As Paramount’s remake of Pet Sematary makes it to DVD, Blu-ray and digital, we speak with cat trainer Melissa Millett, who worked with the cats that played Church in the film. She tells us how she trained the them, how they made them look like zombie cats, how to get started training your own cat, and loads more…
SciFiNow: How many cats actually played Church in Pet Sematary?
Melissa Millett: There were four cats that performed on the screen. We had five cats but one of them was what we lovingly called the Bench Warmer, and then the other four did the work, but two did the bulk of the work.
What kind of work did they do? Did they each have different skills or different qualities that were good for different parts of the film?
I look at myself as a coach, let’s say, and I look at the cats to see which cats were strongest in which area. So I did four of the cats including the Bench Warmer, and Kirk Jarrett trained the zombie cat. We had two cats that were great at quiet, long stares, and they were the older cats, and then we had two younger cats who were great action cats. They had really family-friendly little faces because they were very young. They were the doubles for the cat at the start of the movie, who was the family pet. He was the most versatile — he could do leg rubs and jump on your lap and stay and all sorts of things like that.
Had the cats you trained for the film worked in films before?
Actually, we adopted them straight out of a shelter. The director gave us a very specific look, which was the look of the cat on the cover of the original Stephen King novel. That was a long-haired tabby. And we said, no problem, we’ll source those looks from shelter cats and we’ll train them in two months ready for the movie. So that’s what we did! We saved their lives and we trained them in two months, and when it was finished we fought over who got to keep them!
Do you usually use animals out of shelters when you’re training?
In the case of dogs there’s a lot of pets that are available. In cats, it depends on whether you have access to them and their different temperaments. You’re looking for food-motivated cats. There’s always that grateful attitude when you take them out of a shelter. One of the cats had been left behind in an apartment when its old owners moved out, and this cat was so happy that it had attention and the drive of the clicker training that he just enjoyed everything. He truly enjoyed everything and the attention and he was so grateful. We were able to source out the personality that we were looking for, easier than we would in a pet.
When films are looking for animals for their films, do they audition the animals or do they audition you as the trainer?
They audition the animal coordinator, and the animal coordinator has extensive experience and knows how to manage a set, and he has a very limited and special skillset. He would search himself and ended up hiring me as a cat trainer, which is also a very limited skill. There aren’t a lot of cat trainers out there. So he was hired and he picked me, and together we sourced the cats. Initially, they went with the humans with the skills. I have a cat that can ride a skateboard and a scooter and balance on your head, and we showcased that cat for our audition. Here’s what we can do with a cat. But sadly there was no scooter-riding in Pet Sematary.
That would have been a completely different film…
We offered but they decided it would be strange!
You mentioned cats being food-motivated… How did you train the cats with food for this film?
We were looking for an animal that was food-motivated, and that was our main concern. Cats have a tendency of being free-fed, which causes them to be overweight, which causes inactivity. So on top of finding a cat that was food-motivated, we gave them an appropriate small meal of kibble and then we utilised fresh chicken, salmon and tuna as rewards to get them to work. Mostly it was a series of steps where we would lay out catnip in the training room and have catnip parties first, where they got used to being with me and in this place of fun. Then we would start with very, very simple, easy behaviours. The first one would be targeting, where they touch their nose to an item. We’d teach the cat how to learn, and that learning is fun. When they targeted, we would click and give them a treat. Then we would progress to harder behaviours like ‘hit your mark’, ‘stay’, ‘rub a leg’, ‘jump on someone’s nap’, ‘leap on someone’, ‘A to B’, ‘walk down the street’, all those things that you saw in the movie.
You’ve worked with dogs too, so how different is it training a dog compared to training a cat?
It’s a lot harder to train a cat. It requires more patience, they’re very slow and they care little for pleasing you. [Laughs] You need to be a better communicator, you need to make it more fun and worth the cat’s while. We also do something called free shaping with the cat. Free shaping is a technique where we allow the cat to make a choice that we reinforce. So when I’m playing free shaping with the cat, I put a mark down, and if the cat moves towards the mark I click and treat. I’m not telling the cat what to do; the cat is guessing what I want. The cat then feels that the cat is in control. Cats do better then they feel that they’re training the humans.
That is so typical cat.
It is! With cats, we’re providing the opportunity for reinforcement.
So the cats’ facial expressions in the film, if that is a thing that cats have, were they all genuine, or were they retouched? I’m thinking mostly about the scene where Ellie is stabbing Jud and there’s a shot of Church creepily licking his lips. Was that all real?
[Laughs] I believe he was licking a little bit of gravy off his lips! The cats’ facial expressions — there’s a whole internet craze about grumpy-faced cats, and that’s what we were looking for. We were looking for a grumpy-faced cat that we knew would have that expression to give stares. When you take a cat and play chase games and predatory games you can elicit that expression a little bit more and create some intensity. So you show the toy and you get a little bit of excitement. You pull the toy back and you’ll get a stronger, more intense eye-line at the toy.
Some of the scenes were Church is Zombie Church, what do they do to the cat to make him look dead and all dirtied up?
That was all food product, and in order to actually get the cats comfortable with that we had two months of training. We started with two drops of the makeup and the next day we did four drops, and we worked our way up so the cats didn’t stop and just lick the makeup off. We knew that would be the end of the cats working. [Laughs] So that was a big thing: ‘hey, the cats are going to need makeup so you’re going to need to start training now.’ It was a big process, the look, and the director would tell us what he wanted to see. It was all makeup like blood-dipped ears and a little scar on the top of their heads, and then we had to teach them how to work and to get moving and to get comfortable in the makeup. It was one of the biggest parts of the training process, for sure.
So was it you who applied the makeup to them or was there a special cat makeup artist?
What I oversaw was the training for the makeup, and then the colouration team applied the makeup, and I would oversee how many treats they could use! [Laughs] Because they were allowed to treat the cats during that process, and the tricky part was still keeping them hungry. We’d give them enough treats so that they would be comfortable with the makeup application, but so they would still be hungry enough for the training.
How did you get into animal training in the first place?
I started out family pet training. A lot of what I did was family pet training for aggression. If you had a dog that snapped or would bite you or other people, I would come and modify that for you. That helped me with learning how to build the confidence and work with the emotional state of the cats. The other thing is I do a live show where I travel around Canada and I perform at fairs and festivals and different events with my cats and dogs, and that’s what taught me how to build confidence in extreme environments and to teach fairly complex behaviours in a short period of time. Doing a live show, it puts you in a position where a lot of people see you and know who you are, and that’s how I was directed towards the animal coordinator. And because we did such an amazing job together on Pet Sematary, he asked me to partner with him and I continued during large-scale movies, commercials and TV shows. Because of Pet Sematary!
Do you have any advice for people who want to do what you do and train animals for films?
Yes! I always say that Will Smith has a quote: ‘Lay each brick as perfectly as a brick can be laid.’ It starts with training your own animals as best you can. Take your own cats and dogs to amazing extremes and then once you’ve done that and know you enjoy it, move onto the next step and look for a position as a dog trainer, or join a live show like myself.
Do you have any tips of people who just want to be able to train their own cats?
Absolutely — don’t free-feed your cats. Just give them an appropriate-sized meal so that you can save high value treats for training. Start with clicker training. I have a friend that has an organisation called Cat School, an online cat training school, and you can pick up a clicker and start teaching behaviours. Your cat will absolutely enjoy it just as much as your dog does.
Pet Sematary is out now on DVD, Blu-ray and digital from Paramount. Get all the latest horror news with every issue of SciFiNow.