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SXSW ’07 Interview: "Cat Dancers" Director Harris Fishman

Cat Dancers at SxSW
by Jason Whyte

THE PITCH: Imagine a boy and girl who meet when they are 7 and 11 respectively in ballet class in Biddeford, Maine in 1954. "Cat Dancers" is their love story….this boy and girl, who called themselves, "Cat Dancers" were Ron and Joy Holiday, a husband and wife team, who became one of the world's earliest exotic cat entertainers starting in the 1960's. They went on to perform together for almost 4 decades. Their act and their lives changed dramatically when the handsome young Chuck Lizza joined the performing pair in the 1980's. But, in 1998, tragedy struck when their prized white Bengal tiger, Jupiter, killed not once, but twice in the course of 5 weeks leaving Ron Holiday alone to heal.

Is this your first film in SxSW? (Or the first film you have) Do you have any other festival experience? If you’re a festival veteran, let us know your favourite and least-favourite parts of the festival experience.

Yes, this is my first film in SXSW. I have been to a number of festivals with short films I have either acted in or produced. My two favourite festivals are Tribeca and Newport International.

Could you give me a little look into your background (your own personal biography, if you will), and what led you to the desire to want to make film?

Cat Dancers is my directorial debut as a documentary filmmaker. I graduated from Brown University and The Yale School of Drama and have performed as an actor Off-Broadway, Off-Off Broadway, and in numerous independent films and television. I produced the short film ANT that premiered in 2002 at The Tribeca Film Festival and played at the 2003 Clermont-Ferrand Film Festival. I also co-starred in and was the Executive Producer of the award-winning short Ethan and Alan. For two years I was the Co-Artistic Director of The Met Theatre (LA), a position I recently left to devote my time to finishing Cat Dancers.

In many ways what led me to my desire to make art in general and more specifically film was my father, whose life as an artist and teacher constantly challenged me to maintain my integrity and aesthetic discipline. Film taps into my personal desire to be able to reach and touch as many people as possible and to challenge viewers to look inward at how we judge and perceive others. How can we as artists provoke people to look at the world through different lenses?

I was lead to this story in particular because of my brother, Adam, who was taught by and worked with Ron Holiday when they were both at an animal sanctuary called, Amazing Exotics. My brother opened the door to this story for me and helped me to establish a trust with Ron, which in a documentary is one the most important things you need when telling someone’s story. However, I was initially led to this story because of my mother who first told me about Ron’s story.

Growing up, you were no doubt asked the eternal question “When I grow up I want to be a …” Finish this sentence, please!

I don’t recall ever really asking myself this question. I know I always wanted to be a cowboy and I know I always loved art but my earliest memories had to do with wanting to be on stage and making things – drawings, paintings, creating characters, that kind of thing.

While you were making the movie, were you thinking about the future release of the film, be it film festivals, paying customers, critical response, and so forth?

I have only just recently started to imagine how CAT DANCERS will be received by the public. For seven years the goal has always been to simply finish it in way that I had always imagined from day one. It would be icing on the cake if the film finds an audience and thereby receives favourable critical attention. As far as I am concerned the people who I have wanted to like CAT DANCERS have always been me, my wife, my family and friends and Ron Holiday.

How did this project come to fruition? If you could, please provide me with a rundown, start to finish, from your involvement.

Well I hate to admit it but it started one summer afternoon when my mom called and said, “You know that place in Florida where your brother is?” I said, “Yes,” and she said, “Well, the man who is teaching your brother has this amazing story and it would make a great film.”

Of course the last thing one wants is for their mother to tell them what to do, but she was right as most mothers usually are and I knew after I looked more into it that Ron’s story would make an amazing film. It was the summer of 2000 and I remember going to brunch with a few a friends and sort of casually “pitching” them the story. One of my first very close friends who I met when I moved to Los Angeles, Chris Keenan, immediately said, “This story sounds amazing….let’s go down to Florida next week.” Chris, one of the co-executive producers of CAT DANCERS gave me the first monies needed for me to go down to Florida and shoot some initial interviews to determine whether the story would work on film. In Florida, we also got to see the animal sanctuary where Ron had moved to heal after the tragedies. I then spent months reviewing, cataloguing, cleaning and combing through Ron’s home video, super 8mm, photos and other archival materials in order to peel back the layers of Ron’s story so to speak and figure out how to tell his story using those materials. After that initial period I worked intermittently on the project over the course of the next 5 years. I would meet very smart and sensitive filmmakers along the way who would come on board to work with me and help to move the doc forward. Perhaps most importantly, it was my old friend and creative collaborator, Silas Weir Mitchell, who helped finance the second round of shooting and was with me during all these years of making CAT DANCERS.

