Q&A: Dawn Barkan, Head Animal Trainer on Inside Llewyn Davis
Alison Rosa. ©2012 Long Strange Trip LLC
If you've seen any of the Meet the Parents movies, you're familiar with Dawn Barkan's work: She's the one who trained the cats playing Mr. Jinx to use the toilet. She's also wrangled creatures big and small for numerous films and television shows, including The Sopranos, The Road, and the upcoming Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film. We talked to her about working with three felines on Inside Llewyn Davis, which was nominated for Academy Awards in Best Sound Mixing and Best Cinematography. (If they gave out animal Oscars, Barkan's cats would surely take home the trophy.)
The Coens told NPR that they’d work with the “stupid vulture” they used on True Grit rather than work with a cat again. Why is it so hard to train cats?
I’ve been hearing that they’ve made several remarks about cats and cat training. I was kind of surprised because cats are not hard to train—if you showed up on set with an untrained cat it would be disastrous. We were on set more than we weren’t on set, and there were really just a couple of bumps in the road. When you work with animals, that happens sometimes. Both of the things that were a bump in the road were not a surprise to me, and they shouldn’t have been a surprise for them because we talked about it prior, extensively. So I'm perplexed.
So cats aren't hard to train, but what makes training a cat different than training a dog?
They’re different beings. I think of cats as walking and living satellites. Their ears are picking up every sound, and their bodies are picking up all the vibrations around them, so they’re constantly tuning in to everything that’s going on around them, and they’re sensitive. So if there are loud noises or a lot of commotion, and the cat hasn’t been desensitized to that, they’re going not going to be comfortable, whereas dogs are a little bit more easygoing—where you are, they’re fine. They’ll follow your lead. They’re like, “Oh, OK, you’re standing next to a train! Woohoo!” They don’t care, they’re just more relaxed by nature.
Cats aren’t. They’re constantly bringing in bits of information and assessing what they are, and if they’re not familiar with what the things are that are going on around them, then their first response is to want to get away—what we call “spook.” So when you’re working with a cat, what makes it successful is one, having a good team of cats—that’s your first battle. The second element is time. Time is your friend. But the most important thing is having the ability to prep the animal in the situations where they’re going to work. Sometimes you have that luxury and sometimes you don’t. We did not have time or the luxury to prep on location on Inside Llewyn Davis, and keeping those things in mind, the cats did remarkably well.
We had the odds stacked against us on this film. The cats were—I don’t know how to say this, because I say this lovingly, I loved my teams of cats, I love the animals I work with—but they were not the best team of cats I’ve ever worked with. We got about half the time that we needed and it was nobody’s fault other than that’s when we were hired, and that’s how much time we had before we went to camera, and because of where they were shooting, which was on city streets, in subways—you can’t really replicate that. I can’t go take my cat on the NYC subway and prep him. That would be an impossible situation, because you’d need the area controlled at first. So a lot of it was training the behaviors in a simulated environment, and then quite frankly, going in and winging it and setting it up for success as much as we could.
Was what was required of these cats tougher than on other films you’ve trained cats for?
I will say that in the 30-something years that I’ve been working, this was one of the toughest shows I’ve ever done, strictly because of the environments the cats were in. They’re not New York street cats—they were saved from a shelter in Orlando, and we trained them and put them into this situation. So they were going into an environment that they didn’t know all that well. We did replicate it as best we could—but still, it’s not happening in that moment for real. It’s not like you just caught that cat in that moment running down the street. You’re asking the cat to run down a street through a crowd of people 15 times. You have to ask that behavior over and over and over of the animal. So they have to be comfortable and they have to be trained or you would get nothing.
How can you distinguish what’s a good cat for training versus one that’s not?
Cats who are interested in playing the game, who want to learn, for one. Cats are like people—they have different personalities. There are some cats who are more shy, there are some cats who are more outgoing, there are cats who are more aggressive, there are cats that are more timid. So really, you want one that’s a little more outgoing and aggressive—and I don’t mean in the mean sense of the word, but more curious about their surroundings and not afraid to get out there and explore. That’s what gives you a good cat.
One of the cats that I used for Little Fockers doesn’t know he’s a cat. He thinks he’s a dog. And that kind of laid back personality makes a very good training cat.
How did you accomplish all the shots you needed for this movie?
We started with five cats, initially. We fired two early on, because they weren’t really cut out for the biz, so we let them go relax. So basically we had three cats. We had our two action cats, Daryl and Jerry, who we used for the majority of the action scenes—running through the subway, down the street, jumping through a window, coming down a 5-story fire escape. Then we had one cat who lent herself very well to being the holding cat. There’s a large amount of the film where Oscar’s just holding the cat, and we used our little female for that.
How do you get a cat to do things like run down a street or a subway platform?
Cats work for food. That is their reward. Like we go to work and expect a paycheck every week, they go to work and they expect their food. You use food and you pair it to a sound, like Pavlov with the bell. It’s the same kind of thing. You start out by teaching a cat to come to a sound and that’s how you get cats to do an A to B. And you take it from there. You can pretty much teach them to do anything.
How long does the training process take?
Usually with an untrained cat, you want about 12 weeks. It takes about 30 days for them to get the idea, but then depending on what the behaviors are, normally we like to have about 12 weeks. Sometimes you can’t have that—like Inside Llewyn Davis, we had six weeks.
Do they retain their behavior?
Yeah! You might have to refresh their memory because they’re not doing it every day, but once they’ve learned to learn, you can get them to go with the program pretty quickly.
Did you have to train Oscar Isaac to work with the cats?
We spent a little time with Oscar. We just made sure he was comfortable holding the cat, which he was. He was very compliant and helpful. That always makes our job easier.
Alison Rosa / Long Strange Trip LLC
If cats aren’t hard to train, what animal is hard to train?
It’s not the animal, it’s a particular animal. There are some dogs that make you want to pull your hair out. It depends on the particular personality of the animal. Some breeds are easier than others. But I’ve worked with just about everything from bugs to great apes, and I find it to be individual personality rather than a type of animal.