Emilia Jones & Nicholas Braun Discuss Filming the Bad Kiss Scene
Feb 2, 2023
There was a lot of buzz at this year’s Sundance Film Festival for Susanna Fogel’s Cat Person, starring Emilia Jones and Nicholas Braun. Based on Kristen Roupenian’s remarkably viral New Yorker short story of the same name, Cat Person is an unsettling look at dating as it’s evolved with technology, or devolved in some cases. These uneasy encounters are, unfortunately, all too common, but Jones – who attended Sundance for both this and Fairyland – and Succession’s Braun give new life to these two modern-day archetypes.
Jones plays Margot, a 20-year-old college student working the concession of an old movie theater part-time. One evening, on a whim, she strikes up a brief conversation with an older and somewhat odd regular, Robert (Braun), allowing him the confidence to pursue more flirtation the next time he comes in. Their banter leads to a string of texts in which Robert exudes a confidence he lacks face-to-face. As their relationship progresses, Cat Person, like the short story that inspired it, explores the ways awkward and uncomfortable can tip the scales to outright disturbing. The movie also features Geraldine Viswanathan and Isabella Rossellini.
COLLIDER VIDEO OF THE DAY
Following the screening of Cat Person, Jones, Braun, and Fogel stopped by the Collider Studio in City Park. During their interview with Collider’s Steve Weintraub, they discuss how screenwriter Michelle Ashford expanded on the viral short story to adapt to film, fleshing out Robert’s characterization, and why Cat Person is so relatable and makes a good movie adaptation. They talk about how the movie addresses the woman’s perspective and experience, break down the characters’ feelings and insecurities, and dig into that “really, really, really bad” kiss. The trio also share how they choreographed and filmed the very vulnerable sex scene and discuss working with an intimacy coordinator to feel safe and comfortable. Fogel and Jones brief us on their next film together, Winner, while Braun teases Succession Season 4. You can watch the interview in the player above, or read the full transcript below.
Image via Photagonist
COLLIDER: I am really happy to be talking to the people behind Cat Person, and I’m just going to say congratulations and how much I enjoyed your movie, and I really appreciate you guys coming in. I have a million questions, but I really want to start with probably the most important question upfront. I really want to know [how] working on Sky High helped you with Succession and Cat Person.
NICHOLAS BRAUN: Okay, well obviously it did because as a 16-year-old I knew I was gonna play Robert at some point. No, I got nothing for you, but I’m glad to hear a Sky High reference always.
SUSAN FOGEL: By the way, we filmed on a college campus and that was what everybody was excited about. Like all the kids were sticking their heads out the window of the dorm, yelling at him for being on Sky High, remember that?
BRAUN: It’s true. Totally, and that was like 16 years ago, and those kids are 18. I don’t know how they found that movie, but it really does stick in people’s minds. It is the thing, outside of Succession, that I am most recognized for, which is just crazy to me.
EMILIA JONES: It’s crazy to me it’s not Chalet Girl.
BRAUN: Chalet Girl… one in 1,000, 10,000 people bring it up and you are that one.
FOGEL: You just happen to be sitting with two of them.
BRAUN: Did you see it before we shot this movie?
FOGEL: I did.
BRAUN: I don’t think I knew that, cool.
FOGEL: I was worked with Ed [Wild], who was your cinematographer. And also because it’s Chalet Girl, and I watched it, like any self-respecting woman would do.
BRAUN: Wow, amazing. It is a good film. It is a good film.
FOGEL: Obviously we agree.
I’m sure you didn’t think this was the way the interview was going to start. But anyway, getting into why I get to talk to you guys. This is obviously a very popular story that many, many people have read. Can you talk about the challenges of taking something like that and bringing it to the screen, and fleshing it out more than what’s in the story? I’m not spoiling anything, but where the short story ends, the film continues.
FOGEL: Yeah, I mean I’m not the writer of the screenplay so I’ll have to give credit to Michelle [Ashford] in terms of how she imagined expanding the story to befit a full movie experience. One thing that was challenging, just even in terms of actualizing it with Nick, was that the story is really from Margot’s perspective to the point where Robert is, more or less, a projection. You’re not ever hearing from Robert, you’re not ever really inside Robert’s internal experience when you’re reading the story, it’s all from her side.
When you’re on the set with an actor, you have to have a 360 view of a person. Like Nick would say, “Well why is Robert saying this?” And we’d have to figure out the motivations for why Robert is doing and saying the things he’s doing and saying. So I think it’s just by definition you have to have a more humanistic approach to all of the characters because you’re dealing with living, breathing actors trying to embody them. Even if he’s not always likable, we wanted him to always be relatable enough that men watching the movie would feel like there’s something in there that they can connect with, learn from, cringe at, recognize.
