Cat Person – A genre-bending thriller about the horrors of dating in the 21st Century

“It just tapped into such a shared truth for women of every generation in terms of how they navigate through sexual politics,” says screenwriter Michelle Ashford, who had previously tackled sexual dynamics and politics in the television series Masters Of Sex. in adapting Cat Person, Ashford was eager to jump into the minefield of issues that the short story suggested.

“When the New Yorker published Kristen Roupenian’s short story Cat Person, it caused unexpected havoc in the Zeitgeist just as the #MeToo movement was making headlines,” says director Susanna Fogel. “What initially seemed like a small, perfectly-observed story about a brief romantic encounter between a 20-year-old girl and 30 30-something man became a lightning rod for debate. Men and women argued about who was to blame in the story, whether the perspective on sex was unfair to men, whether that critique itself was unfair to women, and so on. The fervor over Cat Person became the narrative, which on a meta level proved that we are nowhere near done talking about issues of dating and sex. It also indicated that stories about subtle dysfunction in sexual encounters can be equally, if not more, provocative than stories where there is a clear villain and victim.”

Fogel had read the story in 2017, imagining a small, internal movie in her head since the story takes place within a short time frame and only from the narrow perspective of Margot. Michelle’s first draft changed her mind: “When I read Michelle’s script,” she says, “I was really taken aback by the brilliance of the innovation that she had, to take it into this multi-genre place that I thought was so smart. I was really excited to find out that there was potential to make it feel cinematic in that way and play with genre. She had the vision to adapt this grounded and internal source material as a genre thriller, one that baits you into thinking you’re watching a relationship film, then switches into a nightmare as it ruminates on communication breakdowns and gender dynamics,” says Fogel.

When Margot, a college sophomore (Emilia Jones – CODA) goes on a date with the older Robert (Nicholas Braun – SUCCESSION, ZOLA), she finds that IRL Robert doesn’t live up to the Robert she has been flirting with over texts. CAT PERSON is a razor-sharp exploration of the gender divide, the quagmire of navigating modern dating and the dangerous projections we make in our minds about the person at the other end of our phones.

Producer Jeremy Steckler immediately saw movie potential in the story and optioned the rights

Producer Jeremy Steckler was intrigued by the emotional richness of the conversations, think-pieces, and opinions that the work engendered. He loved how the story divided readers in their interpretations of Margot and Robert’s motives and their inability to project the truth about themselves, explaining, “Everybody is the hero of their own movie, but may have trouble figuring out that they may actually be the villain of their own story.”

Steckler orchestrated a meeting between Michelle Ashford and filmmaker Susanna Fogel, fresh off her success as the screenwriter of the female-forward, high school comedy Booksmart.

“Having two women tell this story, and adapt it from another woman’s short story was really important. I thought it wise to put the pieces in place and get out of the way of these folks who are smarter than me”.

When Ashford and Fogel found that they had similar takes on the material, they were thrilled to be working together on material with such topical themes and complex female characters

Kristen Roupenian’s original story had ended abruptly after Margot and Robert’s one and only date, but Ashford wanted to expand the screenplay to explore the shifting sands of dating and communication in the age of social media and to examine the deep-seated prejudices, insecurities, and fears that come into play when men and women are trying to get to know one another.

Says Ashford, “We were both completely of the same mind…Where do we go from here? How do we advance the conversation?” And to Fogel, the themes of the screenplay fed into her areas of interest as a filmmaker: “Women’s complex psychology and how they interact with other people, in ways both functional and dysfunctional is probably what unifies my work,” she notes. “I like that the film sparks a conversation in the culture or adds to the conversation in some way.”

Taking Roupenian’s story almost as a jumping-off point, Ashford expanded her screenplay to flesh out the character of Margot, surrounding her with a vibrant community of college friends, professors, and roommates. Margot’s best friend Taylor, a self-professed expert on men and dating, lives her life online as the moderator of a subreddit called The Vagenda.

Obsessed with woke culture to a fault, she is a cynical and opinionated voice in Margot’s ear. Margot’s college roommate Beth on the other hand is happily, gushily and mushily in love with her long-time boyfriend. The older generation of women surrounding Margot and shaping her views on male-female dynamics and expectations are her anthropology professor and her mother, who has never forgiven herself for a broken marriage when Margot was a young girl.

