There’s a lot to unpack in Paramount’s new Pet Sematary remake, the second adaptation of Stephen King’s novel: The changes made from Mary Lambert’s 1989 version of the film. The themes of grief, loss, and how we as parents talk about those subjects with our kids (or don’t). But most of our questions are about the animal actors who portray Church the cat in the movie. How many cats were there? How did their trainers get them to hiss (or jump, or stare) on command? How long do you have with a cat on set before they get bored? And, most importantly, how did they get the cats to tolerate hair and makeup every morning, and baths every night?
The answer for many of these questions seems to be “slowly and patiently,” as we found out when we called up animal trainers Kirk Jarrett and Melissa Millett, who worked with the cats on Pet Sematary and adopted them when shooting was through. Beginning with a search for five identical shelter cats, Millett then worked with each cat with treats and clicker training to tease out which of them had personalities best suited for the different actions needed for the film. In the end, two cats emerged as the leads: Tonic, whose red-carpet appearance at a special Brooklyn Horror Film Festival screening of Pet Sematary caused a stir on social media over the weekend, and Leo, whose scowling face was the model for the evil cat seen on the film’s poster. Two more cats served as understudies, and a fifth dropped out after not responding well to the noise on set. They’ve all since been adopted; Jarrett took home two of the cats, and Millett one.
Each of the feline stars of Pet Sematary was trained for each scene first in a training facility, then on location as Jarrett and Millett gradually added elements—lights, boom poles, dolly tracks, cameras, people—over many rehearsals so that, by the time the scene was actually shot, the cat wasn’t fazed by all the noise and activity on set. Still, the crew had to work efficiently in the cat scenes, as Jarrett estimates Tonic and Leo can only do between seven and 10 takes at a time before they start to get restless. (Directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer both have cats at home, so they understood, Jarrett says.) And training a cat to do a specific action is a very long process, even before the desensitization part comes in: For example, the scene where Church appears on the highway outside of Ellie’s birthday party was done first by teaching Tonic to touch his nose to a stick, which was then pulled back a foot at a time until he could run all the way down the street as seen in the film.
Between scenes, the cats each had their own trainer/companion to pay attention to them and their own air-conditioned trailer to hang out in arranged around a “catio” in a quiet corner. (Cats, as Jarrett points out, can’t regulate their body temperature through sweat like humans can, and the lights used on movie sets get very hot.) Each morning, the cats were brought to set in covered crates, which were also used to transport them around the set to minimize distractions.
We could hear one of those cats meowing in the background as we asked Jarrett and Millett about what it’s like literally herding cats for a living.
The A.V. Club: Were the cats all Maine Coons?
Melissa Millett: We’re guessing so. They’re all rescues, so we’re assuming they’re Maine Coon crosses [based on their look].
AVC: How do you go about finding five cats who all look similar, and are all trainable?
MM: As you know, there’s a huge cat overpopulation [in North America]. They’re not as easy to place as dogs, so there’s a large volume of cats waiting for homes in shelters. It’s easier to find matching cats rather than dogs because of the sheer volume of them out there. We wanted cats who were confident, and food motivated. Almost all cats can be trained, but those are the two main factors we look for. How much do they really want that treat? (laughs) Bonus points if it’s a cat that drives everybody nuts because they need mental stimulation.
AVC: I read that each of the cats in the film had a different skill they could do on camera; could you break that down for us?
Kirk Jarrett: Leo is a confident sit-stay cat. His role is as the undead Church; that was his whole purpose, to be the poster child. The cat you see all across the different platforms, and in the trailer, almost any time he’s in in the undead makeup—that was Leo.
AVC: How did you decide to put Leo in that part?
MM: Part of it was that he’s just got such a cool look, different from any other cat I’ve seen. He’s got this beautiful face, and these eyes that are so expressive.
But during the training phase, you look at yourself as a coach, and you figure out the strengths of all your team members. We did end up using Leo for almost all of the undead stuff. Tonic did some action for him, and Tonic was the family pet, because their looks went together so perfectly. We also trained cats as backups for the two main cats: Tonic was an action cat, and Jaeger was an action cat. JD excels at quiet staring, and Leo excels at quiet staring.
JK: And just to get to that point, it’s a long process. This is not something that can be fast-tracked. The positive reinforcement training approach that we mandate with all of our animal actors, and especially with Pet Sematary, is a positive approach. We need the animals to be acclimated, and first that means working through all of their insecurities from being rescues; not knowing what their lives were like prior, first we have to give them an opportunity to smile, and explore, and build their confidence before we can even start training. This takes baby steps, seven days a week. Like leash walks—that’s a big thing. Grooming—that’s a big thing. Sitting there and being cuddled—that’s a big thing. Just life in general.
MM: Each cat has their own story. JD was left in an apartment—somebody moved out and just left him there for months. A neighbor fed him for a while before calling the humane society. So he’s so desperate for attention. He really thrives off of being in the center of everything. And the cats really were in the center: We were leash walking them, they had their cat patio on set. It really helped him come around and learn to thrive, giving him the attention he needed.
Then there’s Tonic, who was found just walking down the street as a stray. I loved him the moment I laid eyes on him. He likes to be busy, he drove everybody nuts. Sometimes we’d have to go looking for him. (laughs)
KJ: JD’s sitting right here on the table next to me now, going, “hey Dad, what are we doing?” And Leo’s sitting on the windowsill, chilling out looking at the sun. So these cats are in our homes, and they’re part of our day-to-day lives.
