When you type “1301 Kentucky St.” in Google Maps, a pretty nondescript white-painted warehouse pops up in a pretty average looking neighborhood – average for New Orleans, anyway. People may walk by, and likely not give it another look, if they looked at it in the first place. But, like most places in this city – haunted or otherwise – 1301 Kentucky St. holds a special spirit within.
It was the filmmaking home (and sometimes actual home) of local filmmaker “Little” Joe Catalanotto, a many times over behind-the-scenes crewman and director of the hyper-regional creature-feature Nutria Man – and now the base of operations for 9th Ward Studios. I first came across his name through a Facebook ad for an outdoor event screening of the movie by the now-defunct Indywood. Of course, as an area critic first and foremost, I was attracted to this most specific to Louisiana monster movie gimmick, and wondered why more of these hadn’t been made over the years. Why not?
It wasn’t until recently that I had begun research on the history of what would become known as “Hollywood South,” which meant going over projects from the silent Tarzan flicks to Belizaire the Cajun, give or take. What I’ve learned thus far is that a majority of these films were, by and large, pretty independent, to varying degrees, from tightened crews to tighter budgets. The common thread here is looking to be one of resourcefulness.
Joe Catalanotto’s name has popped up a few times in my search of credits and, while our industry here has been host to many creators from auteurs to cast to crew, I found his resume to be of special interest. After all, he made a movie about a human swamp rat – our Creature from the Black Lagoon. Joe’s a man after my own heart, really.
I put out a request on Facebook for anyone who knows or knew him, in a hunt for stories and anecdotes on various film sets. Immediately, someone tagged into the comments a name: Cassie Days. She also goes by Catalanotto. She’s Joe’s daughter, and she was open to a chat – even inviting me to a crawfish boil. While my shellfish allergies wouldn’t mix well with that offer (I know, I know – it’s a heartbreak for this cajun/creole boy), I just jumped at the chance to pick her brain.
We went on for about an hour, discussing things from the Boggy Creek films to the actor Slim Pickens (that’s a tale for another day). But again, the one consistent and common thread I found was in resourcefulness. Her father Joe had some serendipitous “right place, right time” moments in his career, but took to them with such humility and gung-ho spirit.
That’s what comes with being independent. That’s what comes with New Orleans.
Bill: What do you think of Hollywood South as it has existed in the last few years?
Cassie: From my perspective, the big thing that stands out is how it’s grown so much. It seems so big now from the point of view of watching it when it started, when it was born, just the first early seeds of it, because even though I’m a little bit young-ish being 40, I got to see the town when we were just one film crew deep and my dad is the person who trained the people in that one film crew.
So it used to be, for many years, for decades, those of us who worked in film all knew each other. And then it quickly got a little bit bigger and it was a lot of people that maybe you knew, maybe you didn’t work with them that much, but someone would say, “Oh I knew so-and-so, they work on films,” or, “Yeah I knew them.” And then now you bump into someone and they say, “Oh, my cousin works on films, this is their name. Do you know them?” And you go, “No,” and they go, “Oh they’ve been doing it 10 years.” You go, “Never encountered them.” So it went from a family to a whole economic level in the city of middle-class people. Making a decent living.
Bill: How did things begin for your father’s career?
Cassie: Going back a long time ago, he was born in 1939. He lived in the projects that were behind the French Quarter, it was the Iberville projects. He noticed this funny air conditioner duct making a turn. Instead of going right to the building, it made a couple turns before it went in, and he was like, “Why does that air conditioner duct make those turns, that’s extra?” He was a sandwich delivery boy at times and he delivered sandwiches to that place, and he found out it was a recording studio.
It was Cosimo Matassa’s recording studio, and that air conditioner ductwork was so that you wouldn’t hear the air blowing right in, or the compressor. It would be a little bit muffled so you could be recording sound and music while the cool air conditioning was running.
That’s where early rock and roll was recorded. Some people say Fats Domino singing “They Call Me the Fat Man” is the first rock and roll song, some people say. But definitely all the early… all the Fats Domino songs were recorded there. Little Richard recorded all of his songs there like “Tutti Frutti”, “Good Golly Miss Molly”. And Irma Thomas, and the Neville Brothers, and Professor Longhair all recorded their stuff there, and my dad was the microphone and cable boy.
My dad was just a teenager, like 14, 15, and I think for him seeing something like “Tutti Frutti” get recorded and then make it to number one on the charts – and he was in the room when it happened – that it was really eye-opening. It sounds like, from how my dad retells it, maybe he realized that he could be part of bigger things even though he was seen as a poor kid whose father had abandoned his family.
He learned the skills in there, recording skills, and worked in the entertainment industry beyond that, just kind of grew from that. He worked at movie theaters, he went to Jamaica and worked on films and built movie studios, and all along the way picked up crafts of the different trades of doing camera work, or doing sound work, projection work, editing, grew from there. So that’s the early days of how he got involved.
Bill: What big breaks did your father get early on in the film industry? Who did he work with?
