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Director Tom Hooper Has a Hard Time Explaining the Feet in Cats

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Cats may be the strangest Broadway musical of all time, and now it’s one of the strangest movies of all time. So it’s perhaps surprising that the director responsible for it, Tom Hooper, a soft-spoken, congenial fellow, is less a deranged shaman looking to blow our minds and more just a sincere guy who really, really loved Cats as a kid and wants to do right by it. When I meet him, he’s coming off the world premiere in New York and is on his way to the London premiere. (Critics will not be particularly kind to the movie, but when we speak, the reviews haven’t hit yet.) We talk about what exactly is happening in the film, the digital-fur technology, the problem of family-friendly Christmas musicals featuring gyrating, pseudo-erotic man-cats, and more. He’s a very good sport about it all, and he’s got an answer for everything — except the feet.

Sir, explain yourself.
Where to start? [Laughs] Well, it starts with me being 8 years old and being taken to see Cats and falling in love with it. I have actually a very vivid recollection of that experience. And I got the cassette, and we had the album, which we listened to in the car endlessly. But this journey specifically started when I was walking through Soho on postproduction on Les Mis seven years ago. I suddenly had a feeling of sadness: Oh, I’ve so enjoyed doing a musical for the first time, and I’ve learned so much. It would be crazy if I never applied that learning curve to something else. I remember thinking Les Mis was particularly exciting because that musical had never been adapted as a movie before. And I was thinking, Well, are there any other great musicals left that have not been adapted? I thought about Cats and about how much I had really loved it as a kid. I knew Steven Spielberg had optioned it in the mid-’90s. Well, why had it never been made? Was it that people hadn’t figured out what the cats would look like? And was there perhaps some shift in visual effects, some technology that might allow a way of making it work?

Did you consider prosthetics?
I actually did start by going through a physical prosthetics route because, during my first conversations, visual effects seemed to be so expensive. But the tricky thing with prosthetics is you end up with a kind of full-face prosthetic and you lose all performance. And then you still have nonmoving ears. And then you’re like, “So you’re only going to CGI the ears? If you’ve done that, then what’s the point of doing it selectively?” Then, if you added any kind of fur to bodies, you’d gain a centimeter of weight everywhere, which doesn’t help. So all roads led me back to the visual-effects route. What’s been fascinating is that three years ago, the top guys in that industry were saying, “Don’t attempt it, it’s not possible what you want to do.” Then two years ago, it was like, “It’s possible, but it’s insanely expensive.” And then a year and a bit ago, it’s like, “It’s just about affordable for your budget, and it’s just about possible.” And so the window opened up to do it.

What about the content of the show itself?
Lee Hall, my co-writer, [and I] sat together and asked, “How do we make this into a stronger story? What clues are there in the original show?” I think probably the biggest change we did was this idea: In the show, the cats are sort of singing out to the audience and explaining themselves to the audience. In ours, there would be this cat Victoria, based on a non-singing character in the musical. It’d be a coming-of-age story. She’s abandoned at the beginning of the film; she’s literally a cat in the bag. She comes out of the bag in the wasteland. And her bewilderment is initially our bewilderment as we, the audience, go into this strange world of Jellicle cats. And as she finds her feet, we find our feet. So she becomes a proxy for the viewer. And her compassion then ends up enabling the way the film ends.

You’ve added this narrative element, but did you ever consider not having a story? One of the most notable things about the musical is there’s no real plot. It’s like an insane carnival.
I felt like there was a little implied story [in the musical]. The idea that the cats are competing through song to be the Jellicle choice was implied but not explicit. Part of what Lee and I were doing was making explicit what lay beneath the surface. Even with Victoria, it’s implied that she’s the ingenue cat. She does this famous solo dance, the White Cat dance, which is definitely a coming-of-age dance. I felt there were lots of clues there, and I wanted to tease them out.