AVC: How far in advance did you have to start training the cats to be ready in time for shooting? Years?
KJ: Nothing happens in years in a creative process, unless it’s Lord Of The Rings. I was initially contacted back in February (of 2018) with the script for a breakdown. [Pet Sematary filmed in Montreal in July 2018. -ED] We just had to make sure that all of our kitties we were able to acquire had the confidence, and wanted to be in the position.
MM: It starts with teaching the cats to enjoy the work. At first, we took them home from the shelters and just let them taste freedom for a little while and be cats. Then, in order to start the training, the first step was to have catnip parties. We’d come in and lay out mats and we’d cover them up with catnip just to say, “hey, I’m fun to be around. This room is fun.” Then we started with an extremely simple behavior we knew the cats could understand and be successful at, which is targeting—touching their nose to a target stick. Then that’s like, “hey, working with this is fun.” And then slowly we worked up to the behaviors in the scenes.
I painted a huge wall in the training area with a chalkboard and I wrote out each of the behaviors [we needed], and each cat’s name under the behavior as I got to know their personalities better. I’d be like, “Oh, this cat would be perfect for this, and he’d be great at this.” So it took shape that way, and slowly came to Tonic and Leo being the strongest cats.
KJ: Also the strongest cats in terms of coloration [i.e., hair and makeup. -ED]. As Melissa mentioned, we started all the kitties with catnip parties in a bathtub, with a few drops of water. It was built up over months of training and confidence building—there’s no, “hey let’s just go do this,” because it’s a cat.
Everything we did from start to finish, including my proposal, had to go through the American Humane Society, and the scrutiny of the veterinarians who create the guidelines for animal safety in film. The products, including the shampoo we use to wash them at the end of the day, are regulated. All the products we put on the cats were pre-approved before we made the makeup, which is edible.
AVC: I was going to ask—How do you keep a cat from licking themselves with makeup on?
MM: Before I got into movies—and live shows, which is my main job—I was an animal trainer for 20 years doing counter-conditioning and desensitization, which is a protocol for confidence. That’s what I do with family pets; I teach them to be less fearful, and more confident. For learning how to bathe, we’d do: Level one, we’re in a dry tub, and we’re having a catnip party. Level two, we’re in the tub having delicious treats. Level three, we’re enjoying those treats, and we’re dropping two drops of water on the cat, and so on.
It’s the same process for makeup. By the time the cat was wearing the makeup on set, it didn’t bother them, so they were able to focus and work without eating the edible makeup. They wouldn’t come out of their crates otherwise. It’s a very slow process, it’s how you have to work with cats.
KJ: We had an assistant trainer under Melissa who worked with the cats during coloration to make sure that they were ready for us when they came out. It’s a multi-step process, right? When the cats come out of hair and makeup with edible product on them, now they have to come to the set, and they have to work. At the end of the day, we need a happy cat on set.
MM: We did feed them treats during the hair and makeup process, because we didn’t want them to be stressed at any time. So while they’re getting their makeup put on, they’re getting treats. But the challenge there was, how many treats can you give them and have them still hungry enough to work? Cats aren’t there to please, they only work for their tummies.
AVC: May I ask what the makeup was, or is that a trade secret?
KJ: The products we used were all approved by the American Human Association, and we’re kind of leaving it at that. If you want to call up the American Humane Association and ask, they have it on file there. [A rep at the AHA’s Los Angeles office told us that the cats’ fur was matted using a combination of egg whites and chalk, with and leaves, grass, and dirt added. Fake blood made of corn syrup and natural food coloring was used on their ears and faces. The ingredients were all spot-tested for allergies under the supervision of the AHA before filming. All dead cats seen in the film were stuffed props.-ED]
MM: You should have seen them after their baths. Leo was like a superhero walking out, his coat was so shiny.
KJ: In the morning, when we got into the coloration stage, Melissa and I would just laugh because the cats would go in all puffy from last night’s bath, and we had to put makeup on these perfect little balls of fur. But they had fun. We’d play with them the whole time, and at night they’d have their bath and then sleep with us. Tonic would hang out with Melissa, and Leo would hang out with me [while we were away on location]. Our other two star kitties would sleep with our other two associates. So they were sleeping in beds with humans, not in cages.
AVC: It really does sound just like being a human actor. You come in in the morning, you get your hair and makeup, you shoot your scenes, you take a bath, and it’s back to the hotel.
MM: Except the cats get paid all day. (laughs) They’re like, “what’s in it for me right now? I want to see my chicken. Give me my Temptations.”
KJ: We really do need sponsorship from Temptations. (laughs) We had a cooler full of gourmet meats, and patés, and cat foods—I was even cooking fresh salmon and fresh tuna, just because it’s all about different tastes for their different palates. A cat could go to Chef Ramsey’s kitchen and be like, “no, I don’t like that. No, I don’t like that.”
MM: And then we had to lock up the treats, because two of the cats were little hunters and they would open up the treat bags at night and eat all the treats. Tonic specifically, he is a foodie.
Tonic and Leo will both be present at a special screening of Pet Sematary in London, Ontario this coming Wednesday, April 10. Jarrett says his daughter is helping with the cat costumes for this event, so it’s going to be especially adorable. You can enter to win tickets through Millett’s—sorry, Tonic’s—Instagram page.