chloë sevigny, first-time director and life-long cat person
As she prepares to screen her magical short “Kitty” at the New York Film Festival, the actress and director talks to i-D about her teenage pilgrimage to Morocco to meet Paul Bowles.
Chloë Sevigny has been in Bloomingdales trying to find the perfect shade of orange-red lipstick. There is something old-timey and glamorous about this, especially on a Tuesday afternoon. She didn't find the color she wanted (MAC's Lady Danger), and so she is on her way to try her luck elsewhere.
Being particular and being pragmatic are traits Chloë says she had to learn to balance as a director. Especially since her first short film, "Kitty," stars both animals and children: five feline actors and one seven-year-old girl — the pint-sized, flaxen-haired actress Edie Yvonne.
Shot over three sun-washed days in Los Angeles, the film is an adaption of a Paul Bowles story in which a girl named Kitty, unwatched by her parents, transforms gradually into a cat. While the plot is faithful to Bowles' original — "I was really relying on it as a roadmap for my first time," says the director — the visuals are true-blue Sevigny. The looping pink script of the title card, the butter-yellow clapboard of Kitty's house, and the china teacup in which her neighbor leaves out milk all feel part of Chloë's magical Connecticut-bred world, but as if transposed into some other dimension. "I wanted it to be fairytale, to feel stuck in time and otherworldly," she says.
"I discovered Paul Bowles in my 20s," she explains of her first encounter with the story. "I was dating an ex-boyfriend who was really into him. We went to Morocco, stayed in Marrakech, and traveled to Essaouira. Paul Bowles would welcome people into his home in Tangier — that was kind of the reason for the whole pilgrimage — but my boyfriend got really sick so we never made it." While the trip failed, she remained in love with the story, and the idea of making it into a film. "It just took me a while to get the chutzpah to actually do it."
What would the movie have been like if she'd made it in her 20s? "Well, it would have had early-90s special effects," she offers, "It would have been... different." (In the film she did make, the girl-to-kitten transformation is realized through dainty, barely-there prosthetics created by Jason Hamer, who Sevigny met on set for American Horror Story.) Anyway, she feels good about letting the project sit for a while. "I'm a proponent of 'everything happens for a reason,'" she says. "There's so much in this business that you want to happen that doesn't happen. The only way I retain my sanity is by using fate as some sort of excuse or way to trust that some things just happen to you."
Waiting also meant she had a network of friends that she was able to tap into for her crew. To find the right young actress for the lead role, she worked with casting agent Laray Mayfield — who discovered Kristen Stewart and cast Sevigny herself in Zodiac and more films than any other Hollywood agent. She called up Jim Jarmusch and Whit Stillman for help finding editors, and discussed VFX with Spike Jonze. The "thanks" section in the film's credits reads like an actor's dream IMDb page. "A lot of people think directors won't help other directors and that's kind of why I wanted to shout them all out," she says.
For Kitty herself (human girl Kitty), Sevigny wanted an actress with the intelligence and innocence of a Lewis Carroll heroine. "I have one of his pictures on my Instagram, it's this girl with a fingerless glove giving this 'tude," she tells me. "I wanted Edie to have some of that weight. She's a little girl from L.A., but I think she pulls it off."
Wearing a puff-sleeve dress and Mary-Janes, Edie looks just like a John Tenniel illustration, apart from the layer of half-picked-off glitter on her fingernails. The makeup artist asked Sevigny if she wanted the polish removed before shooting , but she liked throwing a glitch into her otherwise perfect world. "It could be today, it could have been the 1950s — like The Tree of Life — or even some Wes Anderson films. But I didn't want it to be as precious and symmetrical."
Sevigny chose two silver tabbies — Rocky and Bullwinkle — to play Kitty the cat in her younger years. They split the work like feline Olsens. "I mean, nobody on set could believe it. These cats were incredible, they were movie stars. They would hit their mark, do everything we wanted them to do," she says.
And since much of the film's emotional message depends on the performance of the feline actors ("Well, you direct the trainer really"), it's just as well. "Kitty" is a portrait in miniature of how it feels to be a child existing always just below your parents' sightline, or, more broadly, how it feels to not be recognized. "It was difficult to express a lot of those themes through a cat, but I tried."
Having grown up in Connecticut, living partly in her own world under "a bush that showered yellow flowers and pretty green leaves after the flowers died away," Chloë says she can relate to Kitty's self-reliant free-range existence. "Especially having been young in the 70s. That was just the parenting style. Now, it's so different — so much hovering! I was good at entertaining myself through makebelieve and dress-up, just trying to be something that I wasn't. Not that I wasn't happy being myself, I just wanted to explore different things," she says, adding, "I also just enjoy a little bit of pageantry every now and then!"
Her next short film, already in progress, will explore "identity again, and also ego." Less scripted, it won't rely on a pre-existing story but will deal, according to Sevigny, with "things that I've been confronted with as an actress. It's more of a portrait of a performer."
Right now though, she's looking forward to seeing "Kitty" play in her home town. Following its premiere at Cannes in May, the film will screen during the New York Film Festival next week. "It was supposed to happen now," she says, "It's at the right time and right place for me."
Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography Annabel Mehran