So far, 2019 has already been a good year for cats in film. Last month’s Captain Marvel, the latest release for Marvel Studios, had an orange tabby named Goose play a major role in the superhero film, and in this weekend’s Pet Sematary, a Maine Coon cat named Church was front and center.
In the new Pet Sematary, a Dr. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) moves his family, including their beloved cat, Winston “Church” Churchill, from Boston to a small town in Maine so they can live a quieter life. Unbeknownst to them, on their property is a pet cemetery, as well as a mysterious ancient burial ground. After the sweet and friendly Church is run over by a truck, Louis, under the guidance of his friendly elderly neighbor Jud (John Lithgow), buries the cat in the burial ground, a place where the dead rise. But when Church returns, he’s not the lovable lap cat he used to be, much to the family’s horror.
In the Mary Lambert-directed 1989 feature adaptation, which was written by King and starred Dale Midkiff, Denise Crosby, and Fred Gwynne, the role of Church was famously played by a British shorthair. For the remake, the filmmakers wanted a Maine Coon, which better matches the distinctive-looking long-haired cat shown on the original cover of King’s novel.
In an interview with the NY Post, the film’s lead trainer Melissa Millett explained that she and animal coordinator Kirk Jarrett searched animal shelters and rescue organizations looking for several Maine Coon cats that they could “convincingly alternate in the role of Church.” Thankfully, they found them!
They ended up with 5 lookalikes, but 2 were to become the “breakout stars”: Tonic, now 1 1/2, stars early on as the lovable family pet and is the face of Church for personal appearances and premieres, while Leo, who reportedly is “a very laid-back cat” in real life,” served as the “evil” poster boy, the revenant who wreaks havoc upon his family.
The trainers worked with the cats for two months, carefully acclimating them to life on set, where the human actors all deferred to their feline costars. For Leo, who had to have his fur looked matted and bloodied, this also meant time in the make-up chair, another task that was done slowly and considerately with edible and easily digestible “gunk.” And yes, a representative of the American Humane Society was there to supervise and ensure the safety of all the animals.
If you’re wondering why several cats were needed for the one role, it’s because (aside from, I’m guessing, not making one cat work long hours) each cat is trained with a particular skill: jumping, hissing, staring, etc.
By the time the filming was completed, all 5 cats reportedly had been placed in permanent homes, with Millett, Jarrett, and their friends, with Tonic and Leo most likely continuing their acting careers. (I hope so, because I love them and will 100% follow them.) The 2 breakout stars are even on Instagram: Church_aka_Tonic and Church_aka_Leo.
In case you don’t know the story of Pet Sematary, poor Church is clearly just a victim and let’s just say he’s not the main antagonist, even if he has the evil look and bad reputation. No, there’s more to it than a cat coming back to life. But I’ll tell you the truth: Had this new movie solely been about zombie Church returning home to scare the hell out of his family, I’d have gone to see it and loved it.
Anyhow, by the time the book was released, although I wasn’t even in middle school yet, I had already moved on from Nancy Drew Mysteries to Stephen King horror novels. And any book with a cat on the cover was one I’d want to read. I loved it immediately, and just like now, I never blamed Church. (Poor Church!)
Coincidentally, that same year our family adopted our first cats, both males that were rescues: a domestic shorthair black cat I named Raven (for the Poe story) and a Maine Coon kitten named Sidney. Since then, there’s always been a Maine Coon cat in our family (after Sidney was Lynx and then my mom adopted Layla and now Princess Leia). And my mom actually trained them all! They could “high-five,” “double high-five,” count to 10, sit, and rollover.
So, as you can imagine, Maine Coon cats are near and dear to my heart. So even had I been turned off from seeing the remake for one reason or another, I would have gone just to see a Maine Coon cat play Church on the big screen. Actually, I was just getting over a cold on the film’s opening weekend, so I contemplated staying home to rest and waiting for the eventual Blu-ray to see it. But then I started following the cats on Instagram and reading about how they were adopted from shelters and rescues (adopt, don’t shop!), and about their training, and I felt like I just had to get out there and see them and support them.
Do you hear that, Paramount Pictures? I was going to wait for the Blu-ray, but it was the cat actors that got me out into the theater on opening weekend.
Head over to the NY Post to read the entire interview with the film’s cat trainers; there’s also an interview with them over at EW. And definitely follow Tonic and Leo on Instagram (I love them!!!). Oh, and go see the new Pet Sematary because it’s really good. I hope that Blu-ray release has bonus features about the cats.
See below for a few posts from the cats’ Instagram, including Tonic at the film’s premiere (OMG, so cute, I can’t take it – I’m framing this picture), as well as a sniffly me in front of the movie poster at the theater on opening weekend.