The Great Francesca “Kitten” Natividad

The ultimate Russ Meyer UltraVixen, our friend, and Special Guest Star in "Nightbeats."

Monday, June 15, 2009

I saw my first Russ Meyer film at a midnight screening in the summer of 1980, around the same time The Empire Strikes Back was out.  The picture was Beneath The Valley Of The UltraVixen and I thought Francesca “Kitten” Natividad was the greatest special effect I’d ever seen.

My happening to see that film at that particular moment in time proved to be a fateful.  Just a month later I was attending my first film festival in Telluride, Colorado, on Labor Day Weekend, 1980, and Russ Meyer was one of the honored filmmakers.  Russ and I became friends and remained so for the next twenty years until he passed away.

There was a private viewing of Russ in his coffin in a small, private upstairs room at Forest Lawn in Burbank.  It was an amazing space to be present in.  Roger Ebert with his wife Chaz were on a sofa, Russ’s lifelong Army buddy Jim Ryan, Charles Napier, Russ’s biographer David K. Frasier, who that night also became one of my friends for life, Erica Gavin of Vixen fame, Tura Surtana from Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! And then Francesca “Kitten” Natividad entered the room.  There was an immediate warmth felt in the room.  Francesca carries a genuine sweetness around with her that was recipricated by the other people there in attendence.

I’d known Russ but I’d never met any of the famed “RM Women”.  I just stood in the background, listening to Roger Ebert and charles Napier exhange stories and watched as Francesca went up to Russ’s coffin and pay her respects.

Francesca "Kitten" Natividad on the set of "Nightbeats."

The next day was the service at the Forest Lawn chapel.  David Frasier and I were the first to arrive and just waited .  Before too long a compact car arrived and from it emerged Souixan Perry, a manager, Tura and Francesca.  Being the only ones there in the in the vast parking lot, we naturally started talking.  Having known Russ Meyer is a great ice breaker and unifier.  The first question someone will throw at you is, “How did you know Russ?” and it just continues from there.

Eventually Francesca came around and introduced herself to me.  I told her about how UltraVixen had been my first Russ Meyer experience and how incredible I felt the filmmaking was — terrific camera angles, lighting, rapid-fire cutting — a truly extraordinary feat of filmmaking and that from the moment she came on the screen I couldn’t take my eyes off her.  I think she was flattered and touched by my compliments.  Then she asked if I’d known about the private viewing they had for Russ the night before.

“Oh, yes.  I was there.”

“You were?  Then why didn’t you come up to meet me?”

“Because I saw you standing over at the coffin and I thought it was too private a moment.  I didn’t want to intrude.”

She looked at me with a very warm and, I think, appreciative smile.

It was a small, private service, packed with the famous RM Women.  An extraordinary sight to see them all walking up to the front entrance to the chapel together.  Afterwards, they were all gathering for some drinks at the lounge of a hotel in the Valley where several of the women were staying and invited David and I to join them, which was quite an honor.

After that several of us — Francesca, David K. Frasier, Raven de la Croix and myself — determined to keep Russ’s family alive with e-mails and phone calls.  We started exchanging e-mails.

About that time I was in the midst of shooting my first feature film Year.  It would be almost another year before I would have it finished and sent out DVDs of my film.  As I had made my film in the same hyphenated filmmaking style that Russ had — writer-producer-director-cameraman-editor-poster designer — I felt they might appreciate that I was carrying Russ’s spirit along with me.
David immediately responded with his full support.

A few months passed.  Then one night I got home from work and Bonnie said, “Hey, honey, your friend Kitten called.  She watched the movie and wants you to call her back.  I talked to her for a while and she’s very nice.”

When I called Francesca back she told me that she had an hour or so to kill before going to the gym and started going through the stack of DVDs by her TV, came across Year and popped it in to watch for a while.  Then she found herself getting so wrapped up in the story and the filmmaking that she couldn’t tear herself away and skipped going to workout to finish our movie.  She’d picked up on the storyline and multiple characters and what they represented, the change of seasons and time passage conveyed through time lapse footage of clouds, not to mention the shooting and cutting.  She was just completely taken with the film.  Considering this came from a person who had spent a considerable part of her life with an obsessive, consumate filmmaker, this was high praise.

When Year played in the Los Angeles Reel Women of Cinema Film Festival we had two friends show up for the screening — Dominick Bernal, who had helped record some audio for Year and maintained the year-movie.com website, and Francesca Natividad, who happened to live just around the corner.  This was Francesca’s first chance to meet Bonnie and compliment her for her performance as Ava in the film.  In fact, they did all the talking for the rest of the time until the film started.

Visiting Russ's resting place in Rural Cemetery in Stockton.

That was the spring of 2006.  By the following spring of 2007, Nightbeats was well on its way.  The writing was taking shape, characters were becoming focused, Bon and I were thinking about who among our actor friends would be good for what role.  A character was developing for a strong woman’s role of a nightclub owner who is commanding, potentially dangerous, and who, while she doesn’t have many scenes, is a presence.  I didn’t want to get my hopes up, but to be honest, I had created and was tailoring the role with Francesca specifically in mind.

As excited as I was to have Francesca be a part of our film, on the day of shooting I started out feeling a bit intimidated.  After all, I would be directing the great Kitten Natividad — the iconic Russ Meyer uber-woman.  In addition to being the woman in his life for well over a decade she had also been the star of two of his greatest films, Up! and Beneath The Valley Of The Ultravixen.  Now she would be in front of my camera.  I had never directed someone who had been in professional films before, much less had worked with a master filmmaker.  How was this going to shake down?

Missy Bell meets her icon Francesca "Kitten" Natividad.