I was able to make a trailer and a few assembled scenes that I took to the IFP Market in NY and showed as a work in progress. The trailer attracted some nice attention and I was then introduced by Caroline Libresco (Sundance Programmer and Associate Producer) to my now Executive Producers, Josh Braun of Submarine and the wonder women at Cactus 3. They loved the samples I had and were able to attract HBO to giving me a nominal amount of development money to again move the project forward.

At that stage, I also was introduced to an amazing DP, Amanda Micheli, who went on to shoot a trailer with me that eventually led to HBO providing completion money for me to finish CAT DANCERS. Once HBO came on to help me finish CAT DANCERS, I recruited Amanda to not only finish shooting the film with me but also to be my producing partner on the project. Shortly thereafter, I was introduced to a very talented editor and filmmaker, Alexis Spraic, by Submarine and Cactus 3. We both immediately clicked on my vision for the film and she never stopped challenging me which was enormously important. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Herculean efforts and pure genius of Mirabelle Ang, who was our Assistant Editor, and wonderful filmmaker in her own right, who oversaw with me the labyrinth of technical details associated with finishing a film on Final Cut Pro. As I hope you can see, I am enormously grateful to every single creative person who has helped me along the way…I wish I had more time to enumerate everyone’s contribution…please see my “thank you” list. Its 7 years of acknowledgements!

What was the biggest challenge in the production of the movie, be it principal photography or post-production?

This is a great question. I would cite two things as my biggest challenges…

One is the Sisyphean struggle it was to complete my film on both a monetary and a personal level. And, if it wasn’t for the individuals who came on board at key moments to help energize me and refuel my passion for the material I am not sure I ever would have been able to complete it. I owe them an endless amount of gratitude

The second biggest challenge for me was how to activate Ron’s past as it had been preserved through the super 8mm, home video and other archival materials he had used to document his life with Joy and Chuck for nearly 40 years. More specifically, I was challenged by how to make the archival materials have a present impact and vitality that would engage and envelop the audience while at the same time make the audience invest in Ron’s present life and predicament.

In addition, from a technical POV we had enormous challenges to face when it came to the online. We worked on FCP which was great but we had to confront the issue of taking the multiple formats that we shot in and the multiple archival elements/formats that Ron had and merging them into 1 format for output.

Please tell me about the technical side of the film; your relation to the film’s cinematographer, what the film was shot on and why it was decided to be photographed this way.

My producing partner and DP, Amanda Micheli, will answer this one: CAT DANCERS inter-cuts constantly between the present and the past, which is represented by archival footage of greatly varying quality from consumer video, Super-8 film, and dubbed VHS sources. The present-day material was shot on the Panasonic SDX-900 at a 16:9 ratio and 24 frames per second, to set it apart from the archival clips and give us a more controlled voice amidst this collage of formats. The SDX-900 is great for smooth handheld work and lowlight situations, and comes as close as we could get in standard def to a truly cinematic look with video.

Talk a bit about the festival experiences, if any, that you have had with this particular film. Have you had any interesting audience stories or questions that have arisen at screenings?

SXSW will be our first public screening of CAT DANCERS so I do not have any war stories to share…at least, not yet.

Who would you say your biggest inspirations are in the film world (directors, actors, cinematographers, etc)? Did you have any direct inspirations from filmmakers for this film in particular?

I do not have one single inspiration. It is the inherent collaboration that is needed to make a film that has always excited and inspired me. This is my first feature film so every artist I have worked with I have learned from and been inspired by --- from the sound man to the colorist to the mixer, to my editor to my DP…everyone has been critical to the creation.

Also, I have been an actor most of my life so I think the power to listen as actors must do has informed my ability as a director to listen to the people whose story I am trying to tell and, in turn, put them at ease so they are the most open, relaxed and honest in the telling of their stories on screen.

