had to improvise using my coffee table and a bunch of P.A.s by cheating the camera angle with L.T. Chang, a very talented DP who shot some of our best scenes. One of my key actresses (Lisa Younger, who plays Lisa Graves in the series and movie) moved to New York, and we had to shoot her off the picture upon her next weekend trip back to L.A., which delayed us months. There was talent who bailed on us a few days before production, too; we had to struggle to find a replacement. One of our key grips who had most of the sand backs and grip gear decided not to show up on one of our last days of shooting, and we had to improvise using the crews back packs to weigh down the jib arm. We lost a bunch of audio tracks to a few key scenes including Adam’s shower scene, and had to reshoot it, and ADR a bunch of other scenes, too. If that’s not enough, Lee Meriwether actually got scratched by my cat Angel and bled on my collector Cat Woman comic book during her scene. At least, it made for some authentic performances. You can see it in my face. My mind was racing. First, I’m thinking is she hurt? Then I’m like she just ruined my collector comic book! (Just kidding, sort of. It’s actually probably more valuable now because we have her DNA).

TMS: If the movie was playing as one-half of a double feature at a Drive-in theatre what would be the perfect support feature? 

NT: I think any of the myriad of films referenced in the movie would serve as a good companion, like Pet Sematary or Night of the Comet, but if I had to pick one film that was not directly alluded to in the film, I’d say Joe Dante’s The Burbs. The Rocky Horror Picture Show would be pretty good, too. Or any horror film with a cat in it, which isn’t much, if you think about it.

TMS: If you had a choice to remake a genre movie, what movie would you like to remake?

NT: In general, I don’t like remakes, unless, the original has serious flaws. I feel as if there is so much opportunity for fresh material. I’d prefer to create prequels or sequels to films we’ve seen if spinning off of a franchise. However, given the sheer fear of developing something without a built in audience, and the popularity of comic book adaptations on film, I’d probably remake The Toxic Avenger. Like the uncanny antihero/superhero in protagonist, I’m also a nerd from New Jersey and I too went from being a scrawny 98 pounds to a decent 185 after taking weight gainer, lifting weights, and studying karate. I still recall beating up the classroom bully in the eight grade. Catwoman would be cool to remake, too, because I don’t think that they’ve ever made a good version of it. I’d probably have Denise Acosta (Hell’s Kitty, Producer) direct that one from a Latina filmmaker’s perspective; I’d switch roles with her to produce it. Other possible options would be: They Live; The Stuff; Highway to Hell, and Dune.

TMS: Can you tell us anything about the other projects that you are working on or planning on working on? Or, anything else that you would like to plug?

NT: On a more serious note, I completed a very timely thriller that ties in with these horrendous murder suicides on schools that seem to be plaguing us at an ever increasing rate. I’ve also got a TV pilot that I’m shopping around Hollywood that’s based on some Harlem Renaissance history, which is basically, Boardwalk Empire meets Orange is the New Black. On the Hell’s Kitty front, I spoke to a musical theater group that may help me to turn it into a musical; I’m going to pitch it as a TV series, too, which would pick up where the movie ends. Imagine: Nick is a writer forced to live a reclusive life because of his possessed cat and this gypsy curse; only his readers and everyone that knows him don’t believe that the fantastical stories he writes are true. Oh, and I’m working on a script titled Hillbillies vs. Alien Chickens, which is pretty much like it sounds, only better. I’m still looking for the right producer and production company for that one, so if you know anyone, please send them my way. Maybe, we could get Purdue or Pollo Loco to sponsor it?