Animal trainer Melissa Millett reveals what was involved in getting Pet Sematary’s feline star to perform on cue, and behave like an angry zombie.
How long have you been training animals?
I started 20 years ago. Dogs were my primary and then I started training cats to test my skills because of the level of difficulty. They are significantly harder to train because they act like prey and predator. When they get scared they hide, so the big secret is to make sure they are confident in their environment and also that they enjoy the work and it’s fun for them, because there is no desire to please in a cat. My animal coordinator on the film, Kirk Jarrett, has been doing this for 30 years and has worked with everything – primates, big cats… When asked, he always says that cats are the hardest animals he’s had to work with. I think everybody was probably sweating until they actually saw the cats perform.
How many cats play Church in Pet Sematary?
There were five cats in total and we used four. What’s interesting about the Pet Sematary cats is we actually adopted them from shelters and it took two months for them to be ready. Two of them were kittens that were about 10 months old when we started training, so 12 months when we started filming. Certainly they were far better at being comfortable in new environments and picking up behaviours faster. You can train them at any age but you’re better to start when they’re young.
Were there particular cats that were best suited to certain tasks?
The two kittens were action cats. They were the best at movement and best for the cat at the start of the movie that was friendly and happy. The older cats were better as the evil cat because they were quiet, focused and calm and excelled at that calm, creepy stare.
Church is a different breed in the new film…
The cat in the first movie was a British short hair and in this movie they were very specific about the look that they wanted. It was the look of the cat on the cover of the book, so that they could be true to the novel, and we searched out that look in the shelters. I believe there was some talk about these cats being cats that look like everybody’s cats. That way, after you watch the film and the cat terrifies you, so many people can identify with that because they have a cat at home that has that look.
What’s involved in getting them to perform on cue?
We broke down the script and we trained for two months for the specific behaviours and foundations. And then, as we got the schedule of what we were shooting, we would start to prepare each scene. The preparation was pretty extensive. We would have access to the sets every night and we went into the sets and worked through the scenes with the cats so that the next day when we went through the scenes with Jason [Clarke], the cats knew exactly where they had to be and exactly what they had to do. The only difference was the addition of the cameras and the crew.
And what does it take to make one behave like an angry zombie?
We have to find a cat that is already showing that personality. And you reinforce it with treats when he gives you the actions you want.
Did the scenes involving the cats require a lot of takes?
They nailed most of it straight up because they’d had so much prep work. The one thing that happens with cats is there’s not a lot of repetition – they’re highly intelligent. They have the attitude of, ‘Yeah, I got that and I’m not doing it again because I just did it!’ The kittens had more stamina – if you got 10 takes out of them that would be a good shot.
Was any CGI or digital enhancement added in post-production, or is it all the real cats?
That’s a good question. When filming is finished they call you in and give you a wrap speech, and they pointed out there was virtually no CGI with the cats. The cats performed almost everything they were asked to do, and it was a great moment for us – it’s the highest compliment a trainer can receive to have virtually no CGI.