Whatever concerns I had spinning around in my head, they all evaporated once we arrived on the first location.  We were shooting in three places on this day, a Sunday.  Nothing that we would be shooting during the day was very involved.  Just simple little scenes, mostly without any dialogue.  And I’d planned for us only to work into the early part of the afternoon, then take a break for a while before the evening shoot.

Jimmy Bell was running sound for me all day and he had brought along an assistant, another young filmmaker named Tyler Palmer, who has co-directed one of the most incredible documentaries I’ve ever seen on, of all things, fly fishing and the Northern California river system.  It’s extraordinary and you heard it here first.

Francesca checks out Missy's tattoo.

This is more crew than I’m used to having, but still there wasn’t any time for relaxing.  Set up a light or two and rearrange a few things.  We were shooting in the back dressing room area of The Studio Theatre, which she’d shot in some seven months earlier with Lori back in August.  In the film Lori, as Mercy, has a dialogue scene with Francesca, as Lola, the manager of a strip joint, among other enterprises.  I’d shot all of Lori’s shots in one direction with actors in the background knowing that when I’d eventually be filming with Francesca I would have to match up all of these shots, lighting and color.  These little details take up lots of time.  But within half an hour of getting to the Theatre we were filming.

Soundman Jimmy Bell mics Francesca and Bonnie.

This is when I started to relax, because the camera was rolling and Francesca just turned it on.  I’d played the scene for her the night before and I also had it on my iPod to review and compare on the location.  I ran Francesca through the scene on a number of takes, which was a rough way to start the day out — to put an actor in a position of having to play a scene with an actor who isn’t there.  Francesca didn’t mind that a bit.  Bonnie fed her Mercy’s lines and Francesca played her part getting increasingly more subtle and sensitive with each take.

Filming Francesca and Bonnie at The Backdoor Lounge in Old Sac in Sacramento.

When you’re shooting even the smallest, simplest thing it seems like it’s taking an eternity.  However, in just ten or fifteen minutes we had the first scene in the can.  Then onto the next scene, which also involved playing to a character, in this case Cece, played by Kelly Nixon, who had been filmed almost six months before.  By this time Francesca was warmed up and we just rolled right through.  Francesca was a complete joy and a sweetheart with the actors and crew, all of whom were eager to have their picture taken with her, which Francesca was only too happy to oblige.

Jimmy Bell’s wife Missy was also in one of the scenes we were shooting, which was the scene that sold Missy on being willing to get up the guts and take a chance at acting.  “I get to get beaten up by Kitten Natividad!  I love her!  She was my idol when I was in college.”  Bon and I were over at the Bell’s for a party one night where she was introducing me by saying, “Yeah, I’ve got a part in Mike Carroll’s new movie where Kitten Natividad’s going to kick my ass!”
Missy arrived in a pair of low-rise jeans and short tank top and when she turned to get something Francesca noticed the tattoo on her back and asked Missy to see it.  This had to be the perfect way to start off a day — having Kitten Natividad ask to see her tattoo!

Giving direction to two Great Ladies of the Screen. Ladies so great they even make you believe that they are listening to you.

Then it was over to our second location, from The Studio Theatre to The Studio Center, Frank Casanova’s studios and production facility.  Frank is one of the saints of independent filmmakers in Sacramento.  If you need a location or a bit of help, Frank has always been only too helpful.  Many of my exterior locations were shot around various sides of Frank’s building.

These scenes involved a few short but delicate scenes between Francesca and Julianne Gabert, who has a recurring, though non-speaking role as a stripper and a suggested love-interest for Lola.  Julianne is a real trooper — and fearless.  When I was trying to find an actor for these scenes with Francesca several people were turning  the part down or not responding at all.  Then out of the blue I got an e-mail from Julianne saying she’d love to play this part seeing as it was opposite Kitten.

On the way from the airport the day before after picking up Francesca, we were talking and then her voice changed a little and she said, “So, Mike… am I playing a dyke?”

“Well, yeah.  Is that a problem?  I mean, yeah, Lola is — although, the way I’m going to film it — ”

“No, no, that’s fine, I trust you.  I just wanted to make sure I’d read everything right.”

These scenes took a little bit of extra time because they don’t have any dialogue and just getting the detail right takes a little extra doing.  But both Francesca and Julianne were wonderful and completely comfortable with how I was filming them.  Julianne is a bubbly sweet, cheerful all-American girl.  But when she plays sexy and alluring, the look that she conveys with her eyes can warm the blood.
As I was filming Francesca in these scenes, peering through the viewfinder and riding the focus on her close-ups, I couldn’t help myself thinking, “I’m filming Kitten Natividad.  I’ve got Kitten Natividad framed up in my shot.  This is what Russ Meyer was seeing when he was looking through his Arriflex at her.  This is what it’s like to be photographing a Star.”

Once finished with these scenes it was back to the house for a few hours.  Since Francesca was doing this for us as a friend I didn’t want to take advantage of her by pushing too much of the day.  We didn’t need to show up at our next location until seven o’clock that evening and couldn’t beging filming until eight.  This would give her a few hours to relax.

The scene we were shooting that evening was the scene that I had conceived of Lola’s part for and with Francesca in mind.  It’s a scene between Francesca and Bonnie, a purely dramatic dialogue scene between two women who had once been friends now meeting again after a distance of many years and significant changes in the type of women they now are.  It’s a simple scene of only two pages or so, but it requires many layers of subtlty and emotion under the skin.  Not an easy thing to do for any actor.  For Bonnie and Francesca, who had really had very little time together, they didn’t have an opportunity to start running and rehearsing their lines until six o’clock, barely an hour before we were due to arrive at the location.