Plenty of directors have gleefully disregarded W.C. Fields’ old movie adage – “never work with children or animals” – but documentary filmmaker Ceyda Torun all but tossed it out the window when it came time to make her feature debut. With “Kedi,” Torun is all about the animals, specifically an adorable series of Turkish street cats that happily make their homes on the streets of Istanbul. The result is a wonderfully unique and deeply charming look at feral felines and the many humans who love and care for them, all told from a distinctly cat’s eye view.
For the Turkish filmmaker, the indelible cats that roam the various neighborhoods that make up her hometown are more than just subjects, they are cherished friends, and the film finds its true heart when it illuminates the special bonds between the cats and the people who endeavor to make their lives better though food, shelter and plenty of snuggles. Still, they are cats, and that means they can be fickle, wild, tough to track and hellbent on doing their own thing.
So how do you make a movie about such tough subjects? Torun cracked it.
1. Love Your Subjects
If “Kedi” feels like a love letter to the cats of Istanbul, that’s entirely by design. For Torun, who grew up amongst them in Istanbul, “Kedi” offered her the unique chance to give back to a feline community that had already given her so much.
“I had a debt that I owed to these cats [after] growing up in Istanbul and them being really, genuinely my best friends for between the ages of 6 to eleven,” Torun explained. “I would say I didn’t really even have human friends, I had cat friends. I didn’t really acknowledge or realize how special that was.”
When Torun and her cinematographer husband Charlie Wuppermann (who, along with Alp Korfali, lensed “Kedi”) decided to form their own production company, they sought to build one that allowed them to utilize their own passions and artistic ideas. As they brainstormed the kind of ideas that could form their first slate, the concept of “Kedi” kept popping back up.
“We started bouncing ideas off of people around us. Our friends who came to Istanbul were always kind of fascinated with this situation, because it’s so unique,” she said.
And it wasn’t just Torun’s friends who found the concept fascinating, as it seemed clear to the filmmaker that cats in general were becoming more prevalent in the larger culture conversation (in short, people love cats). “People seem to want to see cats,” she said with a laugh. “People like cats! Internet cat craziness is actually a great indicator for to financiers, to be like ‘Yes, you’re going to make your money back, hopefully. We’re not sure, but you might, there’s a greater chance.'”
2. Get Comfortable With Your Limits
“At the beginning, I thought maybe we could do like ‘March of the Penguins’ with cats in Istanbul and just forget about the people, forget about everything else and just focus on the cats,” Torun explained.
The idea might have been appealing – and, given the success of “March of the Penguins,” sounded like a commercial formula – but Torun and her team quickly hit a wall. “We quickly realized that without the resources of the BBC or National Geographic and maybe three years and like $10 million, we just can’t do that kind of documentary,” she said.
Making “March of the Kedi” wouldn’t have just been financially draining, it also would have ignored what makes cats such compelling movie stars.
“You can’t get enough [material],” she explained. “Cats don’t carry their eggs in freezing temperatures for six months. Frequently they’re grooming themselves, they’re sleeping, there’s a lot of laying down. There’s a lot of just doing stuff that is not extraordinary.”
In recognizing those limits, Torun and her team were able to identify and develop the real story at the heart of “Kedi” instead. No marching required.
“During that research shoot, we also realized that the relationships between the cats and the people and the sort of insightful things that people were saying about them is very universal,” Torun said. “It transcends us as people and transcends even cats. It’s bigger. It became quite clear that was the documentary we had to try and make.”
3. Seek Out Special Stars
A cat documentary requires some pretty great cat stars, and Torun’s film is no exception. In order to find enough camera-ready cats to kit out the film’s narrative, the filmmaker started from scratch.
“We approached the cats first,” she said. “We approached that and literally just walked the streets and talked to people and said, ‘is there a neighborhood cat that does something special?’ My biggest angle was, ‘Is there a cat that a lot of people know?’ because I was pretty sure that this idea of cats connecting people was a big thing.”
From the cats came the people, and Torun’s concept of connection even extended to casting. “Then, of course, it was just finding these beautiful people who really care for them, and following them around,” she remembered. (Torun eventually had enough material to craft 19 different vignettes about various cats and their human pals, though only 7 made it into the final film.)
Although Torun knew that the focus of her film was going to be on Istanbul’s cats and their various human companions, she was also eager to inject interesting educational bits and historical insights. The subjects (cat lovers, all) she found to speak to those issues didn’t end up in the final film, but Torun wanted to make to make sure that their influence was felt.
“I knew I wanted to talk to people who were cat lovers, but were of all kinds of different sort of expertise backgrounds, too,” Torun said. “We talked to architects, archaeologists, philosophers, professors of all kinds, psychologists. A lot of that didn’t make it into the film. There’s a few quotes, like the opening quote and the ending quote, that actually came from two professors who you never see visually.”
4. Live Like a Cat (Or At Least Try To)
The biggest challenge for Torun was an obvious one: getting 20 notoriously fickle animals to give them enough material during the course of an eight-week shoot. With a tight schedule and a small crew, Torun had to make every moment count – and that meant getting into the mindset of her cuddly subjects and giving themselves over to the unpredictable nature of cat time.
“The biggest challenge was trying to be in more than one place at the same time, which never really worked,” Torun said. “We were a very small crew and we wanted to have two cameras at least on at all times. In order for us to do that, we had to be with both cameras on in every location.”
There were plenty of starts and stops.
“We were kind of like a mobile crew in a van, six of us in the van that would go place to place,” she explained. “Often we would get phone calls [from subjects], saying, ‘oh, the tabby is here, the tabby I’ve been telling you about!’ and we’re like, ‘okay, we’re 45 minutes away, we’re coming!’ and we’d get there and it’d be gone. I don’t think we stopped filming except when we were sleeping.”
“Kedi” opens February 10 in New York at the Metrograph and on February 17 in Los Angeles at the Royal, with a national expansion to follow.