Symbolism in the frame

Susanna Fogel on Emilia Jones, Nicholas Braun, Isabella Rossellini, Hope Davis and Cat Person

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Susanna Fogel on her chilling and perceptive Cat Person, starring Emilia Jones and Nicholas Braun: “There’s a little bit of a fairy tale, Into the Woods theme that runs through …”
Susanna Fogel on her chilling and perceptive Cat Person, starring Emilia Jones and Nicholas Braun: “There’s a little bit of a fairy tale, Into the Woods theme that runs through …”

Based on the widely discussed New Yorker short story by Kristen Roupenian, adapted for the screen by Michelle Ashford, Susanna Fogel’s chilling and perceptive Cat Person stars Emilia Jones, Nicholas Braun, Geraldine Viswanathan, Hope Davis and Isabella Rossellini (seen in Alice Rohrwacher’s La Chimera, a highlight in the Main Slate of the 61st New York Festival) and expands on the interior and exterior dating-life of college student Margot (Jones). “Listen, Concession Stand Girl, why don’t you give me your number?” says Robert (Braun), who frequents the cinema where Margot works.

Susanna Fogel with Anne-Katrin Titze on the fantastic sound design by Columbia classmate Eric Hirsch: “His father is the editor of Star Wars, the original editor, Paul Hirsch, George Lucas’s editor.”
Susanna Fogel with Anne-Katrin Titze on the fantastic sound design by Columbia classmate Eric Hirsch: “His father is the editor of Star Wars, the original editor, Paul Hirsch, George Lucas’s editor.”

We see at the start: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” - Margaret Atwood

Getting attention from a man who is older and quite a bit taller, Margot is flattered and a bit attracted and a bit scared, and maybe even repulsed. She tells her roommate, Taylor (Viswanathan), and her friends about him, who all have some warnings for her. The most vigorous alerts, though, stem from her own imagination, which is shaped both by the romantic movies she has seen and the horror media she has consumed.

A texting relationship begins, followed by real-life encounters that enhance as well as contradict her emotional predictions. As is the case in the much-talked-about short story, Robert tells her about his two cats, which tend to be invisible whenever Margot is around. As her fantasies and realities perpetually intertwine, a tableau of 2020s courtship emerges that is equally funny as it is terrifying.

From New York City, the day before a screening and Q&A, moderated by James Schamus at Columbia University, Susanna Fogel joined me on Zoom for in-depth conversation on Cat Person.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Hi Susanna!

Susanna Fogel: Hello!

AKT: I don’t know if you remember, but in 2001 you were in my class at Columbia!

SF: What was that class?

AKT: German!

SF: Oh my god!

Margot (Emilia Jones) with college roommate Taylor (Geraldine Viswanathan)
Margot (Emilia Jones) with college roommate Taylor (Geraldine Viswanathan)

AKT: At Deutsches Haus Columbia in that attic room under the roof!

SF: Yeah, I do remember that! Were you the one who took us downtown to the beer garden?

AKT: Yes!

SF: I barely remember that I took German because I wasn’t good at it, but I do remember.

AKT: You were not bad! I was digging in my old records and I had to tell you.

SF: It’s really nice to see you and your name looked familiar. I thought I recognised it because of articles, but not because I actually had you as a German teacher!

AKT: Let’s maybe start right there. Were there experiences at Columbia that maybe tinted some of the scenes in Cat Person?

SF: Nothing specific that is in the film. I didn’t write the script. The scenarios that Michelle found were really based on her idea of what would make the best story. But my directing of the characters in these scenes were very driven by my experiences and conversations around all of that.

Susanna Fogel on Isabella Rossellini: “When we were rehearsing she read the dialogue where she talks about the male ants and female ants. And she had a lot of notes!”
Susanna Fogel on Isabella Rossellini: “When we were rehearsing she read the dialogue where she talks about the male ants and female ants. And she had a lot of notes!” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: You start with the famous and unfortunately still very relevant quote by Margaret Atwood [“Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them”]!

SF: That was in Michelle’s script, I can’t take credit for adding that. But I think the experience that women have of just having a bit of a fight or flight in their subconscious about men being bigger and feeling physically vulnerable is just something that we carry around. No matter how strong or educated or confident we are, it’s just an awareness that there’s that fear. I think that’s been motivating women since the beginning of time. And the less communication we have with people, the worse.

AKT: Right! And rarely does a film address it that much! The fact that these issues are still there and have been through time. I noticed it in the costume design - It is probably no coincidence that Margot is wearing a quilted red jacket in some scenes.

SF: Yeah, it’s funny, there was a little bit of an idea of that she’s a bit of a Snow White, there’s a fairy-tale component to it.

AKT: Little Red Riding Hood?

SF: That’s what I meant! There’s a little bit of a fairy tale, Into the Woods theme that runs through, including Into the Woods being the play they are doing.

Susanna Fogel: “No matter how strong or educated or confident we are, it’s just an awareness that there’s that fear.”
Susanna Fogel: “No matter how strong or educated or confident we are, it’s just an awareness that there’s that fear.”

AKT: And the dog as well! The film expands on The New Yorker short story, which had such a big impact.

