- “Cats” director Tom Hooper talked to Business Insider about making a big-screen adaptation of the musical.
- Hooper explained why he feels the movie is about the “perils of tribalism” and how it also reflects today’s fractured world.
- Hooper addressed the complaints about how the characters looked in the first trailer of the movie and how he went about tweaking it.
- The Oscar winner also talked about the challenges of finishing an effects-heavy movie in the era of racing to meet studio-set release dates.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Tom Hooper looks pretty good for a guy who hasn’t slept in days.
The Oscar-winning director has just completed a multi-day marathon edit to finish his latest movie, “Cats” (in theaters Friday), that began in London and finished across the pond in New York City where he had the world premiere of the movie at Lincoln Center Monday night. Now he’s sitting in a hotel conference room on the Upper East Side awaiting questions from the press.
Hooper is no stranger to having to explain his work — especially when it comes to musicals. His 2012 big-screen adaptation of “Les Misérables” was criticized by some for being a through-sung work, in which there is little dialogue between songs. However, Hopper got the last laugh, as it scored three Oscars, including a best supporting actress win for Anne Hathaway.
The director now returns to the genre to adapt another beloved musical.
With “Cats,” Hooper dives head-first into the legendary songs of Andrew Lloyd Webber. As with “Les Mis,” the movie is through-sung as we spend a night with the Jellicle cats (that include Jennifer Hudson, Taylor Swift, Rebel Wilson, James Corden, Judi Dench, and Idris Elba in the cast). And thanks to CGI, all the characters are a cross between human and feline as they sing, prance, and dance the whole movie. The look of the characters led to a negative outcry when the first trailer came out, causing some tweaks to their look.
Hooper addressed these issues and more when he spoke to Business Insider the day after the movie’s world premiere.
Jason Guerrasio: I have to admit, I was thrown for a loop when you closed your intro last night by saying that for you “Cats” is about the “perils of tribalism.” Please expand on that if you could.
Tom Hooper: I’m sorry if I threw you by saying that.
Guerrasio: No, it was fascinating. Because it was the usual pomp and circumstance of the introductions that happens at a premiere, and then your mic drop was “by the way, this I what I think ‘Cats’ is about” —
Guerrasio: “Everyone enjoy it!”
Hooper: You know, what I was talking about was this tribe of cats called the Jellicle in a sense its weakness is it is tribal. It’s pushed to its margins. The fallen, the forgotten, the disgraced. Grizabella (played by Jennifer Hudson) has been pushed outside of the tribe and is not welcomed in it and it takes a newcomer, Victoria (Francesca Hayward), to question that status quo. It takes her act of kindness and compassion to bring her back into the fold and say, “No, this cat should be considered.” And I think the film at a thematic level is perhaps suggesting that we as a community are stronger when rather than dividing we reintegrate into our community the fallen, the forgotten, the disgraced. So central to the movie is a message about the importance of forgiveness.
My phrase, the perils of tribalism, is a reflection on today’s political scene, where both in the UK and the US the tribalism of cultural discourse and politics is making it harder and harder for acts of kindness across the divide.
Guerrasio: Wow. Did you ever give Andrew Lloyd Webber that take?
Hooper: We talked about it when we were writing it.
Guerrasio: A big takeaway is that the movie is non-stop songs. Very little dialogue in between. Was that your intention from the start of making this?
Hooper: I had confidence in the idea of a through-sung because of “Le Mis.” When I made “Le Mis” there was a lot of talk about the perceived boldness of it. I think it was only the second of third through-sung musical ever made in terms of traditional Hollywood studio movies. And I think because that has succeeded I didn’t have a fear about us needing, say, 50% dialogue. So I used dialogue only when I needed to bring out the story and to clarify things. I think I learned this from “Le Mis” and Andrew that you sever those connections between numbers at your peril. There was a beautiful musical logic so it’s good to respect the architecture of a score like that because it’s extremely well put together in terms of the way it repeats motifs. It’s part of its hidden path that you can unlock if you respect it structurally. I think part of the challenge as a filmmaker is you’re trying to make a narrative about a collection of diverse characters and introducing them while also keeping the story going. And in that I was lucky in having Francesca as Victoria, who becomes your eyes and ears.
Guerrasio: Then there’s the visuals of the characters. The producers of the movie recently spoke out that there were changes to the look of the cat characters since the trailer was released. Personally, I didn’t really see any change. What did you change?
Hooper: What the trailer reminded me was my original intention, which was to preserve as much of the face as possible. I think, possibly, in some characters in the trailer the original face had gotten a little bit lost under the fur. So I think the biggest difference, which is subtle but it’s important, was to pare it back and sculpt it more lovingly around the actor’s actual face so I lost none of it. So I think why you wouldn’t necessarily spot, it is what the actor looked like without [the CG]. It’s hard to see it compared to where I’m sitting. But what you saw, take Victoria for instance, it’s incredibly loyal to what she did on a day of shooting. Her performance is all there, basically.
Guerrasio: Which I would think is what you want. You want the facial features to be prevalent.
Hooper: Exactly. So the trailer was a good reminder to stay true to my original plan.
Guerrasio: So it was a nice test balloon, the trailer.
Hooper: But it was an intense focus group of millions of people. [Laughs.]
Guerrasio: I’m sure there were a few conference calls that happened on your end after the trailer came out. At what point did you just scrap the idea to do it all with prosthetics?
Hooper: I tested it first for 6 months. In my naïveté I thought it would be cheaper. And the difficulty was with full prosthetics you end up losing so much emotion that it’s too great a loss. And also, even if you do that, the ears still can’t move so you’ve gone through all of that trouble but you still need to make CG ears. And the tail. Plus, getting body suits that look like real fur it would be really hard. We went to Legacy Effects, which is Stan Winston’s old company in LA. They are the best in the world. But then it was thinking of putting prosthetics on that many dancers every day, they would be in the chair for three or four hours every day.
Guerrasio: You wouldn’t get anything done.
Hooper: Yeah, it became impractical.
Guerrasio: Are you the type of filmmaker who can sit back and enjoy a world premiere screening or are you white knuckling it the whole time?
Hooper: It’s both. Last night when Rebel Wilson came out and the scene where she yawns and puts her tail in her mouth and the entire room laughed, that was a huge thing. You knew then the audience was in it. If you’re not in the film you’re not comfortable to laugh. I never fail to enjoy when humor plays. It was nice that pretty much every joke we have in there played well. But I’m also clutching my wife’s hand. I did just finish the film yesterday. So no one has seen it before in this version. It really was a true premiere.
Guerrasio: When Jennifer Hudson really belts out the song at the end it gives you chills.
Hooper: It’s one of those films where it’s as simple as that. If that works, you get chills, you cry, then the film works. That’s why I had to get Jennifer Hudson to do it.
Guerrasio: You are in a business where studios lock a release date before a movie even gets off the blocks, or just about to. Did you ever feel through making this that the release date was unrealistic? Would you have liked more time?
Hooper: The interesting things about visual effects movies is in a sense where do you draw the line? Because you should keep going. So the answer is, yes, you could keep tweaking it, but watching it I felt we’re in the right place. But you’re right, the calendar in a kind of Disney world is very mapped out.
Guerrasio: You have to get your spot early or someone is going to take it.
Hooper: But I think in this case, I felt there’s no right place. Of course, there are always things I want to do, but I felt it was representative of my vision.
Guerrasio: You have pushed the bar in the musical genre for two movies now, what’s next?
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Hooper: I do something simple. I promise you. Like us right now. In a room, two cameras. I’m going to go small.