I spoke with the Fierlingers by telephone at their home in Wynnewood, Pa., and they answered follow-up questions by email. Paul, who still speaks with a slight Czech accent, did most of the talking. They share their lives with Gracie, a Corgi/German Shepherd mix, and Oscar, a Jack Russell Terrier.
Bark: Were you familiar with J.R. Ackerley before you started the film?
Paul: Oh yeah, mostly with the book My Dog Tulip. Once we decided to make the film, I got in touch with Peter Parker, the British writer who wrote a very extensive biography of J.R. Ackerley [The Life of J.R. Ackerley, 1989]. And then I read everything Ackerley ever wrote, including his letters.
Bark: When you were reading My Dog Tulip did you see yourself in J.R. Ackerley and the way he related to and described his dog?
Paul: Not in the least. Ackerley typifies the most common dog owner on the hill — whom he himself learned to detest in due course — a man in complete adulation for his dog’s size, shape and breed and totally oblivious of the animal’s true nature and needs. Ackerley, on top of being vain, was at times very lonely — which were fortunate circumstances for Tulip. This set of circumstances, including her being rescued by Ackerley from the grips of a very abusive previous owner, led to this ideal relationship of mutual tolerance and neediness.
Bark: Ackerley’s book, I would guess, has a resonance with dog people, which is an intensity that non-dog people don’t understand. Were you able to appreciate Ackerley’s obsession because you feel the same about dogs?
Paul: I chose My Dog Tulip to become our movie exactly for the book’s endearing (to me) quirkiness. When you look at Amazon.com under My Dog Tulip you’ll see that half the readers who wrote reviews hate it and half of them love it. I assume the same thing will happen to the film. In hindsight, I think it might have been a mistake. We got ourselves into dangerous waters: If I had picked another book we could’ve perhaps had an easier time finding theatrical distribution.
Bark: What appealed to you about the way Ackerley describes his relationship with this dog?
Paul: What was appealing to me was that he didn’t know dogs at all [before Tulip]. And then I found out, reading his other material, he actually disliked dogs. He was annoyed by them. He was very intolerant of dogs barking in the neighborhood. And then here he got, in Tulip, the worst kind of neurotic barker.
Bark: Is there a large percentage of your script that’s taken verbatim from the book?
Paul: I would say 80 percent, actually.
Bark: What was there in Ackerley’s writing that made you want to make this film?
Paul: What appealed to me was his King’s English and the way he spoke it. You don’t have to actually listen to Ackerley speak it; you can hear it in his writing. It’s beautiful prose. And he’s talking about dog shit.
Bark: A lot!
Paul: Yes, and the contrast of the two I always found amusing. When you say “a lot,” I think I know what you mean by that. You probably wish there were less, right? You know how this happened to me? I was so fixated on getting everything right. I always believed that film directors should be faithful to the book. So I needed to know everything about Ackerley. That’s how it happened that I had too much of the scatological stuff.
Bark: I found it odd and a bit unnerving to see Ackerley walking Tulip without a leash.
Paul: Ackerley was very proud of her for that — he always carried a leash but used it only when he could expect trouble from authorities, though even in those cases it wasn’t really necessary. Our dogs are like that, too. Also, in those days, there weren’t any leash laws.