So yeah, I would say just wanting to be true to what the story did in terms of showing what’s problematic about dating culture and men and women, and how we interact functionally or not; but then also, having to give it more layers, human layers, because we’re real people and I have to see what’s on Robert’s face, too. Even if Margot’s not noticing it, the camera’s gonna notice it.
I hate asking the generic question, but almost everyone watching this interview will not have seen the movie yet. So can you both talk about who you play, and what the film is about?
BRAUN: I play Robert who is pursuing Margot at the local movie theater. Robert’s a big film buff, he’s there all the time, he finally works up the courage to speak to this girl who he has a crush on. I guess our journey is, they aspire to be a couple, and it’s very messy on the way towards that, and it goes extreme places.
JONES: It basically touches on the power dynamics, the miscommunication, and the interiority of dating. I play Margot, and she works the concession stand, and her head’s kind of a little bit up in the clouds. They text back and forth for a while, and then they finally go on a date, and that’s all I’m gonna say.
Image via Sundance
This is a very, very popular story, and I’m curious, when you told your friends and family that you were involved with this did a lot of them know the material, and what was the reaction when you told them who you were playing?
BRAUN: Some people didn’t know it at all, but the people who knew about it were like, “Oh my God, they’re making a movie?” And we’re like, “Oh my God, you’re gonna play Robert?” So, you know, the people who know this story, I think love it and it matters so much to them, and I think they want our film to live up to that. I mean, the story is so compelling, but also cinematic. When you’re reading it, you see all the places, you see all the moments, you can see what’s happening on their faces. I think you feel it, you know, very [instinctively], very viscerally when you’re reading it. I think the people who knew we were gonna make a movie, who’d read it, were stoked. Really excited.
Did you have any friends and family that were like, “Oh my God.”?
JONES: Yeah. Like everyone. I mean, a friend of mine actually told me to read the short story – I was late to the party and I hadn’t read it when it came out – and, yeah, a friend of mine told me to read it because she had a similar experience. Then when I told that friend that we were going to make it into a movie, she was like, “Oh my gosh, do I get credit for that?” I was like, “Yeah?” So, everyone’s excited.
I mean it provokes so much conversation. So when people find out we’re making a movie, they’re like, “Oh my gosh.” I hope it provokes the same amount of reaction and conversation. And people are interested in how our film ends and where it goes because, you know, a short story into a film, there’s a lot you’ve got to kind of add in.
FOGEL: There was a lot of debate in my group of friends when the story came out in the first place and reading it, I wasn’t immediately sure how it would translate. Like, I knew someone was going to make it into a movie because when you live in LA and you make movies, you read a story and you’re like, “This is gonna be a movie in two years. I don’t know what the movie will be, but this will be something.”
But it was really when I read Michelle’s script, which kind of took some of those internal experiences that Margot has, and the fears and projections that she has, and made [externalized them], whether they’re flashes of fear that she has or projections, or just those thriller and suspense elements that are, some of them, psychological for Margot, was sort of Michele’s vision for how to adapt this very internal story. I was like, “Oh okay, this can borrow some genre elements while still having the relatable cringe humor of the story.” And hopefully, all of that makes it feel bigger than the sum of its parts as a movie, not just a direct adaptation. So that was exciting.
But yeah, I mean, everybody was familiar with it. It’s that rare relatable short story that kind of turns into IP because it has that name recognition, which for a story about dating is not common, you know. So yeah, it was exciting to think about the reach it would have, even if people are just like, “How’d they do that?” And then they watch it, and then they have their own thoughts about the movie as a different piece of art.
You know, one of the things I thought the film did such a great job of is showing the woman’s perspective in a relationship. The film did such a great job of showing your character’s perspective on, “Who is this guy?” and being alone on the street, and little things. Could you talk about capturing the woman’s experience?
FOGEL: Yeah, yeah, I mean I think we talked about this a lot, and one reason I think Emilia was so perfect for this part is that Margot is in the process of coming of age and becoming an adult, and trying to figure out how to be an adult. For the first time, she’s living independently from her family, and she’s alone at night and she’s going back to a dorm where people may or may not notice if she comes back at a specific time.
There’s a lot of anxiety that just goes into being a woman of that age, or a woman of any age, but in particular when you’re first thrust out of your home in that way. But at the same time, we didn’t want it to be a story of a woman who’s a victim of a big scary world, and there’s something about Margot where the fact that she’s a good student, the fact that she’s funny, the fact that she’s self-aware, the fact that she has ego about certain things and she’s a little cocky about certain things, but also insecure about other things… There’s just a more relatable way in for women. You’re not looking at just this victim, final girl-type girl, nor is she some bionically strong woman who always knows what to say and kicks ass all the time. She’s just a relatable person who’s a combination of strong and also makes a ton of mistakes, you know? Even though she can articulate what she wants probably in every other area of her life, this is the one area where she can’t and that felt really real and nuanced. So yeah, I don’t know if that answered your question.
