Desert Inspiration for 'Cat City' By Brent Huff (writer/director of Cat City)
(from the 2009 Palm Springs International Film Festival)
Twelve years ago, I was invited by a very wealthy businessman to spend a golf weekend with some of his buddies in Palm Springs, California. He told me I should come because it would be a great place to network. As an out-of-work actor in Los Angeles, I needed something to rejuvenate my career. It was the end of summer and the host warned that it was really hot, even by Palm Springs standards, because the Santa Ana winds had kicked in.
I loaded up my old Saab with an even older set of cheap golf clubs and took off Friday afternoon for the desert. What I didn't know at the time was that this trip would change my career and my idea of how I approached films.
I headed West on the I-10 past Riverside and Pomona into the desert floor of the Coachella Valley. Just outside of Palm Springs, you come across a surreal sea of windmills. It is both mesmerizing and haunting. I pulled the car off the road at the Whitewater exit to get a better look at these intriguing man-made turbines. When I stepped out of the car, the heat hit me like a ton of bricks. It can literally take your breath away. I looked up at the massive windmills that were churning hard in the Santa Ana’s. I guessed this was what they meant by "dry heat." The enormity of the windmills blew me away. Not literally, but it was as if I were entering a different time and space.
I drove up to the ritzy golf community enclave in an area known as Indian Wells. The gatekeeper looked at me in my rusted old car like I was lost. He saw the crumpled map sitting in the passenger seat. He asked if I was going to Cat City. "What's that?" I asked. He looked at me carefully and said that Cat City is what the locals call Cathedral City. I learned later that Cat City is a place in the desert with more diversity but less money. I shook my head and showed him the address I was looking for. He regretfully gave me a pass and directions to the home inside the formidable gate and my host for the weekend.
I pulled up to an opulent desert estate property and was surrounded by high-end cars. Not the Mercedeses and BMWs I was used to in Los Angeles, but Rolls Royces, Aston-Martins, Ferraris and Lamborghinis. I thought, "This is stupid. What am I doing here? Oh, well, I drove this far so I might as well suck it up and grab some free drinks."
Once inside the house, I knew immediately that I was out of my element. The main theme of the party was talk of money. Lots of money. Flaunting money. The smell of money. Money, money, money. What was I going to talk about? My Sandy Meisner acting method? My search for a new agent? My latest callback for a Burger King commercial?
I quickly made my way to the bar. This was my best plan to make myself more at ease. Less conspicuous. It was at the bar that I struck up a conversation with someone more my age but dressed much older and more conservatively. I asked him what he did for a living and his response was "entrepreneur." Hmmm, what does that mean exactly? Without blinking an eye, he said, "I'm here to relieve these rich people of some of their money. Carpe Diem." He grabbed his scotch and soda and took off to bag his prey. As an actor, I always study interesting people and their modus operandi. To see these desert players being worked was something to behold. Something I won't forget.
Artists all approach their work differently. I am driven more by visuals than what is actually said. My motto in life is to read what people do and not what they say. It's the actor's behavior that interests me. This is the reason John Malkovich is one of my favorites, but that is another story.
That Monday, back at my small apartment in Westwood, I decided that not only was I going to write a screenplay based on what I had witnessed in the desert but I was going to direct it. I wasn't going to hand my story over to some auteur who hadn't witnessed what I had, felt what I had felt. It was my trip to the desert that turned me from actor to writer/director. So I began to write the sordid tale of a young grifter who comes to Palm Springs to ply his scam. If people wanted to flaunt their money, he was there to take it. The protagonist's plan would work perfectly until he met the character Victoria Compton, a player who would be even more skilled at playing the game. Let's call it a cat and mouse game. Cat City. Hmmm.
As I was putting pen to paper, I read an article about the Salton Sea. The Salton Sea is a huge body of saline water some two hundred feet below sea level near Palm Springs that was literally created by accident. Once again it was time to put more miles on the Saab's odometer. I drove past my magical windmills to the Salton Sea as everything seemed to turn silver and white in color. It was as if nature had applied its own bleach bypass. Everything seemed to be abandoned. Motels, gas stations, bait shops were all a distant memory. Faded billboards remained from the Eighties when the Salton Sea was a sought-after destination.
I got out of the car near the shoreline on the north side of the sea. The temperature was 116 degrees and the smell of dead tilapia fish permeated the air. Flies immediately circled my face. It was like I was in Hell. I looked to my right and witnessed an older gentleman sitting on a porch swing next to his mobile home. A fishing rod was at his side. This was another visceral image that would leave an indelible mark in my brain. I thought, "Someone actually lives here. How can that be? What is his story?"
Driving home from the Salton Sea, I figured it out. The man on the swing would be a disgraced cop who would be hired to take down one of the Palm Springs players. It was the visuals of the desert that inspired me to pen, along with co-writers Douglas L. Walton and William Shockley, my film noir thriller.
When I hired actress Rebecca Pidgeon to play the femme fatale in Cat City, she asked why I wanted to film in the desert. I told her about the overwhelming feeling I'd gotten that first time I visited that desert valley. I shrugged my shoulders and said, "It's something intangible." She looked at me and just nodded her head as if I had lost my mind.
The end of the first week of filming, Rebecca walked up to me and said, "I now know what you mean. I feel it too. It makes me unsettled." I wish all the films I will make would come from this sort of inspiration.
I just drove back through those mysterious windmills yesterday on my way home from the Palm Springs Film Festival. I had such a satisfied feeling knowing that an idea that stuck with me for so long had finally come to fruition. Cat City being a selection for the 2009 Palm Springs International Film Festival seemed the perfect finish to my desert story. -MPM