A Serious Conversation With the Man Who Made Cats

“If I had a comment on my own trailer … I sometimes felt there was too much fur covering [the actors’] own faces.”

Evan Agostini / Invision / AP

Tom Hooper is very tired. It’s understandable—for the past few months, the Oscar-winning director of films such as The King’s Speech and Les Misérables has been working around the clock on Cats, a visual-effects-laden adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hit musical. In attempting to translate Webber’s somewhat abstract show, itself based on a collection of T. S. Eliot poetry, Hooper leaned on cutting-edge technology that turns his performers into computerized furry humanoids with ears and tails. The end result is at times baffling but oddly transfixing, a genuinely unusual cinema event whether you love it or hate it.

I spoke with Hooper a day after he unveiled the film at its world premiere, in New York, where he told the audience they’d be the first to see it in its finished form. In the end, that turned out not to be true—an updated version of Cats, with even more visual-effects tweaks, was sent to theaters after the movie’s opening day. Hooper and I talked about the intense design process, his story changes to Webber’s largely plotless show, and how to capture the ineffable appeal of a singular pop-culture phenomenon. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

David Sims: How are you doing?

Tom Hooper: I’m good. I’m tired, but happy.

Sims: I saw you at the premiere last night onstage and you seemed very happy to be showing us the film, but you sounded … very tired. Have you just been working on the movie up to the minute?

Hooper: Yes. Seven days a week since August.

Sims: What were the final touches required?

Hooper: I did some sound-mix updates [three days ago], and then it was just putting final visual-effects shots in. We work in so many time zones—India, Australia, Canada—that you’ll think you’re done and then get a package in at 4 a.m. But it was fun to do a premiere that’s a genuine premiere, in the sense that I wasn’t bullshitting when I said, “You are the first people to see it in this totally finished form.” We didn’t really test the film, because without the visual effects it might be quite misleading. So it was amazing to sit in the audience and see how it played.

Sims: By the end, you want them won over.

Hooper: The second shot of Rebel Wilson in the film, when she yawns, she puts her tail over her mouth, and everyone laughed. And I was like, “Phew,” because people only laugh if they’re relaxed enough to be open to a joke. So it was a great barometer. When things are more serious, it’s harder to judge.

Sims: It’s not only a light moment, but also the thing you’re visually attempting is in full force there—the actors are going to have tails, they’re going to behave like cats, but they’re not going to be quite cats, and will that come across?

Hooper: [Laughs] And I haven’t really built applause points in, because the action just keeps going.

Sims: You said at the premiere that you saw Cats when you were 8 years old. What is it about the stage show that made it a phenomenon that you’re trying to carry over?

Hooper: You’ve got to think of how avant-garde it was at the time. There was a definite influence of, I thought, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and that sort of ’70s sci-fi, with a punk aesthetic.

Sims: But with an open heart. It’s much more sincere.

Hooper: Yeah. But in terms of what worked for me as a kid, I really enjoyed the sense of going through the portal and being told, “We cats don’t give a shit about you, but on this special night we’re going to let you in on the secret.” That sense of being an initiate into a secret world felt analogous to being let into the adult world for an evening. It was quite a sexy show—if they weren’t cats, would you be taking an 8-year-old? One of the things I found special was to be able to be guided in my choices as a director by my vivid recollection of Cats at 8.

When I was finishing Les Misérables, I thought it’d be sad if I never did another musical, because I learned so much. A thing I particularly enjoyed about Les Mis was that it had never been adapted before. So I thought, Are there any other iconic musicals that haven’t been adapted? And Cats is kind of the only one of that generation. Spielberg had optioned it in the mid-’90s.

Sims: To make an animated film.

Hooper: Yes, and obviously at some point he’d thought that wasn’t quite right. So is the reason it’s never been made because we’ve never figured out what [the cats] should look like? And has visual-effects technology opened up a kind of portal into a way of doing it that might solve that problem? I still explored the prosthetics route and spent six months on it, but it had so many problems attached. With full-face prosthetics you lost too much performance, and your ears still don’t move so you have to go full CGI for the ears. What’s fascinating is, three years ago, the best visual-effects guys in the business were like, “What you want to do cannot be done.”

Sims: Because fur is the biggest challenge.

Hooper: Yes, and blending it onto the actual face. In their world, it’s easy to just replace the face, rebuild it in a computer, and then animate the face. But why on Earth would I ever want to replace Ian McKellen’s face and try and animate a proxy face? That’d be insane. So three years ago they were like, “What you’re doing is too hard; the ability to track it in that detail is just not there.” Two years ago, they were like, “You can do it, but it’s crazily expensive.” And then a year and a bit ago, they were like, “You can do it, and it’s just about affordable.” It’s dizzying, the speed of that [change].