How far do you think you would want to go in this industry? Do you see yourself directing larger stories for a larger budget under the studio system, or do you feel that you would like to continue down the independent film path?

I don’t know the answer to this question. I see myself in the future continuing to direct non-fiction stories as well producing films…I would also be comfortable in the studio world as well as in the independent world. I have two young children in my life, a son and a daughter, so providing for them is very important to me. This is a new priority for me that didn’t exist several years ago when I was an Artistic Director for a small theatre company in Los Angeles.

If you weren’t in this profession, what other career do you think you would be interested in?

I am not sure I would say at this moment that I have even chosen the career of a documentary filmmaker. This is my first film. So I am going to see where things lead me. I currently have a day job at a very cool start-up called Spot Runner where I was the first employee almost two years ago. We have grown to almost 200 employees -- so it has been a very exciting ride. You never know where life is going to lead you.

Please tell me some filmmakers or actors that you would love to work with, even if money was no object.

As a documentary filmmaker I think it is less about the actors and filmmakers you dream of working with and more about the stories you would love to tell or the people you would love to have access too…stay tuned!

Do you think that you have “made it” in this profession yet? If you don’t believe so, what do you think would happen for that moment to occur?

I certainly do not think I have “made it” as a doc filmmaker…but having my first doc financed by HBO and premiering at SXSW certainly feels great.

I think one never really feels like he or she has “made it.” You are constantly aiming to finish and complete what you start and then you hope to create something new and find something you are passionate enough about the next time around.

You have been given the go-ahead to make your next movie, but you must include one piece of product placement. Luckily, you get to choose said product placement. What would you choose?

I actually have no problem with product placement in films as long as they are incorporated creatively or with humour. So I don’t really have a preference as long as the product is appropriate to the content. I do love Pepsi…

How important do you think the critical/media response is to film these days, be it a large production, independent film or festival title?

I think finding an audience is critical to the success of any film. And having a film well received by the media and critics alike is crucial to building an audience.

If your film could play in any movie theatre in the world, which one would you choose and why?

I would love for “Cat Dancers” to play at the Avon Theatre on Thayer Street in Providence, Rhode Island where I grew up and saw my earliest films.

Do you have an opinion on the issue of “A Film by (Insert Director Here)” ? Is this something you use? Many people collaborate to make a film yet simultaneously, the director is the final word on the production.

It’s funny you ask this question because I actually believe it is quite arrogant to say “a film by.” Maybe I won’t feel this way 20 years from now if I am still making films but I have always thought it was an awkward thing to say because a director can’t make a film alone. I certainly know I couldn’t and I wouldn’t want to. I have a brain trust of collaborators – on both the creative and technical sides – who were instrumental to the making of “Cat Dancers” and I couldn’t have done it without them.

What would you say to someone on the street to see your film instead of the latest blockbuster playing at the local twenty-screen megaplex?

Man on the Street: What’s your documentary about?
Me: It’s about the survival of one man whose wife and their shared lover were killed by their white Bengal tiger within 5 weeks of each other.
Man on the street: It’s a true story?!
Me: Yes, it’s a documentary. But if it was fiction, the husband and wife would be Sylvester Stallone and Cher.

This is actually pretty much how the conversation goes.

No doubt there are a lot of aspiring filmmakers at film festival who are out there curious about making a film of their own. Do you have any advice that you could provide for those looking to get a start?

Surround yourself with the smartest people you can find who make you feel energized and excited about the story you are all choosing to gather around and tell. And if you can, find a significant other who supports and nourishes your choices!!! I am lucky, because I have a wife and best friend who not only made docs herself and is now an attorney, but she has also been my strongest support, most critical viewer, and pushed me harder than anyone.

And finally…what is your all time favourite motion picture, and why?

My favourite all time documentaries are Grey Gardens and Salesman.
My favourite all time narratives are Putney Swope, Blue Velvet and Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Why, because they all moved me….

For more information on Cat Dancers and for screening times at this year’s SxSW, point your browser to the SxSW page HERE. And check out for even more info!

Jason Whyte,

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originally posted: 02/28/07 17:09:52
last updated: 03/07/07 09:01:01
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