Cassie: In the early 70s, my dad had been working in the entertainment industry audio recording. He had been to Jamaica and worked on several films there, built a studio in Jamaica for these guys called The Sages Brothers, so he had some film chops. He was in New Orleans and would work on a film if it came to town. Like Live and Let Die, he worked on that, whatever year that was made. And Mandingo. It was so small at the time, the film industry, any film… oh, Easy Rider, that was one from 1969, so my dad worked on that.
So Charlie Pierce. He had an advertising agency in Texarkana. I think, I would imagine part of that was filming commercials, [for his] ad agency. Okay, so not films but familiarity with how you do a production, lights, camera, actors, all that stuff. So dad met Charlie Pierce in New Orleans on some job and he was like, “I like your work ethic and I’m thinking about expanding and making films.” My dad and his family were still recovering from Hurricane Betsy, and my dad said, “Well I got some family obligations.” My dad had all these little half brothers and sisters, four little half brothers and sisters that he was helping take care of, that were much younger. He’s like, “Well how much money would help you get on your feet where you could come with me to Texarkana?” And he said, “1,500,” and Charlie gave it to him, the $1,500.
So dad went with him to work on films and from his first film, Charlie’s children told me my dad was his right-hand man. And to me, it sounds like really together they were able to make the movies happen. My dad did everything right next to who was the writer, producer, director. That was Charlie – writer, producer, director. So dad helped everything along the way – casting, locations, special effects, camera, props, sound, to editing, score, and distribution.
Bill: He sounds like a film industry jack of all trades.
Cassie: Yeah, and pretty neat to get to see it go from A to Z like that. And they did that for seven films in about five years.
My dad had a friend, Cherie, who was painting faces in the French Quarter for like Mardi Gras and I guess other times on Bourbon Street doing fancy face painting. And he was like, “Hey, you want to come work on movies and do makeup?” And she was only 19 but her parents were like, “It sounds like the opportunity of a lifetime, you can go.” So she went to Texarkana and Montana, and she would dress up the Native Americans in the paint on their faces, and give them their props and stuff. She told me that, she said she would do this from the back of her little station wagon, give them spears and stuff.
So Charlie was a huge break in himself and dad helped him build the film crew and he didn’t pay them very much, but he told them after five years he would give them a piece of the company. And it didn’t quite work out so after five years that crew kind of disbanded. But it was a great run for them all.
Bill: Tell me about Nutria Man.
Cassie: Yeah, so let’s see. Okay, so the nutria fur in real life is known for being very soft, but doesn’t look great. It’s brown and it looks kind of ratty, shaggy, but is desired for fur coats. So in Nutria Man, some scientists are plotting to make a very large nutria to get one fur coat out of one pelt, and they combine human DNA with the nutria and it goes haywire and they make a monster, a nutria-man combination. And the nutria man has a bloodlust even though nutria themselves are really vegetarian, and it goes on a killing spree in the swamps.
Bill: It got retitled at a point, right? To Terror in the Swamp?
Cassie: Yeah. It was made and going to distribution, and my dad said I guess the distributors called and said, “People don’t know what a nutria is, you got to change the name to Terror in the Swamp.”
Bill: So how did the project come about for your father?
Cassie: Martin Folse wrote the script, and he was a very young man living in Houma. Had this film set in Houma, his area, and somehow heard of my dad and probably looked him up in the phone book and came to New Orleans to meet him. And my dad at this point has built a film studio and has a little array of equipment, enough to do one small film. He came to my dad and said, “I have this script, I have money to make this movie.” My dad said, “Okay, when you’re directing it…,” and he said, “No, I can’t direct it, I don’t know how to direct it, you direct it.” “Okay.”
It’s very rare that you have the script, the money, and someone else to pay you. Often times it was the script but there’s usually not the money.
Bill: So it kind of just fell into place. It was almost like serendipity.
Cassie: Yeah. I think though that you had the existence of the equipment and the existence of money and script, and desire to do it. There’s a little bit of yahoo craziness that they also both had. Like if you’d seen the movie and you remember the scene where the local guys in their boats have the guns and beer, and they’re running their boats around, and they get dusted with stuff from the plane, they’ve fallen out of the boat. Well, the people I know from New Orleans who worked on it said that they were of course real Houma people using their own boats, friends of Martin Folse, neighborhood people, and they really got drunk. It took hours to film it as things do, it took all day. And they were like, “Yep, by the end when the boats are crisscrossing and the guys are falling out,” they were like, “That was pretty much really happening. They were so drunk, almost crashing their boats into each other.”
Bill: Getting their courage up!
Cassie: So I think Martin Folse was a little crazy, I think of course the kind of Cajun mentality is a little crazy, and my dad has a little bit of that crazy too, and he’s half Cajun also. But my dad is very crazy, he would do lots of things to risk his life, and if it’s funny or it’s going to be a good shot he would climb things and ride on the outside of vehicles, dangle from things.
Bill: In a previous chat we had, you mentioned this really great story of Joe welding a piece of metal to a car to get a particular shot. Could you maybe go through that story one more time?
