At first glance, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain might seem like an enjoyable but paint-by-numbers British biopic. Naturally, you’ve got the pedigreed casting (Benedict Cumberbatch, Claire Foy), a life story filled with both comedy and tragedy, and of course, frames fairly bursting with picture-perfect period costumes and set designs. Nothing to sneeze at, certainly, but also nothing that particularly stands out. And that’s what might’ve been had this particular film not found the perfect marriage of director and subject. The subject is turn-of-the-last-century illustrator Louis Wain—a charming but odd man who found fame through his fantastical and adorable paintings of anthropomorphized cats, but whose personal life was touched by tragedy and struggles with mental health. The director is Will Sharpe—an actor-turned-creator whose creative mind gels completely with this story of beauty, talent and pain.
Based on a witty and heartfelt script co-written by Sharpe and Simon Stephenson, and with an unique and melancholic score from Arthur Sharpe, Louis Wain tells the story of a man desperately trying to tap into electricity for the answers that would help him understand his life, his mind, and his place in the universe. The director and his cinematographer, Erik Alexander Wilson, use light, colour, and other stunning visuals to communicate Wain’s view of the world and the inner workings of his over-full mind, while the film’s 4:3 ratio effectively sets the action within the bounds of an artist’s canvas. Aside from his lead actors, and an abundance of feline talent, what period biopic would be complete without a raft of familiar British faces too, including Toby Jones, Asim Chaudry, Sharon Rooney, and Andrea Riseborough. From top to bottom, Will Sharpe has infused this well-trod genre piece with a much-needed creative touch, one that should appeal to all audiences and not just cat fanciers.
I had a chance to sit down with the director for an in-depth chat before his film’s Canadian premiere this past September. Sharpe talked about his fascination with the lesser-known Wain, the challenges of bringing the artist’s story to the big screen, and how one goes about directing Cumberbatch and cats. Lots and lots of cats.
PLEASE NOTE: If you’re not familiar with Louis Wain’s life, this discussion contains some spoilers for the film.
Emma Badame: Many of us might have seen Louis Wain’s creations over the years, but so few of us have heard of the man behind the drawings. How did you discover his story? And what was it about it that made you want to bring it to the screen?
Will Sharpe: So the project was sent to me by Benedict’s company. And I was the same as you. I felt like I’d seen these pictures somewhere before. They seemed so familiar, but I didn’t know Wain, and I certainly didn’t know anything about his extraordinary life story. I think probably the first thing that I felt a personal connection to was his work. I felt like there was a playfulness there. There was humour and colour, but underneath it, sometimes there was a little bit of fragility and vulnerability.
And he’s probably, arguably, now best known for his kaleidoscopic cats. These fractal, abstract, psychedelic images that you can see become the face of a cat. And so I think I was taken in by his mind and his personality, I suppose.
But then I read about his life. And I think I was just filled with admiration for him as a human being, almost more than as a historical figure. I mean, first of all, he’s known for being the reason why people in the UK keep cats as pets. Before he started creating these cute, funny cat pictures, they were basically just seen as vermin.
More than that though, he was someone who didn’t always fit into society easily or automatically. You could, I suppose, call him eccentric. He struggled on and off with mental illness throughout his life. He was born with a harelip and when he was a little kid, he suffered from fevers and nightmares and even waking hallucinations. Yet he found a way to live his life. And I suppose, most importantly, to make connections with the people around him whether it be his wife, Emily, or the people who engaged with his work. So I just found it an incredibly inspirational story. I felt like he faced an almost unbelievable number of challenges, but did it with good grace. And he felt like a hero.
I had no idea about the introduction of cats as pets until I saw the film.
You use the camera in really interesting ways to introduce and demonstrate many of Wain’s different facets including colourization, framing, lighting and more. How did you decide what elements to zero in on and which would complement Benedict’s performance?
