We had an opportunity to sit down with Lena Khan, the director of Disney’s new film Flora and Ulysses, which follows young Flora, a girl who lives the life of a cynic to help deal with her parents’ separation till she saves a squirrel from a vacuum. The squirrel develops super powers and sets our characters on a fun filled journey.
Lena Khan, who co-wrote and directed The Tiger Hunter, Now takes on Disney+ new family film which releases on February 19th. We recently sat down to discuss the great chemistry her cast had and how Chris Pratt was a good inspiration for our furry superhero.
The movie was great. It really brought me back to a lot of the great family films that I watched growing up. What stood out to you about the book and what were you excited to bring to the big screen?
Lena Khan: I was really excited. I read the script first actually before the book. And the first thing that was most exciting to me was just kind of like the brand of humor. It was really exciting to have stuff that, you know, I knew that adults liked, it made me laugh. And so I was like, okay, that means I can make a movie for adults as much as kids. And then I, I was just really pulled in by having a family movie that wasn’t just about, you know, a family getting back together, but about kind of that deeper issue of like, you know, when the world makes you struggle or knocks you to your knees, what does it take for you to get back up again? And that, that came through so powerfully and was very personal to me.
That’s cool. Now Matilda was amazing. She seems wise beyond her years. What was your favorite part about working with her and why was she the perfect choice for Flora?
Lena Khan: I mean, with our casting director, Emily Schreiber, we looked at over a thousand girls and we just could not find her. We’re like, Oh my God, what if we don’t find the girl? Like, we can’t just go with anybody because you needed somebody who could do that. Sort of like dry, sarcastic humor that could do the witty banter that could say things like in this mature way, but you actually believe they’re saying it, but could also have that sort of innocent vulnerability. He was the only one that I could find that or that Emily found that could do that. And so when, when we found her, I told Sean Bailey at Disney, I was like, there’s nobody else who can do this movie and working with her is so amazing because she actually challenges you. Like, she forces you. First of all, you have to work with her as an adult. Like she won’t have you working with it, like the way you move as a kid and everything has to come from a very real and honest place where sometimes challenges you, like, there’s no shortcuts. You have to really make sure that everything is coming from this place of trueness.
Yeah. That you can really tell on screen and to realize that it’s her first actual film was like, wow, that’s unreal. It’s unreal. Now the movie highlights not the normal family, you know, separated families and kids that have lost their parents. What’s something that you want viewers to take away from all that.
Lena Khan: I want people to see that no matter what the world is throwing at you, the key through it is learning how to see again, I see the world differently. And through that, there’s the possibility of having hope again.
That’s amazing. Now there are a lot of Easter eggs from all of the other Disney properties which one of them was your favorite to incorporate?
Lena Khan: Ooh. My favorite one is tricky there. So when you think of it is the giant penny in the backup Comic Cave. And because it’s something that like true comic people will know, which is that you fight Batman often has that giant penny into the bat cave. Yeah. Incorporating things like, just even in the background was sort of fun for me.
I was just having so much fun looking at all the little Easter eggs. Now you’ve had great supporting characters in this like Danny and Kate, and they are so much fun even like the last part of, towards the end. How much fun was it having them and were there any talks to maybe have them on screen together more?
Lena Khan: So you’re talking about Danny and Kate. Well, that’s actually, you’re the first to ask anything about that because Danny and Kate, our crew loved them. Like we would go wild. We’d be so excited whenever we saw them on screen. So randomly in the middle of the filming, we’re like, we got to figure out a way to have more Danny and Kate were like, most superhero movies have a post credit scene should do a post credit scene too. And so I was like, why don’t we have something with Danny and Kate and they’ve been dating. So I asked Brad Copeland, our writer to write something. So he inserted a post credit scene in the middle of the credits where Danny and Kate where Miller and Rita are going on a date and what happens.
It was, it was so much fun. I was, I was about to like just fast forward through And then the scene came up and I really enjoyed it. Now the dynamic between Ben and Alison and Matilda, it was great. Was there anything that you needed to do to help them build that chemistry together?
Lena Khan: I mean, they’re all amazing actors. And so my job was just kind of making them, given what was needed to kind of help cement those relationships. So in rehearsal, like we never rehearsed scenes, we rehearsed kind of what was at the core of their characters and their relationships. And so we did some exercises for that. And then I would just take opportunities and be like, forget rehearsal today. Like I sent Alison and Matilda to go spend a day doing crafts because Al loves crafts. And that’s what she does with her own kids. So I know she would really bring out like the motherliness and Matilda could feel it. And so they made a trailer for Ulysses and Ben doesn’t actually have kids. So it was a lot like sending him to like the fair with Matilda or whatever it is. So he could really kind of start feeling that fatherlessness and he became really bonded with her.
You can tell right on the screen that they’re seamless. The chemistry is seamless now, like with Ben, he’s a big improv guy. Did you allow him to add a little improv to some of the scenes in the movie?
Lena Khan: Oh yeah, absolutely. I feel like half of them we’d get what we needed and they’d be like, Ben, you know, Ben, you know, Schwartz do your thing. Especially with him and Matilda. So many of those great scenes are improv. That’s all bad.
One of the themes in the story is like you said, always having hope. Flora’s character becomes a little bit of a cynic. What were some things that you helped to show, show how cynical she was?
Lena Khan: I think I drew on the when you’re cynical, sometimes that’s cynicalness is a defense mechanism. So it’s because you’re trying to protect yourself from getting hurt again, she’s protecting herself from like, if she lets herself hurt, hope she might be hurt again. So I wanted to make sure that she had found times where she had to remind herself, like, wait a minute, don’t get too ahead of yourself. You are a cynic. You have to keep that way until she just can’t, she can’t hold it in any longer.
Yeah. Yeah. Like even the, the use of the superheroes that her dad made. The scene where they disappear where she says It’s okay, now you’ve done your job. I thought that was beautiful. What were probably some of the hardest things for you to film in this, in this film and this movie?
Lena Khan: Stuff with Ulysses that took a little bit of a learning curve to figure out how to make sure that he was a fully realized character when he didn’t even really exist yet. So my effects, my visual effects team suggested that like, you know, what you do is you kind of like, they’re like, how would you describe this to me? And I said, well, I know exactly who he is. Ulysses is like Chris Pratt and parks and recreation. Like, he has like a lack of impulse control, very friendly, but, you know, that’s kind of where his thoughts are, but he starts getting a little sense of like, okay, sometimes he can be, he realizes he can start being Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy, but he’s still got Andy in him. And so they’re like, yes. Okay. So when you see him from then on when I’d imagined him, I just imagined, you know, Ulysses squirrel, Chris Pratt doing these sorts of things, like getting his cheese puffs or whatever it is. And it made him feel like a very real life character. And then I would pop at him so that Matilda could follow along.
That’s, that’s amazing. That’s a great comparison, I guess the last question would be, would you be up for a sequel to this film?
Lena Khanr: If Brad Copeland writes it then, yeah.