High hopes were pinned on bringing to life this 1957 kids’ classic, one of the top 10 best-selling hardcover children’s books of all time. The live-action film adaptation didn’t generate critical acclaim, but with Oscar-nominated production designer Bo Welch making his directorial debut, a top-flight creative spirit prevailed in design areas.
Mike Myers leaves an indelible paw print as the title character: a fast-talking feline billed as the original party animal. His cat in a red-and-white-striped stovepipe hat becomes an uninvited visitor in the lives of Conrad and Sally Walden, two suburbanite children from a bygone era left in the care of a drowsy babysitter. Mother (Kelly Preston) instructed them not to leave the house, and to tidy up for the company party she agreed to host. When the playful cat arrives on the scene, a fun-filled adventure ensues — complete with parables about respect and responsibility.
Production Design: Alex McDowell
Production designer Alex McDowell and his crew transformed a Simi Valley subdivision into the mythical town of Anville. They did such a convincing job that passers-by actually inquired about buying in the neighborhood. The sets were among the most complex of McDowell’s career. Nowhere was the task harder to pull off than with a surreal version of the family’s suburban home. Flexible foam latex was used so the distorted elements — e.g., furniture, props, molding, and door handles — would “adhere to the curves of the set,” he explains. McDowell says the decor was reminiscent of “a slightly idealized 1950s Americana,” featuring a lilac exterior and celery-green interior. Nearly all the furniture was handcrafted and scaled up for a kid-centric point of view. Getting 15 sculptors to follow a computer model that featured more than 200 drawings and 450 sheets of drafting made the production “extremely hard to budget,” he reports. To keep the coin within reason, the crew built high sets to block surrounding distractions, and added $25,000 worth of scenery, which saved $75,000 in visual effects costs, since it removed most of the matte-painting composites and set extensions from certain sequences.
In the wacky world of Dr. Seuss, surrealism creeps into everything. One objective was to create an environment that wasn’t a complete abstraction, according to supervising art director Alec Hammond. The celery-green motif turned bright colors into “a very tight- mesh palette. So what you end up with is something that’s bright and lively and slightly unreal, yet it all works together.” Hammond gives kudos to the unsung crew. “The construction guys, painters and sculptors on this movie were excellent,” he says. “An old friend of mine who’s a costume designer once said, ‘Your clothes are only as good as the people who make them.’ And it’s the same thing with these sets.”
Costume Designer: Rita Ryack
Designing the most recognizable hat in children’s literature was Ryack’s most daunting challenge, especially since there was no continuity to the original drawings. “The hat itself is a character,” she says. Mechanical tricks were employed to develop an animated and theatrical sensibility rather than a CGI creation. It had to be comfortable to wear, yet also durable enough to bounce and recoil. The task proved more complex than simply covering springs with stretch fabric. “We needed a material that would stretch with the hat, take the light well, and not look like that awful velour you see in the souvenir store,” explains Ryack, who chose polar fleece. It also took some experimenting to find the right kind of red for the hat, since the original choice bled violently on film (they settled on a deeper shade that resembled burgundy). Although most of the boy characters in Dr. Seuss tales are clad in a turtleneck and slacks, Ryack expanded the book’s shorthand treatment of clothing by dressing the mischievous Conrad to reflect his character’s chaotic streak. In contrast, sweet sister Sally’s outfits represented order. “She had to be neat and clean all the time,” Ryack notes.
Makeup and Hair
Makeup department head Melanie Hughes Weaver worked within a vibrant color palette of lavender, greens and yellows, with accents of orange and pink. Coupled with exaggerated facial appliances and hairpieces, her work helped characters blend into the Dr. Seuss hyper-reality. “The faces had to feel as if they belonged in this beautiful, cartoonish world,” she notes. Her challenge was to transform Ted Geisel’s quaint illustrations into a three-dimensional world acceptable to moviegoers, who were bound to have preconceived notions of how things should look. She also had to visually tie in characters that weren’t part of the book, such as the cat’s troika of legal eagles, who required a Seussian makeover. “I felt they should start with the same height and build – sort of a triplet feeling,” Weaver explains. “We had eyeglasses, suits and mustaches for each of them that were identical. They appeared side by side with the cat and fit right into his world.”
Voni Hinkle, the department head hair stylist, worked from director Welch’s vision of “a very sweet and wonderful world, with a hyper-’50s style.” That meant everyone had to look kind, considerate and well groomed. She used an off-pink cap to “yummy up” Kelly Preston’s blonde wig, while a sweet-but-controlled presentation powered Dakota Fanning’s perf as goodie-two-shoes daughter Sally. As the villainous next-door neighbor Quinn, Alec Baldwin sported hair on the verge of busting open to unleash the monster within. Hinkle recalls that he withstood the goo-like substance as a good-natured professional. “We’d start wiping him down, and it probably took about three or four washings to get that stuff out of his hair,” she chuckles. Thing One and Thing Two, the cat’s gymnast helpers, were outfitted with two-piece wigs that fused form and function. Faux heart-shaped lace provided a whimsical look to the front part of the hairpieces, which were designed to withstand all their gyrations.