Cats Is A ‘Medieval Morality Play’: 20 Highlights From Tom Hooper’s Strange Director Commentary

Cats Is A ‘Medieval Morality Play’: 20 Highlights From Tom Hooper’s Strange Director Commentary

Cats has finally come home, and we’ve combed through the director commentary to uncover the film’s greatest secrets. It may be one of those movies that’s impossible to explain, but director Tom Hooper was determined to try.

The Razzie award winner and modern cinematic classic is now out for digital home release, which means an even-deeper dive into the intricacies of Taylor Swift getting to be a cat for work. The audio commentary from Hooper is relatively dull in tone but full of strange, sometimes pompous justifications for the movie’s choices—which is kind of fascinating, considering it was recorded after the New York premiere on December 13, when first reactions to this otherworldly experience had already started surfacing.

Do we recommend watching Cats with the director commentary? Hmm, not unless you’re a diehard Cats fan eager for any taste of that delicious milkbar juice (which I most certainly am). To save you two hours of hearing Hooper explain over and over why cats are cats but also not cats, we’ve pulled out 20 highlights from the director commentary for you to enjoy. All the quotes in the list are from Tom Hooper himself.

Macavity!” (poof)

Get ready to learn a goddamn lesson about drugs, kids. (Image: Universal)

1. What is Cats really about?: “The film sits in that tradition of the picaresque or sort of medieval morality play, where the hero goes on a physical journey where they meet characters who represent different virtues and vices, and through this learn about their place in the world and learn about some of the pitfalls and opportunities of the world.”

2. The film opens on a shot of the moon, and an image of a cat’s face soon appears in the clouds. Hooper explained the reason for this shot:

“I thought we’d start on the image of the moon, which in [T.S.] Eliot’s poetry—specifically in the Practical Cats—the moon is referenced as a source of sort of spiritual and magical power…I like the idea that the moon lights up this cat face in the clouds, which hints at the idea of the Heaviside Layer, this layer in the atmosphere where you could go to get renewed and reborn. And also, I think it sort of sets the tone for the film, by I think referencing back to that thing you do as a kid when you look at clouds, and your mum points out the shape of an animal, and the idea of hidden identities sitting within things.”

3. The movie takes place in the 1930s—specifically in 1939, as that’s when Eliot wrote the original Cats poem. The main location, the Egyptian Theatre, was so named because Egyptians worshipped cats. Also, if you look in the theatre’s windows you’ll see cat eyes staring back at you.

4. During the scene inside a cemetery, Munkustrap explains to Victoria (the audience surrogate) why cats have three names. Hooper went into the symbolism behind a Jellicle Cat’s third name:

The Naming of Cats is a brilliant poem by Eliot because it references this idea that there are kind of different levels of name. Not only the first name, which the humans use; the second name, which only the cats use; but the third secret name that even your fellow cat doesn’t understand and can only be accessed by the cat through a sort of process of deep meditation, which of course is a reference to the sort of meditative pose or kind of lazy pose we see cats in…In this cat’s poem, meditating on your secret hidden name that only you know gives you some kind of access to peace.”

5. It was Rebel Wilson’s idea to have the mice played by kids—no explanation for why they were so much smaller than they should have been.

6. “Women playing cockroaches—whose only unusual trait is that they have an extra pair of arms, in homage to the cockroach number of limbs.” (This isn’t important but it made me laugh.)

I couldn’t find a picture of Rebel Wilson in the sparkly outfit, so you’ll have to settle for these eyes. (Image: Universal)

7. Hooper explaining the digital fur: “From the beginning, I always wanted humans to play cats—partly because it’s a dance musical, so I wanted to capture live dance. But also if I was lucky enough to capture lightning in a bottle with a great performance I wanted to be able to be in full contact with that in the face. And it also felt like a way of honouring the tradition in the show of humans playing cats. I wanted to kind of create, I suppose, a covering of fur that was better than what a costume could do. But still be one-to-one with the real bodies, so that the way we captured the dance was utterly faithful to the way they did the dance, or in the case, Rebel’s physical comedy.” (Side note: He later mentioned how Shambleshanks wears pants so you could see the full movement of his tap dance, so I don’t know what the hell he’s talking about here.)

8. During the kitchen scene, Jennyanydots (Wilson) unzips her fur skin to reveal a sparkly outfit underneath…and another layer of fur. Hooper’s explanation for what might be the movie’s scariest choice:

“This gag is kind of my own tongue-in-cheek way of referencing that I’m using digital fur as clothing because Rebel actually unzips her digital fur to reveal it as clothing. But then the joke is that underneath she has more real fur, which of course is not real fur.”

9. Turns out, Bustopher Jones (James Corden) has a dark side:

“He clearly represents the idea of the sin of gluttony, or the perils of addiction—of giving into that kind of drive without any kind of check or moderation…Seeing Macavity, seeing this incredible new source of food; there’s almost a tinge of sadness or tinge of worry in him, as he’s drawn to the very thing that he kind of knows will destroy him. I suppose it’s a parable about the power of addiction, the dark power of addiction.”

