If news that there's a streaming movie based on a Kate DiCamillo book isn't enough to satisfy fans, how about this: She also makes her acting debut in it.
"Flora & Ulysses," premiering Friday on Disney Plus, is adapted from the Minneapolis writer's rambunctious, Newbery Award-winning novel about a bright girl, her estranged parents and a superheroic squirrel named Ulysses, whose powers include flying, solving disputes and writing poetry on Flora's mom's typewriter.
DiCamillo worked on the screenplay for 2005's "Because of Winn-Dixie," the first film adapted from her work, but her involvement this time consisted of showing up on the set one day to film a cameo that she's reluctant to reveal much about.
"I'm in there. See if you can find me," DiCamillo teased from a Zoom box, calling from her south Minneapolis home.
"I'm glad I did it, but I can't believe how hard they work," said DiCamillo. "I remember thinking that the first time I went to a movie set, when they were trying to get a parrot to land on [the dog] Winn-Dixie's head and everyone was mad at me: 'Why would you ever write something like that, that is so hard to film?' "
DiCamillo, who enthuses that the "Flora" movie "amplifies" her hopeful themes, was taken with the work of newcomer Matilda Lawler, who plays the resourceful but cynical title character.
" 'Do it again!' 'Do it this way!' 'Move your hand here!' When I was there, she was acting with a little pinprick of light that was where [the computer-animated] Ulysses would be," said DiCamillo, whose own role is very brief but gave her a backstage peek at the work of moviemaking when "Flora" was shot in 2019.
"You see how hard it is, how many 'drafts' they do, as it were," said DiCamillo, comparing filming to the solitary writing process. "You can see that they all like each other and it feeds — they get energy from the other people, and that doesn't happen when you're writing. You're in there by yourself, with the rest of the western canon, I guess. You have those words in your head, but it's nice how communal this is."
The biggest surprise for the writer was her ability to forget that "Flora & Ulysses," which was adapted for the screen by Brad Copeland, originated in her head.
"It just made me feel so happy," DiCamillo said. "Even if I'm watching a movie that has nothing to do with me, I'm making those critical assessments: 'I would have done this there or that there.' But I totally became an 8-year-old, laughing really hard. It was 'Planes, Trains and Automobiles' laughter from me, which is, like, the ultimate compliment."
The novelist was delighted to hear Lawler in person, and also got a kick out of the way she says, "Holy unanticipated occurrences!" when DiCamillo watched the trailer "7,000 times" (it's a line taken straight from her book).
"The quality of her voice, the timbre — do you say 'tamber' or 'timber?" I don't know — but every word had extra resonance because of the way she speaks."
DiCamillo said being able to take herself out of the movie was "a gift."
The cast and director, Lena Khan, seemed to consider DiCamillo's story a gift as they spoke in a press event this month.
"We're so lucky that, apparently, crazy things like vacuum cleaners end up in Kate's home," said director Lena Khan, who had just heard the writer reveal that the character of Ulysses was inspired by: a beloved vacuum cleaner she inherited from her late mother, an ailing squirrel and E.B. White's essay, "Death of a Pig."
Ben Schwartz, the "Parks and Recreation" actor who plays Flora's comic-book-writer dad, said he was thrilled to have a chance to listen to the "Flora & Ulysses" creator talk about where it came from. Alyson Hannigan, who plays Flora's romance-novelist mom, said she's usually reluctant to watch herself on screen, but she and her kids became so involved in DiCamillo's characters that they "forgot I was even part of it."
This will be good news for the legions of DiCamillo fans who have been using her tales of kindness and empathy to survive the pandemic. And there's even more good news on the way: The writer's latest, "The Beatryce Prophecy," set in medieval times, hits stores this September.
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367
Flora & Ulysses
When: Premieres Fri.
Where: Disney Plus.