“Cat Person” Production Designer Sally Levi on Turning a Viral Short Story Into a Feature-Length Film
“Margot met Robert on a Wednesday night toward the end of her fall semester. She was working behind the concession stand at the artsy movie theatre downtown when he came in and bought a large popcorn and a box of Red Vines.” This is how writer Kristen Roupenian’s short story “Cat Person” begins, a vignette about a young college student, Margot, meeting an older man named Robert. It was published in The New Yorker and appeared online on December 4, 2017. Three days later, as Roupenian recounted in a follow-up story for The New Yorker about the shock of what happened next, a friend of hers said to her, “There’s something going on with your story.” That something was an incredibly rare event—Roupenian’s “Cat Person” had become a viral sensation.
“Cat Person” is about Margo, the twenty-year-old college student, and Robert, a man in his mid-thirties, who go on one very bad date. Written in the close third person, Roupenian describes Margot’s thoughts on the date as she becomes increasingly convinced she does not want to sleep with Robert but does so anyway. The story was a flashpoint for young women who identified with the experience of, as Rouopenian put it in her follow-up piece, “the sense that there is a point at which it is ‘too late’ to say no to a sexual encounter.”
Now, nearly six years later, “Cat Person” has been adapted by director Susanna Fogel (The Flight Attendant, Booksmart) from a script by Michelle Ashford (Operation Mincemeat). Fogel and Ashford have taken Roupenian’s taut, tense encounter between Margot (Emilia Jones) and Robert (Nicholas Braun) and expanded it into a feature-length film, teasing out a tale about male toxicity and turning it into a romantic thriller.
Aiding them in their effort to build out the world of Cat Person was production designer Sally Levi, who went to some ingenious lengths to create spaces that young women would curate and create and make the most of locations, especially an abandoned Toys R Us headquarters, that had just the right amount of creepiness.
I’m curious if you had read the original short story before you signed onto this project?
I’d heard of the story, but I read it after I read the script. I knew it was based on a New Yorker short story, then I decided to read the script first. In most books I read, I don’t end up liking the movies [laughs], and this was obviously a short story versus a book, but it was interesting to read it in reverse. Cat Person was a passion project of mine and probably the best experience I’ve had as a production designer.
I didn’t want to do the job at first. My agent actually did a bit of convincing for me to meet on it because I was a little scared it would end up being like a sexploitation movie in the wrong hands. Obviously, it was not. Once I met with the director, Susanna [Fogel], I was one hundred percent on board because her vision was to do this in a real way and to do it for younger women. Not that it can’t be for all generations and sexes, but the idea that teenagers through their twenties could actually watch this and process it because it’s so like real life, it might make a difference to a lot of people. To someone like me, when I read the short story, I got chills. It took me a long time to understand the relationship between men and women, and I was incredibly fearful in a lot of ways when it came to dating. I wondered if I had watched this movie when I was younger how it might have affected me or changed my relationship with dating. So then I was fully on board, and I was very excited about the cast. I really respected who they chose, because it could have gone to some big celebrities, but they really tried to cast to the short story.
Adapting a book into a feature-length film has plenty of its own challenges, including deciding all the good parts you have to leave out of your movie, but for a 7,000-word short story, how difficult was it to build that out into a full world?
It’s very different from the short story, as it always had to be. Anybody who is going to interpret a very short story into a feature-length film is going to have to add a lot of details and make a lot of strong choices. That was definitely challenging. The dorm room—people think, oh, it’s a dorm room, it’s basically a concrete block that’s painted, what is there to do? When I was looking at a lot of movies that have done dorm rooms, it was very interesting to see how cheesy or forced they felt. There were a lot of posters everywhere that weren’t really relevant or specific. So, it was actually not an easy task. I’ve done dorm rooms before, so I did know it’s not that you just go to the thrift store and buy a bunch of stuff, and it’s fine. Young people are very curated. What they have in their dorm room is what they want the world to see because their bedroom is exposed to the whole floor of people. It’s an open book to who they are and how they want to express themselves.
How did you research the modern dorm room to avoid the pitfall of making it generic?
I met someone very similar to Margo, the same age, and I rented a lot of her stuff [laughs]. So we had the rug, the blanket, the artwork, even things she’d taped onto her walls that were so perfect. Then, we got clearance on what we could use.
It’s a brilliant way to make sure the dorm rooms look authentic. It’s like going antiquing or thrifting, buying things that once were in someone’s personal space, only here, you’re doing it from someone still using those pieces.
So your team had to remove stuff from her dorm room and then, later, put it back?
She had left the dorm system, she was in a shared apartment, and she removed everything, which was really nice of her. There were a lot of little specific details, like a stationary pad, these amazing details that would have taken us so much time to shop and age that. Everything was aged appropriately. We obviously had to get more than just her stuff. And then she worked on the movie. She was actually the assistant to the director. She was always on set, and she had the perfect style. She looked like Margo. She’s not an actress. She wants to be a director herself one day.
She’s got a good start. And what a great way to capture what a young woman’s design preferences are and how they curate their world.
Exactly. In a movie I did this summer, we rented a bunch of stuff from my niece. [Laughs.]
What about the rest of the world you’re creating?
We had very specific parts of the movie. The parent’s home was incredibly difficult to find because it was particularly chosen to reflect the uncomfortable relationship between the mother and stepfather. We wanted to shoot from aunt into winter because we didn’t want any leaves on the trees outside of the house. We made that choice to have all the big windows with the stark trees outside. We wanted to create a home that felt like it was missing something, which it was. That location we found right before we started to shoot. There was another location that wasn’t right, and we almost went with it because time was running out. That house was very much like the Ferris Bueller’s Day Off home, that quintessential, perfect home where you want to go and cry to your mom, and if you’re sick, your mom takes care of you, which is not the home we wanted to create for Cat Person. Location scouting is never easy. Sometimes, you get lucky, but finding the right location is half of my job and worth the effort.
And what about the university?
For the school, we actually shot at three different campuses to create the one school that Margot attends. FDU [Farleigh Dickinson University] in New Jersey was near where our base camp was, but it was so picture perfect, it was too good to be true. So we went and shot at a school in New York to get that brutalist feel. Then, we went to the old Toys R Us headquarters to shoot a lot of the campus. They had a very interesting, eerie Toys R Us campus that’s since been shut down, so we shot exteriors there.
Sounds like the making of a horror movie, actually.
It was a little creepy. We were there setting up at night, and we were like, this is incredibly creepy.
Cat Person is in theaters now.
Featured image: Emilia Jones and Nicholas Braun in “Cat Person.” Courtesy Studio Canal