Q&A: Why Cats Will Never Perform (Unless They Want Something)
Q&A: Why Cats Will Never Perform (Unless They Want Something)

When filmmakers Donna and Daniel Zuckerbrot worked on the 2013 documentary A Dog’s Life, they found something surprising in their research: Cats are more popular than dogs. In fact, cats are the most popular pet in North America. The Zuckerbrots wanted to explore this more, and they did just that with the film The Lion in Your Living Room. They worked with over a dozen cats — even held a casting process to find their stars — to answer some of the world’s burning questions about the things our feline friends do and why we love them so much. So we asked Donna and Daniel to share some of their behind-the-scenes experiences from making The Lion in Your Living Room.

TNOT: What interested you most about doing a documentary on cats?

Daniel: They’re as mysterious as they’re reputed to be. Cats are seen as this kind of special creature, I think with good reason. A dog is so much more domesticated and so much more understandable, knowable to us, where cats maintain their integrity as wild animals, even though they’re domestic. One of the people in the film says that almost any cat can survive on its own, but you’ll be hard pressed to find a little dog — you know a chihuahua, or a poodle or something — that could survive either the city or the country by itself.

"People love cats. I don’t think people know why, they just do."
— Donna Zuckerbrot, director, The Lion in Your Living Room
TNOT: We know cats to be very independent and hard to control. But if you wanted to, do you think it’s actually possible to herd cats?

Daniel: We tried!

Donna: (Laughs) I think the answer is no. It’s very hard to get cats to do what you want them to do. We didn’t really explore this in the film, but there are certainly people who can train cats and there’s people who train big cats as well. I think when it’s about training cats, it’s really just about, in a way, the cat training the human. Like, they’ll do certain things for treats, for example.

TNOT: How many cats did you work with?

Donna: I would say about 15-20 and then, of course, we were in environments where there were many more cats. One of the places we filmed was the Richmond Animal Cat Sanctuary in B.C. At the time we were there, they had about 500 cats. We did a lot of filming with them, we thought it would be a great place because we’d have so many cats and we’d get all kinds of interesting behaviours. However, they tended to just sleep — not the behaviours we had hoped for.

Daniel: We had a very narrow window of opportunity because most of the time, they’re sleeping.

TNOT: That’s funny, that’s like losing sun.

Donna: Oh yeah. And for that environment, too, we thought because we had so many cats in one location, we had a jib and we really wanted to get the most of using it. But when the sun is out and it’s nice, they’re sound asleep!

TNOT: Having said that, what were some of the other challenges you faced while trying to capture these cats on camera?

Daniel: Lots. From the word ‘Go,’ what didn’t we? We knew that cats would be more difficult to film than dogs. People would tell us, “Oh, you could come film my cats, they’re really used to people, they’re really friendly, they won’t be scared of the cameras, they always do this or that.” I’m sure that’s true, except when you want to film them.

Sleeping kitten

We carefully screened the cats. Almost all of them were cats that we filmed with in their homes or things like that. The owners said, “These are cats that aren’t spooked, they travel well, they’ll come into a new environment, and they’ll be fine.” Then we’d bring them in [to the studio] and they’d run and hide. And we’re paying for this studio, we’re paying for all this special equipment, lights, and extra crew. And you can’t have all the cats in there at once, so everything has to be scheduled so the cats don’t run into each other and get upset. Then we’d bring a cat in and it would vanish. We’d spend the next two hours trying to find the cat, trying to coax it out, to get even ten minutes of filming done with them and that happened over and over and over. There wasn’t one of them that didn’t completely disappear.

TNOT: Did any of the cats get attached to either of you?

Daniel: We certainly got attached to some of the cats. We hadn’t had a cat in a few years. We had a cat that died of old age and we were very fond of her. We certainly talked all through the film, “Should we take this kitty home?” and “How could we not have a kitty?”

Donna: Yes, but these two big stinky dogs that we have — it’s enough.

TNOT: There's one quote from The Lion in Your Living Room that basically says, “Cats don’t have a real purpose, but we love them.” It’s the smallest things that they do that we find so compelling, which can be comparable to the way people are fascinated by the behaviours of newborn human babies. Do you think you can you compare cats to babies and people’s fascination with them?

Daniel: I think all domestic animals have that in common to some degree. They’re like their wild counterparts but baby versions; they never grow up. It’s also the look: Babies' eyes are proportionally big in their heads. That’s one of the things that apparently people are attracted to. Cats have disproportionally enormous eyes. If a person had eyes the size of a cat, they’d be like baseballs. They’re inherently cute and they are just a joy to watch, like a baby.

Donna: One other point to that is another thing about how cats communicate. One of the parts of the film talks about purring and how the frequency of some cats’ purrs is similar to the frequency of a crying baby. And the interesting thing about that is they’ve kind of learned how to get something from us, how to get us to react to something.

TNOT: Having said that, did you encounter some lesser-known things about cats that you think people would want to know?
Outdoor cat

Donna: One of the things that we found really interesting was in the evolution of cats. The popular belief is that the domestic cat evolved from different kinds of wildcats. The newest research is that any domestic cat anywhere evolved from this one sub-species of wildcats

One thing that also interested me was the thing about meowing. Cats actually meow for humans only, mostly, and each cat has a specific kind of little language for its human. So it’s not like a universal thing that all cats have the same kind of sound for “I’m hungry” or “I wanna go out” or “Pet me.”

Daniel: Which is the opposite of dogs. If you play dog sounds for people who aren’t familiar with the dog or familiar with dogs at all, they can say, “That’s a happy dog, or a sad dog, or that’s an angry dog.” It seems universal in a way. Whereas with cats it’s a much more private vocabulary that you develop with your cat.

TNOT: Why do you think there’s such a big culture of cat fascination on the Internet?

Donna: There’s a big fascination in general; people love cats. I don’t think people know why, they just do. We want to observe them. It’s sort of like we’re surprised and pleased and interested in their behaviour and their behaviour is still a mystery to us. So it’s a bit of that. We just really enjoy watching them and just trying to understand who they are.

Daniel: We really want to talk about our cats, like we really want to talk about our babies. We see those videos of behaviour, they’re so interesting — this is the most popular pet in the world, that’s saying something. It’s an animal that’s existed on every continent. Once we had domestic cats, they just spread. Where there were people, there were cats. They’ve always had this mystique. Ancient Egyptians had them on their walls! They were so fascinated with them, they mummified their pharaohs and they mummified their cats. There’s a deep, strange link.