The Art Of Comedy: Nine Lives

What the film shows is that family belongs together.

When a work-obsessed real-estate mogul suffers a magical accident that leaves him trapped inside the body of his 11-year-old daughter’s cat, he realizes he has to put his family first if he ever hopes to regain his human form in Nine Lives.


When the Nine Lives script crossed Kevin Spacey’s desk, he decided the time to get silly again was, well, right meow.

“Barry Sonnenfeld has done some of the great films of all time, no doubt about it,” says the actor. “So when he came onto this project, I was enormously excited.”

According to Sonnenfeld, Spacey’s unique qualities made him ideal for the duality of the role — first playing an insensitive human, then voicing the same person transplanted into a cat’s body. “Kevin is perfect for the role because he’s smart, funny, sarcastic, and can portray very warm or very cold,” says the director. “Kevin’s voice is also perfect for this because it’s recognizable, it’s droll, it can be sardonic — it’s all the things you want for the voiceover.”

In Nine Lives an  immensely successful businessman who has built an empire at the expense of any sort of true human connection, Tom Brand is surrounded by good people who love him in spite of his skyscraper-sized flaws. But it isn’t until he finds himself with four paws and a tail that Tom realizes how lucky he’s been.

At the heart of his family is his beautiful, understanding wife Lara. Sonnenfeld says that as soon as he read the script he formed a mental image of the actress who would portray the character. “Jennifer Garner was always my first choice to play Kevin’s wife,” he explains. “She’s beautiful, strong and funny — qualities that don’t always go together.”

Garner was intrigued by the film’s quirky premise and broad physical comedy. “It’s been so interesting to talk about this film at home with my friends and my family, that I’m doing this movie where Kevin Spacey turns into a cat, and they all want to know how on earth is this even possible,” she laughs. “He buys this cat from Christopher Walken. That in itself tells you there’s going to be something wacko and magical and wonderful in the film.”

The film also features Oscar-winner Christopher Walken in the role of eccentric pet-store owner Felix Perkins. Sonnenfeld says it had been one of his life’s ambitions to direct Walken in a film. “I was thrilled that he agreed to work on our movie. It turns out he’s a huge cat lover. He’s owned many cats.”

Although Walken came to worldwide acclaim for his Oscar-winning role in the searing Vietnam War drama The Deer Hunter, over the years he has shown a tremendous gift for comedy.

“It’s a wonderful script, wonderful actors, and Barry Sonnenfeld — good job,” he declares. “Plus, I’ve always liked cats. I’ve always had them; so I think Felix is a lot like me.”

Herding Cats

“There’s nothing funnier than real cats,” says visual effects supervisor Craig Hayes, who was given the daunting task of blending the film’s real-life felines with its computer-generated ones. “So the question we asked ourselves was, how can we capture the reality of the cats, as opposed to what can we do to make a CG cat?

The first step was to try to evoke these performances from real animals.”

Mr. Fuzzypants is actually played by six different cats, each trained to perform a different set of tasks. (“There’s a cat that can take a pen out and write with it and there’s a cat that’s very, very good at math,” jokes Spacey.) The cast of animal actors was overseen by a pair of professional trainers who have a long history with Sonnenfeld.

“Barry’s worked with Janine Aines and Christie Miele for a number of shows, including the three Men in Black films,” explains Hayes. “So he’s got a tremendous amount of faith in them, as he should. They’re just incredible. Some of the things we thought would be more challenging, like getting a real cat to do a specific action, they did fantastically.”

In most cases, the Nine Lives filmmakers first tried get the shot practically, only turning to digital effects when necessary. “We knew a real cat was critical to the process, even if there were going to be shots that would ultimately need a CG cat in there,” says Hayes. “We were going to do our best to shoot them using real cats first, hoping that we might get lucky and get a great performance.”

Sonnenfeld, who is severely allergic to cats, specifically requested that his feline stars be of the Siberian Forest variety, a breed known to be hypoallergenic. But acquiring the exotic cats turned out to be a tall order for the trainers. “The hardest part was finding the right look that Barry wanted,” says Aines. “It was a Siberian but with a very specific blue eye color and thick coat.”

“Janine and I spent weeks online contacting Russia,” adds Miele. “I’m sure the government thinks we’re Russian spies, but Barry really wanted these Siberian cats.”

The trainers found their lead actor in Gene, a veteran show cat who has traveled the world. “Gene is the dramatic star who did all the sitting and staying and looking around,” explains Miele, “while Connery is the main action cat who attacked, retrieved, climbed a tower and was chased. Another cat, Yuri, danced with Tom’s daughter Rebecca, as well as helping out as an all-around stand-in.”

As anyone who has ever had a feline pet knows, getting a cat to obey commands isn’t easy.

That’s not to say they are untrainable, however, says Miele. “Cats can learn almost everything a dog can learn. The difference is they’re doing it because you’re rewarding them with the bribe they want. When they’re done with the scene, they are done; whereas dogs are eager to please and like to work. With a dog, you couldgo, ‘Come on, one more just for me.’ Cats are a little different in that regard. It’s more, ‘What’s in it for me?’”

Constant food rewards worked like a charm when it came to getting the cats to perform action scenes like the one in which Mr. Fuzzypants runs away with Lara’s car keys. Aines says a bigger challenge was getting Gene to sit calmly and stare into the camera, like a human who is thinking. “Keeping the cats focused required desensitizing them to their surroundings, such as sudden movements and sounds,” explains the trainer. “We played the radio to get them used to always hearing something so that when, let’s say, someone was coming up behind them, the music kept them calm.”

Although the filmmakers had budgeted for extensive CG work based on the difficult tasks the script demanded of Mr. Fuzzypants, the cats turned out to be consistent overachievers, says Sonnenfeld. “We did a certain amount of computer graphics, although not as much as we had planned, because the cats — and our wranglers — were so good.”

The film’s feline cast members also strongly influenced the production design, according to Wylie. “When you shoot something 12 to 14 inches tall, you’re either going to be looking straight down at a floor, up at a person from the cat’s point of view, or looking down at the cat from our point of view. So we spent a lot of time and money making amazing floors that are really intricate, shiny and beautiful. Barry said — and I agreed with him — that if we’re going to spend time watching a cat run across a floor, it better be a really interesting floor. So we actually started the sets with the floors and designed up and around them.”

© 2016 EuropaCorp.

The cast and crew behind Nine Lives didn’t pussyfoot around when it came to making a funny, crowd-pleasing comedy with a heartfelt message that the whole family can watch together, according to Sonnenfeld. “I think there’s a real worldwide audience for this film,” says the director.

Jennifer Garner is confident that moviegoers of all ages will enjoy the film. “I don’t think audiences can help having a great time hearing Kevin Spacey’s droll, grumpy cat voice come out of Mr. Fuzzypants,” she says. “With Kevin as the cat, we were all in stitches. Between Christopher Walken, the beautiful Malina, and the wonderful Robbie Amell and Mark Consuelos, this movie is in good shape. It’s incredibly watchable, and funny and warm.”

Hines believes Nine Lives could do more than make audiences laugh; it also might leave them walking out of the theater feeling a bit closer to their loved ones. “What the film shows is that family belongs together,” she explains. “It comes in different shades and different colors, but you need to watch out for, and embrace all the people in your family, and appreciate them for who they are — whether you like them or not.”

Sonnenfeld says he is immensely pleased with the way the film turned out, despite once again contradicting one of Hollywood’s oldest tropes. “They say never work with animals or kids, and somehow, I’ve managed to make a living doing both. I think audiences will really like seeing it.”