The new Netflix limited series Brand New Cherry Flavor, a gory revenge thriller set in the early ’90s, is straight up David Cronenberg on ayahuasca. Based on Todd Grimson’s 1996 novel of the same name, the show focuses on up-and-coming indie director Lisa Nova (Undone’s Rosa Salazar) as she endeavors to take down a pervert producer (Unbelievable’s Eric Lange) who stole her movie. Forgoing all the traditional modes of revenge, Lisa goes straight to a mystical cat lady named Boro (Catherine Keener) for assistance, which comes at a steep and often macabre price: Lisa must vomit kittens as payment for Boro’s services.
Yes, feline regurgitation has become the go-to social-media shorthand for Brand New Cherry Flavor. In scenes both wonderfully gross and beautifully symbolic, Lisa spews slimy, just-born kitties from her mouth — and, in one harrowing instance, her abdomen. “We think of the show itself as kind of catlike,” co-creator Nick Antosca tells Vulture on a phone call with creative partner Lenore Zion. “It’s spiteful and kind of vicious, but it’s also very funny. And if you died while watching it, it would eat you.”
Horror-heads seem deliriously giddy recounting the details of Lisa’s gastrointestinal pyrotechnics on Twitter — an impressive reaction from an audience famously unfazed by some of the grossest things ever put to film (hello, The Human Centipede). Gaining a bit of notoriety online for cat-purging delights Antosca and Zion, who previously worked together on the horror anthology Channel Zero. “For a show like this, finding the right idea is kind of like defining pornography: You know it when you see it,” Antosca says. Still, the two understand that some viewers might be a bit confused — and thoroughly horrified — by the kitten-puking plotline, which isn’t in the book.
To be fair, Zion, who came up with the idea, finds it a bit grotesque herself. She suffers from emetophobia: the intense fear of vomiting. “I actually remember every single scene where I’ve seen somebody vomit,” she says. “It sticks with me like a trauma, and I have weird flashbacks to it.” When asked why watching Lisa cough up little white fur balls doesn’t trigger her, Zion repeats something Boro tells Lisa on the show: “It’s different if it’s a kitten.” She adds, “It’s sort of adorable.”
To help viewers better understand the need for kitten-upchucking, we asked the Brand New Cherry Flavor creators to answer all our lingering cat questions.
Where did the idea of having Lisa Nova vomit kittens come from?
Though kitty-barfing is not in Grimson’s novel, it does tie back to the big-cat mythology of the book. In the novel as well as episode six, Boro reveals that she’s actually the spirit of a 900-year-old South American man who after mating with a mystical white jaguar (also known as “mother jaguar”) takes on a bit of the cat’s power. When Boro later betrays her, mother jaguar leaves him for dead, and he jumps into the body of a young girl to survive. For centuries, he has continued to stay alive by swapping bodies.
The show alludes to Lisa having a familial connection to the white jaguar, who was eventually hunted down and made into a couch by Spanish poachers. Lisa throws up white kittens as a symbol of her deep connection with the jaguar, who may or may not be related to her missing mother. “There’s something really satisfying about having a direct, I guess, descendant from that mother jaguar vomit up little, tiny baby kittens that are symbolic [of] her inner strength and her power,” Zion says.
Antosca remembers his co-creator explaining how Lisa would give birth to kittens via her mouth. “The idea kind of seduced us from there,” he says. “Like, obviously, it’s the right flavor for Lisa.” And while it’s not cherry-flavored, it’s not occult-flavored either. Despite the show’s loose references to the supernatural, “the cat-and-witch connection, I know this sounds insane, but it’s sort of coincidental,” Antosca says. Instead, he thinks of the cats as “having more of a connection to creative energy.”
Real cats were used throughout filming. What was it like working with the cat actors?
The old Hollywood adage of “never work with children or animals” rang true for the creators. “Cats are just not very professional as actors,” Antosca says, which is why you “have to have a chill crew, and you have to like cats.” Luckily, he and Zion very much do. “We don’t want to offend dog people with this interview,” he says, “but we both love cats and have cat personalities.” (They clarify that this means they enjoy napping.)
The cats in Brand New Cherry Flavor are all played by Devon rexes, an intelligent English breed known for its slender body, big eyes, and oversize ears. It’s basically the feline equivalent of Baby Yoda because, according to Zion, that breed has “a unique and alien-esque face that tends to film well.” Watch your back, Grogu.
Obviously Rosa Salazar, who plays Lisa, is not throwing up real cats. So what is she actually spitting up in those scenes?