You said you saw Cats when you were 8 and were very taken with it. I imagine the 8-year-old who saw Cats is different from the adult who now sees the show or the film. How has your perception of the musical changed over the years? There’s a lot of complicated stuff in there that a kid won’t necessarily get.
I mean, it’s definitely been fun having the 8-year-old as my harshest critic. One of my key aims was to give kids that experience that I had. In a sense, this is my first true family movie in terms of wanting to make the stuff that would really speak to children’s imagination. But of course, as you say, I’ve also got the adult perspective. I think there’s a very strong theme in it of the importance of home, of finding home. In Victoria’s case, it’s finding her tribe but also finding a mother figure in Judi Dench. One of the great story themes is the unsettled traveler trying to find a sense of home. I’ve also said that it’s about the perils of tribalism. This idea that humans are quite tribal and yet the problem with being tribal is it tends to involve creating boundaries and excluding people. And really this film is about how we, as a tribe of cats or a tribe of humans, are stronger when we reintegrate into our community the fallen and the forgotten, the disgraced, the overlooked. Victoria’s gift to the community is one of kindness and compassion when she suggests that one of the people on the margins should be reintegrated.

But there’s also a weird latent eroticism to Cats, right? They’re gyrating and dancing, and it still feels very 1979, 1980, 1981, the era of the original musical and the age of cocaine, disco, and wild, formfitting outfits. I imagine reconciling that notion with the idea of making a family film is a challenge.
As a kid, I remember thinking, If they were just playing humans, would my parents take me to this? And it was quite like, you know, because they were cats it was okay. But it was quite sexy, the show in ’81. I think part of how I handled it, I hope, was that Rebel [Wilson] effectively lampoons that very thing in her first scene. So one way is to acknowledge that pitfall comedically early on in the movie. Also, I feel that films take a path often related to whom you’ve cast in your central role. And I felt with Frankie [Francesca Hayward) playing Victoria, the theme was much more about finding a mother, finding a home, and finding a place. It seemed to be less urgently about sort of exploring her sexuality or navigating that. I felt that actually there was an innocence about the way Frankie was playing Victoria that didn’t suit, you know, the kind of version of Cats that you’re talking about. Also, I was very conscious it was for a family audience.

A theme I’ve sensed in your films is transformation. It’s all over The King’s Speech and Danish Girl. John Adams, which I love, is all about his growing into the role of a leader. And even The Damned United in some ways is about a failure of transformation. 
Well, thank you for what you said about John Adams. If you think … by the end of Les Mis, it’s kind of about the art of dying well. How do you make that ultimate transformation to death, leaving behind the person you most loved and took care of? Les Mis the musical takes Valjean into the afterlife. And Cats has possibly that underlying theme of how do we handle the final transformation of our lives? But no, I think you’re right. I’m very interested in transformation. And I’m very interested in forgiveness. I mean, you know, in Damned United, it’s Taylor having to forgive Clough. Bertie in The King’s Speech, he has to learn to forgive himself because that’s key to being a stammerer. And in Les Mis, it’s the priest forgiving Valjean. My very first movie was called Red Dust, and it was a film about truth and reconciliation in South Africa. All about trying to make restorative justice, the idea that forgiveness-based justice is more important than kind of Roman justice, which was all about the idea of punishment. That’s a theme I’ve always come back to in my work.

I like how the scale in Cats never makes any sense. When I first saw the trailer, it sort of bothered me, but now it just adds to the delirium. Sometimes things are comically huge; sometimes they’re a lot smaller than expected. 
I mean, it was based on a bit of maths. If a cat was standing on hind legs, what’s the difference? And it’s about two and a half to one. So everything is built two and a half to one. But then you still end up with a street that’s only as wide as you can make it in the studio — whereas if you’ve applied the two and a half rule, it would be superwide. But it was never meant to be that literal. Obviously, if we’re cats, the world would be bigger. But it also puts you back in a childlike position because, of course, when you’re a toddler, the table is higher than you are. So it has that trick of perspective. The look on people’s faces when they visited our set was one of childlike wonder.

