You’ve probably heard of the phrase “herding cats” as an idiom for achieving the impossible, but that’s exactly what Melissa Millett and Kirk Jarrett were tasked with for Paramount Pictures’ Pet Sematary remake.
Stephen King’s original novel tells the story of a family from the city that moves to rural Maine to enjoy the slower pace, but a startling story of supernatural horror unfolds when a local graveyard resurrects their dead cat Winston “Church” Churchill into something evil. For both the book and the 1987 film adaptation, Church the cat is a horror icon and one of King’s most recognizable symbols. So ensuring the 2019 adaptation had an adequate feline presence was important from the start for directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, who are both cat owners. They wanted the cats who played Church to look like the iconic creature from the original book cover.
How hard is it to train a cat to obey commands? For average people it’s close to impossible. But according to Pet Sematary’s animal coordinator Kirk Jarrett and animal trainer Melissa Millet, the key is a holistic approach that exclusively focuses on positive reinforcement and respect.
“I don’t want them in cages,” Melissa Millett tells Inverse. “I want them to live like cats that happen to have a job.”
On the set of Pet Sematary, five cats shared an air-conditioned trailer with hot water and grooming stations, an RV converted exclusively so the cats could have their own space. Their structured training regimen involved daily walks on leash, cat patio time, and even a cat wheel for exercise. To think that before Pet Sematary production went to Canada, each of the five cats recruited to work on the film were shelter cats, each with their own unfortunate backstory.
“Melissa comes from the positive reinforcement training approach, so that is completely different from traditional training,” Jarrett said.
The idea is to recruit the cats and then gradually acclimate them to tasks and environments using positive reinforcement (mostly giving them positive attention and cat treats when they do the right thing). That way, they could bring a positive attitude into their work. It also just makes for happier cats.
“Cats love to work, as long as they love food and have the confidence to do so,” Millett said. “They benefit from it just as much as dogs, even if it is a little harder.”
Most cats are kept indoors and don’t get the same kind of stimulation that dogs do, but they can thrive when allowed to explore new environments. Above all, “they love the attention.”
I asked Millett and Jarrett outright if the proverb “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” applied to cats as well. Laughing, Millet confirmed that younger cats did tend to have the confidence and openness to new experiences that make them ideal subjects for training.
“The whole confidence that we were looking for was for the cats that stepped up and said, ‘Hi, hello, how are you?’” Jarrett said. The cats respond best to training are the ones that are naturally curious, confident, younger.
How do you train a small herd of cats to act in a movie? There’s around two months of training, teaching the cats to respond to commands, positively reinforcing the behavior with treats constantly. The real challenge during production is getting the cats acclimated to the various sets and the people moving around in them.
“Before we roll camera, we had already done the scene and taken all the cats in there to rehearse, rehearse, rehearse and get them acclimated to these environments, and as much as we could with the actors,” Jarrett said. They’d constantly be looking forward in the shooting schedule so they could acclimate the cats ahead of time.
For Pet Sematary, Millett and Jarrett recruited a small group of skilled felines from various shelters in Canada, near where the movie was filmed.
“There are a lot of cats in shelters, but we were looking for cats that were really confident and food-motivated,” Millett said. “Because these are rescue cats, they didn’t always come from the greatest situation. It’s important to me that the movie business should bring these animals a better life.”
Being shelter cats, each one had something of an unfortunate backstory that’s far too common in animal shelters everywhere, but after being given confidence training and solid work in the film industry, each of the five cats recruited for production was placed in a new home.
“One of them ended up being too timid, so we found her a nice, loving home,” Millet explained. “She did benefit from the confidence-building of the training. A lot of the training was to teach them to leash walk and explore new environments.”
Who were the cats featured in the movie? “Part of animal training is being a coach, and you’re looking at all the strength of your team,” Millett explained. Every cat brought had their specialty, but the lion’s share of Pet Sematary scenes used on cat as the living Church and one as the undead version, with each of them having an understudy of a sort that Millett and Jarrett lovingly referred to as “benchwarmers.”
Only four cats are credited on the final cut of Pet Sematary: Tonic, Leo, JD, and Jaeger.
Tonic & Jaeger — The Living Church
“Our most outgoing cat was only 10 months old — that’s Tonic,” Millett said. “We thought he was going to be the evil cat, but then he just looked too cute. He’d cock his head from side to side.” Tonic was their best “action cat” and could easily handle quick scenes that involved running, jumping, or sitting there looking cute.
“Tonic has this great personality that makes him the perfect mascot,” Jarrett said. Of all the cats in the film, Tonic is the one that does the most press events for the movie. At an April 3 screening of Pet Sematary in Brooklyn, I personally watched him pose for photographs with the directors and cast of the movie — and he reached out to demand a treat after every snapshot.
Millett told me a story about how she took Tonic to the bank with her on a leash, and he was treated “like a celebrity” despite nobody knowing that he really was a Hollywood star.
“Jaeger was a great backup for Tonic,” Millett said. “He had the same matching skills, an active little guy that’s great at movements.” According to Millett and Jarett, Jaeger found a loving home with “a friend.”
Leo & JD — The Undead Church
“Leo is an older cat,” Millett said. “So that brought a different and awesome skill set of the quiet staring, which was really what made the evil Church character come to life.”
Jarrett called Leo a “confident individual” that displays many signs you’d normally attribute to a person of the Leo Zodiac sign: proud, straightforward, and he loves the limelight. “He’s our sit-stay-look cat,” Jarrett said. “He did the eating of the bird, some walking down the street, but he’s the one that stares and is all over the trailers.”
Directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer “loved his look for the undead look,” Jarrett says.
“Leo was just amazing at those stationary glares and the typical grumpy cat face you’re looking for,” Millett said.
Post-production, Jarrett adopted Leo and his understudy, JD. The three of them go on walks in the park with Jarrett’s young daughter. They also go to boutique pet stores looking for specialty cat attire to wear to various press events for the movie.
“JD was really good at the quiet stares, so he was a great backup for Leo,” Millett said. Somebody abandoned JD in an apartment for a month when they moved out, and didn’t tell anyone. “He really thrived from the personal attention and positive reinforcement.”
After production, Jarrett adopted JD.
“As we speak, JD is sitting here with his two front paws on my computer. He’s like, ‘Hey, can I do something?’”
That’s the life these cats lead now, looking for their next big break.
Pet Sematary is currently in theaters.