“Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”–Margaret Atwood
During a time when #MeToo was at the front of people’s minds in December 2017, an essay was written in The New Yorker by Kristen Roupenian that sparked a fiery debate and conversation about the grey areas of sexual consent. The story was a personal one about a young woman who falls for an older man and decides she is going to sleep with him, but while in bed with him, she decides she doesn’t want to be there anymore but goes through with it so “she can just get it over with.” The story was timely and continues to provoke vital conversations.
This “grey area” debate has continued to evolve into the consciousness of our culture over time. This is a topic I’m very passionate about, and I have dug deep into it through my conversations with filmmakers and in my personal essays. In this interview, I felt very fortunate to speak with filmmaker Susanna Fogel about how her film “Cat Person,” adapted by Michelle Ashford from the 2017 New Yorker story tackled these issues. The film premiered at Sundance this year, and stars up-and-coming talents Emilia Jones (“CODA”), Geraldine Viswanathan (“7 Days”), and Nicholas Braun (Succession). “Cat Person” is now playing in theaters and will be premiering at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre starting this Friday, October 20th. Get your tickets here!
What drew you to this story?
I was drawn to the story as a reader and consumer of culture in 2017, years before Michelle Ashford adapted the script from the story. When I read the article in The New Yorker, I thought it was brilliantly written. I thought, ‘yes, yes, to all of this, this is so insightful.’ I did not expect the story to explode into a fierce cultural debate. For me, there was nothing to debate. This story reflects what women experience a lot of the time–not every woman or every man, but this is a specific slice of life that feels incredibly resonant. Why are people freaking out about it, and in a bad way? Why are men so offended that she mentions Robert’s belly when we’ve had centuries of male writers talking about women’s muffin tops? Why is this one moment where she is objectifying and dissecting his physical flaws so offensive to people when we have to endure it culturally on all sides as women our whole lives?
It seemed like a lot of weird un-ironic and un-self-aware male anger bubbling up that’s reflected in the story. That was really interesting to see, and for me became the most compelling part about it. It felt like Kristen Roupenian just by being specific to her experience had stumbled into this really hot cultural issue. We’ve had stories on assault, or love stories, but not stories about this where the focus of the story is on the middle ground. The conversation around the story indicated that people wanted to talk a lot about the grey because they just don’t often get the chance to talk about it. The story created a platform for new ideas to be said on the topic.
Can you talk about your working relationship with the screenwriter Michelle Ashford and bringing her adaption to the screen?
Jeremy Steckler, one of our producers, had been working with Michelle before I came onto the project. By the time I came on board, she had written an incredible script. Because I’m also a writer, when I read something, I’m always reading through the filter of how I feel about this other person’s writing style. Oftentimes I’ll be one of the writers on my projects. In this case, I thought Michelle had done something that I couldn’t have done or have known how to do at that level.
Going into the process with her was not about shaping the writing itself, it was much more about how deep and interesting and messed up we can make the conversation. It was about how much we could provoke people to be speak authentically about all of their baggage about this topic. A big part of that was navigating the tightrope of Robert’s likability, or unlikability. How unforgivable is Robert? We don’t want him to be a cartoon villain because then it’s just going to fall into a category of movies we’ve seen. Also, we wanted to do a 2023 version of what the story did by provoking a timely and cultural debate. To do that, it felt like we had to evolve the original story a little since six years ago, we were even newer to talking about it.
In the six years it took to make the movie, the conversation around the threat level of men and women being victimized had exploded. There is way more conversation in our culture today on how afraid we should be of men, especially on college campuses. It’s really now in the zeitgeist of young people and in young women. We wanted to update the story to include a chapter that was about that. Margot is getting a lot of messaging that if she wants to empower herself, she needs to assume the absolute worst about Robert. And in a way, that does bring out the absolute worst in him, but what lurks inside of him is not her fault. We wanted to show the complexity that exists in all of that.
The more we have these conversations, we see a lot more male anger that comes from this insult culture. It’s just all really exploded. And people not being able to talk about it without fear of reproach or cancellation has made it worse because they are just going underground with all of their toxic shit.
Can you talk about the assemblage of this dream team of actors for this film?
That is always a hard process because as a director, you have your ideal version of the movie which is your own personal taste about who is the best person for this role. And then it’s always the negotiation about whether they are famous enough or too famous. Are people going to have opinions about them that will skew their opinions about Margot or Robert? We just wanted to maintain a sort of a fluidity and blank slateness to both of them. We wanted people to ask themselves throughout the film if they should like Robert or not, just as Margot is. So Nick Braun was really perfect for that part as Robert. That was a very short list. There is such a specific way Kristen describes that role in that story. This is the guy that you could drum up a crush on if you were bored, or if you had another glass of wine and were like, ‘maybe?’ It’s that guy. But then you look at how Esquire styled Nick for a fashion spread, and he could look like a handsome model. You can really look at him in different lights. Nick was perfect in that way.
Can you talk about working with Emilia Jones as Margot and Geraldine Viswanathan as Taylor. I especially like that you brought Geraldine in for this part. I was able to do a quick interview with her for “7 Days,” and she is such an amazing up-and-coming talent, while Emilia has obviously demonstrated her talents with “CODA.”
