Working with diva cats & Ryan Reynolds on ‘The Voices’: Director Marjane Satrapi tells all

There”s dark comedy, and then there”s “The Voices.” Marjane Satrapi”s fourth directorial outing blurs the line between fantasy and reality to create a sympathetic psychopath. 

Jerry (Ryan Reynolds) is just an average joe working in a bathtub factory. Lonely but charming, he seems just socially awkward enough with his crush on out-of-his-league co-worker Fiona (Gemma Arterton) and genial relationship with this psychiatrist. 

But with Jerry”s roommates being his benevolent talking dog and murderously evil talking cat, it quickly becomes apparent that things are not what they appear.

I spoke with Marjane Satrapi about bringing this twisted tale to life.

HITFIX: What was it about this script that made you think, ” want to make a dark comedy about an accidental serial killer who talks to his pets”?

Marjane Satrapi: Well, you have this script that you can”t give any movie references [when talking about it]. You can”t say, “It makes me think of this or it makes me think of that.” It doesn”t make you think of anything but itself. And then you have this sweetest, the most likable person who happens to be a serial killer and this cat that says the most horrible stuff and you love him for saying it. How to resist a script like that?

Speaking of Mr. Whiskers, he seemed so well trained! I have two cats and I don't think I could get them to sit still for ten seconds to film them, much less minutes at a time. Was there some sort of cat whisperer on set, or is it just a really well trained cat?

Marjane: [laughs] No. A well-trained cat doesn”t exist because a cat remains a cat. I had a cat and I knew that. Most of the time the cat is not in the room with the actors. It's a split screen that we made because if there's more than five people the cat freaked out. My editor, who is also the director of the second unit, he came at night and he sat for hours and hours with the cat. And eventually he would get his ten seconds of performance from the cat. A cat can never be well-trained because they're too independent.

I knew it was going to be difficult. But at the same time a cat in CGI is too horrible; it's not possible and I needed to have a real cat.

I assume it was a different story with the dog playing Bosco. How did you decide to use a mastiff?

Marjane: At first, I was thinking about a Labrador, but then I saw this dog and he had these eyes, just full of compassion. I never saw an animal in my life with his nice eyes. And when I saw him I was like of course. Of course. I needed really a tiny little normal cat.

Photo Credit: Lionsgate

Was there ever a moment when you considered having a CGI cat or dog, instead of just their mouth movements?

Marjane: I hate green screen. With the green background, I get annoyed and bored, the actor is bored, and then you have to make a whole world to integrate this thing again. You have to fight against the green that goes on the screen. Most of the things are practical. With CGI it's really what I cannot do. I cannot have the animal talking. I need to use it but other than that whatever that I can do directly I do it.

Even the girls, once their disembodied heads were talking in the fridge?

Marjane: Yes. How to do it is you just sit them in the fridge and you put some prosthetic around their neck. And then you film the scene, you let the camera run. Then they come out of the fridge, you reconstruct the it again, and then double cut and the trick is done. But this is the old trick. I like to make mechanical stuff. Once I make a film I have to do whatever I can make onstage I make it onstage.

Mr. Whiskers and Bosco are outcroppings of Jerry”s untreated schizophrenia. Whenever you do a movie about any kind of mental health issue you have to walk a line because most people that take medication are not violent. Is that something you think about?

Marjane: No, no. Really I don't think [about it]. If I want to make a film about health issues and mental issues and schizophrenia and I make THIS film, I be the most irresponsible person in the world. This is just a fiction. We talked about a sick person. It's not really the treatment of mental sickness. The only thing that might be true in that is that he's not a monster, he's just sick. So it's really not a serious subject like how to deal with schizophrenia, you have to keep it as a fiction. This is a fiction and it's a dark comedy. But I don't have anymore pretension than that.

Photo Credit: Lionsgate

It”s more about humanizing him.

Marjane: Yeah. Exactly. I mean it's very easy to say he's a monster but he's not.

There”s this jarring contrast between what Jerry sees when he”s off his medication and what reality looks like when he”s on it.

Marjane: The story is basically you're always in the mind of Jerry. You are with Jerry. So it should have been that when he comes back to the normal life, it should be so horrible that the viewers understand why he doesn”t take the medication. He has a beautiful fantastic world, but that is not the reality. In the fantastic world, when Jerry cuts the body with us, he thinks he puts it in Tupperware in a nice, organized way. He packs and ships because that is what he does. He's extremely proud of that. So in reality he also packs, but in a more disgusting way. It was very important to show that.

Other than Jerry and his pets, which are extensions of him, most of the characters in the movie are women. That was a nice surprise, to get to see the girls from accounts/receiving go out to karaoke and be friends.

Marjane: Yes. I really wanted different women, you know, different looks. Gemma Arterton does not look at all like Anna Kendrick who does not look at all like Ella Smith and who does not look at all like Jacki Weaver. I really wanted to make a presentation because in this kind of film normally you have an extremely thin girl who is blonde and who is a victim and I really didn't want that.

Later in the film when the audience starts to realize what an unreliable narrator Jerry is, there”s a point when you start to question how much is reality and how much is the bubblegum version Jerry sees. For example, the pink jumpsuits at his work.

Marjane: And that is exactly why I did it this way because we can say that is his bubblegum version. But it's a bathroom factory. hey are not creating cars or a war weapon, it's bath stuff. t can be pink because the shampoo, bath, like flower smell. Why not? So you can leave the question open. Is it reality or not? The viewer could decide what they want.

“The Voices” is in theaters and available On Demand now.