‘A Quiet Place: Day One’ Director Michael Sarnoski Interviewed Only About the Cat

[This story contains spoilers for A Quiet Place: Day One.]

A Quiet Place: Day One is a riveting thriller about a cat named Frodo navigating his way through an apocalyptic New York City that’s come under attack by aliens. There are also several human actors in the cast led by Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o (who is fantastic). But the purpose of today’s interview is to focus on the feline that’s stealing the hearts of the horror franchise’s fans.

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Frodo represented a major gamble by writer-director Michael Sarnoski (who previously helmed another animal-centric title, Pig). Cats are notoriously difficult to direct, and Day One was Sarnoski’s first major studio project. His script (co-written with John Krasinski) puts Frodo in the center of intimate dramatic moments and action set-pieces — and he didn’t want to use CGI. But if the cat didn’t work, the movie wouldn’t work.

Sarnoski’s boldness paid off. The Quiet Place prequel, which opens this week, has been drawing rave reviews (some critics have called it the best entry in the franchise), for its harrowing survival tale following Frodo, hospice patient Sam (Nyong’o) and law student Eric (Joseph Quinn). Below, Sarnoski gamely agreed to given an entirely cat-focused interview, taking burning questions about Frodo’s journey and working with the two cats (named Nico and Schnitzel) who were cast in the role. He also teases a potential Day One sequel.

What was the original inspiration for having Frodo as a part of the story?

Frodo grew naturally out of Sam’s character. A hospice patient isn’t necessarily aiming for survival during the end of the world, and this is a chance for her to reconnect with her life. Frodo became an extension of that. I always imagined that back when Sam lived in the city, Frodo was a savvy street cat, and she started leaving out a bowl of milk for him, and he became her pet. Then he became the one thing she took with her when she left the city as her life neared its end. Frodo is a stand-in for her life that once existed. So when they return to the city together, they re-experience it together. Also, just the image of Sam walking through a desolate New York City with her little cat jumped out at me as perfect.

What was the studio’s reaction when you turned in the script? Because there is a lot of cat in this movie.

The initial reaction was, “Okay, we’re going to have a computer-generated cat. I guess we can pull that off.” But then I said, “No, I really want to do all the cat stuff for real and not ever do a CG cat.” Everyone was like, “We’ll see about that.” But thankfully, we managed it with incredible cat trainers and incredible cat performers. Everyone assumed wouldn’t be able to pull it off the old fashioned way, but I’m really happy we did.

I’ve read Lupita was wary of working with a cat and asked if you would change the animal and you wouldn’t. So why a cat? 

One, cats have a strong connection to New York City. There’s something about street cats and bodega cats and the survival instinct side of the city. And I don’t think a dog would do well in the Quiet Place universe — too barky. Cats are stalking predators and have a natural silence. So they make a lot of sense as a creature that would do well. I think a cat complements Sam’s vibe, her emotions. There’s something standoffish about them, but when you get to know them, they can actually be really sweet and wonderful. A cat just seemed like the perfect match.

But yeah, Lupita was terrified of cats. She wasn’t just “not a fan.” She was really frightened. And in one of our first meetings, she was sitting on the floor of my office and slowly crawled towards the cat getting a little closer, a little closer, until she finally touched it, and then eventually she was petting it and could pick it up. And now she has a pet cat of her own. It showed how brave she was and how willing she was to commit to this role.

Did it make you nervous at all? Because you’re taking on your first big studio film. You didn’t need to add this extra day-to-day challenge.

The things that make me the most nervous are also the things that most excite me. There is something about, “What a stupid idea to put a cat in every scene when you’re going to do these huge set pieces. Do you really want to tie your hands that way?” But sometimes in those limitations you find the most authenticity and the most fun. So, yeah, I was nervous. But I want to be nervous. I want to be not sure if an idea is going to work out. If everything feels safe, the audience is going to feel that and I’m going to be bored.

More thematically, what did Frodo mean to you in the story?

I don’t often think thematically. But I think Frodo was standing for connection and the connection Sam had with her past and what sort of connections she was willing to make with other people. Frodo ends up becoming a big part of her connection with Eric, what they mean to each other.

