Tom Hooper has seen your Cats memes. He’s even laughed at a few. When the first trailer for the Oscar-winning director’s feline extravaganza dropped in July, the immediate online reaction was disbelief, confusion, and, yes, mockery: Had Andrew Lloyd Webber’s long-running musical always been so…bizarre? And why did the cats look like that?
“I didn’t think it was going to be a big deal, and it was obviously much more of a big deal than I thought,” admits Hooper. “Reading some of the commentary was pretty entertaining.”
But Hooper (who snagged an Oscar for The King’s Speech) hopes when he finally lets Cats out of the bag on Dec. 20, he’ll have the last laugh. The director began his journey with the project in 2012, when he sought to tackle another musical after the success of Les Misérables. Others had tried to herd Cats to the big screen before — Steven Spielberg abandoned an animated version in the ’90s — but Hooper says he’s been obsessed with the musical since childhood: “We got the audiocassette, and I listened to it literally until the cassette wore out.”
The musical itself is both un-ashamedly bonkers and earnestly emotional, following a group of Jellicle cats who introduce themselves via song, then publicly debate which of them will go to heaven. (Really.) Hooper’s goal for the movie was to embrace the weirdness. “Before the studio would greenlight the film, I had to prove that I had a plan,” he says.
The first cast member he recruited was Taylor Swift; he invited her to screen some early test footage, and she immediately said yes to playing Bombalurina. Other actors like Jennifer Hudson, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, James Corden, Jason Derulo, Idris Elba, and Rebel Wilson soon signed on to help introduce Webber’s music and T.S. Eliot’s poetry to a new generation, with newcomer Francesca Hayward playing the small fluffy protagonist, Victoria.
Hooper says his biggest challenge was making those actors feel feline; he initially considered prosthetics like those used on stage, but limp tails and stationary ears fell flat. So he decided to use visual effects, keeping the actors’ facial expressions while adding tails, whiskers, and fur.
The only problem was waiting for the technology to catch up to his vision. “Even three years ago, when I described what I wanted to do, people said, ‘It’s not technically possible,’ ” he recalls.
When the first trailer dropped this summer and gave audiences their first look at Hooper’s feline-human hybrids, the reaction was visceral, to say the least. Still, Hooper says he’s “actually quite grateful” for the response: After the trailer’s release, he used some of the feedback to redesign “every single cat to some extent, whether small or large.”
His biggest takeaway was emphasizing the more human features in each cat’s face. “I think probably my original dream to use a lot of the human face had gotten perhaps a bit lost in that process of rushing to make that first trailer,” he explains. “I really concentrated on bringing back the actors’ faces because when you’ve got Ian McKellen or Judi Dench or Taylor Swift, why would you not want to? I don’t know if that’s what the comments were asking for, but what I took from it was that I needed to reconnect with my original plan and make sure I was delivering on that.”
The result is a lavish spectacle that Hooper hopes will feel just as magical as it did when he was a kid. “I treasure the 10-year-old Tom’s reaction,” he says. “Often when I’m in the edit room working on the film, I recall why I liked it and try to honor that.” If only there were a good song about memory he could cue up.