Interview: Rob Fruchtman & Steven Lawrence on Herding Kittens for “The Cat Rescuers”

It takes a particular kind of dedication to sneak out into the streets late at night as Stu, a radio technician by day, does in “The Cat Rescuers” to leave out open tins of cat food to make sure the hundreds of strays in the area don’t go malnourished, but then you realize that co-directors Rob Fruchtman and Steven Lawrence had to wake up hours earlier than Stu’s 4 am call time to get their gear together to take in this morning ritual, seen in this exclusive clip provided by 1091 Media.

It wasn’t the only extraordinary effort put in by the two New York-based filmmakers over the course of four year to capture the overwhelming issue of feline overpopulation happening in their backyard, but they’re clearly inspired by their subjects who go to incredible lengths to make sure that the cat community is cared for and controlled when there’s no way the current system in place could possibly handle it. Despite pleas from animal activists and government agencies alike to pet owners to spay and neuter their loved ones, a slow-motion catastrophe has been unfolding from Coney Island to Canarsie as far too many cats can give birth with abandon and given that a cat can get pregnant a mere half-hour after it’s given birth and be impregnated by multiple partners, leading to liters of kittens varied in origin, the streets are full of felines that can’t possibly all find shelter and food.

While Fruchtman and Lawrence traverse every neighborhood to show how pervasive a problem it is, they find a diverse group of amateur animal wranglers who dive headfirst to fill the breach. Among those setting up traps to humanely counter the rampant breeding by bringing the cats in to properly neuter and often offering temporary homes to the homeless, there’s Claire, a Bed-Stuy based artist who can’t help but take care of any stray she sees; Tara, who administers health care for retirees and applies her knowledge to the cat crisis; Sassee, who was raised in a Jehovah’s Witness household that led to her love of animals and now spends all hours of the day combining her work as an investigator with a passion for finding cats a good home; and Stu, who patrols Borough Park for kittens.

As wily as the cats are, Fructhman and Lawrence take an even more potentially unwieldy story, with the quartet of cat rescuers all having distinctly different paths to how they came to care so much for the furry creatures, and turn it into a lovely portrait of individuals putting the greater good before themselves as well as a sly celebration of the cultural diversity of Brooklyn where different attitudes towards the cat conundrum reflect all the people of various persuasions that live there. A year after its debut at the Hamptons Film Festival, “The Cat Rescuers” is arriving to stream at home anywhere, available for streaming on a variety of platforms, and Fruchtman and Lawrence spoke about how they joined forces and discovered such a interesting story happening right in front of them, as well as getting so close to their subjects physically and emotionally.

How did you two team up on this?

Steven Lawrence: We were brought together by a cat rescuer – can you believe that? What happened is that in 2013, my wife and I moved into a house in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn and we didn’t know it came with a colony of feral cats. None of them had been spayed or neutered. There were other colonies on our block and we had to figure out what to do, so we learned about this technique you see in the film TNR – trap, neuter, return – and two of the people who mentored us were Tara and Claire, who are in the film. I realized “Gosh, this is an interesting subject for a film. Nobody in my community knows anything about TNR and there are all these heroic volunteer rescuers around Brooklyn and other parts of the city doing this work.” By chance, one of the rescuers who my wife and I were talking to, said, “If you’re interested in making a film, you need to talk to my friend Rob. He’s a cat lover too.” So we met, we got married, we made the film. [laughs]

You really go all over Brooklyn – was that baked into the design of the film?

Rob Fruchtman: I think it was. Steve and I realized early on that this was a story that’s common in cities around the world, so we needed one local place where we could go deep and follow rescuers. We thought Brooklyn was the perfect lab. They have tons of street cats and many, many diverse neighborhoods with rescuers of all stripes that we could pick and choose from.

Steven Lawrence: And I do think there is an allure to Brooklyn itself and maybe a misperception. It might be considered a hip hangout, but it’s also an incredibly diverse, dense locale. We have street cat populations, but also many different cultures and we were attracted to that, so the idea was let’s stay in Brooklyn, let’s follow different kinds of rescuers, and we picked four, and hopefully the story will be received as a universal story.

