Tribeca 2021 Interview: Kali Reis & Josef Kubota Wladyka on Packing a Punch with “Catch the Fair One”

For someone who knows the ropes all too well, the battle outside the ring for Kaylee (Kali Reis) is always more dangerous than the one that takes place inside of it in “Catch the Fair One,” a thriller that could be described in the same way as its heroine — a lean, mean fighting machine. A more-than-worthy follow-up to Josef Kubota Wladyka’s harrowing debut “Manos Sucias,” in which the director thrust audiences into the thick of gang wars in Colombia, the film dives into the back alleys of Detroit where Kaylee, affectionately known by her fans from boxing as K.O., has become used to sleeping with a razor blade tucked into her cheek for fear of what could happen to her, in spite of her athletic prowess. Her sister disappeared some time ago, an absence that still stings herself and her mother Jaya (Kimberly Guerrero), and unable to rid herself of doubts about what happened, a small nugget of information allows her to retrace her sister’s steps through a sex trafficking ring that begins with an unmarked van headed to an address unknown.

It’d be sacrilege to say much more, but “Catch the Fair One” watches Kaylee punch her way out of the shadows in every sense of the word, with Reis, who draws on both her real-life background as a super lightweight champion and a mixed Indigenous woman of Wampanoag/Cape Verdean descent to make for an irresistible screen presence you can’t take your eye off of as Wladyka follows her through the underworld. With camerawork as muscular as its lead and a story just as spry in its twists and turns, the film is the best to emerge from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival and as the film plays New York (and online anywhere in the U.S.), Wladyka and Reis spoke about their collaboration, a true meeting of the minds that gave shape to an unusually dynamic and resonant action flick.

How did you two join forces on this?

Josef Kubota Wladyka: This is four years in the making. Back at the start of 2017, I was really getting into boxing, and I actually found KO through the social media of my friend’s boxing gym. I was drawn to her not only because she was a world champion boxer, but she was also an amazing artist and activist who uses her platform to talk about issues she cares about, so I wanted to meet her…

Kali Reis: He slipped into my DMs. [laughs]

Josef Kubota Wladyka: So I reached out and just said, “Hey, I’m a filmmaker. I’m just curious about you. Can I come hang out with you and spend time with you?” So I borrowed my friend’s car, I took a little DSLR camera up with me, and I drove up to Providence and just started hanging out with her. At the time, she was training for a fight, so she was going to her gym many times a day, and I was like, “Can I come along with you with my camera? Can I just hang out and see?” We go to this really tough, typical boxing gym — hot, sweaty dudes in there, boxing champions, and then there’s KO. She’s going through her routine, she’s hitting the bag and when it comes time to start sparring, some dudes start talking junk, and so she puts the headgear on, and then gets in the ring and starts going toe to toe with these guys. There was something inexplicable and really powerful as a filmmaker, just watching her and this whole thing that I just knew there was some movie to make with her with her grace and her power.

One of the things that KO talks about and advocates for is the missing and murdered indigenous women crisis. She’s very vocal about it and it’s something that I was learning about at the time because it was coming more into the media, so we started to brainstorm, maybe a film idea. One thing that is important to both of us is our siblings — we both have older siblings that helped raise us, so that was the jumping off point, a woman looking for her sister. Then over the course of two years, through preparing for her to act in it, I wanted to invite her into collaborating and creating the characters and the story with me.

Was a movie an exciting prospect for you, Kali?

Kali Reis: Being in the industry I’m in with sports, especially with boxing and building that platform already, I’ve had tons of thousands of people reach out to me and say they had this idea, but it never goes through, so, I had to check [Josef] out a little bit and make sure he was legit, but he had an idea already and he just wanted see who I was and get to know me. I always had an interest in acting. I just didn’t know where to begin, so sometimes, if it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be and it sounded like a great idea because I just don’t look at boxing [as] just punching people. It’s actually an expression. I always say it’s how I pray, and it’s how I put the energy out into the universe. Being an indigenous person, storytelling is just another avenue we do of passing things down, so of course it was exciting, but also it’s such a tough topic to even speak about. [Still] this was another opportunity to possibly get mainstream media and other eyes focused on this crisis that don’t know about this.

I remember with “Manos Sucias,” there was an insane amount of research into that. Did you delve into the world of trafficking with the same vigor?

Josef Kubota Wladyka: There was a lot of research and articles and things I’d watched, but also KO has worked with at-risk girls for many years, so she has a lot of experience and that’s what helped inform a lot of the plot. Also, she travels around reservations and have met people who’ve lost loved ones, so it was a constant conversation that we were having, evolving and working together.

