Behind the scenes: writing a talking cat movie

Clip It: Each day, Jon Davis looks at the world of trailers, featurettes, and clips and puts it all in perspective.

Chances are, you've already made plans to see the Nine Lives movie with all your friends and family. For all I know, you're probably in line to see it right now. It has everything any movie needs. Giant buildings. Christopher Walken. Cats. And if that doesn't sell you, none of what I'm about to tell you will sell you either.

Technically, I worked on this script. This would be news to anyone involved, and it really is a technicality. In the screenwriter profession, a lot of screenwriters – not all, but a lot – have their own writing groups amongst friends where we share what we are working on and give each other notes. In fact, sometimes we even go on retreats. Such was the case when my friends Matt Allen & Caleb Wilson and I went to Ojai and they presented me with their Nine Lives writing assignment. 

Matt said, “It's about business executive that turns into a cat.” I nodded sagely. “But there's a weird thing we've been asked to do,” he continued, “I mean, besides telling the story of a business executive who turns into a cat.”  I nodded again. “They do NOT want the cat to talk, so it's a business executive who turns into a cat and then really becomes a cat, like, no voice over, no hearing his thoughts, we are just going to watch the cat react to things with the knowledge that it used to be human.” He continued, “We were instructed to write this movie as if we were Woody Allen writing a movie about a businessman that turns into a cat.'”

After laughing for several hours, I agreed that this would be tough nut to crack. For example, look at the scene from the trailer where Kevin Spacey's cat tries to write a letter to his wife and it's all squiggly lines or the scene where Kevin Spacey's cat is presented with cat food and he's grossed out – both of which were in the draft I gave notes on – and imagine that without the cat's inner monologue. It's just meowing and sad silence. Because cats can't talk! If not well executed, this story would strike the maudlin, absurdist tone of Garfield Minus Garfield but with Garfield, if that makes any sense. 

I must give Matt Allen & Caleb Wilson credit (and myself, I'm patting myself on the back) because I'm telling you, we figured this out over the weekend retreat. Within a few weeks, this project became a really good script. It was funny and touching with a dash of magical realism. And it worked. It would make you cry, I swear it. This was, without a doubt, one of the best animal movies I've ever read. 

I assume what happened next was the financiers, upon seeing their vision realized, had to come to grips with the fact that this was a cat movie for what audience exactly? So they changed their minds and turned Nine Lives into a family movie with a talking cat and the rest you will have to see for yourselves in the movie theaters. But leave out a saucer of milk for Matt & Caleb (and me), and think of what might have been.