Nine Lives, directed by well-known director Barry Sonnenfeld and starring Oscar winner Kevin Spacey as a businessman who turns into a cat, is one of those movies so obviously destined for mediocrity that it makes you wonder how the hell it ever got made. As early as January 2015 I was writing “I love the idea that a table of very serious businessmen probably negotiated this deal at a snooty restaurant.”
The movie came and went this past weekend, to dismal reviews (7% on RottenTomatoes) and lackluster box office ($6.2 million), but the world got something more important than a good or successful film: We got the story of how a movie as strange as Nine Lives ever made it to the big screen. This is thanks in large part to screenwriter Matt Allen, who shared his brush with the cat body swap concept on the screenwriting website Save The Cat!, in a post entitled, “How Nine Lives The Movie Saved My Life.”
The idea for Nine Lives came straight from EuropaCorp’s CEO at the time, Christophe Lambert. (I have this from multiple sources, so we don’t have to rely solely on Allen’s account to know it’s true). In the eventual film, a “bored-sounding” Kevin Spacey (according to the reviews) voiced the cat. But according to Allen, that’s not what the original script called for. In fact, according to Allen, Lambert was adamant that the cat wouldn’t talk.
At the time, he was adamant: this was “Not a children’s movie!” he insisted in his heavy French accent.
Christophe wanted us think of it as a “Woody Allen” film. We would not hear the cat’s thoughts. It was to be “introspective and sophisticated,” but at the same time, it still had to be about a man who turns into a cat. I’m not kidding.
Weird, Allen and his writing partner, Caleb Wilson, thought. But their backs were against the wall, financially, so they pitched an idea. Lambert liked it, and they ended up booking the job two weeks before their WGA health insurance was set to expire. So they wrote the script, but in the meantime, a predictable (for Hollywood) thing happened: Management changed at EuropaCorp. And so it was, they ended up getting stuck trying to explain the ridiculous script they’d written based on an idea they thought was bad in the first place.
In the time it took to close the deal and write the draft, EuropaCorp hired a new executive to run the Los Angeles office. Given the task we were assigned, Caleb and I were actually proud of the draft we wrote. That said, when we turned it in, the new executive asked us what it was about. “Well it’s an adult Woody Allen-ish comedy about a selfish business man that nearly dies and falls into a coma. While he’s in the hospital, his spirit gets put inside the body of a cat until he can redeem himself.”
“So, it’s a talking cat movie?” she queried.
“No. You never hear the cat talk, and we don’t even hear the man’s thoughts when he’s inside the cat.”
Needless to say, the new executive didn’t know what the fuck we were talking about or how to process how her boss got us to write this absurd film.
After reading it, she admitted that we did a great job, but it was still a talking cat movie without a talking cat. We assumed the movie would probably never get made.
Now, it’s at this point in the film’s development that you’d think someone would’ve come in and said, “You know what? Maybe we let this idea die without dropping another six figures on it.”
Allen doesn’t say exactly what they got paid for their Nine Lives draft, but earlier in the piece he says “If we didn’t book another $200,000 within six months, we were going to run out of our health insurance.” Thus we can reasonably infer that it was more than $200 grand. And with five screenwriters eventually credited, the total cost to develop the Nine Lives screenplay had to be much more than that. But first, Allen’s brain tumor. That’s right, shortly after finishing his draft, he found out he had a brain tumor.
Later that night I got the call. “Mr. Allen, this is your doctor. We got your MRI results and you have a massive brain tumor in your cerebellum and you have to go to the hospital immediately.”
A brain tumor? A f*cking brain tumor? Are you kidding? But she wasn’t kidding. I had to have emergency brain surgery two weeks later. Bone saw, and all. It was a $500,000 procedure.
Allen says he made a full recovery, thanks, of course, in part to the health insurance he only still had thanks to Nine Lives. Which turned out to be even harder to kill than Allen himself:
Shortly after I recouped, I received word that EuropaCorp hired two brilliant young writers named Ben Shiffrin and Dan Antoniazzi to rewrite our cat script and give the cat a voice. Apparently, they convinced Christophe Lambert that the only way the movie would work is if we actually hear the cat’s thoughts. Thank you, Dan and Ben!
Elsewhere in the piece, Allen references “say for example you book a rewrite job for $100,000…”
Assuming that’s how much Shiffrin and Antoniazzi got paid for their rewrite job, and depending how much Nine Lives‘ fifth credited screenwriter (Gwyn Lurie) got paid, we can reasonably infer that it cost a minimum of $300,000 to commission a body swap script about a talking cat. And one in which the seams between the Woody Allen-esque adult comedy Lambert envisioned and the family comedy that it eventually became were plainly visible, if you believe the reviews. “Brightly colored production design is spiked with jokes about castration and alcoholism, marital infidelity and child labor,” wrote Dave White of The Wrap. “It’s a comedy pitched at families that climaxes with a supposed suicide attempt,” added Nigel M. Smith of The Guardian.
Stories like this one are fascinating (much more so than the movies themselves, often times) because for as often as critics get accused of not understanding how hard it is to make a movie, anyone who’s read anything about the process starts to get an idea of how much can go wrong. In fact, in that context, it’s almost a miracle that anything turns out well. Which of course is part of what makes movies so fun to write about in the first place. Nine Lives, for instance, seems almost straightforward compared to the saga of Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood from 2010, which reportedly started out as a retelling of the fable from the perspective of the Sheriff, morphed into a film in which Robin Hood and the Sheriff are the same person with a split personality, then eventually became a convoluted origin story for a franchise that never came to be.
Anyway, the epilogue to the Nine Lives development tale, unfortunately, is that Lambert, the guy whose idea it was in the first place, died suddenly of lung cancer in May, at the age of 51. This means he never got to see the release of his own film.
“He was, first and foremost, an incredibly devoted father and husband, and his family was most important to him; that will be his legacy,” said Tucker Tooley, the former Relativity president who helped establish a joint venture with EuropaCorp. “Christophe was also a uniquely talented filmmaker and charismatic leader. He will be deeply missed, and my thoughts are with his family.” [Variety]
As Allen wrote, “So if and when you see Nine Lives, please know that actual lives were given and taken as a result of this film. True story.”
The last line of Lambert’s obituary in Variety?
“Although best-know[n] as a businessman, Lambert recently flexed his creative muscles, helping to create the premise for ‘Nine Lives’ in which Kevin Spacey plays a tycoon who turns into a cat.”
Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.