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‘10 Lives’ Director Chris Jenkins on Animating Cat Butts and Working With Zayn Malik: ‘We Immediately Bonded’

“10 Lives,” an animated comedy set to premiere at Sundance, tells the story of a pampered cat called Beckett (voiced by British comedian Mo Gilligan) who undergoes a series of transformations – both physical and emotional – while learning a lesson about love.

The all-star cast includes “Bridgerton’s” Simone Ashley, “Love, Actually” star Bill Nighy and One Direction heartthrob Zayn Malik in his first feature film speaking role (he plays a pair of dopey henchmen, Cameron and Kirk). Malik is also credited as executive music producer, writing some new tracks for the film, including a duet with Ashley.

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Ahead of its festival debut, Jenkins sat down with Variety to talk about going to Sundance, working with Malik and how he sidestepped making a “butthole cut” (featuring animated cat anuses as the controversial “Cats” movie reportedly did before eventually scrapping that version) of the movie.

How did you come onto this project?

I was brought in [by the producers]. Prior to my arrival, it was set in California. It was a lovely story, but when it became British, something else happened. It wasn’t just putting in telephone boxes and post boxes and having the cars drive on the other side of the road. Fundamentally, [Americans and the British] are very different — we are joined by a common language, but very different in many ways — and I wanted to embrace that in the characters. In digging into their characters, the story started to emerge.

What were your reference points for the film?

There were two very strangely diverse references. One is “Fawlty Towers,” because I love the comedy of it and the way that the farce comes from lots of different places and then hits right at the end. And then the other one was “It’s A Wonderful Life,” because that’s the first movie I sat and watched with my mum when I was old enough to understand, and I just always, always, always loved it.

Given it’s a family movie, was it difficult to write in the different ways that Beckett dies?

Yes. I approached it from the point of view that it’d be had to be really high comedy, slapstick. I’m a fan of “Looney Tunes.” We didn’t drop a piano on anyone’s head, but we might have done. It has to be a cartoon death. And also the deaths are resulting mostly from Beckett’s hubris. I think the fact that he comes back all the time [as different animals] is also [comforting]. I enjoyed that aspect of it too, because it was like a puzzle. You can’t just kill your main characters, you have to have something else going on.

How did Mo Gilligan get cast as Beckett?

I didn’t know about Mo and I apologized to him, because he’s fantastic. Our wonderful casting director mentioned Mo Gilligan for one of the smaller parts. I listened and I thought, “This guy’s Beckett.” He had the charm. He had the wit. His improvisational chops were just brilliant, which I love. There was no other choice after that. We talked about some pretty big stars but Mo was by far and away the happiest accident that has ever happened on one of these movies. He’s brilliant and a lovely man.

And then there’s also Simone Ashley and Bill Nighy…

We were looking at a lot of really wonderful talent and it just so happened that “Bridgerton” was a massive hit and that we went to Simone first. She was perfect. She was actually the first person to be cast and was wonderfully open and lovely and really into the whole thing. And then ultimately with Bill Nighy, I mean, I was geeking out because I’m just a massive fan.

It’s also Zayn Malik’s first speaking role in a feature film. What was it like directing him?

I was apprehensive to begin with, I didn’t know what to expect. Amongst the community of animation directors, we know that if we’re going to go with a big star that can come with all sorts of issues. Sometimes people come in with an entourage and you can barely find the real person underneath, which is what I love to do. Zayn was the complete opposite. We bonded immediately, and I knew what I had to do going in was to have a good time, like two guys just having a laugh really, and then I would push him for more emotions. But he’s really funny. He plays those guys with the pathos that I really wanted, which was, they are acting as bad guys but they’re not really bad. They don’t know how to be bad. At the start of the next movie — if we get there, I hope — they’ve actually bought that pub in town and called it Pets and Pints.

There’s a scene where Beckett sits on a pizza and when he gets up the pepperoni stuck to his bottom. I have to ask, was it a nod to the “Cats” movie? Because there was a lot of talk about CGI buttholes on “Cats.”

No, but I’ll steal that for explanations in the future. It was just a silly thing. Because in animation obviously you try to avoid the naughty bits. So the fact that a piece of pepperoni was stuck right where his backend would be was just a funny gag.

Finally, what was it like to find out the film would be premiering at Sundance?

Totally and wonderfully unexpected. I was in post in London and it was the middle of a very busy schedule [when one of the producers] came in with a sign-up sheet for Sundance — she passed me a piece of paper, I signed it and said, “What’s it for?” She said: “We’re going to send this to Sundance, you never know” — and I totally forgot about it. So literally, I’m working here, I look up to my check my mail, and my eyes filled up.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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