Image via Photagonist
It does. I’m going to get specific with some stuff that’s in the short story. There’s a big thing in the short story about the bad kiss, and I’m curious if you guys can talk about filming the bad kiss, and how you, as the director, wanted to put it on screen.
JONES: It was really bad. Really, really, really bad. Nick?
BRAUN: Yeah, I thought it was a really good kiss. That’s interesting. Hm.
JONES: It was fun to film. I know it’s such a weird scene to do, and I think going into that we all knew that. We’d done a few scenes before that scene so we kind of already knew each other, and we got on really well. We laughed into each other’s mouths and it was from that moment I knew that we would be friends for life.
BRAUN: Honestly, that’s a very bonding thing to literally laugh into a mouth.
JONES: If that doesn’t make you close I don’t know what does.
FOGEL: That was one of the most fun nights we were filming, especially because we’re filming on the streets of Jersey City. And people were driving by.
BRAUN: Yeah, just a really long make-out. I think it was important that it be extremely aggressive because, you know, how you kiss is how you sleep together, they say. And she says, too, “It’s probably gonna be how it would be in bed, like mauling.” And so, I think it was important to go for it. What you see in the movie feels like 10, like we went to 10. My face has engorged her face, and she’s frozen. Your look at the end when it’s done. And he doesn’t want to stop either, it’s like he wants to keep going. Anyway, I could talk about it because it is really interesting, and it is an important part of it. It’s like the first moment where he thinks he’s like killing it, you know? Later, you’ll see them at the house and he thinks he’s doing a great job there, as well, but with the kiss, he’s like, “I just showed her I can kiss.” So it was an important thing to get right.
JONES: I feel like Robert gets more confident after he sees Margot cry, which is really interesting, you know? You kind of finally see him be himself and not have this guard up, but then you’re like, “Put that guard back up slightly,” because that was so much.
FOGEL: I mean, yeah, that’s very true. It feels like what we talked about a lot, just in terms of the psychology of both of those characters and that date leading up to that, was really the idea that they’re both kind of circling each other and Robert is not sure that he’s on safe ground with her. Like at any moment, he’s like, “She didn’t like the movie, she sent this text and maybe she didn’t mean this text.” And so he’s got his own swirling insecurities about the whole thing, and the way that he handles that is to push her away preemptively before he can get hurt.
I mean, it’s not a spoiler to say just because it’s the dynamic that kind of pervades the whole movie, but in that moment where she’s more vulnerable and she feels younger and weaker, in a way, he can then be the man in a way that he hasn’t felt completely confident in being. So I think he almost becomes an amplified version of that, and that kiss is like a good expression of that, you know?
BRAUN: Totally. It’s that thing where you feel like the other person has the higher ground, like you’re like, “Oh, they have the power,” but I don’t know if I like the term “power dynamic.” It’s like you just like them more than they might like you, you know what I mean? It is a power dynamic, but it’s like, “I just want them to want me more than they…” you know? When he has an opportunity to be like, “Oh I’ll show you,” or, “Oh, you’re vulnerable…” Well, maybe I’m not vocalizing it as well as you just did, but…
FOGEL: I know what you mean. It’s also like the inverse of what Margot feels in moments where she’s imagining that Robert is insecure and talking to his therapist. Not to give a spoiler, but there’s a moment where she’s not connecting with Robert, but she kind of spirals out into a fantasy of Robert confessing his insecurities about how inadequate he feels with her to his therapist, and then she’s like, “Oh he just feels inadequate. That’s why he’s being kind of an asshole right now. Now I like him more because poor Robert.” She goes through this whole narrative in her mind that may or may not be accurate to what he is feeling, but in that moment she feels a little bit of the power, so she’s able to give him another chance. So it’s kind of the two of them just doing so much projecting and not enough asking, strategizing.
Image via Photagonist
One of the best things in the film is how you portrayed, to be specific, a sex scene, and showing your character’s perspective and what’s going on, how the scene is filmed in real time. There’s a sense of danger, and everything about it was so well done. I’m curious if the two of you could talk about, as actors, filming a scene like that, that really depicts such an honest and vulnerable moment, and everything that’s going on, and also how you wanted to capture it as a director.
JONES: I mean, I had total and utter trust with Susanna as a director and as a person, and I loved her way of approaching the scene. Obviously, we had storyboards and I remember you sent them to us before and I could kind of look through them, and suddenly the scene became alive in my head. Then we all sat down and we talked in depth about the scene with Nick and the intimacy coordinator, and it just allowed us to talk everything out, each picture, each step. So it meant that on the day we could kind of have freedom. Everyone knew what was going to happen, we knew what we were going to do, but at the same time we all trusted each other and we knew that if anyone was uncomfortable at any moment, we could voice that. And I’m glad that Nick and I get on really well because yeah, I can’t imagine doing that scene with anyone else. We managed to make a tough scene fun and there wasn’t a moment where I was uncomfortable, or anything.