Sims: [The process] was described to me as essentially taking the actor’s skin off and then putting fur over that.

Hooper: It is literally layering [the fur] on but being able to feather it with a level of finesse you couldn’t do with physical makeup.

Sims: I know with Les Mis you had all of your actors singing live on set. Did you do that here?

Hooper: [Slams table] Absolutely! Start to finish, everything is live! A couple of naysayers were like, “But they’re dancing; how could they sing live?” And it’s like, “Have you been to Broadway?”

Sims: That is the show, singing and dancing.

Hooper: The dancers are without a doubt, athletically speaking, the most fit people on the planet. They can certainly sing and dance. I also felt, given there was a visual-effects aspect to the shooting, that I wanted to keep it very grounded in the present moment. The thing I’m most proud of is that you feel grounded watching it; it’s not that fantastical.

Sims: Watching it, still, there’s a decision your brain has to make, like, I understand that these are tall, furry, naked people.

Hooper: Naked is your word. [Laughs]

Sims: Yes, naked is my word, but they largely don’t have clothes on. Once that switch flips, then there’s a weird sort of hyper-reality to it.

Hooper: And that was the fun of it, trying to pull off that hyper-reality. I genuinely feel like it’s a great film to see in the cinema, because you’re being transported to a hyper-real world. The decision to be in that room, turn your phone off, commit—that’s the best way to see it.

Sims: I know you’ve been working on the visual effects day and night, but were you disheartened when the first trailers were coming out and they weren’t quite done? Everyone was talking about it, good or bad.

Hooper: The main thing I felt, if I had a comment on my own trailer, is I sometimes felt there was too much fur covering [the actors’] own faces. What it did for me was reconnect me with my original intention, which was to see the actors’ faces. So my direction of travel after that was paring it down, simplifying it, making it purer. In a sense, the trailer reaction was good because I thought, Even if this reaction is exaggerated, hyperbolic, comedic, it’s obviously riffing off something. So is it something I can learn from?

Sims: There’s this Harold Prince quote that I’ve always been obsessed with, where Andrew Lloyd Webber played him the Cats score and Prince said, “I don’t understand this; is this about Gladstone and Disraeli? What’s the allegory here?” And Lloyd Webber was like, “No, it’s just about cats. Don’t try to go too deep with it.” But then, at the premiere, you said that there was a message about the dangers of tribalism in the film, and obviously that’s rooted in the other cats excluding Grizabella [who is played by Jennifer Hudson]. Was that something you discovered as you dug back into the show?

Hooper: Yeah, I feel like the most interesting shift [that my co-writer] Lee Hall and I did with the screenplay was seeing the story through Victoria’s eyes and making her act of kindness to Grizabella transformative. In the show, Grizabella just turns up for one final chance and is granted it by Deuteronomy. In the film, Grizabella is brought back [into the fold] by this newcomer [Victoria] who questions the exclusivity, the notion of the tribe.

I do think, thematically, it says something about how we as communities are stronger when we re-assimilate the people who are pushed to the margins, when we include rather than exclude. I made this film at a time of particularly high tribalism in culture and politics, in the U.K. and the U.S. It’s interesting, thinking about the timing of T. S. Eliot’s original poems. They were published in the autumn of 1939, with the war coming, and Cats in London came out in the ’80s, in quite a divisive time in British politics.

Sims: Early in the [Margaret] Thatcher era.

Hooper: Yes. And here the film is coming out at quite an interesting time. Like all stories, it’s just about cats, but none of these stories work without the big issues underneath. Eliot was writing as much about humans as cats; he was writing about humans through a feline prism. Ultimately, why I wanted human cats, not actual cats, [in the film] was that, if they’d been actual cats, it would have totally missed the point of the duality of the poetry.

Sims: If you just did a cartoon and had a Siamese cat and a tabby cat and so on, and animated them like the Disney film The Aristocats, then you’d just have a cartoon about cats on your hands.

Hooper: Think about Bustopher Jones [played by James Corden in the film]. He’s clearly satirizing a certain type of English gentleman who’s indolent and gluttonous. If you make a human a cat like that, you can talk about both things at once.

Sims: The other big change you made was having Old Deuteronomy, a male role in the stage show, be played by Judi Dench and have more of a maternal energy.

Hooper: I got very moved by the three generations of women in the show, in that central trio of songs. Jennifer Hudson sings “Memory” and Francesca Hayward sings “Beautiful Ghosts” and Judi sings “Moments of Happiness” and uses the word generations. The theme of coming home, of finding your mother or father—so many people’s journey is about, if they don’t have it, finding that sense of home. That’s one of the great narrative themes. I never fail to be moved at the end, when the two of them [Grizabella and Deuteronomy] come together and Grizabella’s found a mother, found a home. There’s something particularly resonant about that.