The new Disney+ film Flora & Ulysses is all about finding hope amidst adversity, and about how acting like a superhero may be challenging, but it’s the kind of challenge worth facing. The film, based on the children’s book of the same name, focuses on a girl named Flora (Matilda Lawler) who befriends a squirrel named Ulysses, who appears to have some superpowers after an accident. As Flora tries to handle life with two parents (Alyson Hannigan and Ben Schwartz) who are struggling through a separation, she and Ulysses go on some adventures and tangle with the local Animal Control (represented by Danny Pudi, of DuckTales and “Larry, I’m on DuckTales“ fame).
Recently, /Film sat down virtually with the director of Flora & Ulysses, Lena Khan, to talk about the necessity of acting like a superhero in 2021, working with kids, and completing the work of making a film during the pandemic.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
What drew you to directing Flora & Ulysses?
I first got the script by Brad Copeland, who had written for Arrested Development. I love that show, and he put a lot of that off-brand Arrested Development humor in the script. That was the first thing, because I don’t watch many kids’ movies and he figured out a way to make it into a movie that adults would like to [watch]. So that was my first entry. And then, once I was already into the humor, I was really excited by a family movie that wasn’t just about a family. It was really about all these people, you know, who were beaten down by the world and what it would take for them to get back up again. That was big for me.
As I was watching this, it felt like a throwback to what Disney would release in the early 1990s. Were there any big childhood stories that connected you to this one?
I’ve been big on movies with puppetry. I like things like the Muppets, and one thing I watched 500 times when I was little was The Mouse and the Motorcycle, which is just a cheap movie with Fred Savage talking to a little mouse based off of the [Beverly Cleary] book. But all of those movies, they always have something a little bit more going on in them. I think that’s what would make me like them.
I ask in part because, visiting your Twitter, I saw your avatar of Hobbes from Calvin and Hobbes. This also features a core relationship between a human and an animal who communicates in his own way.
Sure! I have Hobbes right here. [At this point, Khan adjusts her webcam to show a stuffed Hobbes placed on her desk.] Calvin and Hobbes is a great comic.
Might be the very best. Superhero culture is such a huge part, not just of pop culture, but of Disney. What do you think this film says about being a superhero, especially in such a…strange time in our history?
[laughs] I think there’s a few things. Being a superhero, as Ulysses shows, is about using the tools you have for the greater good. You can achieve quite a bit with just what you’ve been handed. And a lot of it is the old Superman philosophy, that it’s not just you saving things. It’s you figuring out how to enable people in society around you to be able to fight for themselves. And that’s a big thing, the biggest thing Ulysses has.
There’s a good amount of CGI involved in bringing Ulysses to life. What was it like for you in balancing filming live actors versus bringing the CG element of the story to life?
That was definitely one of the biggest learning experiences. I learned a lot of things along the way. My CGI team and my visual effects team was really great. First, there was just figuring out how to make sure Matilda [Lawler, who plays Flora] can interact with Ulysses as if he’s real, when a lot of the times, she was literally talking to nothing. There wasn’t a puppet, there wasn’t a thing, you know? A lot of times, I would be puppeting him. I would puppet him several times, and it’d be a two-minute scene and she would have to remember what I was puppeting. And sometimes, I do the offscreen voices. But what helped a lot is, our visual effects company Framestore told me was, “Imagine Ulysses. What would he be if he was a person?”
I told them right away, “He would be Chris Pratt in Parks and Recreation with his lack of impulse control, except he’s getting a little bit of the feeling that maybe he has the capacity to be Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy. But he still has a bit of Andy [Dwyer] in him.” [laughs] It informed so much where I could actually imagine him on screen, even when we were looking at plates, because we had to do that all the way through editing. We had almost picture lock before we had most of the visual effects shots. So that helped.
As I understand it, post-production was done entirely during the pandemic. Is that right?
Pretty much. I think we had maybe a month or so in the office. We were about to get on a plane to go to Vancouver to shoot additional photography, and then lockdown happened. So we did all kinds of things, like piecing together takes that were never supposed to be takes. For example, Matilda accidentally falling off of a bike, we made into a real shot. We combined shots, and we did all kinds of weird split screens. And we did these motion graphics sequences. So we just took a lot of creative license while we were trapped at home and slaves to our Internet connection.
I’ve seen you tweet that, for example, you weren’t in person for the orchestra creating the score for the film. How strange is it to be so removed from the post-production of your film?
It’s strange. And it’s a little bit of a bummer. We never got to see the movie in a theater with all the actors, which was very weird. We did all the ADR remotely. So we had to really know exactly what we were looking for, in terms of figuring out like how to get everybody there. It became really efficient. It took some of that basic joy out of collaborating with comic geniuses, like Ben Schwartz and Danny Pudi. Some things have to take a backseat. There’s some things that you don’t get to improvise quite as much, but we had to make up for it in the pre-planning.
What is the difference for you in terms of working with kids versus adults? How does giving directing to kids work for you and for them?
It can be a richer experience working with the kids because they are game. I mean, a lot of our actors were game for things too, but [kids] are literally open to absolutely anything. And there’s no natural boundaries of their mind, the way that just an adult has, if that makes sense. So they can step into things and imagine things a lot easier. And you work with them from a very true place. Kids don’t fake things as much. They really have to feel them. So if you can get them to connect with things, it makes the performances a lot more authentic.
Benjamin Ainsworth, who plays William, doesn’t have quite as much experience. He didn’t know what a lot of stuff was, such as improv and things like that. But he was able to connect with things. Once he could experience it, then he was improv-ing just as much as Ben Schwartz was. In their scene at the door [of Flora’s house], a lot of his lines were just improv-ed. And he really dug in deep for his scene in the rain. So he came from a very true place.
I know you worked with Danny Pudi [on Khan’s debut film, The Tiger Hunter], and you have Ben Schwartz here. When I saw them, as well as Bobby Moynihan and Kate Micucci, I wondered: was it always intentional to get the main cast from the DuckTales reboot, or was that a happy accident?
It became a happy accident, Ben Schwartz [we cast] because I can’t imagine anybody else who would be George and he’s just…improv amazing-ness. Danny Pudi, I will put him in every movie ever. He was in my last movie. I was struggling to find somebody for the character who ended up being named Stanley. And Bobby Moynihan named him Stanley, as in Stan Lee. So when Ben suggested Bobby Moynihan, we’re like, “That’s amazing.” And by that time, we realized there was some sort of crazy magic happening on DuckTales. It must be the best cast show on television. Therefore, we got Kate Micucci and only she could play Rita.
Yeah, at a certain point, I thought, “This can’t be completely accidental.”
Flora & Ulysses hits Disney+ on February 19, 2021.
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