CAT PERSON – Interview with Director Susanna Fogel

In 2017, a short story, Cat Person, by Kristen Roupenian became a viral sensation. Published in the New Yorker magazine, the story focuses on Margot, a 20-year-old college student who begins a text relationship with an older man, Robert. Ultimately, the story is about power dynamics, the grey areas around consent, and how women often find themselves in situations where they don’t feel safe. Adapted by Masters of Sex creator Michelle Ashford, the film stars Emilia Jones and Nicholas Braun as the couple at the story’s centre. We spoke with the film’s director and Booksmart writer, Susanna Fogel, to learn more.

I remember reading the story when it was first published and being quite surprised by how familiar it was and yet was something so rarely spoken about. Did you read it at the time?
Yeah. I did. It was causing such a stir in the culture by the time I got to it, but I was expecting it to be more. I was expecting it to feel explosive or divisive. It felt like a perfectly observed story about a relatable experience. What became interesting was why people were so upset about it and what that was about; it caused so much anger in the world.

When you read it, did you consider adapting it for the screen? 
When I read the story, I didn’t see it as the kind of movie it became. I knew someone would try to make this and it’s going to be small, limiting, observant, and it’s going to come and go. When I read Michelle Ashford’s script, she really took on board all of Kristen’s ideas about the fears and the fantasies. I saw how brilliantly she was able to expand the story and opened it up, but it would never have occurred to me to do it that way.

You needed an actor who was young enough to still have a rose-tinted view of relationships but also old enough to be wary. Why did Emillia Jones fit the bill?
I saw CODA, and I immediately wanted to offer her the role. I met with her, and the minute I started talking to her, I thought she was perfect. She’s the character’s age, but she has a maturity about her and is articulate and funny. She has a lot of presence and ego strength. That’s a weird thing to use as a qualification for casting somebody, but when working with a teenage actress that you’re going to put through a sex scene, it was important to have someone who felt like they could advocate for themselves. It was important that they were mature enough to take a bird’s eye view of the themes and approach the whole thing from a place of strength. Emilia has that presence and that level of intelligence. She feels like someone who could be on a college campus, which was another thing I wanted.

People bring baggage into stories about male-female dynamics. Sexism bends itself in weird ways. If Emilia were a glamorous, vain-looking actress, people would ascribe a lot of intent to what she does with Robert. They would say she knows what she’s doing; she knows she’s pretty. There would be an eye roll around her confusion and stumbling. But Emilia sells that every girl thing so well that you’re not thinking that she’s fully aware. She can be a little cocky in moments, but she’s not walking around the world feeling like she has a ton of agency. Even the prettiest, most glamorous people don’t always have agency, but people think they do. There is a perception there, and I didn’t want to confuse things by having a super glamorous actor.

When it comes to casting a male and female in a relationship, chemistry is vital, but for this, you need anti-chemistry. How did you get Emilia and Nicholas to be so awkward together?
It’s always a little bit of a matchmaking thing when you’re casting because rarely do you get to put two actors in a room and see what their chemistry is. Sometimes you do, but we were casting this movie during COVID. It was not even on the table that we could get them together. It was just me matchmaking at this meeting with Nick and seeing his personality. I got the sense that he was emotionally dialled in, sensitive, and articulate. He got the joke. He had the right personality for the conversations that I wanted to be able to have with whoever played Robert. I felt the same about Emilia. What was important was understanding what’s cringy about the cringy moments, what’s problematic about the problematic moments and what’s vulnerable about the vulnerable moments.

They could show up and be on the same wavelength; even if that wavelength was you’re gonna have the worst kiss. And what’s bad about the kiss? Let’s look at these two people. Nick is six foot seven. His hand is the size of Emilia’s face. Let’s have him eat her face. We had so much fun figuring out how to show this stuff; it diffused any tension around the physically intimate scenes. We felt like we were telling stories around the campfire. The actors and the crew were doing this for everyone who has ever been in a situation like this. It felt communal.

