When Juliette Eisner, a communications associate at Vice, heard about the Internet Cat Video Film Festival taking place at the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota last year, she immediately knew she wanted to cover it. Her piece grew from a short film into the documentary Lil Bub and Friendz, which premieres today at the Tribeca Film Festival (you can also watch the film yourself after it premieres; more information on that here). Eisner co-directed the doc with Vice's senior producer, Andy Capper, and got to spend lots of time with Bub—one of the most popular cats on the Internet—in the process. Thankfully, Bub's fame doesn't seem to have gone to her head. "She’s not a diva at all," Eisner says. "She’s the best-behaved celebrity I’ve ever met." We spoke with Eisner about meeting Bub, how she found her experts, and why she thinks the internet loves cats.
mental_floss: I’m curious about the development process. I know Vice does a lot of this kind of thing, but how did this documentary in particular come about?
Juliette Eisner: Vice covers a lot of culture and other types of stories. We do a lot of stuff about the internet and today's pop culture icons, and this just seemed pretty interesting to us, right off the bat. I definitely think that these celebrity cats are our new pop culture icons—replacing the Hello Kittys and the Garfields of the world.
I heard about the internet cat video festival, which was last summer at the Walker Arts Center. I was really taken aback when I first read about it, because the Walker Arts Center is such an awesome, renowned establishment, and I thought it was really funny that they were going to do a whole festival [about] internet cat videos. I pitched the idea to the team, and Andy Capper, who’s the senior producer of Vice [and co-director of this documentary], loved it. And we just picked up and went to this weird, weird cat video festival. I had reached out to [Bub and her owner, Mike Bridavsky] when I found out that we were going to go, and I invited them to be our cat celebrity friends. They came, and from the moment that we met Bub, we knew that she was super special and that her story was really, really interesting. So we decided to continue filming.
I think a lot of that was also because the festival itself was incredibly packed. It was like 10,000 people who had traveled from all over to see these cat videos being played for an hour on a little screen. So we realized that we’d tapped into something bigger than just an internet phase. It definitely is something that’s relevant, today, on the internet, in the internet culture.
mental_floss: Everyone who hasn't had a chance to meet Bub is probably wondering—what’s she like?
JE: Oh, my God. In the film, when I meet her—that’s totally the first time I actually meet her, I’m not pretending or anything—it literally is like a punch in the stomach. You’re like, “Am I looking at a cartoon? Is this an alien? I’m not sure.” She really does have that effect on people. She definitely is a weird-looking creature; she’s not a normal-looking cat. But on top of being just interesting-looking, she has this very calm demeanor to her—Mike is always like, “She’s an other-worldly cat; she’s kind of the Buddha of all cats.” But it’s true.
Tribeca Film Festival
mental_floss: You traveled all over the place to make this documentary. How long did it take?
JE: It started at the end of August, for the festival, and then we went to Bloomington, which is where Mike and Bub live, to visit her in her hometown. And then she also came to New York for some press event that she was doing and we filmed her there. And then in the middle, we spent our time getting to know more about this internet phenomenon. We were talking to the I Can Haz Cheezburger CEOs of the world, and all these people who study and are very knowing about how social [and] internet trends have changed. It was maybe a five-month filming process, but it was all kind of side-project-y style, late night shoots on the side, and then somehow it became this really awesome feature-length film.
mental_floss: You talked to a lot of people; how did you find them?
JE: The majority of the pet owners we spoke to were from Minneapolis who were at the festival, and then the other internet people—Ben Lashes [who manages Internet meme celebrities], he’s based out of LA, and Grumpy Cat lives in Arizona—we just started realizing what a big community it was, and reached out to these people [including a professor]. And everyone was really on board to talk to us. It was not that hard to find [people], which is also interesting. This is something that people do spend a lot of time researching and looking into.
mental_floss: Lil Bub & Friendz is premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival. Was the plan always to submit it to a festival?
JE: Not at all. Our original plan was to do a short, fun piece for Vice about the [cat video] festival. But I think that, at the festival, we realized that not only could we make a fun story about Bub, but [that we could look at] how the internet has changed the way that you can have a career. People can be famous by putting their image online. And you can make money from merchandising yourself by just being a famous character that people know about. And it was really interesting to us.
mental_floss: Why do you think people on the internet are so crazy about cats? Do you have any insight into that now, having made this film?
JE: I’ve been thinking a lot about this—why certain viral videos do better than others. I think that cats definitely cater to the kind of people who are looking for something that’s going to make them smile or laugh, like cute animals, to begin with. But I also think that cats, specifically, as opposed to other animals—they are probably the more mysterious house pet. That’s kind of the stigma around cats: that they do their own thing, they’re the independent ones, they don’t care, and dogs are the opposite. I think people like to see images of cats doing weird things because it’s a way to see into the mystery of the creature, and get to know them a little bit better or see them doing things you wouldn’t normally see them do. But it still kind of is this big question mark.
In the doc, Amy Kellner, who created the Cute Show for Vice, who now works for the New York Times, said that for her, it was all about feeling better. These cats make her feel better about her day. She’ll put [a kittycam] on her screen while she’s working because it calms her. Bub gets fanmail daily, and a large majority of it is like, “I’m going through such a hard time, but Bub’s picture makes me happy.” People really look to these pictures and animals to find comfort.
mental_floss: In the process of making this, did you learn anything that really surprised you?
JE: I was super surprised going to the event; that was the big shocking moment for me for sure, realizing how big of a thing this cat phenomenon is. And then realizing that it’s become something that you can really have a career from. Ben Lashes was also a really funny character for me, because he’s essentially a manager of a band, but his band is a famous internet celebrity meme. He does the same things that any band manager would. And the fact that there are people like that out there—I don’t think most people realize or understand that. That’s his job and he is doing a really good job at it.