After reading Roupenian’s story, Ashford was immediately struck with the idea that the story had elements of classic horror to it.”

Jeremy Steckler was on board with the idea, adding, “Michelle really wanted to do for dating what Get Out did for race and have that conversation culturally and I think she accomplished it.”

Fogel chimes in, “I love stories that allow you to come at the subject matter in a multi-layered way. In Michelle’s script she basically talked about the fears that we feel about intimacy and made them into actual fears for your life. The horrors of dating are actually core elements in the script so I thought that was really brilliant.”

Short story writer Kristen Roupenian was thrilled that Ashford wove horror movie tropes into the script,
seeing the genre structure as part of its appeal, “You’re watching a girl go into the house and you’re saying ‘Don’t go into the house!’ I loved that that is something they cared about.”

Where Roupenian’s story ended abruptly with a slap-in-the-face text exchange between Robert and Margot, Ashford saw the film developing beyond that moment to give context to the behavior of the characters, and to create a killer third act that would further the conversation about communication, miscommunication and lack of communication between the sexes, as well as being an exciting, chilling finale.

Adds producer Jeremy Steckler, “The third act of our film is really Margot taking matters into her own hands. She’s read and heard so much about women who behave passively and let a man ride roughshod over their lives and she refuses to let that happen. She refuses to be a victim, at least in her own mind.”

Cat Person also taps into some classic fairy tale tropes: the lone young heroine confronting a manifestation of evil…or in the world of Cat Person, at least what she believes to be a manifestation of evil.

Ashford saw a direct connection between stories of ancient folklore and today’s charged sexual climate: “When you’re talking about these issues, they’ve been around forever, and this notion of how men and women communicate, and what is the balance of power between the sexes has been going on for literally since cavemen days. Those fairy tales have a lot to do with this. I thought why not imbue this movie with
that type of imagery which is hopefully taking you deeper into how entrenched these patterns and these ways of being are for both women and men.” Fogel also appreciated the added layers of subtext in the script, saying, “The idea that she’s a young woman and that young women are still preyed upon and they’re still looked at in ways that are scary, it’s what all the fairy tales are about too. The monsters in this are men and love and intimacy and self-reflection, but we should feel some of that primal fear.”

As in life, the script contains elements of levity in some of the situations that Margot finds herself in and in the misguided notions or behavior of the characters. Margot has an active imagination that often runs away with her, allowing for some tonal shifts that vacillate between extremes of comedy and horror.

Roupenian describes the script as “bleakly funny” and to Fogel, this dichotomy is an accurate reflection of what women experience every day when at any moment fear of danger can arise: “From moment to moment the movie feels different in the way that life can feel different, especially as a woman,” she explains. “You can be happy after hanging out with a friend and then you’re walking home and you hear a noise, and you’re terrified….these are all parts of our life, our experience.”

In writing the screenplay, Ashford wanted to address all elements of these contradictions without minimizing the importance of the necessity of the conversation: “There is much comedy to be mined over
the discussion that comes around sexual politics,” she laughs. “Because while all the discussions are essential of course, they can also veer into the absurd and I thought let’s tap into that as well.”

Filming a screenplay where much of the exchange of dialogue takes place over text messaging is not without its challenges; director Fogel took pains to figure out how to immerse the viewer in Margot’s experience without compromising her needs as a director working in a largely visual medium: “It’s really a subjective movie from her (Margot’s) perspective,” Fogel explains. “She’s reading a text that’s a pretty straightforward response but it feels like a blowoff and music and all of those other devices can help the audience feel like it’s the insult she feels it is.”

Emilia Jones, who plays Margot, enjoyed shooting the scenes where much of the “dialogue” was of a written nature and thought that Fogel’s directorial approach added depth to the interiority of the characters: “We would do shots where I was texting but the camera was on my eyes and that to me was really interesting ‘cause I think a lot can be said through your eyes and that’s how I like to act.”

While Cat Person is very much about the power games and the volleying for status that goes on between people trying to form intimate connections, the filmmakers wanted to move the conversation beyond broad strokes into a more nuanced area.

Fogel is clear that the film is not a simple predator/prey story or a critique of toxic men and women who can’t resist them.

Emilia Jones’s take on the psychological thriller is that “it’s a meditation on the miscommunications, the power dynamics, and the interiority of dating.”