I love Geraldine, I’m such a long-time fan of hers. And I had seen Emilia in “CODA” and I thought she was perfect for Margot, because is and appears to be the age of Margot. She’s not thirty playing twenty-year-old Margot. But she also seems like a smart person with a good head on her shoulders who’s read books and is well-spoken. What I wanted was a substantial person with gravitas. She could be naive, she could be innocent, and she could make a lot of mistakes, but the baseline is that I like her, she is substantial, and I see myself in her. As opposed to there is nothing going on in there, and she is just like an innocent victim of a man, which is not what you want.
She has a logic to what she is doing. And she is funny. She’s not just laughing at people’s jokes, she is the maker of the jokes. Because Emilia is such a great dramatic actress, I wanted to pair her with the funniest person, and Geraldine is that. I think Emilia was able to stoke in Geraldine a real sense of pathos and drama, and that is not the note she usually plays. At the same time, Geraldine brought out Emilia’s comedic side, and it was so great.
There is a specific scene that I wanted to talk about where it really shows the grey area that is not explored enough onscreen. This is the “intimate” scene between Margot and Robert. I have been in that scene too many times when I was a young person, defaulting to the ‘let’s just get it over with.’ I love how you have the two Emilias have a dialogue about this situation. Can you talk about how you constructed this scene and was their an intimacy coordinator involved for this scene?
We did have an intimacy coordinator, Olivia Troy, who was amazing. Michelle was the one who put the two Emilias into the script, and the minute I read that scene we started talking about the psychology of trauma when you disassociate from yourself and you don’t want to be in your physical body, like when you flip to being on high watching yourself. Yes, that is often something we talk about when we’re talking about abuse, but also, I think that just happens to women routinely as we move through the world like a female character trying to figure it out.
This was the scene that required the most planning because of how sensitive the topic is. From the minute you are casting an actor you have to tell their agent whether they are going to take their shirt off or not, and you have to know what you want to be seeing or not seeing. The sex scene is basically about a man who is seeing more sex in porn than he has had with a real woman. Because of that, there is this attempt by Robert to be this athletic porn star without really dialing into what the partner wants. He’s not connecting with her, but he’s doing a lot. We had to figure out what are Robert’s influences. They are not inspired by intimate connections with a long-term girlfriend, but are showing something else. Our choreography was focused on that.
We had to talk about really specific things that are going on outside of the frame. So even if we’re just seeing Robert moving most of the time, we have to talk about what’s going on everywhere else too. It’s really explicit. You’re not seeing explicit imagery, but you are talking about explicit things that are happening. We ended up having these really personal conversations with the intimacy coordinator, the actors, and myself. By talking about it all, it takes the edge off of it because you’re just nailing it down to the play by play of what is happening. Then there is a storyboard that looks like a comic strip, which is a stick figure version of the scene, which is hilarious to see. It’s like your face is stuck in the drawing.
It was a closed set, but all of us–the people there and the crew standing on the side-lines–started sharing their own bad sex stories. It felt like we’re all making this together. I mean, just two actors are acting it out, but it’s like a communal experience of producing something that is cathartic for everybody here. I think it made everyone feel comfortable. It’s always a challenge to film those scenes, but this was by far the most comfortable and well-planned sex scene that I had ever shot. There are all of these different levels of planning. The fact that we got so technical and that there is so much going on in the scene made it easier to figure out. When it’s like, ‘they have sex,’ but I have to figure out what that means, then it’s more uncomfortable for me because I have to come up with that. But in this case, it was much more clear and planned out.
What do you hope people see in this film?
This is not a clear-cut film about consent. The film questions the simplicity of what we talk about with consent, such as the idea that because she said yes, that’s all they had to talk about. Who is that self-aware as a twenty-year-old woman, or a woman at any age in making a permanent and final decision which has been made in a split second? Who can predict the future about how they will feel?
The conversation around consent has become so simplistic that there is a world of nuance that is most people’s experience around it. That sex scene exemplifies that nuance. It is really important that she does keep consenting to show that. This is not about a woman who said ‘no’ to an evil villain who didn’t care that she said ‘no.’ It is actually about a woman who answers several times to ‘yes,’ or versions of ‘yes,’ but that doesn’t mean she wants to be there. It also doesn’t mean that she couldn’t have communicated that more. But why is the burden totally on the woman to make the decision on all of that stuff?
So I think I want people to take away from that how those conversations are super-complicated and we have to talk about the complexity. It doesn’t cease to exist just because we don’t talk about it, so we might as well be talking about it. Also, it’s just the idea that it is a movie about two people who don’t have functional communication by the time they are entering a very intimate situation. They have projections, ideas, and narratives that aren’t really based upon the real dynamic and they are not really asking themselves if they feel comfortable with themselves in the situation.
I don’t mean to sound puritanical when I say there’s no rush to get into that situation with somebody, but that is something that I think the movie suggests. She probably would have been able to feel it out if she didn’t want to be there if she was less concerned about the ticking clock of having to make good on her promise to do it or not do it or go home. If they had been taking things a little slower so they could catch up to their dynamic on the phone, they probably would have just not gone there.