To me, having the characters caring so much for “just a cat” in a movie with global apocalyptic stakes, makes such a clear statement: Here’s the level of empathy and caring that we should have. 

Yeah. To care about just a cat, to care about just a slice of pizza, to care about just a stranger. When there’s so much going on that you feel overwhelmed by the world, being able to refocus on the things that really matter and make us feel like human beings is essential. I think we all experienced that with the pandemic. That was a big thing I wanted to explore in this moment.

What was your thought behind the moment where Frodo finds Eric as he emerges from the subway?

That was a very early scene in my mind that I wanted to hit perfectly. I wanted this moment where the cat almost hypnotizes Eric when he’s in his most traumatized state. He’s in complete shock, and then he sees this cat and locks in, and that really drives his character moving forward. Through Frodo and through Sam, he finds this campfire in the storm that becomes the thing he follows. And that’s what Sam’s grappling with — “I can’t be that to you, you need to find your own strength.” So like landing that moment was really important. I’m like, “Can we pull this off? Is this going to be ridiculous? Is this going to be felt?” There is a certain humor to it, but there’s also something sincerely emotional about it. It’s a specific tonal moment we had to land.

Was there ever a version where the cat doesn’t survive?

No. It always made sense that the cat is passed along and would carry on. If you’re gonna kill an animal, it’s got to be for a really meaningful reason. Otherwise, you’re just being cruel to the audience. He meant something to these characters, and I think it would have just been mean to kill him.

What was the toughest cat shot to get? And just to log my suspicion: If it wasn’t a water shot, it was the shot of Frodo stealing the piece of pizza.

The pizza wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t the hardest. They trained him a ton with that piece of pizza. It was all the water stuff and keeping him in a flotation device near rushing water. The subway stuff was really tricky. He was afraid of the water, but sometimes he wanted to jump into the water to try and get away from it. A lot of it was Joe and Lupita forming a real bond with the cats that played Frodo so that when they were around Joe and Lupita, they felt at ease. It was about taking the time that the cats needed to feel relaxed and safe and to let them know, “You’re okay; we’re not going to put you in the water.” But, yeah, it turns out cats don’t love water.

Since you didn’t do any CG, was there a particular shot you wanted to get that didn’t work out?

In the original script, there was more of Frodo hissing and arching his back. I learned early on from the animal trainers that we can’t do that. There’s no way to train a cat to do that. It’s a natural reaction they have when they feel threatened or traumatized. And we won’t traumatize a cat. Back in the day [when using cats in film and TV], they used to scare cats and sort of torment cats [for a reaction]. Thankfully, we don’t do that anymore. So if you want a cat to hiss, you need to replace its mouth with CGI. So I decided instead of doing that, I just leaned into other ways to try and express fear or anxiety.

Yes, I was surprised the cat never hissed. And I also kept waiting for Frodo to meow at an inopportune moment.

He does meow a couple times. I liked the idea that he’s a service cat and early on, she says, “Hey, keep quiet.” She’s almost trained the cat to not annoy everyone at the hospice center. I read a study about how a lot of meowing is learned behavior. It’s how they communicate with human beings. When cats are on their own, they don’t meow that much. So I figured that when the apocalypse happens and everyone’s gone, they would maybe keep it down. I also felt like cats are natural, silent predators and game recognizes game. They would see these aliens and see what they’re doing and understand their predatory nature and realize, “Oh, I better better keep quiet.”

So obviously we don’t know what happens after they get off that ferry. But in your mind, what do you imagine for Eric and Frodo’s future? 

I mean, definitely a good portion of those people probably ended up on the island that we see in Part Two of A Quiet Place. I think there’s a good chance that they’re there, and definitely there’s a good chance we’re going to see them again.

Is that a sequel tease?

I just think they did an incredible job. And I think Paramount would be really happy to see where they ended up. I don’t think there are any super specific plans. But I would not be surprised if that happens. So that’s a very loose, unofficial sequel tease.

After doing Pig and now this, are you continue to have an animal play a central character in your future films? Is this now your thing? 

It’s not something I’m going to try to do. It’s something that’s probably going to sneak its way in occasionally just because I’m fascinated by them. My next one is The Death of Robin Hood and there are definitely some animals in that. If it happens, it happens. I’m not going to force it.

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