Cassie: A guy who was working as a detail cop on it just relayed that story to me. So my dad was there, they couldn’t get the shot, they didn’t have the right tow vehicle able to get the camera the right way. And my dad said, “Oh I got this. I got welding equipment.” And he comes and he welds a rod, bends it into a U shape, welds the other end, and then attaches a little piece of plywood, and then he’s like, “Yeah, I’m going to stand on this and hold the camera.” And the officer said, “I can’t sign off on this being the only officer here. This is not safe, you can’t drive down the road like this.” And my dad says, “Okay, hang on a minute,” and he goes, “Hey big fella, give me your belt.”
And this heavy man gave him his belt, and my dad took off his own belt, and my dad wrapped his own belt underneath his arms, he wrapped the bigger belt to that belt and up to some rigging that was up above the car, so then he could dangle if he needed to, but his feet were on this little platform, and then he had two hands-free to hold the camera. And he goes, “Is this safe enough for you officer?”
And I think the officer just admired the effort and the ingenuity. He said, “Yes, that’s good, you can go with that,” and my dad got the shot. But he wasn’t the director and he wasn’t the cameraman, and at that point he was just renting equipment and was standing back a little bit, not doing hands-on stuff.
And I said, “Why did he film it?” And [the officer] said, “Oh, no one else would get on the platform.”
My dad was probably 50 years old, not doing camera anymore, but he’s like, “Oh yeah, I’ll do it.” And then the officer made this metaphor and he said, “And it was a passion like that, that allowed your dad to bring the film industry here.” He said, “It took somebody who was that driven to tame the beast of the film industry,” and he said, “A lot of people like film, want to work in film, like making money.” He’s like, “But are they willing to strap themselves to the side of the vehicle?”
And he goes, “I haven’t seen anybody else with dedication like that.” Beautiful metaphor.
Bill: You mentioned the studio that he built in New Orleans. What was the name of it?
Cassie: Independent Studios, and the name is Independent because when he was doing Charlie Pierce movies, Charlie Pierce is credited with being one of the first independent filmmakers at all, in the country, when these were made by the studios. So my dad was like, “Okay, yeah, we’re independent film,” which is kind of amazing. The whole category of independent film started somewhere and maybe it was a handful of people but Charlie Pierce was one of them, and my dad was right there next to him.
My dad’s always been really dedicated to New Orleans, and he would see that they would film some exteriors here, do some stuff in the French Quarter, and then go back to California to shoot interiors on a soundstage throughout the years. And he was like, “Well they could just film more stuff here. They could film interiors here if they had a big enough space.”
This is a town full of warehouses, being a port city, but they’re all occupied with something. It’s coffee, or it’s lead, this or that. They’re all full. So my dad had this empty warehouse, people would come, and he had enough of a network that people heard about it and things would come. So commercials, lots of music videos, movies, would come and film at our place.
Some of the things we had at the studio were Bobby Brown and Whitney Houston, and Journey, and AC/DC practiced at our studio for a month before starting the North American world tour. And the Budweiser frogs – Bud, Weis, Er – was filmed at our studio. I have the artist sketch of that set.
And then I was talking with my husband a couple of weeks ago and he goes, “Well, I know from a Folgers Crystals commercial that people can’t tell the difference. If you know anything about that.” He was being sassy and being funny,”If you’ve ever heard of the Folgers Crystals commercial.” I said, “Heard of it?” I go, “It dominated my life for a little while.“ It was filmed at Court of Two Sisters in New Orleans and we had to build a gazebo above it with a lattice in the courtyard, and the lattice got painted in my backyard.
Bill: Did your father do any teaching? Like film teaching to any students or even just to people wanting to learn on the job?
Cassie: He was known for being a good teacher on the job. He never did any official teaching in a school setting and he wasn’t a big school person himself, he was a little bit too active for school as I was too. So I think that’s why film works good for him because it’s out in the world. And he was always teaching, I mean his friends credit him with that very much, that he taught that first film crew and then many people beyond that, for years beyond that. There are guys who work together now as grips and electricians, and they’ll send me pictures together of themselves out on set meeting for the first time, because it’ll be a guy who trained with Joe in the early ’80s and a guy who trained with Joe in the early ’90s, and so they didn’t know each other but they’re now working together as men in their 50s on a production. So this ongoing cycle of people who were trained to be… A lot of grips and electricians largely, a little bit of other stuff too.
Bill: A lot of the production crew.
Bill: How would you sum up Joe Catallanotto’s place in the local film culture?
Cassie: I just talked to a friend, Batou Chandler, who’s a locations’ manager yesterday, and she has a friend who has some footage of my dad from just before the hurricane, which flooded our place. She was asking the friend to get the footage to me because I’m working with someone who’s working on a film of my dad.
She was impressing upon Ruth, who has the footage, “You know we all wouldn’t be working, film wouldn’t exist, if it wasn’t because of Joe creating all of this.“ It’s all descended from him, it’s all an offshoot from his work, from him strapping himself to the sides of moving vehicles.