There are a lot of creative people living in Wallingford, and a lot of smart ones, as well as a lot of people who love cats. But only one Wallingford resident could be described as the creative genius of cat videos, and that’s Will Braden: creator of Henri, Le Chat Noir.
If you are not yet acquainted with Henri, take a moment to watch the embedded video, which is my personal favorite. (And yes, I am considering how to disguise myself as Crippling Self Doubt for Halloween this year).
You don’t have to be a connoisseur of cat videos to appreciate that Henri is one of a kind. He transcends the typical internet cat phenomenon, plays with it, mocks it, profits from it, and endears himself to a diverse audience with his black and white charm. He also brings something deeper to “internet cat video,” managing to parody both cat videos and film noir simultaneously, while entertaining devotees of both.
It’s not surprising that angsty Henri is the brain-child of a Seattleite – after all we love to spend our rainy winters ruminating over our lattes, and we are consistently the second most literate city in the country. Is Henri a commentary on our navel-gazing ways? Perhaps. As Braden – a rare fifth generation Seattleite – puts it, “What is more spoiled that a pampered house cat in Seattle drinking filtered water, and having this existential crisis?”
Braden did set out to make cat videos, and Henri (really Henry, a pet cat belonging to one of Braden’s family members) didn’t start out as the focal point of the project. The first Chat Noir video was made as a student project in 2006, when Braden was getting his film degree from the Seattle Film Institute. The assignment was to create a character movie. According to Braden, most of his classmates were making “Nightly News” style segments. But he had been immersing himself in film noir and struggling with the filmmakers. “The filmmakers who created film noir were these indulged, rich kids with cameras. Knowing the back story makes them doubly pretentious,” Braden said. He conceptualized Henri as a “character in service of film noir parody.”
Le Chat Noir was popular with his classmates, but Henri’s reel gathered dust until 2011, when Braden thought to put him on Facebook. Henri quickly gathered fans who wanted a second film, propelling Braden into an existential crisis of his own. Could he create a film that was as funny as the first? Braden, demonstrating more pragmatism than angst, soon decided, “What have I got to lose?” In April 2012, the second Henri video went live, and then went viral.
Braden quickly transformed from being “a guy who made a couple of cat videos” to being a guy who had to navigate book deals, management offers, twitter feeds and decisions about whether to profit from Henri’s popularity. He ultimately closed a book deal, rejected a management offer, chose to retain creative control over his films, and opened a shop to sell Henri-related merchandise. Ever the good Seattleite, Braden shares the profits from Henri’s success with several animal charities.
Soon after the second Henri video was released, the Walker Art Museum in Minneapolis hosted a cat film festival. All of the videos were submitted by the public. Braden booked himself a ticket out of curiosity, later discovering that his own film had been nominated. As it turned out, Henri won the Golden Kitty and Braden found himself on stage, before a live audience filled with Henri-lovers. It “cat”-apulted his filmmaking project to the next level, with Henri becoming a household name among cat lovers and sartorial video appreciators.
Thus far, Braden has created seven Henri Le Chat Noir films. He plans to stop at ten, so as to preserve the integrity of the character and not become passé. He is quick to reassure fans that the real Henry is only nine years old and in terrific health, so future videos could be possible. But he also would rather quit while he is ahead.
But whether Braden can quit cat videos remains to be seen. He can argue quite effectively that his is not a “cat video” – “Are ‘cat videos’ even a genre? That would be like saying all movies shot in Chicago are the same genre.” And yet he readily admits that his next filmmaking project will be about his newly-adopted cat, Nin. Braden clearly loves cats, and enumerates their delightful qualities, including “they make you work at the relationship” and “with a cat you are compelled to imagine a back story.” He goes so far as to describe himself as “a crazy cat lady trapped in a man’s body.”
Braden’s own back story is a classic liberal arts major story. After graduating from Garfield High, he went on to Seattle Pacific University for two years. Then to the University of Salamanca. Then back to Washington to graduate from Western Washington University. He earned a teaching degree from Oxford and subsequently spent two years teaching in Germany. He bartended. Taught essay writing and SAT prep classes. Returned to school for a degree in film. Worked in L.A. Quit L.A. Returned to Seattle to freelance as a videographer for weddings and events. And then struck it big with Henri, which he attributes as a “confluence of my interests.” Having studied language, music, philosophy and film, and having an easy-going, malleable cat in his life, the videos were a natural outgrowth of all of his varied interests. Henri does all of his own stunts, while Braden films, plays the piano, writes the script and reads the French poorly, in his own voice. The poor French – and Braden freely admits that it is “atrocious” – is now a part of the gag.
According to Braden, one of the most gratifying aspects of Henri’s popularity, and also one of the biggest challenges, is having fans. Braden loves his fans and the internet cat culture. But he also likes that his films have been described as “cat videos for people who hate cats.” There is a tension in his fan-base between the people who just simply love all things cat, and the people who appreciate the pieces as satire. Braden describes three sets of fans: “1. People who like cats; 2. People who like humor; and 3. People who like the videos intellectually, who appreciate pop culture references to Kirkegaard.”
The most difficult part for Braden to navigate is the interaction with fans on social media. He asks, “How far do we take this artifice?” He says that there is the tendency for people to forget that Henri is just a cat, and that it is really Braden himself writing in the voice of the cat. Fans will ascribe behaviors to Henri, or chastise Braden for posting something that they are completely certain Henri would not approve. He has tried to resolve this tension by creating the character of the “thieving filmmaker,” but notes the irony that anyone would think Henri would care about anything. After all his ennui is too omnipresent to allow him to even care.
However, Braden’s relationship with Henri’s fans is also what compels him to keep making videos. His fans are funny, generous and devoted to cats – a virtual family of crazy cat ladies (some of them trapped in men’s bodies). And making the videos is the best job Braden’s ever had.