That also speaks to the artificiality of the environment. It all still feels like a set, though not in a bad way. Was there ever a thought to try to make it a more realistic version of London?
That’s an interesting question because it is in part a love letter to London and a love letter to Soho. I’m a Londoner, I grew up there, and I went to Soho from when I was 12 trying to bag free film stock or free bits of camera equipment. But Eve Stewart, who’s my production designer, is such a talent, and she did all the original designs of the cats and built the world. As I progressed through it, I began to realize that if the world was heightened, it would help to create a space of permission for my human cat designs. The film opens with the image of a cat formed in the night sky backlit by the moon. That was an idea I came up with during the editing. It’s a statement that we’re in another world. A lot of filmmaking in the mainstream is hidebound by a certain literalism and realism for very good reasons. But the fun thing about the musical form is the ability to be in a more heightened space. I definitely thought a bit about Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge and the way he wasn’t inhibited by creating a Paris that was photo-realistic. Or even just the beginning of West Side Story, when they leave the New York streets and end up on the studio back lot. The colors and the way New York suddenly feels have a nice association to me. And even the look of back-projected skies. There’s definitely a part of me that’s referencing the way Hollywood used to do world creation.

Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Universal Pictures

Were there other films you looked at?
Funny enough, doing what I was doing, it was incredibly hard to find any references. I had to go back to the Cowardly Lion and The Wizard of Oz to see a human playing a cat. And of course, when you rewatch The Wizard of Oz, you love the Cowardly Lion in, like, a minute. You don’t care that the costume and makeup aren’t very convincing, because he’s fabulous and endearing. I definitely thought a bit about Avatar and what James Cameron had done. He was in that world where the only course of action was full replacement. This kind of synthesis [that we’re doing] wasn’t technically possible. And the tribe in Avatar are a feline tribe. So that was interesting to look at some of the design choices he’d made. But in truth, one of the most exciting things about it was that there were hardly any references I could turn to. It was quite free in terms of associative space.

Did you look at any Busby Berkeley musicals?
I did. The cockroach sequence that Andy [Blankenbuehler] choreographed for me so beautifully is obviously our nod to Busby Berkeley. And I’ve reset the film in the ’30s, although it’s a very relaxed idea of the ’30s, sure. It’s the year of The King’s Speech, but one of the reasons I did that is that the world of T.S. Eliot’s poetry even in the ’80s seemed pretty anachronistic. By 2019, it would be seriously anachronistic. So it was fun to reconnect some of the music to kind of where it’s meant to be.

When you’re designing a musical sequence to direct, how do you go about it? 
Lee and I wrote a script that was so full of stage directions it was kind of unreadable for a studio executive. So we then had to pare it back, and Lee made me do something quite interesting. We’d had this intense two weeks writing together, and he said at the end, “Literally close your eyes and tell me the story as you see it, beginning to end.” So there is this audio recording of me for two hours going, “And then the camera goes here …” So I pitched it as a visual thing, not to music, just out of my head. It existed as a visual narrative. The next big step is when Andy, the choreographer, joined, because, in terms of the structure of dance, he has his own thoughts. In a traditional film, you usually block the scene yourself. But in the dance world, it’s a true collaboration with this other incredibly talented person. So you get an influx of new ideas about how to do this and that. And then it’s about effectively doing another edit where I’ve got my original thoughts, I’ve got his ideas, and then what’s the clear path that takes us through? Then some of it was just … I remember the Bustopher Jones sequence was me and Ben Howarth literally at 11 on a Friday night taking those big bins and just starting to work out gags and shooting on our iPhones. So there was a hands-on aspect to the blocking, which I quite enjoyed as well.

