Sundance’s ‘Cat Person’: Director Susanna Fogel Looks at Modern Dating, the Gender Divide in Life and on Screen

For her third feature film, “Cat Person,” which plays in the Premieres section of Sundance Film Festival, director Susanna Fogel and screenwriter Michelle Ashford felt strongly that the film should be the “next instalment in the conversation that we’ve been having with these films that have dealt with issues of gender, relationships, consent, sexuality and dating over the past several years,” Fogel tells Variety.

There has been a “crop of movies that spoke of this moment in the zeitgeist by presenting this sort of revenge feminism, where the woman is avenging the years of oppression and the men are put in their place, and it’s more of a binary between women and men in terms of women taking the power back and men being chastized for their cultural role,” she says.

They wanted to ask themselves: “What’s the next move in that conversation?,” she says, and try to make a film that would “raise those perspectives as valid, but also have a dialectic with the other side of things.”

The screenplay was adapted by Ashford from Kristen Roupenian’s viral and controversial eponymous 2017 short story from the New Yorker. It follows college sophomore Margot (played by “Coda’s” break-out star Emilia Jones), who goes on a date with the older Robert (played by “Succession’s” Nicholas Braun), and finds that IRL (“in real life”) Robert doesn’t live up to the Robert she has been flirting with over texts.

Fogel admits that she was concerned about doing justice to Roupenian’s identity as an artist. The two would have conversations that would inform some of her choices in terms of casting and the film’s aesthetics. “Even though there was this other layer of narrative that was the screenplay that you were filming, there was still a resonance to the story that I wanted to make sure we captured,” she says.

“Michelle had this notion that the internal psychological experience of being a woman contains enough suspense, uncertainty, dread and fear that that would be a note to play in the adaptation,” Fogel says. “Michelle’s vision was really: Let’s make those fears so vivid, and so intense that they feel immersive for the audience, and that we’re plunged into those worst-case scenarios and projections.”

As well as Jones and Braun, the cast includes Geraldine Viswanathan, Michael Gandolfini, Hope Davis and Isabella Rossellini.

“The thing about Kristen’s story that was so incredible, but also so challenging for adaptation, was that it’s such a relatable story, and the story is really about an every-girl,” Fogel says. “And when you look at the actresses who are well-known and star in movies, there’s a cult of celebrity around so many of them that it takes over the narrative, and makes it hard to lose yourself in watching their experiences, and then connecting to that on some level… But at this moment, Emilia felt like a really fresh, exciting choice because she wasn’t as exposed in that way.”

Another aspect of the film industry that bothers Fogel is – in spite of the “wonderful progress” when it comes to women in film today – the binary way that women are presented. “There’s this pressure to show women being strong in this way that denies their vulnerability, to set this new standard for how strong women are supposed to be,” she says. But she feels that Sundance is the right place to premiere “Cat Person” because “it’s a place where it’s a young vibrant zeitgeist environment – a perfect launchpad for the film, which I hope will spark a lot of debate.”

Fogel has three projects in the pipeline: the Disney + limited series “A Small Light,” and feature film “Winner,” also starring Jones, in post-production, and another pic in development titled “The Mentor.”

“Cat Person” is produced by Studiocanal, 30WEST, Echelon Productions, Imperative Entertainment and the New Yorker.

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