My Dog Tulip: An Interview with Animator Paul Fierlinger

My Dog Tulip A 2-D Animation film Paul and Sandra Schuette Fierlinger are animation pioneers who have produced hundreds of animated shorts, commercials and public service spots for over 40 years.

Based in the Philadelphia area, the Fierlingers work out of their home, specializing in 2-D work done using a computer-based “tablet” and a super-sensitive stylus—a device akin to that used at supermarkets to sign a signature on the credit card machine when checking out.

Their latest project is My Dog Tulip, adapted from the 1958 autobiographical book by British author and literary lion J. R. Ackerley. Like the much-acclaimed book, which was among the favorites of Truman Capote, the film details Ackerley’s relationship with an Alsatian bitch (aka German Shepherd) he adopts, and how it becomes the best friend he ever had.  Despite it gorgeous animation style (using over 58,000 drawings) and seemingly family friendly subject matter, My Dog Tulip is not a kid’s film. In great detail, Ackerley, through the film, recounts his precise observations about Tulip’s anatomical parts, as well as her bathroom and mating habits. There’s a unique sadness and unsettling undertone to the entire enterprise which puts My Dog Tulip into a category onto itself.

Movie FanFare recently talked to the 74-year old Czechoslovakia-raised Fierlinger, also the creator of Sesame Street’s Teeny Little Super Guy, from his Philadelphia-area home.

MFF: What interested you about making My Dog Tulip into a feature film?

PF: The first time I read the book, I thought it would be a feature. I read an awful lot and every time I read a book, I think about how it will do as an animated film. But I dropped the ambition of making a feature film. It was a curiosity—a mind game. Two producers called us out of the blue. They asked if we wanted to make a feature film about anything, as long as it was based on the book.

MFF: So you chose My Dog Tulip because you liked it. Was it difficult to get a screenplay written?

PF: We (he and Sharon) both worked on the screenplay. It wasn’t difficult to do.  It was cut and paste that way. And I have to confess, the way I make films is I go straight ahead and trust myself that I will always make it work. If I find myself short on ideas, I just add to it.

MFF: So what did you add to the story this time?

PF: The part of the sister (voiced by the late Lynn Redgrave, to whom the film is dedicated to) was in another book, We Think the World of You. The producers paid an awful lot for My Dog Tulip, $100,000 plus royalties. He (Ackerley) wrote three other books. Then I found other interesting stories in the other books, so I picked up paragraphs, but they wanted to be paid again.

MFF: How long did the animation process take?

PF: Two-and-a-half years. It came out, on a blog and users groups, that they thought it was physically impossible to do it in that time. The thing is we work two shifts a day. We work 12-15 hours a day. It took us (what would be) five years by normal people’s standards. I teach at the University of Pennsylvania part time—four hours a day, two days a week, that is exhausting! I come back totally exhausted and need two hours until I can work again.

MFF: Can you tell us how you and your wife work together on the animation?

PF: I use this stylus—a type of electronic pen. Sandra uses the same stylus. Mine looks like pen and ink while hers are soft watercolor brushes.  What’s advantageous is the economy of it. It’s all so fast. The physical connection to paper is gone.

Sandra paints—there is no more camera. You need to get used to it. It feels strange. Lines came out wiggly. People miss the feeling of scratching against paper. People who are not familiar with the process usually put paper (on the tablet) because it feels tight. Then it goes into a computer.

MFF: What do you attribute the great look of My Dog Tulip to? Some critics have likened it to a New Yorker cartoon.

PF: It comes out of my personal memories. I am 74, so European culture is familiar to me. You can compare Europe to America. So I am familiar with post-war Europe. Scratchy comes out of the tablet (I use). Many animators don’t want to acknowledge (that scratchiness). When I draw without a pencil, it will look like a pencil drawing.

We made a whole bunch of films before this. We made several half hour films for PBS. It’s not new to us. Originality doesn’t mean to invent a style. You have to draw a nose that nobody’s drawn yet. You have to be familiar with a subject and let that dictate what you draw.

MFF: In terms of adapting the book, was a conscious decision to leave out the fact that Ackerley was gay? One could surmise by watching the movie, but it’s never mentioned.

PF: When we read the book, we noticed he mentions very little of himself. We gave the book to the producers. We found out he was gay later. But I guess we both have a strong gaydar. We agreed we shouldn’t conceal it in the film. I don’t like it when gays flaunt their gayness for no purpose other than to shock us. He clearly wants to do that with his dog. Gay blogs have took me to task for not being more obvious.

The truth is that Ackerley did want to shock his friends and spreading these little surprises. He was well known, he wrote for and was literary editor of The Listener (a BBC-sponsored magazine), and every English writer wanted to be his friend. Everybody kissed up to him. He would have rather had more privacy. He never thought of himself as a great writer. He only wrote four books. He could not write a novel, only about things that really happened. He wrote this little book with no big plans. He only wanted to shock his friends. I have had regrets when the film was finished. I was getting worried, to stay so close to the book, and frankly I am so surprised at the reception of the film. Look on Amazon at the book: half the people love it and the other half hate it.  With the film, some people hate it, but most people like it a lot.

MFF: You have a formidable cast who supplied the voices: Christopher Plummer does Ackerley, the late Lynn Redgrave supplies the voice of his sister and a grocery clerk, Isabella Rossellini does the voice of a veterinarian.

PFF: My personal problem is that we don’t know actors. I don’t go to the movies and seldom watch them at home. Sandra knows famous names; I don’t know any. I had one in mind (for the role of Ackerley) —Jeremy Irons. I had met him at a friend’s house in England and he came with his wife and dog for his afternoon. I had no idea who he was. Since then, I paid more attention when I heard him on the radio and I thought he’d be perfect. He wouldn’t do it because his agent didn’t want him to have a distributor. I understand. If I were an agent, I don’t blame him.

MFF: So you had no clue who Christopher Plummer was?

PF: Sandra picked Plummer. I never even saw The Sound of Music. I had difficulty with Plummer in the beginning. I did something I had never heard before. I broke a cardinal rule—you never read an actor’s lines to him. When he came in, he asked how I hear this character. And he said “No, I want you to listen to how I hear him.” He made him terribly old. I said, “It’s not like this.” He went into a tantrum. And he said, “No one has read my lines in 50 years!”

So it it was a bad start. And I asked “How would you like me to direct you?”  And he said, “Explain it.” It was terribly slow. And then it went well. It took two days.

In Toronto, when the film played at the festival, we were scheduled to go together to do interviews, one after another. I had to start them by myself because his plane was delayed. He always said these great things about me, about what a great director I was. Then I had to tell him what I told the press (before he came in), about his temper tantrum about reading the lines to him. He laughed and said, “That’s good, because now no director will ever read their lines to me now.”

MFF: How has technology changed the way you work on animation?

PF:  I have my computer in the living room and Sandra has hers in the spare bedroom. We used to have seven rooms with a whole cottage we used with wires all over, and a basement we used. Now, we don’t need a camera. The basement was a sound studio and editing suite. We had two huge editing tables. Editing software is all by way of DVD now.

MFF: What are you and Sandra working on now?

PF: We are working on a film about Joshua Slocum, the 19th century man who circumnavigated the world alone. It won’t change much for me. It will just be about a boat rather than a dog.