I think one big inspiration for the film’s aesthetic was Louis Wain himself. We wanted to bring his world onto the screen. And so that applied to the tone, but also the design, the portraiture, even to an extent, the sound of it. The music initially came from us (Sharpe and the film’s composer, Arthur Sharpe, the director’s brother) listening to music that was written for cats. And then out of that came this electrical soundscape, I guess, as we tried to evoke a sense of Louis’ fascination with the world and how it works.
We were trying to forensically examine these fragments of Louis’ writing that talked about electricity and how he felt like it was the key to understanding everything. And within those written fragments and within some of his artwork, there were always clues about how he was feeling. I felt that when you’re feeling down or anxious, that can feel electrical in a certain way, or if you’re feeling in love, or creatively excited, that can feel electrical in a different way. I felt I understood Louis when he talked about bad and good electricity.
So with Benedict, we tried to find ways into that. And part of that was physicality but also how that internal world of Wain’s manifests physically. Benedict’s a very physical actor and so in rehearsal he worked with a movement coach—whether it was about how Louis dances, how he walks, or how he sits in certain situations. So that was another part of it.
Then the other part of it was just trying to find ways to get the audience into [Louis’] head. Whether it be through use of colour, like [in the case of] governesses, who are normally presented as wearing black or blue. There are actually some pictures of a white cat wearing a blue governess dress that some people speculate could be a representation of Emily. And so we dressed Emily in blue, and that became, I suppose, one of our storytelling tools as well.
And so, for example, in the scene where Emily has died and Louis is about to discover her, the windows—which were these multi-coloured, stained-glass Victorian windows—have all gone blue. And I don’t think it’s something the audience will consciously be aware of but on some subliminal level, there are times when Emily is manifested in the frame. And again, after she’s been taken away, there are these moments where you feel the grief catching up with Louis. She becomes present again in a way and Louis is almost entirely subsumed by the colour blue, to the point where you can feel it just becoming unbearable for him.
You also used some really interesting techniques with the film itself.
Yes! I worked with an analogue video artist who specializes in video feedback techniques. So to try and visually manifest some of what was going on in Louis’ head, we would send him sequences from the film or some of Louis’ art. Then he would send back hours and hours of footage that I’d go through, edit and work into the film.
Some of it we would project and then shoot back onto 16 mm. Then one batch would go to be clean processed, which would give it this shimmery, beautiful filmic texture, almost romantic, you could say. And then the other half we sent to a guy called James Holcombe. He’s one of the few remaining people in the UK who hand processes film stock. He would add sulfuric acid to the bath and scrunch it up on purpose so that it would become distressed. That is what you see occasionally in moments that feel frenetic and synaptic.
We wanted to take the audience on an emotional journey with Louis. We felt very empathetic towards him as a character, and we wanted the audience to feel the same. So it was all about using the tools at our disposal to let the audience in to his heart and into his head so you could live his life with him, if that makes sense?
It absolutely does and you really do start to feel protective of him once you begin to know him.
I also felt like I didn’t want this to be a traditional biopic. I mean in the sense that sometimes you can feel that a life has been moulded to service a movie in a kind of exploitative way. Whereas, I think, we all cared. Benedict, Claire, myself, and the whole cast and crew, we cared so deeply about Louis that we really wanted this movie to work in service of his life and not the other way around. We wanted to bring an audience into his life. So I think that also impacted how the world of the film feels and how the journey itself feels.
His relationship with Emily is a particularly emotional arc and though it’s only a small amount of the film and his life, it carries through everything that comes after. Louis frequently recalls one important conversation they had toward the end of their time together. Where, among other things, Emily proudly describes her husband as being the first person to really capture cats as they are—as silly, ridiculous, lonely, and brave. Just like Louis himself. How much does that conversation help him through the rest of his difficult journey? What do you think we take from that for ourselves?
That’s definitely one of the most important scenes in the film. I remember in rehearsal saying to Benedict and Claire, “I feel like you don’t need to look at each other”. I knew I wanted to hold it in just one frame and you couldn’t do that with every pair of actors. But I had such confidence in them and in their chemistry that I felt we could do it.
If they could show a connection without the need to cross cut singles or for them to be turning to each other, that would be the most powerful. It was a way of giving the audience something to carry through the rest of the film in the way that Louis carried it through the rest of life. I think that he grew up with a certain amount of armour, but then he meets someone who truly understands him and that armour falls away. He opens up to the world, he makes himself vulnerable and suddenly the world seems beautiful to him. He asks himself: ‘how did I ever find this a difficult place to be?’ And then she’s taken away from him and all of that armour returns.
It then takes him the rest of a lifetime, I suppose, to remember how to be that open and how to be that present. It’s about remembering what those words really meant as he is faced with grief, war, and his own struggles with mental illness. It’s a true story too that towards the end of his life he really was discovered and recognized in an asylum. What followed was this huge outpouring of love because everybody remembered what he’d given them, the joy and wonder, and wanted to thank him for it.
The world that you live in is always the world that you live in, no matter your circumstances. So I suppose the message of it is that if you can connect with the people around you, then that can help you to appreciate the world around you.
A particularly pertinent message these days, I’d say.
To switch gears to the lighter side of things, I read that there were up to 40 cats in some sequences of the film. Being a director is, at the best of times, a bit like herding cats but you had the added complication of actual cats. How did you go about managing that while balancing everything else required of you?
I made the decision really early on to not use CG to manipulate the behaviour of the cats. I felt like that would tempt us into abusing that privilege, I guess, and it would turn this into a different film. I wanted it to be, first and foremost, a human story about Louis Wain the human being. But that meant spending a lot of time with real cats on set, asking them to do real things, knowing they’re famously very independent creatures.
So we had a cat mode, where we all would become quiet. There were no sudden movements, no big noises, and we would be totally respectful of the cats. It was the polar opposite of the normal shooting mode, which is usually very adrenalized and with everyone in a hurry. Sometimes that was helpful in a way, and other times, we just had to be patient or move on.
But I think what it also meant was that when the cats did deliver, it really felt like a piece of magic. Like they’d given it to us on their own terms, which is a nice thought. Over the course of the shoot, we all really grew quite fond of this supporting cast of cats.
I saw the film at a press screening, and it’s very unusual to see press react at all in the moment, but the cats got a reaction every time. The ‘jomping’ kitten, in particular.
I was like, is this a real cat? Where can you buy this cat?
It was adorable. As was Louis and Emily’s cat Peter. He got a lot of reactions too.
I wanted to ask you about the actual drawings and illustrations used in the film. There’s one painting that belongs to Emily, not to Louis, and it’s one of the few not to feature cats. Was that comically bad piece always a part of the story? It’s a great visual beat that undercuts that scene perfectly.
That’s not a beat from his life at all. That was me trying to find a way for [Louis and Emily] to connect, I guess, half by mistake, half on purpose. And I really wanted Emily to feel like a complex, flawed character with a point of view and with agency. Often in period pieces, women can be portrayed as quite prim and proper, and appear very guarded about their emotions. I wanted Emiily to be a bit messier. If you look at art from the time, a lot of the physicality, it is not like that at all.
It’s more relaxed.
Exactly. They’re human beings. And Emily needed to have a really strong, lasting impact in a relatively short space of time. Half of that was the casting—it’s Claire, her charisma, and how she draws you in so quickly. The other part was just trying to give the audience little glimpses of her secret life and who she actually might have been, as opposed to this idea we all have of the period-piece governess.
So I just thought [the painting] would be sweet. And by the way, that painting? It was so hard to find the exact right level of terrible. The first draft was much too good—it wasn’t even a bad painting. Then the second draft was probably too far the other way. We had to calibrate it to just the right amount.
The one you went with was pretty perfect. It definitely looked like someone had really tried.
Louis’s home life is portrayed as chaotic and a little more bohemian in nature than many contemporary Victorian families. And, given he was the only man in the family for the majority of his life, he was often surrounded by women.
