Wherefore Art Thou Romeo, If Juliet Is a Castrated Cat?
The leading lady, clad only in white fur, stretches her lean and muscular body and strikes a come-hither pose for the roomful of photographers. When her co-star ventures too close, she springs back, hisses—and smacks him across the nose. Such behavior is tolerated, some whisper, because she's sleeping with the director. On the other hand, so is the leading man.
Indeed they are clawing their way to the top, in a manner of speaking. Director Armando Acosta has dreamed of making this movie with cat actors for 25 years. He keeps and pampers the two stars and eight featured feline players in his home lest they, and he, meet with some catastrophe. Acosta knows the success of his $5 million project could rise or fall with the whim of Maria, the white Turkish Angora who won the role of Juliet in the 120-cat adaptation of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet he's filming in Ghent, Belgium.
"This film requires an enormous amount of concentration and patience," says Acosta, 50, while clasping the exquisite Maria to his chest. A former Hollywood design and lighting consultant who earlier spent "on and off, about nine years" in India at the feet of a guru, he tried for years to get financing before persuading Belgian businessman Paul Hespel to bankroll the furry feature. Not surprisingly, the major studios found the project a little off the wall. Acosta quite clearly does not, though he seems to have a sense of humor. John Hurt is the only nonfeline in the cast; decked out in a blond wig, he plays an eccentric Venetian woman who saves Juliet and her family from extermination by whisking them away on a boat to New York City. It is there, in this reworked version of Shakespeare's play, that the Old World Capulets meet the New World Montagues—and Romeo meets Juliet.
"It won't be like a cartoon," says the director, "but full of slow motion and mossy, wet locations, because cats live in a mysterious environment." Onscreen, the characters' dialogue will be spoken by actors. "The cats will be thinking what Shakespeare is saying," he says, deadpan. Acosta has so far spent nearly a year coaxing his feisty cast, composed primarily of abandoned animals, through scenes in Italy, New York City, California, Cologne. For today's shoot in Ghent, he has 108 caged cats awaiting his cue. Once released, they must make a mad sprint across the city's Sint-Michiel's Bridge.
Among the crowd of human onlookers, the cat handlers are easily identified by the red Mercurochrome that coats the scratches etched into their arms. "The cats aren't trained," explains Acosta. "We set up a situation and we wait, we do take after take." For the bridge scene, says Hespel, "people suggested we make noise or get dogs. But that would be brutal. We don't use force."
Acosta's precautions suggest he does not want his players to risk any of their nine lives. Safety nets block off both ends of the bridge and are spread below the railings. The cats will be encouraged to stay in the middle by gentle gusts of air, blown from pipes laid along the edges of the bridge. At the director's signal, three handlers will run backward across the bridge, dangling cat food and yelling "Eat! Eat!" As soon as they get out of camera range, the cage bottoms are opened and the cats are off and running.
Well, sort of. Although a large ginger tom gallops obediently for the finish line, his colleagues blow the scene. Some stroll across the bridge. Some dash for cover. One leaps over the safety net and into the river below. "Cut!" yells Acosta, and a rescue boat is sent. As an assistant warms the drenched feline with a blow dryer, crew members race to scoop up the other extras. "Complete chaos," Acosta says with a chuckle. "It's wonderful."
Meanwhile, the film's top cats, Maria and Blue Boy, who plays Romeo, are at a nearby restaurant holding a press conference. The stars have traveled from Acosta's home in suburban Ghent in their own private cat carriers.
Toward the end of the day, the director calls for a final scene with Juliet—her nose freshly powdered—alone on the bridge. A handler dangles chicken as encouragement. For the first two takes, Maria hesitates, looks around, then skitters for the safety of her box. But on the third, she sashays toward the camera, her head and tail held high. "Did you see that?" asks Acosta gleefully. "Every time. One take. Two takes. Then she gives." She? The feline-fatale mystique crumbles when a crew member whispers a tightly held secret: "Juliet is a neutered male."
Animal lovers needn't worry about the fate of the bit players, who have been housed in a vast hall in Ghent equipped with bedding, toys and 24 litter boxes. The local animal-protection society has guaranteed that, when the movie wraps, all unclaimed cats will be placed in good homes. As for Acosta, he's already considering his next animal movie. "My family thinks I should do My Fair Lady with pigs," he says.
—John Stark, and Cathy Nolan in Ghent
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