- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 7, 2001

LOS ANGELES — "Dr. Dolittle 2" got to movie theaters before "Cats & Dogs." But "Cats & Dogs" has a more aggressive and frenzied bark.
The film, which opened Wednesday, envisions a showdown between pets that operate espionage networks. "Dolittle" is a farce about talking animals.
Joe Pantoliano and Sean Hayes dub the respective roles of a Chinese hairless canine surveillance ace called Peek and the arch-villain, a power-mad Persian cat called Mr. Tinkles, in "Cats & Dogs." The two actors appeared at a promotional session Warner Bros. hosted recently at the Park-Hyatt Hotel in Century City.
They were joined by co-producer Chris deFaria and director Lawrence Guterman, who recalled the daunting workload of creating a movie that depends on trained animals, puppet doubles and hundreds of trick shots.
Mr. deFaria says "Cats & Dogs" began as a project for traditional cartoon animators. "Then we decided, let's really do it the hard way, let's do it live action," he says. "That was the risky thing. If we did that really well, it would have a shot at being something very special and successful."
Boone Narr, a veteran animal trainer whose most recent triumph was "Stuart Little" (he's currently absorbed in the sequel), got the commission to supervise the menagerie.
"Boone assured us it would work," Mr. deFaria says. "We committed to tools and techniques that he hadn't even perfected yet. The cats were amazing. You'd walk on set, and there they'd sit, staying where they were supposed to be. Boone leads them around by using a very small laser that's synchronized with the camera shutter. It operates when the shutter is closed. The cats follow his laser beam to different positions on the set. He gets them to walk at a measured pace."
As a practical matter, it was difficult for the movie to look presentable until postproduction, when animators delivered composite shots and put concealing touches on all the gaps in the live-action imagery.
Mr. Pantoliano says dubbing Peek was a lark. "I've got four kids, and ['Cats & Dogs'] is something they can watch," he says. "I grew up on Saturday-morning cartoon shows. The idea of going into a room and breathing life into something nonexistent is fun. I enjoyed seeing my little character, only I wanted him to be bigger. I thought they shaved the poor little guy to kid me, but I guess there are actually breeds like that."
The Pantoliano family shelters more cats than dogs. "We have a calico, a half-Persian, a tabby and a Siamese," he says. "The Siamese is our best cat. He's very well-behaved. My dog is a terrier-cocker mix. … I bought a pedigreed Persian for my daughter two Christmases ago, and that cat has ruined our lives. The other cats don't go in their box because of him. I'm a dog man. The cats deserve everything they get in this movie."
Mr. Pantoliano found that reporters were more interested in his role as a new thorn in the side of James Gandolfini's Tony in HBO's "The Sopranos" than his "Cats & Dogs" role. Mr. Pantoliano's Ralphie proved an instant hit with fans of "The Sopranos." While he is grateful in a professional respect, Mr. Pantoliano is not sure that the immediate acceptance bodes well for the culture.
"People do come up and talk about Ralphie as if he were a real person," the actor says. "A lot of women [do this], as a matter of fact. They seem to find me more attractive, which really scares me. Think about it: This guy is a murdering sociopath-psychopath, and they're going, 'He's so sexy.' On the other hand, about 80 percent of these women wanted me to introduce them to Jackie Jr. They loved him, too."
Mr. Pantoliano believes that the audience's inclination to treat vicious characters like vicious pets may hasten a final reckoning from producer and head writer David Chase. "I can't answer for David, of course, but I'm troubled by all this approval," he says. "I find it odd that people don't get the depth of what David's trying to do with that show. Most of the characters are outlaws, so you're forced to conclude that people do love outlaws.
"The characters happen to be very human, and this dysfunctional Soprano family may strike a lot of chords that have nothing to do with Tony being a hood. You know, the struggles he goes through as a son and husband and father. Anyway, people do refuse to see the characters for what they are. David is really observing the demise of a mob culture. Francis Coppola and Mario Puzo sort of celebrated its birth, or its first and second generations."
Mr. Pantoliano does know how long Ralphie is likely to last as a rival to Tony. "Without giving away too much," he says, "David assured me that he'll be around and be charming, cunning and vicious. He'll come up against Tony, and we'll see what happens. As I understand it, this is the last season David will write the show. And I can't imagine Jimmy wanting to go beyond one more season. So I think this may be it.
