Animal trainer Melissa Millett, who trained the four cats who play the cat “Church” in the horror flick Pet Sematary, was in Toronto yesterday to talk about how to train cats for the film, which is now available on Blu-ray and DVD. She brought along Tonic, one of the four cats she rescued from an animal shelter.
I had the opportunity to meet them both and chat about the ins and outs of training cats. Prior to our interview, I noticed Tonic slept peacefully beside Melissa throughout her earlier interviews by phone with outlets based in the States. When I walked into the room, he immediately decided to show off the qualities that make him a great showbiz cat.
He sat up to see what was happening, began rubbing against Melissa and then he eventually crawled into her lap, hamming it up during the entire interview. Afterwards, I got to see a few of his tricks, including perching on a human’s shoulder and smiling for the camera. ~Alexandra Heilbron
How did you first become an animal trainer?I first became an animal trainer from training my own dog as a sport and I fell in love with it. After about 10 years of that I opened up my dog training school. I wanted to promote my school so I created a trick show [Ultimutts] and I wanted to have the best trick show, so I got a cat. And that’s how I was discovered by a movie trainer, because there aren’t a lot of cat trainers out there.
Had you ever thought about training animals for movies?Actually, I had never set my expectations so high. I just wanted to train animals, and I thought the dog training school was a reachable goal and then the trick school was, “Wow, you can do that as a career?” And then the movies was just, it just kept building. The pleasant surprise is that I would have loved to have been here, but I hadn’t envisioned it, so I’m happy to have found myself here.
How did you get the call to be part of Pet Sematary? Did your animals have to audition?Kirk Jarrett, an animal coordinator of 30 years, searched me out because of my trick cat. And he won the contract [for the movie] based on his experience and my trick cat. So we were hired and we said, “Let us know what look you’re going for and we will pull that look out of a shelter and train that look for the movie.”
So your trick cat is not the one that was in the movie — you found new cats for Pet Sematary?Yeah, and we adopted them for the purposes of the movie. But as soon as I agreed to the contract, I said I want to keep the “Church” cat and when this guy [Tonic] stepped out of the crate, it was love at first sight.
What breed is he? Is he a Maine Coon?I believe he’s a Maine Coon, a Maine Coon cross. I’m not fully certain because he’s a rescue, but I’m going to say Maine Coon or Long-Haired Tabby.
Is there any particular breed of cat that’s easier to train?They say that a Bengal is easier to train. That’s the cat I went and adopted when I first wanted to try training cats. But I actually found Tonic easier to train than the Bengal cat.
Are boy cats easier to train than girl cats?All of the four cats that play Church are boys. There was one girl, but she was too nervous. I have more female dogs than I have males, so I always thought females were easier to train, but there we go, all the cats were males.
How long before filming began did you have in order to train the cats for all those tricks?Two months. It seemed like a really short time, but we were doing many sessions all day. By the time we got on set, they were ready to go, which was amazing because the filmmakers knew we only had two months, so they were a little nervous about what we were going to bring, and pleasantly surprised when we showed them some extremely well trained cats.
Were there any last minute tricks that you were asked for on set?Oh yeah, yeah. Last minute they wanted a cat to leap onto somebody, but this guy (Tonic) can learn things in a session or two. We didn’t use it; but we trained for it.
How did you get the cat to act aggressively on command, like when he was hissing?So that was Kirk, and what you do is you take a cat that already behaves that way and you reinforce it (laughs).
Did the actors who interact with the cats — Jason Clarke and Jeté Laurence — spend time bonding with the cats?Yeah, we booked time with them so they could get to know the cats and get comfortable with them and then we could train the cats with the actors. We also had stand-ins, so we would practice at night with ourselves being the actors so by the time the actors stepped in, the cats knew exactly what they needed to do.
You used treats as a reward during training — how many treats can a cat have in one day?This cat can have a lot of treats (laughs). I did look up and say, “Wow, I can’t believe he’s still hungry!” I work hard to keep him slim, but it’s amazing, each cat has a different appetite for treats and this cat has a lot more space in his tummy than any other cat that I have seen (laughs).
When he’s not on a set is he an active cat or is he a quiet, docile cat?Oh, he is a busy cat. They all stayed in trailers and because I brought my seven dogs during filming, none of the cats stayed with me. Tonic stayed with somebody else and she kicked him out of the trailer because she couldn’t sleep at night. After filming all day, he was still rummaging through the cupboards and driving them nuts. They said, “Good luck with that one!” And I said, “That’s what I’m looking for, I want a wild thing that needs a job.”
You also run workshops for people who want to have their family dog trained. Have you ever been asked to train a cat for a family?Yes, and now I get a lot of requests for cats and I considered possibly doing a cat class but it’s quite difficult when you get a lot of cats together — so I’m going to stick to training dogs for now and train my own cats personally.
Your training method is to instill confidence in animals. Have you ever trained a feral cat and how would you do it?I would do it with progressive steps. One of the cats we brought home was quite nervous and what we did was we tried to bond her to a dog, and get her comfortable, and we let her decide at what pace she needed to work. So if she was too afraid to come out of her crate, we would just leave her and wait for her to do confident things, and then reinforce her for her confidence, and we would only ask her for what we thought she could do. We would take her in the training room and ask her to come out and then take her to another quiet location and ask her to come out. Then when it came time to film, she just didn’t have the confidence yet so we never took her out or it would have backtracked her success. The secret is errorless learning — setting them up for success and allowing them to decide at which pace they need to go.
Finally, what are you working on next?Right now we’re working on Season 2 of Titans on Netflix.
Pet Sematary is now available on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital.