The new animated film "My Dog Tulip," based on British writer J.R. Ackerley's 1956 memoir by the same name, seems like a loving homage to the bond between man and dog. So it's surprising to hear filmmakers Paul and Sandra Fierlinger say they hope their movie punctures the illusions of any would-be dog owners who might misunderstand the power dynamics in canine relationships.
"Too many people get dogs because they want someone to love them," says Paul Fierlinger, his voice taking on the flinty tone of a reformer's. "They feel too many people control them, and they don't have anyone to control. They think the dog will give them unconditional love. That dogs will do what they're told. They don't respect their independence. That's something Ackerley had to learn."
"My Dog Tulip" recounts how Ackerley had his life upended when he got a vibrant Alsatian — "an Alsatian bitch," as he says in his unvarnished way — named Queenie, whom he renamed Tulip for his book.
Ackerley was nearing 50, and was locked into his routine as literary editor of a weekly BBC program called "The Listener," which featured leading figures of the time. He lived alone and was, for his era, unusually open about his homosexuality. He'd never liked dogs. Then, a friend gave him Queenie. They were a pair for 15 years until she died.
Ackerley's life with Tulip becomes a lesson in adaptation, as he must devote considerable attention to managing the drips and drops of her bodily functions. The Fierlingers handle these matters with a revealing frankness that mirrors Ackerley's: When Tulip defecates in front of a grocery store, or marks a tree, or vomits in a cemetery, we watch and hear most of the essentials.
Ackerley's acceptance of her idiosyncrasies becomes especially moving amid the Olympian challenge of mating her. He discovers the give-and-take between other people and animals. When Ackerley realizes Tulip is bored while he's at work, he invites his sister to move in and help. Sibling rivalry over the dog gets ugly.
Christopher Plummer speaks as Ackerley and Isabella Rossellini is the vet who nurtures his confidence; Lynn Redgrave, who died after the filming, voices Ackerley's sister. To achieve the movie's visual style, the filmmakers used French software called TVPaint, which according to Paul Fierlinger, is 20 years old. It enabled them to make more than 60,000 drawings with a speed and fluidity he says would be impossible using paper.
The couple's house in a leafy Philadelphia suburb served as the studio for "My Dog Tulip," with the couple regularly putting in 12-hour workdays in a room packed with computers. Fierlinger, 74, draws using a digital stylus on a digital tablet, which reads his images and translates them to a screen. "It's the same number of drawings as in classical animation, the only difference being that I'm using the tablet, which makes it quicker," he says.
While he focuses on delineating the images, Sandra, 56, specializes in the colors, bringing the film's complex shadings to life. The scenes range from intricate renderings of London settings almost as detailed as a 19th century painting, to raw sketches that the animated Ackerley character dashes off on a notepad. In reality, Ackerley did draw, Fierlinger says. "He was very good."
Getting a handle on a book so reserved yet so emotionally honest was the biggest challenge, Fierlinger said. He and his wife had to make drama from prose whose feeling "is not very, very direct." At times, they borrowed from other Ackerley texts. One of the film's most heartfelt lines comes in a monologue in which Ackerley hungers for "an ideal friend," but the filmmakers actually found that phrase in "My Father and Myself," Ackerley's best-known work.
"I had to construct those sentences based on other Ackerley writings to make it work on an emotional level," Fierlinger said.
Ackerley wrote another book about his canine relationship, a novel called "We Think the World of You," in which the connection is almost erotic. It became a 1988 movie starring Alan Bates. Fierlinger says he barely watched that film, though he read a lot of Ackerley's works.
Given Fierlinger's own deep history with dogs, both live and drawn, it's hard to imagine an artist better matched to Ackerley's book.
For PBS, Fierlinger made "Drawn From Memory," an hour-long animated memoir of a complicated youth split between the United States and Soviet-era Czechoslovakia. His father and uncle became high-ranking Czech officials in the 1950s. He yearned for America, where he lived for a while as a boy during World War II. For the film, he drew a dog named Roosevelt, a Skye terrier that consoled him.
He portrayed others in an animated series of short stories — "Still Life with Animated Dogs" — that stressed his canine comrades in Prague.
These days, the Fierlingers have two dogs, Gracie, a corgi/German shepherd mix, and Oscar, a Jack Russell terrier. Like Ackerley, they rarely leash their animals, unless they're anticipating trouble from the authorities.
Leashes become the film's interpretive key, in a darkly comic ending in which almost all the characters reappear in a woodsy area holding or being held by a leash. This scene isn't in the memoir, but Fierlinger says it captures the pull and counter-pull for control that becomes manifest in all relationships.
"Independence and freedom are important values to me, whether talking of people or animals," he says. "I think that was true of Ackerley, too."