There’s often a very specific visual strategy to each of your films. The King’s Speech had those wide angles and the high head-space framing. And Les Mis had, for example, the Anne Hathaway single-take sequence. Did you make any decisions like that beforehand for something like this?
I had this phrase organic cat, which was a sort of non-choreographic cat, i.e., when the cats are moving as cats but in a naturalistic context — in other words, they weren’t moving on a beat, it wasn’t a musicalized movement. For that, I tended to shoot handheld because I felt the unpredictability of feline movement was best caught by the camera operator picking up the cues maybe a little bit late. And then I tried to use classical photography more for the way particular numbers were structured. So the Rebel Wilson scene becomes classical in a kind of Busby Berkeley style. Or Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat is a nod to the great musicals of a different era; I wanted to shoot it with the honesty of the full frame and the head-to-toe size and being quite kind of graphic and simple. So it was threading between those two styles. In a sense, the clarity that a musical gives you choreographically is that your decisiveness is reflected by the decisiveness of the camera. And then, as you break out of that into the interstitial moments, the handheld quality tries to capture that sense of being back in a world not structured by melody.

This film has a very interesting relationship to feet.
That is … not the sentence I thought you’d come out with. [Laughs]

I don’t even know what the question is. But I’m fascinated by how some of the cats have shoes, some are barefoot, and then there’s that weird little moment when one cat sticks its feet suggestively in another’s face.  
Well, it’ll be hard for me to sort of explain that. I suppose, for dancing, it was never an option for me to kind of not have real feet. Because then the reality of dance would get lost. So that was a key thing. The idea that some cats were clothed, and some not, really came from the musical. Because in the musical, the characters with songs, the practical cats, are defined by some element.

What’s your biggest moment of doubt on a project like this? 
There are many, many.

What’s the biggest one? 
It was probably just the scale of the visual-effects challenge — when you’re sitting in March having finished the shoot, but every shot still needs an approach — and just where I wanted it to be in quality and whether we could ever get there. Because a lot of work we were doing was still quite tried and untested. I’m proud of what this insanely vast team has done. There’ve been two and a half thousand people working in our team. And you could imagine the quality control when one character is handled by four different cities. It’s quite dizzying.

Beyond the effects, however, are there moments during writing or shooting when you’re like, What have I gotten myself into?
You deal with doubt so constantly. Because effectively every shot you do, you’re kind of judging the moment where doubt is transcended, and that’s the moment you can move on. If you’re still doubting, that means you’re not happy and you shouldn’t move on. When you’ve stopped doubting, then you move on. When the voice of doubt subsides enough to make you feel like you’ve got it, then you move on. So you live in a close relationship with the doubting voice all the time. When I shoot, I’ve got the monitor, and I’ve got what the actor’s doing. And then I’ve got, in my head, the way I see it. And so I’m kind of watching two screens, the actual screen and the screen in my head. The most exciting moment is when an actor does something so extraordinary that it’s so much better than the screen in my head. And those are the bits where all doubt is resolved in the brilliance of what someone like an Ian [McKellen] or a Judi [Dench] or a Frankie can give you.

You said Taylor Swift was the first person you cast. How did that happen? 
She had auditioned for Les Mis. She rather brilliantly auditioned for Éponine. I didn’t cast her, but I got very close to it. Ultimately, I couldn’t quite believe Taylor Swift was a girl people would overlook. So it didn’t quite feel right for her for the most flattering reason. But I knew she was curious to work on a musical. When this came up, I wrote to her and just said, “Would you like to meet? Would you like to see the world I’m creating?” And I did a presentation. Eve Stewart had these wonderful paintings she did of the world. I had a ten-second clip of a dancer with fur, lifelike. That was my pitch. She loved it and was very gracious and really supportive from then on. At that point, I had no idea she’d end up getting involved in writing the new song and getting involved as a lyricist.

How did her character come about? 
In the show, it’s performed by two women. And for a long time, I thought, Well, it’s going to be Taylor Swift and X. Then eventually, part of me was like, Why does it have to be two people? I called Andrew [Lloyd Webber] and said, “Just remind me why.” And he goes, “Oh, we only gave it to two people because we felt guilty that the other girl didn’t have enough to do.” Apparently, it was originally designed for one person. I called Taylor up. “Do you mind if you do it by yourself?” She was obviously totally happy with it.

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