10. Hooper said the moment he laughed the most during filming was during the alley scene, when Corden looked at the camera to say “cats” (that said, either Corden messed it up or they didn’t end up using that angle, because in the movie he’s actually looking slightly off-camera and it’s weird):

“I loved the way James had this idea of looking to camera when he said ‘cats’ [during the alley scene], as if to kind of acknowledge the fact that they really look enough like cats, or do they not. And I love the idea that James is sort of stepping out of the film for a moment to acknowledge the kind of natural tension between their claim that they were cats and the kind of hybrid design.”

11. That song on the barge, where Growltiger introduces himself through song to Bustopher Jones and Jennyanydots, could have been so much longer:

“There’s this sort of longer version of this that we shot with, I think, three verses, and between every verse James and Rebel interrupted Ray and improvised hilarious comedy. And so the scene started three times as long, but in the end, we had to kind of find its right balance within the shape of the film. But shooting those it was kind of extraordinary the humour that James and Rebel were able to improvise. It was great acting, I really loved working on those scenes.”

Judy Dench was wise to never have watched this film. (Photo: Universal)

12. On casting Judy Dench as Old Deuteronomy: “Why does the god of cats have to be a man?”

13. It was apparently Dench and Ian McKellen who decided their cats had boned in the past, and the world is all the more thankful for it.

14. Hooper explaining the big Jellicle Dance scene, where the cats gather in the Egyptian Theatre and dance around a bunch before the auditions to determine who is the Jellicle Choice:

“It becomes about a different way of accessing the spiritual high or a spiritual place. In the naming of cats in the graveyard earlier, it was suggested you could reach it through the contemplation of your hidden name. And here, you’re arriving at a spiritual state through the kinesis and the catharsis of a sort of tribalistic, atavistic dance. So it kind of taps into the deepest traditions of how dance has existed in our culture, where the movement and the intensity transports you and takes you to a different space. Showing these different strategies of touching the spiritual: From the name to the Jellicle Dance, to the end where the character of Grizabella is literally lifted into the spiritual plane.” (That’s right, Grizabella totally died.)

15. The Shimbleshanks train sequence was one of Hooper’s favourites and Hooper said Steven McRae had no singing experience so he spent months learning to sing the part live. In addition, the actor who played Mr. Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson) had no dance training, so he took daily barre classes for months during rehearsals and filming. Clearly the actors put in way more effort than the movie deserved.

“Meow!” (poof) (Image: Universal)

16. Hooper shared some details on casting Idris Elba as Macavity and why he wanted Macavity—naked as a jaybird cat—to jump in at the end and participate in Bombalina’s (Taylor Swift) song about him:

“I met Idris at the Electric [Cinema] in Notting Hill to talk about the role, and turned out he always wanted to do a musical and it seemed like a great chance to do his first musical…I always liked the idea that Macavity, despite being an evil genius, kind of wants to play by the rules, so he wants to put on a number that is better than everyone else’s and win by doing something brilliant, but also by having kidnapped all the other competition.”

17. “I liked the idea that magic is more likely to be successful if he sort of uses Judy’s cat basket to help the magic.” (Again, this just made me laugh a bunch.)

18. On filming “Memory” (in my opinion, the only good sequence.): 

“We shot this over one day, I think it was about 15 takes and this is mainly take 15 with a bit of take 14. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be Jennifer Hudson with the pressure of singing the most iconic song from the musical…Like with Les Mis, not only is the singing live, but the accompaniment is live, so it’s really a duet between the pianist and the performer.”

“This was one of the most memorable days to me, because Jennifer really got to a very raw place, and I think everybody was floored by it. But I think the most exciting thing was when she hits her belt voice on ‘touch me.’ Even though I was sitting behind the set watching the monitors, every time it got to that point I’d take my headphones because I wanted to hear it for real in the room, and my gosh what a sound.”

19. One of the most baffling moments of the film, the one that usually gets the most screams from the audience, is near the end when Old Deuteronomy suddenly looks straight into the camera to tell the audience a bunch of things about cats (like how they’re not dogs). Here’s Hooper’s reason for doing it: 

“From early on, I loved this idea that in a show where most of the songs are addressed to the audience, the surprise would be that Judy Dench as Old Deuteronomy would turn to camera and address the audience directly because this is the one poem where it has to be addressed to a human. Most of the other songs were re-thought where the person being addressed was Victoria, so the listener was not a human but a cat. I love the line ‘You’ve learned enough to take the view that cats are very much like you,’ again as an explanation why our cats are kind of human cats. I suppose we’re talking about the intersection of cat and human.”

20. And finally, this is just a delight: “I love this idea that ‘This is how you address a cat.’ I must admit I’ve actually tried this, tried bowing down to a cat and saying ‘Oh cat’ just in the slight hope that this might unleash the cat to talk to me. It hasn’t yet worked, but I will continue trying.”

Cats is currently available on digital and arrives on DVD and Blu-ray on April 29.