'A Cat Called Dom' Interview

Date: 5 October 2023Category: Interviews

A Cat Called Dom follows filmmaker and animator Will Anderson’s relationship with his mother following a devastating cancer diagnosis. In the process of making the film, Will turns to an animated cat living in his computer screen who interjects with observations, questions and actions that shed a light on Will's feelings to a darkly humorous and often poignant effect. Created with co-director and collaborator, Ainslie Henderson, the film documents the manifold emotions Will experiences, as he juggles the pressures of filmmaking and personal trauma whilst coming to terms with a potential, earth shattering loss. Cinema For All sat down with the film’s co-directors to discuss the line between documentary and fiction, meta-art and film as an act of catharsis.

It's a really unique film, I wondered if you could tell us a bit about the origins of the project and how it came to be?

Will Anderson: A Cat Called Dom is quite a personal film that’s from my point of view after my mother got mouth cancer, and it knocked me for six to be honest. I didn’t really know how to deal with it, no one teaches you how to face your parent’s mortality. We started quite quickly just making a film about it, I animated this little cat which was kind of a symbol of the cancer spreading, as the cancer spreads this little cat forms and his lifespan is the lifespan of the film, and he talks for the cancer and the things we struggle to communicate with in my family. That said, it becomes a very meta, essay style, patchwork of a film. We went out with the false premise of trying to write a story that was fictitious, that made sense of this difficult time and that just didn’t really work. So, the film falls apart. We made it over eight years and towards the end of the process we kind of gave up and then we ended up repackaging it and making it a film about failure, embracing failure. It became about death and communication within a family.

Ainslie Henderson: It’s a film about piecing together and accepting what you don’t want, working with the failures in your life and making something worthwhile, and hopefully beautiful, out of them.

You hit on the meta elements of the film there, and it does seem like a film almost about the mechanics of filmmaking, but I think it gets at something very universal.

AH: We resisted for a long time making it a film about filmmaking. Given how integral that is to the film, that was a part of it that came quite late on. We were trying to make it a film about the relationship between Will and his mum, which at the heart of it, it is. That aspect of it was something that we found at the end to draw everything together.

WA: It felt like a cop out; “oh you’re making a film about filmmaking. Urgh, again!”.

AH: It is and it isn’t. It’s more about accepting the things you don’t want in your life, like cancer and the film not being what you wanted it to be. Saying “this isn’t what we want but what can we do with what we have”.

The film reminded me of the work of Abbas Kiarostami in the way it blends fiction and documentary, showing you the same scene in different contexts, which you do here. So was that something that came later on?

WA: What’s real and what’s not with documentary? It’s a good question. There’s [recreated] moments that felt as real as they were; it’s the same people and we’re talking about something that was challenging. The rewatching of things came later, but documentary is always a bit like that. Playing with what’s real and what isn’t. That really interests me, playing with that form. I’ve tried to do with some shorts and it’s quite pleasing and, again, very reflexive. It’s opening the book and saying, “this is how we’re doing it and we’re playing around”. I love films that do that, films that play with that and are aware of themselves I find really exciting. It’s less precious as well, particularly when we’re talking about accepting failure, we want to be less precious “let’s rub it out and show it again”, it feels real even if it’s all constructed.

AH: I suppose it’s a way of being honest about the artifice of it, isn’t it? Your being up front about “this is a construction”, then you get closer to what’s actually real in it. When you were speaking there, it reminded me of the way we remember things; apparently our memory of things is very foggy when psychologists really look at it. The more we remember them the less accurate they become, the feelings mutate them. The idea is that documentary isn’t necessarily more real than a narrative film, but even our memories are a reconstituted version of the truth.

I think by acknowledging that artifice it actually further invites you into that relationship you have with your mum.

WA: We were very conscious of making something that isn’t super depressing. We often talked about making a funny film about cancer, which is a very hard thing to do. I don’t actually think [the film] is funny, but there’s something very light about the anchor in it, which is Dom. Which is kind of making light of it, that’s really important because it’s such a difficult thing to talk about. Mums got cancer; tense up, be communicative and open and present... But then it’s the opposite. So making something that was lighter was quite a draw for us. I don’t know if we smashed it, but we tried. It’s hard.

AH: Just the act of making something creative about any issue digests it and lightens it a little, doesn’t it? It makes it feel like it isn’t this terrible thing that can’t be talked about or touched.

The film does go to some really difficult and intimate places and I wondered is there was ever hesitation around that or how much you wanted to reveal?

WA: Definitely. We were really sensitive about working with my mother. It’s hard to tap on that door too much. That’s possibly another reason why we struggled for a while.

AH: I do remember with you struggling with that, Will. I remember towards the end, when we reincarnated the film, you saying to me “I feel like I’ve put my mum and my parents through this ordeal, and we don’t have a film to show. I have to finish something. Even if I can just show my mum what I wanted to do”.

WA: That was a conversation that we had that completely changed everything, because you then said to me: “that sounds likes the film. You just want to show her these bits to get it out there”.

AH: It’s a really honest motivation. I think that’s important, because when you see an artist, the questions are there. Why did you do this? What is this art for?

WA: I don’t know if the answer to that was right originally. We jumped in. Why though? Is it just control? Is that enough?

AH: I think it was almost panicky for you. You don’t know how to handle it, but you do know how to create things. That was pretty much it to start with. You don’t know what to do but create something.

After spending so long on the film, was it a cathartic experience to finish it?

WA: 100%. It was cathartic while making it. There are tough moments that I was still trying to get my head around and then you can recreate those moments and talk about it all again. It’s really cathartic. I think I have a much better relationship with my folks now; they’ve kind of seen a thing that they would never really see, and that’s beautiful.

How has it been to finally see the film with an audience?

WA: Relief is a word. You always find this new stuff that you didn’t think would land, that land at different screenings in different parts of the country. The first time I chat to Dom, we get this feeling in the room and I love that.

AH: I remember the first time we watched it with an audience, it was in Edinburgh at the Cameo, and it was alive. It was really exciting. I think I’d stopped really feeling the power it had, and then in that room you could feel it. It was crackling. It came alive. In a way I’d forgotten it was alive.

A Cat Called Dom is available to screen from 22/09/23. Find out more.

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