A version of this story first appeared in the May 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
No kittens were harmed in the making of this movie. But several did dodge fake bullets, sprint through a drug den and wear gold chains.
New Line's comedy Keanu (opening April 29) stars Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele as a couple of hapless slackers whose adorable kitten gets kidnapped by a drug dealer (naturally, to get the cat back, they pretend to be hardened criminals and infiltrate the drug dealer's gang). But, of course, the real attraction of this movie is the bling-wearing tabby who has been hogging all the bus-stop posters -; the cat in the do-rag.
Read More 'Keanu': SXSW Review
His name is Nacho. And it's Jeffe. And also Squibword. As it turns out, seven different but very similar-looking kittens were used to shoot Keanu. "Cuteness was definitely the biggest priority," says director Peter Atencio, who held a kitten audition in New Orleans, deciding between two types: brown tabbies and black-and-white tuxedo kittens.
Tabbies, which also were the most common at shelters, ultimately were chosen because they were the easiest breed to match. "They're extremely photogenic and easy to work with," says Atencio.
Tip #2: Food is the ultimate motivator. The kittens were taught to walk, run and sit on marks by using buzzers and food rewards. For instance, Payne taught the kittens that if they walked over to a buzzer, they'd get a treat. For one scene, Payne put a dollop of baby food on Peele's face so the kitten would give him a kiss.
Cats are not natural movie actors; they don't like being directed. "Dogs want to please their masters," says Larry Payne of Birds and Animals Unlimited, who, with colleague April Mackin, trained all the kittens in Keanu. "Cats want to please themselves." Computer-generated cats are easier to herd, but Atencio wanted his movie to feel real so Payne started working with three identical-looking, weeks-old shelter kittens (four more were brought on later, when the original three started outgrowing the role). After weeks of conditioning -; using treats as rewards and "a lot of repetition," says Payne -; the trainers were able to coax the kittens into performing many of the stunts without any CGI help at all, including a scene in which Keanu sprints through a gunfight (the cats were taught to dodge exploding squibs).
"The studio said, 'You're going to do all CGI for this right?'" said Atencio of the shootout scene. "And I said, 'No, we have to use real cats. You have to see the cuteness!'"
One of the toughest tricks was getting the cats to wear hats; the trainers taught them to tolerate the headgear by feeding them treats whenever they slipped them on (the bling was lightweight plastic and less annoying to wear).
On set, says Payne, the kittens "were treated like little stars." Potential cast and crew were all asked if they had any cat allergies (it turns out Key is allergic to cats, but was able to use medicine on set), and the kittens served as the on-set therapists. "If anybody was having a bad day, they'd send them over to the kittens," says Payne. "Everybody loved the cats." An American Humane Association rep was on the set at all times, and there were no injuries to cat or human (aside from some playful kitten scratches).
Atencio even took his own cat, a gray tabby named Patrick, to the three-month shoot in Louisiana, carrying him on a red-eye flight where the screaming cat nearly broke out of his carrier. "He's my buddy, and I felt like working with kittens every day and going home to an empty house did not seem like fun," says Atencio.
The happy ending? All the kittens got adopted. Actress Tiffany Haddish took one home (renaming it Catatonic), while Payne kept three, hoping the trained cats would land future film work. That's something Atencio looks forward to. "I'd like to seem them again," says the director. "Maybe in some cat-food commercials."
Tip #3: Train on location. All the kittens were brought to the New Orleans set when they were just a few weeks old so they could acclimate to the noise and chaos. Cats are known for being skittish, but during their four weeks of training, Mackin (pictured with Peele) and Payne were able to teach them to remain calm even while exploding squibs were being set off.
OTHER SCENE-STEALING FILM FELINES
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -; Part 2(2015)
The original black-and-white cat used in the first movie was recast as an orange tabby in the final film at the request of author Suzanne Collins, who wanted to stay more loyal to the cat's description in the book.
Meet the Parents (2000)
The potty-trained kitty was played by several Himalayan cats, including a trio named Peanut, Misha and Charlie. The movie even inspired Litter Kwitter, a potty-training tool for cats that launched in 2005.
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
A trio of rescue cats (Tigger, Jerry and Daryl) played the orange tabby in the Coen brothers' film. The cats were trained for five weeks to do tricky stunts like riding in a noisy subway with star Oscar Isaac.