And while it does shine a light on modern dating methods and the inherent drawbacks of getting to know a person online, Fogel doesn’t feel that that is entirely a 21st Century problem: “I think projection has always been part of the narrative of falling in love even when it’s analog letters,” she points out. “But I think with texts the danger is that it’s the perception of intimacy because of the immediate gratification of a response.”

In agreement, Roupenian adds, “I think that happens in a very compressed way in this story between Margot and Robert, where they are both dancing with imaginary versions of each other through the
medium of text and the rise and fall of the story is the clashing into each other in person.”

The success of Cat Person as a short piece of fiction writing in The New Yorker was an undeniable cultural phenomenon.

The filmmakers of Cat Person hope for a similar impact, although they are keen to point out that the two formats are very different beasts.

Roupenian feels strongly that “you can have responded to the story in one way and then watch the movie
and feel totally different and that’s ok cos they’re two different pieces of art.” What is clear, is that the film is sure to invite discussion and provoke conversation about the extremely complex dynamics of sexual politics.

Nicholas Braun feels that viewers will see themselves in the characters in a lot of different ways and loves the ambiguity of the interplay between Margot and Robert, but stresses, “No one’s right, no one’s wrong, no one wins.”

Screenwriter Ashford concludes, “If women would only speak up and say their truth and if men would
listen…that would go a very, very, very, long way to improving things.”

Director Susan Fogel with actors Nicholas Braun and Emilia Jones.

Susanna Fogel | DIRECTOR

Susanna Fogel is a director, screenwriter, and novelist. Most recently, she wrapped production on WINNER, a feature biopic of American whistleblower Reality Winner. She is also in post-production on the WWII-set limited series SMALL LIGHT for NatGeo and Disney+. Prior feature work includes co-writing the hit comedy BOOKSMART, for which she was nominated for a BAFTA and a WGA Award, directing and cowriting Lionsgate’s THE SPY WHO DUMPED ME, and directing and cowriting Magnolia Pictures LIFE PARTNERS, which she developed at the Sundance Lab. On the television side, her directing credits include the pilot episode of the HBO Max series THE FLIGHT ATTENDANT, for which she won a DGA Award and was nominated for an Emmy, the pilot of the Amazon series THE WILDS, episodes of Gillian Flynn’s remake of UTOPIA, and an installment of Steven Spielberg’s AMAZING STORIES. Among other projects, Susanna is currently developing a 1970s Moscow-set television series for Peacock and an action movie for Sony. She is also an avid writer of satire whose pieces have been featured in The New Yorker. Her first novel, Nuclear Family, was published by Macmillan in 2017.

Michelle Ashford | WRITER

Michelle is the creator and executive producer of the Showtime drama MASTERS OF SEX, and the co-creator of the AMC drama MAYFAIR WITCHES. She has written for the HBO miniseries JOHN ADAMS and THE PACIFIC. She adapted UNDAUNTED COURAGE, the Stephen Ambrose account of the Lewis and Clark expedition, also for HBO. She has written numerous pilots, both network and cable, and her other series credits include BOOMTOWN, LA DOCTORS, and NEW YORK NEWS. Michelle’s most recent feature scripts include OPERATION MINCEMEAT, a non-fiction spy story set in WWII based on Ben Macintyre’s book. She also adapted CITY OF GIRLS, based on the Elizabeth Gilbert novel for Warner Bros., THE SKIES BELONG TO US, another non-fiction story about the golden age of hijacking, STRANGER IN THE WOODS, based on the book by Michael Finkel chronicling the true story of the North Pond Hermit, and CAT PERSON from the New Yorker short story “Cat Person”, written by Kristen Roupenian, which went viral in December of 2017.

Kristen Roupenian | AUTHOR

Kristen Roupenian is an author and screenwriter. Her short story Cat Person, which appeared in The New Yorker, became a viral sensation, perhaps as no short story has since the magazine published Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery in 1948. Her debut short story collection, You Know You Want This was published in 2019, and described by the New York Times as “exciting, smart, perceptive, weird and dark,” and “from one of those brains that feel out-of-this-world brilliant and also completely askew.” She wrote the story for the hit A24 film BODIES BODIES BODIES and has features in development with Studiocanal and
Endeavor Content. She is currently at work on a novel.