On Feb. 19, Disney will debut its comedy-adventure movie, “Flora & Ulysses,” based on the children’s book, “Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures” by Newbery Award-winning author Kate DiCamillo. In advance of the launch, DiCamillo joined the movie’s cast and director in a press conference that revealed insights into the transition from storybook to silver screen.
Authors are inspired by many things, but it was an unusual appliance that inspired DiCamillo to turn a squirrel into a super hero.
“My mom had a vacuum cleaner that she loved,” DiCamillo says. “She passed away in 2009. In the last year of her life she kept saying ‘What’s going to happen to the vacuum cleaner when I’m gone?’ I was like, why are we worrying about the vacuum cleaner? There are bigger things to worry about. When she died, I took the vacuum cleaner so it would have a good home.
“Except that my mom had a cat. The world’s most evil cat named Mildew, and I couldn’t bring the vacuum cleaner into the house because of all the Mildew hair in it, so I had to leave it in the garage. Every time I pulled into the garage I would see the vacuum cleaner, and it would make my heart hurt. It would make me miss my mother.
“The Spring after my mother died there was this squirrel on the front steps of my house, draped dramatically across the steps, clearly in distress. He wouldn’t move when I got close to him. I didn’t know what to do. I called one of my best friends, who lives a block away, and said, ‘Help me, there’s a squirrel dying on my front steps.’ She said, ‘Do you have a tee-shirt and a shovel?’ I said, “I do.” She said, ‘Get the tee-shirt, get the shovel, I will come over there and whack him over the head.’ And all of this made me think about E.B. White’s essay, ‘Death of a Pig,’ how he’s going out to feed a pig and thought about ways to save a squirrel’s life, and I combined it with the vacuum cleaner in the garage, and that’s the story.”
Did the squirrel on her front step perform some sort of super hero move, or did it wind up with its head bashed in? Neither, says DiCamillo. “The squirrel left when he heard my friend saying ‘whack him over the head with a shovel.’ The squirrel’s no dummy.”
Lena Khan, the director of “Flora & Ulysses,” helped create a full-length film from a relatively short story, which is no easy feat.
“The blueprint for most of the stuff that happened is in the book,” Khan says, “so we were kind of lucky there. After that, we got to play with all kinds of things. We got to play with stunts off of buildings, and car crashes, and it’s just kind of written in Kate’s brain and our writer Brian Copeland’s brain, who wrote for ‘Arrested Development,’ so he put all that weirdness and fun into the movie.”
Approximately 1,000 young actresses tried out for the part of Flora Belle Buckman, but Matilda Lawler stood out from the rest and was awarded that starring role. She revealed what that fateful phone call was like.
“It was insane. I was in this Broadway show, and I was actually in the middle of the city, huge crowds everywhere, and I got a phone call from Lena,” says Lawler. “I can barely hear her, and I hear her say, ‘You wanna be in this movie?’ and I’m like, ‘YES!’ I was jumping around everywhere, and I was so excited.”
Alyson Hannigan, who plays Flora’s mother Phyllis, spent a lot of time sucking on lollipops. Phyllis is a romance novelist who keeps a jar of lollipops next to her typewriter, and enquiring minds wanted to know how many Hannigan ate during filming.
“I think I stopped counting around 37,” Hannigan admits. “They were great. I really loved that there was a conversation about it, and I had to be really thoughtful about the lollipop, because I don’t want it too big; I don’t want to drool when I’m taking it out of my mouth. So we settled on a really good one, and then I got to try all the different flavors, and I stuck with Fruit Punch.”
In the role of Miller, the villainous animal control officer, Danny Pudi spent a lot of time fighting squirrels and in mortal combat with an evil cat. While his physical comedy skills helped him secure the role in the first place, it’s a different prospect altogether when your adversary doesn’t… really… exist. How did he convincingly go head-to-head with a CGI cat?
“Sometimes [I had] this weird, headless squirrel mushy doll to simulate the effects of what the real squirrel would look like,” Pudi reveals, “and then it was just a lot of, ‘Run, dance, just jerk your head around, and move your body.’ It looked like I was getting electrocuted a lot. Eventually we found something that looked like I was getting attacked by a cat. Frankly, I’ve been attacked by a few animals in my life, so I used that as my acting prep work.”
It takes time for an actor to get under the skin of a new character, but Pudi thought he had a jump on the stereotypical bad-guy look for Miller. “I showed up to set with a real, twirly-ish mustache, thinking, ‘They’re going to love this. It’s going to be a huge, twirly mustache. I’m going to villain it up.’ As soon as I stepped on stage Lena was like, ‘Shave it.’”
Lawler also had to interact with CGI character, Ulysses, and she says her experience was similar.
“[Lena was] kind of my squirrel at some points. [She] had this little stuffed animal squirrel that [she] would pretend was doing the scenes so I could get an idea of what it would be like,” explains Lawler. “During the actual scenes I had this gray, creepy, rat thing, and some other times I didn’t have anything and I had to pretend there was something there when it was nothing. It was definitely interesting and kind of challenging.”
And what about Ulysses himself? While he isn’t a super hero in the traditional sense of the word, he does strike some incredible poses, including the fist-down landing pose on the movie’s poster. Is it just a CGI move to make him look awesome? Nope!
“Squirrels do that!” Khan insists. “Look up ‘squirrel super hero landing.’ Our CGI team were very particular. They were like, ‘Ah, we don’t want to do things that don’t feel like what a squirrel would do,’ and I’m like, ‘No, no, no. A squirrel does that.’ Google it and you will see.”
A whole host of additional “characters” make appearances, but will never get a movie credit. Disney is known for adding “Easter Eggs” (fun items for viewers to spot) into their movies, and Khan didn’t disappoint with “Flora & Ulysses.”
“There are so many,” Khan says. “There’s a whole world for just the comic book nerds. If you go into the Comic Cave, which is the comic store [in the movie] there’s a giant penny, which would be in the Bat Cave, originally; you’ll see Mysterio, with the goldfish [bowl] over his head; some people will know who the ventriloquist dummy is, the mobster dummy next to the TV. So there’s all those comic book world references. And then there’s a lot of ‘DuckTales’ things, there’s a lot of Alyson Hannigan love. There’s stuff from ‘Buffy [the Vampire Slayer’] hidden in the background. There’s different books of Kate’s that are hidden throughout. There’s lots of treats everywhere.”
Pudi, Ben Schwartz (George Buckman, Flora’s dad), Kate Miccuci (Rita, the movie’s meddling waitress) and Bobby Moynihan (who played the Comic Cave clerk) all worked on the popular ‘DuckTales’ animated television series, and Khan revealed a couple of “Easter eggs” related to the series: “Bobby is reading the ‘DuckTales’ comic at the beginning of the movie, and you’ll see ducks with their colors matching the colors of the characters in Danny’s office.”
DeCamillo does make a cameo in the movie, but she leaves it to the viewer to spot what she calls her “nanosecond of fame.”
And, if you really want to geek-out completely, listen for the line Lawler (as Flora) delivers, that came from Robert Downey, Jr.’s on-screen daughter in the movie, “Avengers: Endgame” and is repeated by him in his holographic funeral speech: “I love you, 3000!”
You can check out the official trailer for “Flora & Ulysses” below, and catch it streaming on Disney+ starting Feb. 19: