I recently had the opportunity to speak with director Lena Khan, the filmmaker behind the new Disney Plus film, Flora & Ulysses. As someone who is always excited to talk to up-and-coming filmmakers, it was such a delight to speak with Lena about the project as well as why she wanted to become a filmmaker in the first place. Lena was very open and shared some pretty fun insight into her education that was originally in engineering instead of filmmaking as well as what it was like to make the jump from independent films over to working with a major studio like Disney.
Scott Menzel: Hi Lena, how are you today?
Lena Khan: Hi, oh my gosh, so much eye candy behind you.
Scott Menzel: Thank you. Yeah, a lot of it ties into Disney, I guess, there’s some Nightmare Before Christmas stuff behind there and some Funko Pops. You have got to be tired, you’ve been doing this since this morning, I was at that press conference this morning.
Lena Khan: Yeah, this is a first for me. I don’t know how people do this.
Scott Menzel: Congratulations on the film. Before we jump into the actual film itself, I did want to ask you, what made you want to go into directing or filmmaking?
Lena Khan: I was always making films and creative things and stuff, but I mean, I went to UCLA and studied engineering, and then I did my bachelor’s first in Poli-science History. So I think I wanted to teach and I was like, “Man, why don’t people know about things in this world? Let me try teaching.” And then pretty soon I was like, “Man, why does anybody listen to teachers? I think they learned more from entertainment.” And so, somehow, I think there was some sort of blend of messages and things from people, they’re like, “Why don’t you merge your interests?” So, then I applied to the film school and kind of took it from there.
Scott Menzel: Oh, very nice. I wanted to ask, your career started out in short films and then you did one feature film, and then you did a short documentary, but now, this is like a whole different ball game because a Disney film had a pretty, I’m guessing a pretty sizeable budget behind it. What was it like going through those stages of your career?
Lena Khan: It was a crazy jump. It was the same in some ways and it was different in some ways, I mean, it was the same because it’s a healthy Disney budget. It was a healthy budget, but in Disney, where they’re doing movies that are $120 million, they consider this the low budget category, even though it’s a very big budget. So I guess a lot of the stuff, they were trying to do where it’s technically ambitious for its budget because it had kids and it had a whole bunch of CGI, stunts, and all that sort of stuff. So it felt like the same sort of battle every day when you’re going to set, figuring out how to get it done, all those sorts of things. And I think, especially, because my producer, Gil Netter, has that same spirit, I think we sort of had the independent film mindset where it really is a passion project.
Me, Gil, and Brad Copeland the writer adored this project. I think we put everything of our souls into it for two years, I’ve never seen a team fight for. So that was similar on the not similar and obviously, it’s huge and so amazing and crazy. I was like, “Oh my God, we have like giant cranes.” And we have people doing stunts off of roofs and there’s a car crash. And like another unit, I was like, “Whoever gets another unit.” And so, that was all amazing. I had Andrew Dunn as my DP and he’d shot like these big movies, I’m like, “What is happening?” He’s also several decades older than me, but there’s also, as a new thing, to deal with the studio system and you’re not the final boss of things anymore. And so, it was kind of a learning curve with that, which ultimately ended up being good because there was a lot of fighting and debating with the studio. They were supportive, but it just kind of challenge you to stick to your vision, but come up with something that was so strong that they’re like, “Okay, that wins.”
Scott Menzel: Yeah. It’s an interesting transition from independent film to big-budget movies. I’ve actually heard a lot of stories from directors and they have said that the process has not always been so smooth. So I’m glad you had a positive experience with it.
Lena Khan: When you look back at everything, it’s like, well, if it worked out, but again, there’s a lot of fighting.
Scott Menzel: I wanted to know, how did you find Matilda? I think she’s terrific in the movie, she really lights up the screen.
Lena Khan: Oh, so much of that credit goes to our casting director, Emily Schreiber. She was actually my casting director for the Tiger Hunter and she had stepped up to this challenge. It’s one of the bigger movies she had done and I don’t know how she found her because it took more than a thousand girls and she was coming through everything. She was going to school, she was doing so many things and finally found her because we needed somebody who you could buy that she’s saying the sarcastic dialogue and that she would even say a word cynic or have enough of maturity to have a defense mechanism like that and then also, that she’ll be vulnerable and it could do comedy. So she was the only one who fit those boxes and I was like, “There can be nobody else in this role.”
Scott Menzel: No, I think you nailed it. I think a lot of people don’t talk about this, but finding the right child actor for movies is a big deal. There are some kids who just have it and then there are other kids who you like, kind of watch it and they destroy the entire movie because they’re not strong.
Lena Khan: Yeah. I mean, that was one of our first points of dealing with the studio system because in the studio system, they ask you to submit a few girls, because they want to have a choice in it. And I was telling my producer, I was like, “I can’t submit three people, I only have one.” He’s like, “You have to.” And so I’m submitting three and I’m just sweating all night, I’m like, “Oh my God, what if they like the other girls who are more traditional cutesy?” And my producers like they’re going to pick the cutesy girls like, “I would pick the-” I was like, “No, no, you guys aren’t seeing the movie.” It does not work that way, this is not a sitcom, you can’t have this cute girl saying dialogue that’s too big for her britches, and all the adults are like, “Oh, how cute!” And so it was a big thing and Sean Bailey called me at the end and he’s like, “Okay, who do you think?” I was like, “I can’t see this movie without Matilda.” And he fought for her too and so, that worked out.