"I also think these characters are going to end up paying, somehow. Ralph is shaping up like a great Shakespearean character. He's up there with Iago or Richard III and all those guys. And as an actor, I can tell you that there's something very liberating about playing unconditional evil. They're so much more fulfilling than the good guy. Maybe that's what the audience senses and likes. You're creating all the conflict and having more fun."
Mr. Hayes presents a curiously guarded contrast to Mr. Pantoliano. The first question alluding to "Will & Grace," the hit sitcom in which Mr. Hayes plays a blithe and wisecracking homosexual named Jack McFarland, seems to get his back up. "I thought we were here to talk about 'Cats & Dogs,'" he says.
Eventually, Mr. Hayes relents enough to confirm that he's committed to the series "for at least three more seasons." He insists that Jack should be regarded as just a role, no more characteristic or revealing than Mr. Tinkles. "I'm not free to do all the things I'd like to right now," he says. "That's the catch in the profession. You struggle to get a pivotal job. Then you complain about it limiting your options when you do get it. I will play many different roles."
Mr. Hayes has no pets. He explains: "I was allergic to cats for a while, among other things. I got a shot every week for six months to remedy all my allergies. Now I'm no longer allergic. We had a dog when I was growing up."
Someone asks what kind. "A cocker spaniel," Mr. Hayes replies. Then, suggesting a man under duress, he reveals the name, "Josh."
"I used to be a full-on dog person. Now I'm pretty much both. I like cats that are affectionate. Not the independent kind," he says.
As a favor to director Mr. Guterman, Mr. Hayes was the original test voice for the movie's animal characters. "I first read for the calico cat — the role that went to Jon Lovitz in the finished film. Then Larry said, 'Pick up Mr. Tinkles, if you don't mind.' The script, not the cat. So I did. We tried a lot of accents, starting with German. I think he finally came out sort of refined American, the idiom they all speak on 'Frasier.' It's a very different sort of acting. Your voice has to create the illusion of movement in order to get an emotion across. A lot of my work was more disembodied than it would be ordinarily, since Larry was in Vancouver, B.C., and I was in a recording studio in L.A. He directed me by remote control. After the movie is shot and assembled, of course, you tweak it for another six months or so in additional recording sessions."
Mr. Guterman, born in Maryland but raised for the most part in Montreal, is a fugitive from a scientific education. He has a bachelor's degree in physics from Harvard University. "I just wasn't good enough to pursue it further," he says. "I knew I'd have to get a Ph.D. to continue and get a research job, and there were just too many smarter people doing that. I'd also fallen in love with filmmaking, decisively, when I did a short documentary film in my senior year. But I'd been making little short films, Super 8 and animated, since I was a kid."
Mr. Guterman migrated to Los Angeles and took assorted production jobs before attending the film school at the University of California. He graduated with a master's degree and got to the threshold of directing jobs by supervising several sequences in the animated feature "Antz." He also liked the idea of doing a cartoon sort of story in live action.
"My job was to sell the studio really strongly on the idea that this was a comedic spy thriller that happened to have real cats and dogs as the principal characters. Not an animal movie," he says. "I wanted to shoot it in patterns that were much more similar to live action, which means getting the camera and lighting in closer without scaring the animals.
"We had this crack commando team of trainers organized by Boone Narr to facilitate that. They know how to work beyond camera range and still maintain eye contact with the animals. They brought all these organizational and training skills that allowed us to do the multiple takes we needed."
The essential task for the director of nonhumans is to stockpile takes that "get eye lines and gross body movements."
"These building blocks must support trick effects and animation when they're layered in during postproduction. The composites will be easier to refine if the timing of the animal takes is as sharp as possible.
Mr. Guterman says he found postproduction to be "harder than I thought."
"The studio was looking at footage that didn't have a lot to recommend it. A lot of dogs with their tongues hanging out, or empty plates with no trick-shot animals in the foreground just yet. Disembodied voice tracks. You have to say, 'Don't worry. It'll all work when we get the animation.'"
Mr. Guterman relied on his second unit to an extraordinary degree. "Everyone says they throw out about 50 percent of second unit footage," he says. "Not me. We needed a unit that was shooting frequently, because you have to break it up into pieces. So our second unit shot a lot of reverse angles that we just didn't have time for. I was totally in sync with Charlie Gibson, the second unit guy. As a result, we used about 90 to 95 percent of what he did, which is an outrageous batting average. But without it, we'd never have finished the movie."

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide