Mike Bridavsky remembers being backstage on the set of Good Morning America last August, holding her amid the managed chaos of the live production.
A producer, gruff and efficient with every second precious, barked at him. “What does it do?” the producer asked, perplexed.
“Well, she’s a cat,” Bridavsky replied.
“So why is she on the show?” the producer inquired, confused about what, exactly, he was about to put live on what was now the number one morning program in the nation. What was the catch? What was he missing?
The truth is that there is nothing more to it; Lil Bub just is.
It’s deceptively simple — there are no tricks, no pop culture allusions, no irony involved. A tiny perma-kitty, the runt of the feral litter with congenitally damaged bones that pose her in a crouched prayer and a lower jaw so misshapen that her tiny tongue always peeks out, Lil Bub was an internet phenom (thanks to Reddit) that became a world sensation after that GMA appearance, without so much as a meow on cue.
Now, the cat and her owner — Bridavsky adopted Bub when he heard a sick kitty needed help in Bloomington, IN — are the main subjects of a new documentary that has become the buzz of the Tribeca Film Festival. Directed by Juliette Eisner and Andy Capper for Vice Films, Lil Bub & Friendz takes an amused look at the world of famous internet cats — the Grumpy, LOL and Nyan included — but it is the tiny feline that is its heart.
The film’s genesis was at the Internet Cat Video Festival in Minneapolis last summer, Eisner explains, where her and Capper’s eyes were almost blown out of their sockets.
“We were really expecting 500 people to be at this festival,” she says. “But there were 10,000 people who showed up. We were kind of all in it, trying to figure out what was going to happen, we really had no plan to do this, but that’s when we realized 10,000 people just came to Minneapolis. Some were from New York, some were from China, some were from Seattle.”
THR followed Bridavsky, Bub, Eisner and Capper at Saturday night’s big outdoor screening of the film, which packed the downtown World Financial Center promenade with fans and filmgoers, crossing all segments of people, from small children to twenty-somethings and seniors. They all had cell phone cameras at the ready, prepared to take snaps of the kitty at first sighting. Many others had their faces painted like cats — a service provided by the festival and heartily embraced by the young and old. One woman pretended it wasn’t decorative, responding to inquiries with “What face paint? I’m Bub’s cousin.”
As Bridavsky explained, some people don’t quite get Bub; it’s a cat, what’s the big deal? But numbers don’t lie: with a YouTube page boasting millions of views, a 10,000+ fan Facebook page and a book deal, there’s something about Bub that excites people.
“She was designed to be cute to get to this level so she could provide all this inspiration and hope for people,” Bridvasky posits. A record producer from Bloomington, Indiana, his stubble and sleeve of tattoos make him look more hipster than earnest feline lover, and he’s certainly no young, male version of crazy cat lady. But he’s absolutely convinced that the kitty he calls his best friend has a special significance. “She’s been dealt a shitty hand, she can’t walk very well, but she doesn’t know man. She doesn’t judge. She loves everyone and everyone loves her.”
Case in point: after a week filled with the terrible saga of the Boston bombing, people reached out to Bub for comfort.
“Read the Facebook wall: ‘You are the relief for us,’ and ‘I’m so glad that you are here this week, I wish you could be in Boston,'” he says, relaying some of the messages he received. “Like, ‘I couldn’t get through grad school without you.’ I have thousands and thousands.”
He also gets his fair share of nude photos from admirers that appreciate his love for Bub.
With such a fragile body due to an exceedingly rare bone disorder, Bub must be handled with extreme care. At one point in the movie, there is a major health scare, with doctors telling Bridavsky that it might be best to put her to sleep.
“We were like, this is going to be the most depressing cat movie ever,” Capper recalls. “We can’t end it like this. At some point I showed it to one of our main DPs at Vice, who does all these conflict zones, and that scene by the end, he was in tears, like, ‘You can’t do this to people!'”
Miraculously, Bub did recover, though she’s suffered relapses of illness and malaise. Bridavsky, hyper-vigilant, has gone to great lengths to keep her healthy, including taking lessons in reiki, the spiritual Japanese art of palm healing.
Grateful fans lined up on Saturday night to take photos and pet the cat; a kids-only meet and greet involved waves and waves of children coming to say hello to Bub, with parents — and unattached adults — grabbing photos and nudging their way to brief audiences with their beloved cat, too.
One twenty-something guy whipped out his phone, snapping a photo and commenting, “Now this is a tweetable moment,” an instructive comment on just how these sensations work. By posting their own photo of the meme machine cat, he’ll earn “likes” and the approval of his friends, who will then get energized by the cat in their own way, now that it’s been legitimized. It’s almost impossible to know what will take off on the internet, but that doesn’t stop an endless slew of wannabe cat entrepreneurs from seeking out Bridavsky’s marketing advice.
“I don’t want to be a jerk about it,” Bridavsky says, looking for the right words. “You should love your cat, your cat is awesome to you… but look at your cat, and then look at Bub!”
Eisner draws parallels to the world of human celebrities.
“She’s not Paris Hilton,” the co-director cracks. “She’s not famous for being famous. She’s like Drew Barrymore.”
After the screening, Bub had to get her rest; the next morning, she was appearing on the Today show. All for just being a cat.
Email: Jordan.Zakarin@THR.com; Twitter: @JordanZakarin