Director Susanna Fogel is about to hit the big-time with the upcoming release of Cat Person. The long-awaited feature is based on the New Yorker short-story about modern dating, published in 2017, which went unexpectedly viral. Fogel sat down to chat to Glam about this exciting project.
So how did Fogel end up working on this much sought-after gig?
“I knew the producer Jeremy Steckler. He called me and asked is this a thing you’d be interested in meeting on, and I was aware of the story and very excited to come in. At the time I was at a particular place in my career where I had made some comedies, and I had also filmed some inter-genre thrillery content like the TV show The Flight Attendant, but it wasn’t out yet. So I felt that the burden of proving that I could do the genre was on me because I’d done the work, but it wasn’t out there yet. I prepared to meet the writer because I put myself in her shoes, knowing the delicate tone, and that she would be looking to me to prove that I could do that tone. I took one look at the script and I was absolutely dying to do this movie. I really fought for the job!”
The challenge of working from an already viral piece of cultural content, is that, although you have an in-built audience, you also have a very opinionated one. And turning a (short) short story into a film, requires additions and extrapolations that might not meet with the approval of the original readers.
“It’s interesting people’s reaction to the movie, based on whether they’ve read the story first. The story became ingrained in people’s minds because it became such a provocative, viral thing at the time. I think that [comparing the story and the movie] pulls you away from the viewing experience, because it is a different medium. I think if you see the movie and then go back and read the story you can appreciate the totality of the narrative that it became, and then see what led to it. “
As Fogel says, the screenplay was already a winner, written by the talented Michelle Ashford (Masters of Sex; Operation Mincemeat).
“Michelle and I talked before we got to the set, really about that third act, because it is the added element, and it is the chance to give Robert an interior life, but also hopefully maintain the “whose fault is it” of the original story: keep the complexity of the original story but also give him a bit of a voice. We tried to excavate everything out of that that we could. But it was always a question of what’s going too far, is this problematic or not, is it all his responsibility, how is she contributing to a dynamic where he doesn’t know what’s right and what’s not, is he supposed to know, and how is he supposed to know, how is she supposed to know what she wants. We wanted to make sure all that complexity was there and led to a lot of anger on both sides when they felt unheard.”
The story has a strong undercurrent in the narrative, or male entitlement. Fogel and Ashford wanted to delve a little deeper into that.
“We really tried to interrogate the same narrative from Robert’s perspective: not necessarily that he speaks honestly throughout, but we wanted to know what is he doing from moment to moment, what is the sub-text of everything he is saying, because he is not communicating about what’s underneath. And in looking at that, some of the “why” is the story of male entitlement. Robert was raised on films where the guy gets the girl. There’s a canon of movies where a slightly awkward nerdy guy gets a beautiful woman. We were all raised on those movies. So there’s an entitlement that comes from how much easier it is to be a white male in the world than anything else. But I also think that the stories that we are raised with give us a sense of what to expect. Then when we can’t merge reality with the idealism we get confused, angry, frustrated, resentful. So yes it deals with entitlement but we try to get under the hood and find out where that entitlement comes from. And also look at the vulnerability that in some men can really metastasize as anger. And this is not to say that we wanted to justify it, rather to partially explain it.”
Along with a great screenplay, Cat Person also has a very strong cast (including Australian actor Geraldine Viswanathan).
“I have this incredible casting director who I met doing The Wilds. I use her on every project I can because she has an impeccable eye for exactly who should play a role. Michelle built a cast of characters that were really juicy roles for incredible actors. Hope Davis was someone I had my eye on for that part because she is one of the great actresses, and she had played Anna Kendrick’s mother in Love Life: the character had so much overlap with this mother that it was like an audition for Cat Person! There was such a specificity to all those day-players, and I loved working with all of them. They are the Greek Chorus, that shape your opinions when you are malleable in that way.”
As a director, Fogel trusts her actors, and this is obvious in the naturalism that shines through in Cat Person.
“The process of directing actors for me has always been one where I want everything to feel really naturalistic. Every set up I give the actors one take where they can go off-script and do whatever they want because it loosens them up. And most of the time they say 95% of the lines from the script, but the performances of those lines are just a little bit more naturalistic.”
I mentioned to Fogel that of course I loved the film, but interestingly, I felt uncomfortable from the beginning, and this feeling never let up. Her reaction was priceless.
“When people say that my first thought is ‘great! Mission accomplished.’ But I’m sorry if I traumatized you! I wanted people to feel the discomfort that she feels trying to figure out whether she likes him, whether she needs to be more open; all of the things she feels, and also how she never feels comfortable, are mirrored hopefully in the audience’s experience. What’s going on? Where is this going? I don’t feel comfortable. That’s Margot’s experience in the whole movie, so I’m sorry, it has to be yours too!”
Cat Person opens on November 23rd.