SF: It’s interesting reading that story, you can’t ever predict what’s going to have an impact on the culture and the zeitgeist, but that story really did. Because it was in The New Yorker people read it that wouldn’t have normally read a story about a young woman’s experience dating. It got put in front of men and women of all ages in a different way. Part of the challenge of the movie was, how do we make a movie that doesn’t automatically feel like it’s a niche woman’s film because of the experience. We wanted to provoke people the same way the story did.

AKT: I think you managed that very well!

SF: Oh thank you!

AKT: With the great performances. Let’s start with Nicholas Braun, whose performance is incredible! Emilia Jones as well. Succession may be on most people’s radar at first, but then there is so much subtlety added here that leads in different directions. Did you see him in Succession?

SF: I did. But I also was aware of him from earlier in his career and I knew him from before he had become a TV star. To me he had such an incredible mix. He’s somebody that I think men like to watch and they like to empathise with him, so he was a good avatar for them.

AKT: The new Harrison Ford!

SF: Men feel like he’s a guy’s guy, they can see themselves in him and that makes him the perfect avatar for their way into the film and its themes. Whereas I think there are some actors who are really polarising, in particular men can be quite judgmental about certain male actors, that they don’t like them or they don’t relate to them. It was important to choose somebody like Nick, who I think is generally well-liked by men, to bring you into Robert’s psychology.

Susanna Fogel on Margot (Emilia Jones) with Robert (Nicholas Braun): “Is this my love interest or is this a guy who’s going to murder me?”
Susanna Fogel on Margot (Emilia Jones) with Robert (Nicholas Braun): “Is this my love interest or is this a guy who’s going to murder me?”

AKT: The topic of names is very interesting, how he calls her. He doesn’t call her the same name twice, I think. I made a little list. He calls her “Honey” once, and then “Sweetheart”, of course “Concession Stand Girl” first, which is like “Baker’s wife,” then “Kiddo” and then it gets worse, with “Whore” as the last one.

SF: I never thought about it that way! That he’d never repeat the name. But it honestly does tell the whole spectrum of roles that he casts her in. A kid, something to be adored, a sex object, it’s very rich what you just pointed out.

AKT: And a lot of it seems to come from movies, from cinema. Cinema is a shortcut here. She is the one who loves Miyazaki’s Spirited Away and he is the one who idolises Harrison Ford. It’s interestingly woven in there.

SF: Yeah, I think part of the experience that they’re having and that we all have when we meet somebody new and make a connection is asking ourselves: If we’re all the star of our own movie that is our life, what kind of movie is it? Did I just meet the love of my life? Is this my love interest or is this a guy who’s going to murder me?

As she’s trying to figure this out, she’s casting herself in these different genres of movie. And the audience too. What is it? Is he good? Is he bad? Is he the guy in those horrible fantasies or is that just her imagination? Is it grounded? Does she have a premonition, an instinct, or is she kind of projecting that? We wanted to get into that psychology with her, too.

Susanna Fogel: “We wanted to provoke people the same way the story did.”
Susanna Fogel: “We wanted to provoke people the same way the story did.”

AKT: The production design in this respect includes very funny details. For instance, the imagined therapist has a little sculpture of two cats!

SF: Those production design choices were my favorite thing! Those cats were amazing! Every time she was imagining something we wanted it to be a little bit from the perspective of someone who hasn’t lived that much life. So if she’s 20, she has seen therapists on TV and they have like an office with books and they look like a Coen Brothers’ character, and they’re wearing glasses. Her mind’s eye operates in movie clichés and tropes and we wanted to fully embrace that with some obvious symbolism in the frame as well.

AKT: A great shot is the closeup of Robert’s face and the ceiling fan above him makes him look like one of those saints with the rays coming out of his head!

SF: You know, you’re the second person to bring it up! It’s so funny! It’s not how we designed it but it ended up striking people that way.

AKT: One of the most cringeworthy scenes that I have seen all year is the My Heart Belongs to Daddy number with Hope Davis and Emilia Jones. How did you direct them for that scene?

SF: That song was put in there by Michelle, the writer. We wanted another thing from the pop culture canon that creates an expectation for women that isn’t completely comfortable for them. Whether it’s the movies in the theatre that are B movies with a female victim that doesn’t totally feel right, and then that scene with Marilyn Monroe being sexy and coquettish. It’s playing really well to that crowd and her own stepdad is really into that and she sees a successful marriage based on that. But also she’s totally uncomfortable playing that role. But she’s accidentally quite good at it.

Susanna Fogel on Isabella Rossellini- Green Porno Live: “I was familiar with her own Green Porno videos and thought they were hilarious but a lot of people didn’t know them.”
Susanna Fogel on Isabella Rossellini- Green Porno Live: “I was familiar with her own Green Porno videos and thought they were hilarious but a lot of people didn’t know them.”

She is beautiful, she does have a good voice, she does have the tools but she doesn’t want to use them that way, which is, I think, a metaphor of how she feels ambivalent about the power she has as a woman. The appeal and the sexuality and not being sure how to wield that and feeling like it might be more trouble than it’s worth sometimes.

