The awww factor rules when an incredibly adorable kitten becomes caught in a custody battle and gang war.
Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, better known as Key and Peele, have been making television audiences laugh for years, including on their long-running eponymous Comedy Central series.
However, Keanu marks the first time the enormously popular comedy pair has, together, brought their talents to the big screen as two decidedly un-street-wise guys who are forced to assume the personas of hardcore killers in order to blend into a street gang. And, with any luck, survive.
They’re not in it for the money or the power. All they want is the thing that stole Rell’s heart…and was then stolen from him: an adorable kitten named Keanu.
Peele, who also co-wrote the screenplay with “Key and Peele” writer Alex Rubens, offers, “I wanted to do something crazy and over the top and dark, expanding on the kind of comedy we did in the ‘Key and Peele’ show. The roles of Clarence and Rell were specifically created for Keegan and me, so we could play them in a way no one else could. I know the things that are unique to us, so I knew if we could capture those elements, but in a funny and exaggerated way, we could create something new for us, with characters the likes of which even our fans have never seen.”
Keegan reveals he wasn’t even aware that his partner had been working on a film until Peele asked him to come to a reading of his new script. He recalls, “I didn’t have any idea this was happening, so, as you can imagine, I was pleasantly surprised. When I read it, I thought it was perfect for us.”
Director Peter Atencio has helmed more than 50 episodes of “Key and Peele” and knows what sets the duo apart from the rest.
Atencio says, “Clarence and Rell are trying to save their friend, Keanu, but they’re also kind of trying to find their place. Maybe even they didn’t realize it at the beginning, but they’re not quite as comfortable as they thought being the boring, nerdy guys they start out as, but they’re also definitely not comfortable being in this violent gang. That’s very much a theme of the movie—the ability to navigate the social environments you find yourself in, which is something I think we all do. But it’s wrapped up in this combination of action, thrills and, of course, comedy. You never really know what to expect, and those are my favorite kinds of films. It just keeps you on your toes the entire time.”
Joel Zadak, another longtime collaborator, produced the film together with Key, Peele, Peter Principato and Paul Young. Zadak notes, “Keegan and Jordon are so entertaining to watch and also come to the table with this amazing chemistry. Over the course of five seasons on their own show, fans have come to expect something special from them, something different. What helps earn the audience’s trust is they know who Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele are and what they can deliver, so as soon as they come on the screen, the audience is already rooting for them.”
One of the trademarks of Key and Peele’s humor has been their ability to turn on a dime, changing their speech, posture and entire demeanor to go from urbane men of color in suburbia to urban African Americans in the inner city. In “Keanu,” they push the envelope on their comedy brand.
Peele affirms, “The code-switching theme is something we use a lot, because that happens no matter what race you are. If you need to, you act like a badass in the right scenario, and then the nerdy side comes out amongst your friends. I don’t care how bad you are; we all have a nerdy side. This movie was designed to take that Key and Peele premise and run with it as far as we could possibly go.”
Key expands, “For me and Jordan, everything is about culture and about adjusting to the culture you’re in, in the moment. From the earliest drafts, the script was partly an exploration of these two men and what it means to be African American in our country. If I was born and raised in suburbia in the States, why can’t I talk like this and still be black? That’s a theme that runs throughout the movie and it’s ubiquitous in ‘Key and Peele.’ That’s the lens through which Jordan and I see the world, so there was no way that wasn’t gonna have its fingerprint on this film.”
Though that basic premise was there from the outset, there was something missing. Screenwriter Alex Rubens explains, “We had the script and were feeling pretty good about it, but at a certain point Jordan asked, ‘Where’s the heart?’ Can we get an ‘awww’ in there without sacrificing the rest of it?”
The awww factor came in the form of an adorable kitten, who becomes what Peele calls “the symbol of our heart and our journey.”
“It’s funny,” continues Rubens, “because the cat is very much the heart of the movie, yet he came in later in development. There’s almost a ‘meta’ element, in that the way this cat wanders into Rell’s life kind of matches the process of writing the movie. Suddenly we ‘found’ a cat and the story had a whole new life to it. We loved the ridiculousness of the situation…that it’s all about this tiny kitten.”
But not just any kitten.
“Our kitten, Keanu, is so irresistibly cute that everyone who comes in contact with it immediately falls in love,” states Atencio. “So whether you’re a ruthless drug lord or a murderous assassin or just a guy going through a hard time, you’re instantly smitten.”
For the producers, Atencio was the natural choice to direct “Keanu.”