And the largest female presence in his life, aside from Emily, is his sister Caroline. She is the one taking on all of the familial responsibility because nobody else does or can. Can you talk a bit about her character and working with Andrea Riseborough to bring her to the screen?
One of the things we really tried to establish in rehearsals was that family dynamic. So we spend a lot of time with Benedict and with the sisters trying to create a real sense of home. Trying to bring out all of the mess that comes with family, the complicated dynamics, which was fun. I think a part of Louis’s tragedy was that he was immediately promoted to principal breadwinner simply because he was a man. But he was a terrible at it, at finance. He was the worst qualified in the family, really, to hold that responsibility.
Whereas Caroline, his sister, was someone who was really quite put together. And she just felt constantly frustrated that it wasn’t considered her place [to be in control] despite her being so qualified and so capable. I think that was something that Andrea really wanted to bring out—how unfair that would feel and how angry it would make you. But because of who you are, you’re not allowed that privilege, that responsibility.
That idea again of being messy and layered, that’s also true of Caroline’s character. She’s flawed, emotional and full of rage. That, again, is something that Andrea and I kept at the forefront of our minds. What were turn-of-the-century women really like?
So, yeah, I think that’s part of their story—the social politics and how we see it evolve through time.
Right from the very beginning of the film, there’s a strong sense that this isn’t your every day period biopic, all starched collars and repression. You kick off with Olivia Colman’s brilliant narration and she’s swearing before anyone else has a chance to speak. Then you have Emily, a governess, swearing briefly too. But somehow it all seems true to the film or their characters at the same time. It just seems to give it a slight air of grounded realism in a movie that is often fantastical. Was that a specific decision on your part?
I guess it was, yeah. Speaking of Olivia Colman though, I like to think the film is narrated by a cat. I quite like that we never mention it but that’s how I think of it. Somewhere towards the end of Louis’ life and now, a cat decided to tell his story.
We get to see a lot of Louis’ cat art and illustrations as the credits roll. Did the cast have a hand in picking which cat piece accompanied their credit? Benedict, I think as his producer credit, has a top hat cat.
No. We just wanted to celebrate his work. I think one of the things that people might get from that sequence is, ‘oh, I really know this artist’. And we drew from a lot of his art for scenes in the film, whether it’s playing badminton, or the family by the sea, or playing golf. They were all images taken from his work. So the credits were an opportunity to let the audience in on that, I suppose, but also just to celebrate the fact that his art is still here. But, no, we tried not to overthink it too much.
What was it like to delve into the lesser-known aspects of Louis Wain? Many of us will realize we’re familiar with his art but he also spent a lot of time on his schematics, his electrical work and his inventions too.
I think that was something that Benedict zoned in on immediately—how this was a man who didn’t really know who he was going to be yet. He was just full of energy and enthusiasm, adorable enthusiasm. So much enthusiasm that he really thought he could be a professional violinist, even though he could not play the violin. And he really did practise boxing with a really quite famous boxing trainer, and just would get himself into these situations where he was constantly overstretched.
But then he met Emily. That love story changed everything. The fact that they adopted a cat, after she was diagnosed with cancer, at a time when no one had cats. He spoke in his journals about how that cat, Peter, was a great source of comfort to them both. And then he started painting cats to cheer Emily up when she was sick. But even after she was gone, he carried on painting cats the rest of his life. So how did he become a cat painter? On the surface of it, many would say it’s because he was eccentric. But it’s not that. It’s because of his life, that’s how that happened. So I think that’s why we dig a little bit into how multi-faceted he is early on to show how he became Louis Wain.
And it’s so interesting how, in so many ways, you can’t plan who you’re going to be. His destiny was handed to him by his personal life. And maybe that’s why we celebrate him as an artist and as a historical figure but, first and foremost, as a human being.
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is currently out in select theatres and arrives on Amazon Prime November 5.
This interview originally appeared on THAT SHELF on November 5, 2021.