Scott Menzel: This is actually another casting question. I love how you put comedic actors in this film, but comedic actors who are not usually known for doing family-friendly projects. Was it hard to kind of pull them back from doing adult humor?
Lena Khan: We have a bunch of takes where they are doing adult things, at least when there was not a child around…
Scott Menzel: Can we get the R-rated version?
Lena Khan: I think my editor has it, but I think to their credit, I actually think it’s one of the most amazing things that for instance, Ben does, like his long-form improv specials are actually generally pretty clean. And I think your comedy just has to be that good. You can still make it funny, while being fairly clean. I don’t know how he does it. And so, they were able to channel it for here. They got it, they just got a little bit more creative and got a little more playful.
Scott Menzel: That’s kind of like, what John Mulaney does, right? And Jim Gaffigan too. He is another clean comedian.
Lena Khan: Yeah, because I know it, he doesn’t have a reason where he stays clean, he just is able to make things kind of like, it’s kind of playful.
Scott Menzel: Yeah, absolutely. I thought you did a great job with the casting of everyone in the film and I thought they all played off each other very well. Of course, I love Danny Pudi from a Community, as I’m sure you’ve heard many times today. He’s just so funny and I’m enjoying seeing him pop up in different TV shows and movies and whatnot. What makes him so special to work with? Because I know you worked with him before.
Lena Khan: Yeah, because Danny Pudi can do anything. His comic sensibilities are genius. He’ll always give you something different. I have 20 different tastes that I could have used for all of his performances and if you want them to do a soul, he’ll do soul. If you want him to do something scary, he’ll do that. He just gets it, he’s really smart and really inspired, and I would put him in anything.
Scott Menzel: Yeah. And based on this morning, it seems like he would do anything you want him to do, so go for it. So I want to ask a few technical questions and I thought this was very interesting. So combining the animation with live-action, and I’m not talking about CGI, I’m talking about the actual, like comic book sketches. How do you do that as a director?
Lena Khan: You’re talking about the motion graphics sequences, right?
Scott Menzel: Yes.
Lena Khan: Yeah. I mean, the first kind of we just do the traditional storyboard, the story that I wanted to tell, I’m like, “What’s fitting for coming from this little girl’s mind whose life philosophy is informed by comic books?” Okay and then now, what’s the actual story. So then what’s the story she wants to tell, how would she do it in her comic book way? And then we worked with a very cool motion graphics company and they figured out a way to kind of give it that sort of gravitas and the movement to kind of make it, just keep it a little cooler because I didn’t want anything in the movie to be cute.
Scott Menzel: Speaking of cute, everyone, of course, loves the squirrel, squirrels’ great, wonderful, everyone loves that. I wanted to ask though, not about bringing squirrel to life, but rather the scenes that involve the physical humor with the squirrel and having the actors actually act against the squirrel. What was the most difficult of those scenes to shoot?
Lena Khan: Oh, that’s right. TIt’s tricky when it was a long scene when Flora is in her bedroom and Ulysses keeps doing different things, he’s trying to lift up and he’s trying to fly and then, he flops on his belly or the can you talk sequence, because they’re just so much back and forth. That whole scene is literally just her and a squirrel, and the whole scene she did had no squirrel. And I couldn’t be in there to puppet it either. So, it was a lot of me using a puppet and doing the scene with her as a puppet and we do it so many times until she kind of got it into her memory, and then she would have to do the whole thing herself. And so, that was a little tricky. Sometimes, so we’d have to drop something from the air to show the depressions in the bed because that’s harder for the CGI to do. And so there’d be those little things that are happening and she’d have to keep her focus while those random stuff’s happening. We’re throwing some cheese dust or something at her.
Scott Menzel: Oh, wow. No, it’s very interesting. That aspect of filmmaking always intrigues me the most because it’s kind of like, you have to act along like nothing against nothing. So you pulled it off so flawlessly with this movie. Congratulations.
Lena Khan: No, thank you. I mean, a lot of it, Matilda, I can’t imagine another kid doing it. There’s a lot even when she had memorized everything, there are small details that you don’t realize, even when she remembered where things are, generally a kid, and she had to learn not to do this, but she learned quicker than probably most. When you’re looking at an object like a stuffy, your eyes fixate but when you’re actually talking to an animal in your hand, so your eyes sort of like, they go to different areas. Sometimes you’ll notice this whisker, sometimes you notice these things, so she had to train herself to start looking at the areas she’s looking with that aliveness that you would if it was a real creature, which takes a lot of doing.
Scott Menzel: Yeah. I can only imagine. Well, they’re telling me to wrap, but thank you very much for taking the time to talk with me today.
Lena Khan: Oh, thank you. It was great.
Scott Menzel: Hey, I’ll talk to you soon. Congratulations, again and hopefully I’ll see you on a future project very, very shortly.
Lena Khan: Thank you, sounds good!