AKT: And she is doing that song and dance routine next to her mother!

SF: I know, it’s awful! It’s also the two women together, it’s like two snapshots of women at different moments in their life, where she doesn’t want the attention but she’s getting it, and her mother really wants it and is working for it. And is also beautiful and appealing, but what’s radiating off Hope Davis is also her desperation to be validated, just as much as her beauty. So that’s an interesting thing, too.

AKT: Yes, there is a lot going on in that scene, not even talking about the audience there, including the “Ace”, that I’ve learned and didn’t know about before.

SF: I know, oh, I love that scene so much! All the little pieces where you see from her side of it why she wants validation from Robert. Even if it doesn’t feel completely safe, she really wants to feel that she is beautiful and sexy. She feels like she doesn’t have the validation and here’s a man and she can get that from him.

James Schamus moderated a Cat Person Q&A with Susanna Fogel at Columbia University
James Schamus moderated a Cat Person Q&A with Susanna Fogel at Columbia University Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

We often see that in female characters portrayed as a manipulative thing that they want. Or they want validation for reasons that are unsympathetic, but we really wanted to show that she’s just feeling undermined and insecure. So yes, she ends up asking him for something she’s not sure she wants to follow through with, but it’s coming from a place of sadness and pain in her.

AKT: The two scenes - the Marilyn Monroe song and the conversation with her ex - explain so well why she does what she does afterwards. It explains her state of mind.

SF: I’m glad you think so. We talked about that scene because he’s not a character you get to know, so is it worth introducing him? But to me it deepens the psychology around why she sends that picture of her boobs. Not just that her mom says, do this, because she acknowledges that her mom is ridiculous, it’s also that conversation that makes her think, is she right? Do I need to adjust how I am? It’s easy to dismiss her mom as ridiculous but then at the end she can’t help but have that nagging feeling that maybe mom has something to teach about gender stuff.

AKT: And then there’s Isabella Rossellini and nobody else could play that role as her professor because of what Isabella does with her own films!

SF: I know! It’s so funny! I was familiar with her own Green Porno videos and thought they were hilarious but a lot of people didn’t know them. When we talked about the role we cast her and when we were rehearsing she read the dialogue where she talks about the male ants and female ants. And she had a lot of notes! Based on her knowledge of what it really is. We learned what we did from our own research into science, our own cursory online research, and she was like: No, no, no, no, no, this is the deal with ants! Of course, we hired a special consultant that happens to be a famous Italian actress. She’s an expert on that!

Cat Person poster
Cat Person poster

AKT: It’s incredible! I also noticed in the end credits that you had an ant wrangler!

SF: We did! We shot the ants, the closeups came later. It can be very time-consuming to shoot with animals, but we hired somebody who shoots for Attenborough, like closeup museum videography and nature documentaries. He was doing an installation for the Natural History Museum when we happened to book him, and he brought his own ants and he brought his own stuff. He deeply understood the movie, too. He said when he watched the movie without the ant footage to figure out the context of the scenes, he said he talked to his girlfriend immediately. Like, did this happen to you? Do you relate to this? He was a really sensitive guy.

AKT: I have to also ask you about the most terrible kiss. It’s so funny to watch. How did you film that kiss?

SF: I’m trying to remember how much we choreographed what was so bad about it. There’s such a size difference! Nick is six foot seven, he has big hands, big features. Emilia has a very small face so there was always going to be choreography where it felt like he was just totally consuming her in that way, like swallowing her. I mean, we experimented with different versions of it, it was so funny. Everyone was laughing. Actually that was the hardest part of it, that we just couldn’t stop laughing. Filming it was an exercise in trying not to make each other laugh.

AKT: That is why it makes us laugh.

SF: Yeah, the most uncomfortable scenes in the movie were the lightest and most fun to shoot, because I think there was a lot of anticipation around it. I think we all took it so seriously that we were comfortable when we were actually doing it, recognising the absurdity of the whole thing. We were all really close on the set so it was comfortable doing all of that stuff.

AKT: I wrote down the name Eric Hirsch from the end credits, because he did such a fantastic job with the sound design.

SF: He is wonderful, he went to Columbia with me. He was my year.

AKT: He didn’t study German as well, did he?

Cat Person is on at the IFC Center in New York through Thursday, October 26.
Cat Person is on at the IFC Center in New York through Thursday, October 26. Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

SF: He didn’t study German, but I agree that he is an incredibly talented sound designer. I have to tell him you said that, actually. The funniest detail about Eric Hirsch is that his father is the editor of Star Wars, the original editor, Paul Hirsch, George Lucas’s editor. So the many layers of coincidence of me getting assigned to Eric after many years of not being in touch with him and then the fact that there’s Star Wars footage and his dad is Paul Hirsch. It was incredible working with him.

AKT: The many layers work well together. And I’m glad to catch up with you!

SF: It’s so nice to see you! Next time in town, I’d love to catch up! Let’s really try and get together!

AKT: Maybe at that beer garden, if it still exist!

SF: I think it might have closed. I asked somebody about it the other day, actually. We’ll find a place!

Cat Person is in cinemas in the US and in the UK on Friday, October 27.

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