After launching his career in 2002 with Funny Ha Ha, a comedy that focused on aimless twentysomethings and was filmed with handheld 16mm cameras, Andrew Bujalski helped usher in the mumblecore genre of film. Built on conversational dialogue and understated interactions, the style has served as the foundation for most of the Austinite’s works—most recently, last year’s Support the Girls, set in a fictional Texas “breastaurant.” Many directors have employed the genre’s techniques for independent films, and elements of mumblecore even found their way to the likes of HBO’s hit show Girls.
Bujalski, who typically writes and directs his projects, recently ventured beyond his usual indie film domain to work as a screenwriter for a major Hollywood remake of Disney’s 1955 classic canine picture, Lady and the Tramp. The live-action aspect aside, the remake’s storyline stays largely true to its animated predecessor. While it’s still set in 1909, the story takes place this time in Savannah, Georgia, instead of the Midwest. (It thankfully also cuts the racist “Siamese Cat Song” that appeared in the original version). Bujalski, along with Kari Granlund, wrote the screenplay for the movie, released earlier this month as the first feature film launched via the new streaming service Disney+. Texas Monthly chatted with the mumblecore auteur to discuss screenwriting, fatherhood, and talking dogs.
Texas Monthly: How did your role working on the script for Lady and the Tramp come about?
Andrew Bujalski: I think a lot of Hollywood folks come to town to meet with my friend Jeff Nichols. Then, they look at their schedule and say, “Who else can I meet before I have to catch my plane?” [laughs] I think this particular producer had met Jeff, and had time for breakfast. We had a nice chat, and he brought up the notion of Lady and the Tramp. I was aware [Disney] was rebooting all of their back catalog. Of all the ones that hadn’t been done yet, that was the one that was most appealing to me personally.
TM: This is a big jump for you—was there something that felt familiar about working on this script? And what was different for you?
AB: Filmmaking is an extremely collaborative process. Even when you’re sitting down and writing—as solitary as that is—your mind is trying to engage with what some of the realities of shooting might be like. I think it’s just a difference between leading that dance and following that dance, but it’s the same dance. When it’s my own project, I know we’re kind of stuck with my intuitions and obsessions as a North Star. Here, I just reorient the North Star. In this case, not only am I responsive to the studio, but we’re all working off of a text made before any of us working on it were born.
TM: Was it refreshing to work on a smaller slice of a film?
AB: Sure, sure, and good lord, certainly with a project like this with immense technical challenges, that’s not my problem. [laughs] If I sat down to write my own talking dog script, I would quickly get paralyzed by trying to figure out how we were going to make the dog talk. It’s nice to just think in terms of character and story. And the script is never the work. It’s just a document. In some ways it’s of the same genus as the schedule or the budget. It’s just a piece of paper that everyone refers to that helps the real work get done.
TM: Is there anything from your back catalog that you felt was particularly useful for working on this film?
AB: There’s definitely a romantic comedy aspect to Lady and the Tramp. I’ve always had a real affection for romantic comedy when it’s done well, like His Girl Friday. Some of my favorite movies belong to that world. That was something I played with in my movie Results. I had written a romantic comedy with a friend of mine years ago that didn’t get made. It’s a fun place to play, because of all the classic movie genres, it’s the one really rooted in human foible. That’s what makes those movies go—insecurities, misunderstandings, and missed connections, and all the things I’m constantly exploring in my own work, in one way or another.
TM: How did you go about refreshing a 1955 script set in 1909 for a 2019 audience?
AB: Honestly, that was the biggest curveball during the development process. The first draft I wrote was set present-day. One of the first big notes to come back from the studio was—“let’s restore the original setting.” Which was daunting for a lot of reasons, but at that point the freight was moving. I had to make those alterations really quickly and wasn’t allowed too much time to freak out about it. And it’s a movie about dogs. They’ve changed even less than we have in those sixtysomething years. Most of the story is quite universal. As with everything Disney does, you’re rooting it in themes you’re expecting any child can understand. This is about family, and the fear of losing family, and what it means to find and build family.
TM: Do you see a place your voice comes through or your fingerprint shows up in the final product?
AB: Not really. [laughs] But you’re tapping into this movie that’s been beloved for decades. The origins of that are lost in the mist. Even with the original movie, I think you can point to at least six people who had a pretty heavy hand in authoring that thing. I was very happy to be the first writer on this version, but of course there’s another credited writer. There are some uncredited writers, and there’s the input of the director and the producer and the studio. It was fascinating to sit back and see what shape it had taken. I didn’t see my fingerprints all over it, and I think that’s a good thing. That said, the little baby [Lulu] is named after my grandmother.
TM: How did your role as a dad affect the script?
AB: I have a nine-year-old and a five-year-old. At the time, when I first spoke to the producer about potentially doing this, the first thing I did was—I can’t remember if it was [Austin’s] Vulcan or I Love Video—but I ran in there, and they had it on VHS, and I brought that home and watched it with those kids. It was a nice closed circle to watch the new one with them a couple days ago. I probably would have been much more nervous about writing a kids’ movie without in-house experts. I’ve got plenty of data to draw on here. We did get to visit set. A lovely thing about this movie is that there are real dogs in the movie, and all, in fact, rescue dogs. It was very cool to meet the actual dogs. I’ve got pictures of Tramp licking my son’s face.
TM: This is the first new feature film to launch on Disney+. How have streaming services affected film, especially a film with broad appeal versus indie films like your other work?
AB: I don’t know; it’s so hard to say. Everything is changing very rapidly. I don’t know that any of us will recognize the landscape five years from now. It’s always a moving target. It’s easy for me to cry into my beer about the death of cinema. But the fact is that in every format and every shake-up, there’s always really exciting work being done. I don’t think that’s going to change. Streaming is kind of the least of the massive changes happening in the world right now.
TM: What else do you have in the works?
AB: Just writing another weird little personal indie. Talking humans. [laughs] That’s about all I can say right now. We’ll see if I can pull off another one of these.