Margot has a line about just needing to get sex with Robert over quickly. I’ve heard that from so many women, and it’s not something we discuss as an issue. It is refreshing to see that there are different types of intimate situations from those we usually see in film. Can you tell me a little about the decision to show these awkward situations happen?
The conversations on consent have become extreme. We talk about terrible traumatic sexual experiences, and then we talk about gauzy soft lighting, good movie sex, or it’s comically terrible slapstick movie sex. But this is a different thing; there’s so much going on. That’s what most experiences are like; they’re not one thing or another, and it feels important to have movies that tell that story, because that’s most people’s story. That line about getting over it puts a different shade on the conversation around empowerment and sex. It speaks to women’s reticence to do anything that will inflame the bigger, stronger person. It’s not that she thinks he’ll necessarily kill her if she rejects them, but the probability is that he will be angry.

Having to de-escalate a petulant, angry man who feels rejected is more of a hassle than having sex for five minutes. That’s a real thing. We don’t want to have to deal with this behaviour that we know is so male and so common, which is that most men react badly if they feel rejected. Women have known that since the beginning of time, and that’s why we like to do a lot of caretaking of men in general.

We had #MeToo, which was a response to such a terrible time in women’s lives, but this is almost the evolution. It’s not looking at the lack of consent but the grey areas around consent. This is the first film to touch on that. Do you hope that this opens a broader conversation?
I do. Yeah. Part of what Michelle and I talked about, especially in the years between the story coming out and our movie getting made, is that this takes place in a different cultural moment. It’s not in the height of #MeToo, which led to extreme storytelling around women telling their truths and men taking responsibility. There was a big reckoning, and then there was a backlash of sorts and people who use the word woke negatively. Many people are ready to see what’s next in our evolution as people trying to live and connect.

Hopefully, this is where this movie falls and invites conversation on how we can improve communication. How can women really feel this empowerment they’re supposed to be feeling? Everyone tells us we now have our moment, but it’s not that simple. I hope those slightly more sophisticated conversations can happen that look at how we can move forward. Those conversations need to be had; we need a template for change.

Your song choices are brilliant. It struck me as I went along that these songs we nod to are mostly lyrically inappropriate. It made me think of how many other songs we gloss over. What made you decide to use them?
You hit the nail on the head. I like a lot of older music. It’s a way that I’ve connected with many people, specifically many men who also like older music. There’s a sharing of ideas through music, but those lyrics don’t age well, nine times out of ten. But also, the music’s really good, and I’m not going to boycott it, so it’s complicated. Whether it’s the trailers in the movie theatre where Margot works or the movies that she’s watching, like the music, it’s an assault of cultural references that you exist with as a woman. As a woman, you exist within a canon of the greatest music and films talking about love in this unsophisticated or problematic way that mostly idealises teenage girls. That feels wrong, but also the music’s good. You exist within this world where you yada yada your way through listening to music that doesn’t really hold up.

We have this cultural language where men sing about women in this objectifying way all the time, or they sing about women who are cliches of villains or manipulative. There’s plenty of vilifying of women in that music and idealising; it’s all problematic. Like many of these men, Robert is nostalgic and melancholic about what they see as a simpler time. Whether it’s a love story where they don’t have to think about gender politics, they can watch a man pursue a woman. Men like Robert wish it could be that simple for them, and it isn’t anymore.

Watching an intimate scene and not having female nudity is so refreshing. How important was that?
Thank you. You’re hitting all the deliberate things I’m proudest of – the music and lack of nudity. When you hire an actor for a part that involves a sex scene, you have to commit to what you’re showing because that’s part of the contract deal. I was really proud to be able to call Emilia’s agents and say there’s no nudity in this. It allowed us to get very technical about what was going on outside the frame. There’s no mystery to what’s happening; You’re just not watching it happen. I think that in a way that’s much more graphic and relatable without objectifying the woman. This is a sexual encounter where the man has watched a lot more porn than he’s had sex with real women, and so he’s in his own head doing a thing. The experience for men watching the scene should not be titillating, but the minute you have a beautiful naked woman, there’s overlap with the male gaze on some level. I didn’t want anyone to feel relief from the claustrophobia of having to watch the scene, and I didn’t want a moment of anyone enjoying themselves.

Interview by Cara O’Doherty

CAT PERSON is at Irish cinemas from October 27th