It was striking to me how you could learn so much about a culture from their relationship to cats. For instance, when you go to Borough Park, they’re unable to interact because of the religion’s view of animals.

Rob Fruchtman: There’s a real variety of cultures. Borough Park is interesting because [one of the cat rescuers] Stu grew up in that area and has a close relationship to [the community] and is in a sense, educating them, so they themselves have an evolving relationship with the cats and with animals in general, as you can see from the kids who are so attracted to it. It doesn’t matter what religion you are. Kids are going to be attracted and curious regardless, and that we didn’t expect. It was one of those nice surprises that came out during the filming.

Steven Lawrence: And in some meetings you can find hostility to street cats [with] landowners, that want to get rid of them or poison them, although that kind of thing isn’t in our film. Other places we filmed like Coney Island, we ran into so many people, a lot of them of Russian descent, who were crazy about cats. Everybody wanted to come by and talk and find out how they could help. So it really varied from community to community.

You mentioned Tara and Claire, how did Stu and Sassee come into the mix as subjects to follow?

Rob Fruchtman: Tara and Claire are part of the same group, Brooklyn Animal Action, which is one of the many rescue groups in the city, so once we decided to make the film, we asked Brooklyn Animal Action and Tara and Claire for advice about other rescuers. Belinda Cooper, one of the co-founders of Brooklyn Animal Action who’s in the film, said, “You’ve got to meet Sassee, she’s amazing.” And she was right. She’s a force of nature. She’s funny and just an extraordinary person and a brilliant rescuer. We also wanted a male rescuer in the film as well because while we can’t tell you what percentage of rescuers are men, it’s significant, and we asked Sassee and she knew Stu, so we met Stu and that was it.

This covers a number of years. Did you have an idea of how long you’d be filming?

Steven Lawrence: You never finish a film. You abandon it and we could’ve followed them forever, but at some point, we felt all of them had evolved in some way over the four years that we followed them, even if we didn’t have a significant event that would say this is the end of the story – it’s not, they’re still doing what they do – but we felt we captured their essence.

Did anything happen over the course of filming that changed your ideas about what it could be?

Steven Lawrence: Certainly because at the beginning, we were primarily documenting the rescue work that our subjects do, but over time and this happens in most documentary filmmaking situations, you get to know the people better and as the relationship between the filmmaker and the subject evolves, they start to share things about their lives. We didn’t know certain things that are in the film – I don’t want to provide any spoilers about why some of them had gotten into this work or the conflicts that they had doing the work – but we didn’t know some of the sacrifices they were making, not only of their time and sleep, but their money. And as our relationship with the rescuers deepened, they began to share more about their lives, and in the end, it’s a very intimate portrait of heroes. They’re doing the kind of thing that most people would not want to do. It’s like walking down the street and seeing a homeless person. Most people just keep walking by and it’s the same thing with cats.

This is a silly final question, but was it difficult to film the cats?

Steven Lawrence: The answer is yes, but cats are curious, so they’ll also come up to the camera and say, “What the hell is this thing?” we actually have a couple of shots like that in the film. But while filming trapping scenes, our rescuers were wary, like, “Guys, we’re not going to get anywhere with your cameras sticking out.” So we had to law low and put on our invisible shields and wait, just like the rescuers had to, and eventually we could do it. It’s a little bit like wildlife photography – not like [filming] wolves, but it’s hard.

Rob Fruchtman: Yeah, we had to do some stakeouts where it would take three or four hours to get a shot, and [we’re proud] we did it the hard way. We weren’t using any extra technology. Some people would use jibs or gimbals of some kind to get the camera very close to the ground. We were on the ground. So everything was handheld. It was a very handheld, intimate film and it was a lot of fun.

“The Cat Rescuers” will be available on iTunes and other streaming services on October 15th.