Was there something that was important to you or that you could hold onto as you were making this, Kali?

Kali Reis: We tell this story that is reflecting what the feelings and the emotion that these people, these families, and these victims go through, and I discovered that telling the story again, I had to plug in and plug out because just hearing these personal stories that I might have not experienced [personally, like] what a mother experienced losing their daughter, but the feelings and that energy transfer is real. And when I go in the ring, I take all the energy and the prayers of my people, and I just let the energy out, so this was just another way for me to take that on my shoulders to make sure that I get that point across, representing the people that get so missed and underrepresented in the industry — the Northeastern Woodland tribes, also mixed indigenous folks that people don’t see, so that was really, really important.

Josef Kubota Wladyka: I’m very grateful for Kali, [because] from the very beginning, I told her if we were going to do this, we have to build a certain level of trust and I will share everything about my life with you and you share with me. These are the things that we’re going to have to pull from, to try to get a real, honest performance, snd she was just a natural at it. We managed to really build upon our ideas. It’s a process, as you’re going through the whole thing. It’s constantly evolving. The scene where she’s talking to her mother, [played by] Kimberly Guerrero, there was a script, but for me, it was a lot of just exploring the circumstances of that scene and the dynamic of the relationship and just letting them go through it, and just trying to film and capture as much as the real emotion as possible.

Given the action involved and Kali’s physicality, was there a lot of collaboration on how you’d actually shoot some of the scenes in such a dynamic way?

Josef Wladyka: Of course. And I had a wonderful [cinematographer] Ross Giardina and we spent a long time thinking about the visual language of the film because we wanted it to be cinematic. We didn’t want to fall back on [how] we think you would shoot it. We wanted it to have suspense and tension and really draw an audience in. Part of Kali’s physicality is something that we were constantly thinking about — how do we capture that with how we lens it? We’re on wider, 18 millimeter lenses a lot of the time, just to feel her grounded and close with us, but within the environment, to feel the world and environment around her. I had been shooting with her for a while with just my little DSLR, which was handheld.

We did a lot of rehearsing together and exercises together to try to prepare her, exploring the scenes, but we had to do very technical type shots where she would have to hit marks. I don’t know if it’s because of boxing and she has peripheral vision, but she was 100% a natural at it. That said, we had been working on this for a long time [together] and I always feel like I need a collaborative partner. I’ve only made two movies, and I feel like I need someone to just bounce ideas off of and check things, and KO, from the beginning, we said, “This is me and you. This is us. Let’s just go on this ride and try to make something unique and powerful and different.”

Was there a particularly crazy day of filming?

Kali Reis: It was freezing! But again, I always have a parallel [from my experience] and I compared this a lot to my boxing preparation. I’ve been boxing and fighting for a long time. I’m one of those people, if I’m going to do something, I’ll make sure I put my all into it, so I was like, whatever it is, I’m going to find a way to get through it. But the cold and the wardrobe selection that you picked for my character…couldn’t you find some North Face or something, please? [laughs] But it was a cathartic experience. It was fun — it was brutal, but it was something that I was so up for. I’m just fully open to it, and you got me this whole shoot, [so] let’s do this. Let’s see what I can do.

What’s it like getting to the finish line with this?

Josef Kubota Wladyka: It’s really surreal. There’s so many emotions associated with it because for a year-and-a-half, the world just hasn’t been the same place. We finished right before the pandemic at the end of 2019 and we were doing post through the pandemic, which is different, not being there with your editor or your DP in the room or doing the sound mix. so it’s surreal. I’m just grateful that we were able to finish the movie and I’m grateful for Tribeca accepting it and embracing it, having my second film there. It was a miracle just to get the thing going in general, and then to finish it through all that. It’s taken time for me to come back to a lot of our thoughts of making this because it’s just been so long, but it feels like maybe it’s still meant to be, and this is the right time for it. I hope it resonates with people.

Kali Reis: The first word that came to mind was surreal because you can talk about things until you’re blue in the face, but when it actually happens, and it was something that we both put so much passion and work into, the fact that what we ended up with this is surreal, but it’s almost like I’ve been here before in some capacity. Like [Josef] said, it’s me and you, and we want to make sure we get this right for us so we can present it and I know it’s right, so I’m excited. It’s like a big title fight. We’ve done all the preparation, and what’s done is done. We just let it grow wings and go where it needs to go.

“Catch the Fair One” is available to watch online as part of the Tribeca Film Festival through June 23rd.