In “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain,” Benedict Cumberbatch stars as the eccentric British artist who became famous for his playful pictures of cats.
History remembers Wain for essentially domesticating cats in England through his work, with his funny art changing attitudes and turning the animal from a vermin catcher into an acceptable pet. But, Cumberbatch explains, the new movie aims to capture the inner life of this unsung hero.
“It’s the human being amongst this historical figure that we sort of vaguely know through recollections of his art being familiar and not necessarily knowing anything about the man himself, his story and what he struggled with,” Cumberbatch said, in conversation with “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” director Will Sharpe at Variety’s TIFF Studio presented by Canada Goose.
Cumberbatch plays Wain over a period from the late 1800s through the 1930s, and the Oscar nominee also executive produced the project under his SunnyMarch film and television production banner, with the team bringing Wain’s story to BAFTA winner Sharpe to direct. Mirroring the British artist’s surreal and psychedelic tastes, the filmmaker intended to make the movie feel different than your traditional biopic.
“Sometimes you can feel in a biopic how life has been manipulated to service a movie, but in the case of Louis Wain, I really wanted the movie to work in service of his life.” Sharp said, explaining that he focused instead on giving audiences an empathetic portrayal of the human being behind the art.
“It really appealed to me that he was a quiet man in a very loud era, just crafting away doing his work, getting really lost in the demands on him and struggling with his grief, his life circumstances and this sort of snowball of pressure on him,” the actor explains. “I felt for him; I think that was something that we all carried very deeply as a creative group. We were all communing with this spirit that we fell in love with slightly.”
In lieu of presenting a highlight reel of Wain’s accomplishments, the movie spends more time with Wain’s family — with whom he had a complicated relationship, particularly as the artist struggled with his mental health — and centers the love story between the artist and his wife Emily, played by Claire Foy. The film’s ensemble includes Andrea Riseborough, Toby Jones, Taika Waititi, Sophia Di Martino and Olivia Colman, who narrates the movie. But the real stars of the show were, of course, the cats.
About 40 felines were involved in the production, and because Sharpe decided not to use CGI to manipulate their behavior, the production itself was an exercise in patience.
“We had a sort of cat mode, where whenever a cat was brought in to set we’d need to be very quiet. No sudden movements. No loud noises,” Sharpe explained, joking with Cumberbatch that the cats were treated better on set than the movie stars.
“They’re very independent-minded creatures,” the filmmaker continued. “But, the result of it is that when you do get something from them, it really it feels like magic, and there are some moments in this film where cats are being cats.”
Cumberbatch and the crew fell in love with the kittens, with the actor sharing that a couple lucky cats from the production found a new home with SunnyMarch co-founder Adam Ackland.
“The minute they get to adolescence, you can kiss a few hours goodbye,” Cumberbatch said, with a laugh. “It was quite difficult sometimes. One of the ways of Pavlovianly triggering them is just have this clicker, which is tied in with the food reward, so I’d go home in the car and I’d just be still hearing this clicking. We talked about getting a clicker for me.”
Amazon Studios will release “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” theatrically and on Prime Video on Nov. 5, with Studiocanal releasing the film in cinemas across their territories — UK, France, Germany, Australia and New Zealand — early in 2022.