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Two months before The New Yorker short story “Cat Person” was published in December 2017, The New York Times released its exposé on Harvey Weinstein’s history of sexual assault and harassment, and a month later a parade of celebrities would wear all black to the Golden Globes, where a Time’s Up lapel pin was a near-mandatory accessory. Some five years later, a movie about that Weinstein story, She Said, has been released (and bombed) in theaters, the Time’s Up organization has turned into a leaderless shell after the organization advised then-New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo as he was facing a sexual harassment accusation, and “Cat Person” has been made into a movie that will screen at the Sundance Film Festival.
“Cat Person,” the short story, follows Margot, a 20-something college student (played by CODA breakout Emilia Jones in the film), and Robert (Succession‘s “Cousin Greg,” Nicholas Braun), a mid-30s guy, as they stumble through a handful of awkward and questionable encounters — many of which happen via texting — before the would-be relationship culminates in a vitriolic series of texts sent by Robert ending in a single message: “Whore.” In 2017, “Cat Person” was dropped into public consciousness when all interactions between men and women — from the workplace to first dates — were being litigated and, after dealing with decades’ worth of behavior that ranged from inappropriate to felonious, women were coming forward daily with stories of sexual harassment at the hands of powerful men. The story quickly went viral, becoming The New Yorker‘s most read short story of all time. Think pieces and op-eds followed, with The Guardian dubbing it “the short story that launched a thousand theories.” Within a week after publishing, writer Kristen Roupenian received a call about the possibility of turning it into a movie.
Recalls Roupenian: “I was living in Michigan, I was a grad student, [“Cat Person”] was my first published story, and [my agent at the time] was like, ‘Wow, we’ve got the contract from The New Yorker and it’s all great. I think the terms of the film deal could be better.’ And we both were like, but what are the odds [that a film would actually be made]?” Condé Nast Entertainment — the production arm of the publishing empire that owns The New Yorker — reached out about developing the project for screen: “I thought, ‘Go with God, but it feels impossible.’ ”
Screenwriter Michelle Ashford, the creator of Masters of Sex, was approached about adapting. “I was really interested in where the #MeToo conversation was going,” says Ashford. “The first reaction to what was happening, of course, is just rage. There are films that have addressed that. I thought, we’ve got to move beyond just rage because this is an entrenched, intractable issue.”
Told largely via Margot’s interior thoughts, “Cat Person” is not inherently cinematic, and director Susanna Fogel (a TV veteran who co-wrote 2019’s Booksmart and directed the 2019 comedy The Spy Who Dumped Me) didn’t see it as “the most adaptable story.” After an initial read prior to joining the project, she remembers thinking: “This is either going to be optioned by some huge company and then made into something unrecognizable or it’s gonna be some tiny internal movie because people are gonna try to do it exactly as the story did it.”
The solution? Make a horror movie.
With Get Out in mind, Ashford and Fogel decided to focus on the more unsettling elements of the short story (Roupenian had written “Cat Person” as part of a horror anthology). “This is the way to deal with almost every complicated social issue,” Ashford thought after watching Jordan Peele’s social thriller. Indeed, the film plays with the innate fear felt by young women as they date. “Susanna and I talked so much about the moment when the car door automatically locks,” says Ashford. “You think: ‘What am I doing? Why am I here? And who is this person?’ ” The film’s final act, which picks up where the short story leaves off, culminates in the kind of nail-biting, raise-the-stakes sequence that’s traditional to horror-thrillers.
Multiple tones, conflicting genres, and tricky subject matter meant that the filmmakers were particularly concerned about finding financing. “At the beginning, we were having a hard time placing this script. When we were talking to people who just do flat-out horror movies, they were like, ‘There’s a lot of talking about relationships and stuff,’” remembers Ashford. Eventually, Cat Person landed at European financier StudioCanal, which “didn’t seem to shy away from nuance or controversy or provocation,” says Fogel: “Probably because they’re French.”
Casting also proved a delicate needle to thread. “You get a list of like five people that are the same five people for every movie. The truth is that most incredibly famous people are not right for this movie,” says Fogel. The filmmakers found their Margot in CODA breakout Emilia Jones. As for Robert, the production needed an actor that men could relate to, especially as his behavior was questionable. Succession favorite Nicholas Braun was tapped. “If you start with the palette that is Nick Braun, you’re starting with people being like, ‘I like that guy.’ It’s harder for men to write him off if he’s more relatable,” says the director, who adds that the actor also needed to be someone women find attractive, “but also who would register onscreen as, like, a guy that doesn’t get the girl much. Even if Nick goes around the Lower East Side of New York in real life and gets every girl.”
Cat Person was shot over 26 days in New Jersey in the fall of 2021 and is being repped at Sundance by StudioCanal and UTA. After screening the film for friends and colleagues, Fogel has been told by men that watching Robert bumble his way through his relationship with Margot has made them look back on their own interactions with women. “Those are my favorite reactions because these are all liberal, feminist guys with cool wives,” says the director. Like the short story, Cat Person the movie deals with hot-button themes of consent and shifting power dynamics, and is sure to spur a lot of discussion at the festival, where it is expected to be one of the top acquisition titles.
“When I wrote Cat Person and it was out and I was just in my apartment and it felt like me against 10 million people,” explains Roupenian. “Just given what the movie is and the way that it does differ from the story, it’s not gonna be about me and I’m excited for that final severance.”
“I don’t need everyone to like the movie. I don’t need everyone to like the choices that we made,” says Fogel. “But I do want people to talk about it.”
A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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