Peter Principato attests, “Peter is a gifted filmmaker who has directed almost all of the ‘Key and Peele’ shows, so they really consider him the third man on their team. He’s got a great eye and had such original ideas for the movie.”
Key and Peele both agree. “It’s truly a triumvirate with us and Peter,” says Key. “We’ve worked with him almost exclusively in the television sphere, so we’ve developed this great shorthand between the three of us that works really well.”
Peele adds, “We already knew Peter was a master craftsman just from his ability to put together our extremely difficult show every week, so we were very comfortable having him at the helm. And he loves cats,” he smiles, “so it was perfect.”
It was also perfect timing. Atencio relates, “I got the call from Jordan telling me they had written a script and wanted me to read it, but all I knew going in was that it was about a cat. Coincidentally, I had just gotten a kitten through a friend and had fallen in love with it. So to have those two things happen in close proximity…maybe this was meant to be.”
The title role of “Keanu” is actually played by seven equally adorable brown tabbies, all of which were rescued from shelters.
Having some flexibility was a necessity, considering that the title star of the film is a kitten…or, rather, seven of them “that all have a very short attention span,” animal trainer April Mackin acknowledges. “There are so many things happening on a movie set, so we really worked with the kittens to get them acclimated to all the sounds and the people, and they did great.”
The seven tiny, brown tabbies divided acting chores to portray Rell’s beloved kitten, which he names Keanu. Though he tells Clarence that Keanu is Hawaiian for breeze, the name will likely ring a different bell for film fans. Key asserts, “Rell has movie posters on his walls and everything in his life is reverential to cinema, so there was no way this kitten’s name was going to be Beauregard or Fluffy. This cat was gonna have a movie star name.”
The seven kittens used in the film were in two groups, divided by age. Animal trainer Larry Payne explains, “It’s required by the American Humane Association for kittens to be at least twelve weeks old. We rescued the first three at eight weeks so we had four weeks of training, but these guys grow very fast and filming obviously takes place over a longer period of time than the story. We needed to keep the size about the same so we adopted four more kittens for the last few weeks of production.”
“All of the kittens were rescued from shelters, so they truly went from rags to riches,” states Mackin. “It was awesome that we not only found kittens that were perfect, but we were also saving lives.”
The young age of the kittens turned out to be of benefit to the trainers. “You know the old expression ‘scaredy cat’ because cats tend to want to run away and hide,” says Payne. “But one nice thing with our kittens is they were growing up in that environment, with all the noise and activity of a film set, so it was normal for them. They were like, ‘Oh, this is what kittens do; all kittens work on movies.’”
“I think it went to their heads a little bit,” says the director, with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek. “Like any actor, they expected to be well taken care of, so we just had to deal with that. The kittens had to have very nice food and accommodations, but they were doing a really good job so it was hard to say no to their demands.”
Similar to dogs, training kittens involves a combination of repetition and positive reinforcement; however, as Payne points out, there are some notable distinctions. “We coax them one way or another into a behavior with food and then reward them. And while dogs get a glimmer of the behavior with very few repetitions, cats generally take a lot more. Another difference is that dogs are bred to please their masters, whereas cats are generally pleasing themselves.”
As the trainers worked with the kittens, they discovered their particular strengths, which helped determine which one would be used in any given scene. Payne expounds, “Because of their individual personalities, they each might be prone to certain behaviors, so one might be better at sitting and staying, and another at running. We’d rehearse scenes over and over and pick the best two because, by having two ready to go, we could give one a break if the scene was taking a while.”
Atencio reveals he was a bit nervous about relying on the kittens’ ability to follow directions, admitting, “I went into this process incredibly concerned that any time we needed something from the cat, it was going to bring production to a halt. But I have to say I was proven wrong; anything we asked those kittens to do, they hit the mark. We had shots where everyone watching the monitors went ‘awww’ out loud without even realizing they were doing it, because they saw something so cute it was just an instinctual reaction. So I think the old adage should be ‘Don’t work with kids or animals unless it’s cats,’ because a child cat is actually the best actor I’ve ever worked with,” he laughs.
Throughout production, the comfort and safety of the kittens was paramount to the director, cast, trainers and crew. Mackin confirms, “Everyone was fantastic with the kittens. They were so respectful of them and concerned for their welfare.”
The kittens returned the favor. Payne recalls, “If someone was having a tough day, we’d bring in a kitten and it changed everyone’s mood. Holding or playing with a kitten made everyone happy.”