BRAUN: Yeah, I feel the same way. You gave us exactly what it was gonna be, and you asked us if it’s okay, everything you’re seeing there, and then we spoke to the intimacy coordinator who’s kind of like a mediator to be like, “Are you okay?” I think she even took us aside and was like, “What are your limits? What are your boundaries? What are you not okay with?” Same with me. She pulled both of us aside, and luckily, because I think the scene benefits from it, both of us were like, “Let’s go, let’s do it all. Let’s make it like, as full as it can be and not hold back.”
Not to say that… If she wanted to do less, fine, the scene was great, the writing is great, but choreographing it became fun. It’s like, “How do we start here, and then what position does he think makes him show that he’s good at sex? And how does he do it all? It was fun to figure out. I mean, I guess I won’t go into each part of it, go see the movie if you want to see how it progresses, but I would say it’s like the best-case scenario in terms of working on a scene that’s super vulnerable and I’ve never done a scene like that. I don’t think you’ve ever done a scene like that, and I’ve never seen a sex scene that long except for in the movie The Room, where there are several and they’re all terrible. But yeah, I think we had fun once we got all the logistical, permission, all that stuff out of the way, and it was clear.
JONES: As you said, I mean, that scene benefits on, also, not like… One of the scenes, I banged my head on the headboard and it wasn’t planned, and I think we were both game. Same with some of the other stuff in the third act. You know, we were both like, “Let’s go.” We had a similar way of working, which was nice.
Could you talk a little bit about how you wanted to film that scene?
FOGEL: Yeah, I think that I’m a meticulous planner in general, so even when it came to the scene, especially when it came to the scene, it was a matter of choreographing the whole thing out like a ballet basically. Like, “Okay, what is every move that they’re making, but at the same time, what are we not seeing?” And sometimes just people’s imagination and projecting their own memories and experiences of their own encounters, I knew would be more vivid than showing something very graphic. Not that we would have anyway.
So it was sort of like, “Okay, if we kind of know enough to know what’s going on beyond the frames of the camera, that will be more evocative for people.” We knew every second what was going on whether or not we were seeing it all, and then we we filmed it in such a way where I think people just have to be immersed in her experience of it. There’s not a moment where they can take a step back and watch some sort of a romantic-looking wide shot that’s going to fit into any other romantic story. It can only be the sex scene in this movie because you’re not actually seeing anything that’s, you know, erotic, you’re just sort of seeing the nuts and bolts of it from her side, but yet you’re kind of stuck in this encounter from start to finish in real-time.
You guys made another movie together, Winner. What can you tell people about it? [To Braun] And, obviously as a fan of Succession, I am curious what it’s been like filming the new season, and what are you excited for?
FOGEL: Emilia and I just wrapped another movie together. We’re codependent and we’re just gonna keep doing this forever. It is a coming-of-age story that is also a biopic of Reality Winner, the whistleblower. It’s a 20-something girl grew up in Texas, went on to become a crypto linguist, and then ended up leaking a document and being incarcerated for years. So Emilia trained and bulked up and ate protein shakes every day, and completely transformed. Anyway, yeah, that was amazing. She’s got incredible range.
JONES: I mean I haven’t looked at a weight since, and I haven’t touched a weight since, and I don’t think I will ever touch a weight ever again. No, I’m joking, it was a lot of fun. I’m glad that Susanna trusted me with that film, I’m a brunette and kind of slim, so it was kind of a project that was quite far away from me, and the character is very different from me, but I absolutely loved it, and I loved meeting Reality and talking to her in depth. We text all the time, even now, and it was an amazing project to be a part of.
I was just trying to get nick in a scene, I just wanted him to be in it somehow, but it just didn’t work out. Prison guard or NSA worker…
BRAUN: Yeah, I would have been down, just didn’t get the call. So I was ready, I knew you guys were filming. So next time you guys do something, just please include me. Succession is great.
Image via Photagonist
Oh, it’s called Succession?
BRAUN: Yeah, that’s the name for the fourth season, we’re going to keep it the same. It’s just great, it’s just a blast, you know? We just have such a great rhythm together. The writing is excellent, this season is next level, it’s incredible. I’m very, very impressed every time we get a script. I mean, I always have been, but like this season they continue to be– I’m like, “Jesus Christ, this is unbelievable.” It continues to be a total joy to make.
And you’re back on set tomorrow?
BRAUN: Back on set tomorrow, yeah.
Special thanks to our 2023 partners at Sundance including presenting partner Saratoga Spring Water and supporting partners Marbl Toronto, EMFACE, Sommsation, Hendrick’s Gin, Stella Artois, mou, and the all-electric vehicle, Fisker Ocean.
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