For their own safety, kittens can’t be put in front of a camera until they’re at least 12 weeks old, so all the close-up shots of the adorable kittens Lisa pukes are puppets that look surprisingly realistic. (Early in production, Antosca and Zion instituted a no-CGI-kittens rule: “Everybody kept trying to convince us, ‘Oh, it’s going to be easier to do this or do that,’” Antosca says. “We’re like, ‘No, we’re going to be practical.’”) The puppeteers “made sure they actually looked alive with personality and unique little quirks,” Zion says. The VFX team added slime to give them that shiny, just-born feel, which Antosca says made them look like “furry salamanders.”
When filming the actual vomiting scenes, Salazar had to “put these strange little kitten dolls in her mouth, which was also full of what was basically K-Y Jelly, and throw them up over and over again,” Zion says. Salazar tried to vomit differently each time so she could evoke distinct emotions and tell a different story. “She didn’t complain and was ready and willing for every take we needed,” Zion says. “She was a total pro, to the extent that anyone can be a pro about vomiting up kittens.”
Lisa also births a kitten through her abdomen. Is there a deeper meaning behind the sickeningly surreal scene?
After refusing to throw up Boro’s kittens in episode four, Lisa finds herself giving birth to one through a vaginal-like abscess on her stomach. The scene is definitely meant to shock you, taking inspiration from an equally disgusting scene in David Cronenberg’s 1983 film Videodrome. It was also inspired by the time teenage Antosca saw his cat give birth. “I always remember it being a beautiful nice moment that was also kind of disturbing for an adolescent to watch,” he says.
For Lisa, this grotesque birth is about losing and regaining control, something Zion found quite moving. “It’s easy to see the pleasure and pain associated with the loss of control,” she says. “You understand Lisa’s need to take it back when she feels it’s gone too far.”
Brand New Cherry Flavor is a Hollywood satire. Are the felines a metaphor for the untamed filmmaker?
The opening shot of the pilot is a feral cat rolling in the dirt on a road outside Los Angeles. The scene made Antosca think of how many people come to Hollywood from some other town looking for acceptance. It also made him think of his own cat, “a stray who used to come to the back door and cry, and now he lives in the house,” he says. “We just liked the feeling of the artist as feral cat.”
Zion points out that in the opening scene, the car looks as if it’s going to hit the cat, but the stray jumps out of the way just in time. “It speaks to the way you have to dodge certain things and be a survivor if you’re going to be in Hollywood,” she says. More important, Antosca says the opener is “us telling you we’re not going to hurt the cat. This isn’t a show where the cats get run over.” Someone read their copy of Save the Cat!
How exactly is Lisa related to the white jaguar?
In the show’s mythology, the jaguar is possibly an ancestor of her mother, whom she has never met. The series doesn’t resolve the mystery of Lisa’s missing mom but teases that her kitten-vomiting power stems from her mom’s bloodline. Antosca says the big cat represents “the experience of carrying something inside you that you need to get out in the world” — not unlike a filmmaker struggling for creative control.
Of course, the hardest part is identifying and then accessing that power inside yourself. “As a human being, you have to come to learn what your power is,” Zion says. “You don’t necessarily instinctively know what it is.” It’s why, in the finale, Lisa heads home to Brazil to try and understand her connection to the jaguar.
So what’s the deal with that creepy jaguar couch?
Lisa finds the chaise longue said to be made from mother jaguar beneath the trapdoor in her bedroom. The magical piece of furniture plays a key role in Grimson’s book, so it was essential to include it in the series. Antosca also admits that he and Zion “just wanted to see if we could make a couch scary.”
How do you do that? Well, you create a couch that looks like it was made by Delia Deetz and set it in an Upside Down–like alternate dimension. “There was an instinct that was almost unspoken,” Zion says, “that this couch, just sitting there, would be an unsettling, disturbing image.” Nailed it.
Will season two of Brand New Cherry Flavor be as cat-obsessed?
Right now, the creators have no plans to make a second season of the limited series. “We felt that the ending was right for Lisa’s story in the sense that we know it’s kind of a strange and sociopathic ending but also kind of right for an artist to say, ‘I’m going to go explore myself. I have this other stuff to figure out,’” Antosca says.
But if — and that’s a big if — they decide to make a season two, there will be cats. “More cats and bigger cats,” Antosca promises. In the meantime, he has one request for Brand New Cherry Flavor fans: “Go to your local animal shelter and adopt a cat that needs a home.”