Apparently there is a competitive sport in birding -- chasing birds around the world to spot as many kinds as you can. Director David Frankel explored this subject with three great comedic actors: Jack Black, Owen Wilson, and Steve Martin. The four of them sat down with Buzzine to talk about whether or not birders are nuts, the many locations they traveled to shoot the movie, and their own personal callings in life...
Claude Budin-Juteau: Tell me about how this movie started. Did you meet a birder one day and you said, “That could be a guy that I could make a film about”?
David Frankel: I met a birder a long time ago – my wife – and right around the time I got this script, my son had discovered birds and was flipping through Audubon manuals and learned the names of hundreds and hundreds of birds. And my manager sent me this script and said, “It’s about bird-watching,” and I naturally was not compelled to read it, but I read two pages and I was hooked. I just loved the story – not just of bird-watchers, but of guys who are going out with a crazy obsession and to realize their dream – their passion. That’s what always draws me to any story – someone who is passionate about what they do.
CBJ: And you guys shot all over the place. Tell me, as a director, what are the logistical challenges of making a movie like this?
DF: Shooting The Big Year was kind of like going on a Big Year itself. Big Year birders go all over the world trying to see as many different species of birds as they can in one calendar year. And for us, we were trying to shoot in as many locations as we could in one 60-day movie shoot. We went all over Canada. We were in Vancouver and the Rocky Mountains, and Whistler where there was a blizzard, and we were on Vancouver Island and up in the Yukon, and we were in California and New York and Florida… So we really were capturing the journey of three guys who travel thousands and thousands of miles hunting birds – chasing birds, I should say, because they’re no hunting involved in the movie – but chasing birds all over North America. And for us, it was a non-stop race to get all these shots.
CBJ: Which scene would you say gave you a hard time, whether it was from the bird’s point of view, or the landscape, or…
DF: The very first day we were shooting the movie, we were in Vancouver and there was a blizzard. And it snowed three feet, and we were shooting on top of a mountain and somehow had to get all the movie equipment up there, and we had to get Jack and Steve up to the mountaintop, and we had to shoot a scene with an actual bird. I vowed, when we started the movie, “I’m never gonna shoot any scenes with actual birds – we’re gonna use footage or we’re gonna use computer imagery to create the birds.” And then the first day, we had a pink-footed goose that had to get to the top of the mountain in a blizzard, and we’re all riding around on snow mobiles, and somehow we got the shots. That was probably the trickiest. We shot under the midnight sun in the Yukon, which was just amazing – dodging Grizzly bears on location, and Jack went out to the Everglades and we were dodging alligators there, so it was a real adventure.
CBJ: So you actually had to do the Big Year yourself. Did you have to spot each of those birds, or did you buy stock footage at some point?
DF: We bought some stock footage, but we spotted a lot of birds, and it was fun. We had Greg Miller -- who is one of the birders in the book that the movie is based on – come and consulted with us for a few weeks, and over the course of just those few weeks, he made a list of about 150 birds. It’s funny – most people aren’t birders, and most people think birding is crazy, and the fun for us, and honestly I’m one of those most people… To me, any obsession where people go so over-the-edge and have it upend their lives and discover something new about themselves is both very identifiable and relatable, but also crazy, and these characters are a little bit crazy. And the fun is how far they go to realize their dream.
CBJ: What has been your midlife crisis? What did you do which was crazy that fulfills some kind of interior need?
DF: I make movies. Every movie I make, I feel like I’m fulfilling some aspect, I’m solving some part of my midlife crisis. I’m getting to explore characters in a world that’s outside myself, and I think that’s what we all struggle with – the banality of everyday existence, and what’s fun is to see these three great characters played by three great comic actors, go and explore and find new things about themselves.
Owen Wilson, Jack Black, Steve Martin
Claude Budin-Juteau: Birders – are those people for real? Did you find any, and did you find them to be strange?
Owen Wilson: Not only are they for real, there are 48 million of them. We come to find out that they take this hobby, if not seriously, they at least participate in it.
Jack Black: And that’s just in North America. There’s probably close to a billion in the world.
OW: Well it seems like a natural thing to become competitive about, doesn’t it? I mean, when you see a bird in Central Park, as you’re looking at it, you’re thinking, “Gosh, I’d love to be able to compete with somebody on this…”
Steve Martin: You’re right because sometimes I overhear this, when people see a celebrity, they say, “I saw him first.” But also, the thing about birders is…I sense in your voice you’re saying, “Do these people exist?” They’re not crazy. They’re actually fascinated by something in nature.
OW: They’re just a bit mad… [Laughs]
CBJ: You became birders yourself after making this movie?
OW: They’re not crazy, they’re just a bit mad.
SM: I didn’t, but I have many other things that I’ve already…
OW: But you did see a hawk on your porch.
SM: I did see a hawk, but that was years ago. I have a photo of a hawk sitting…not on my porch – on my windowsill of my apartment in New York…
OW: That was a few years ago?
SM: But that was out of 100 windowsills, this hawk landed on mine.
OW: Where do you live, in Versailles? A hundred windowsills?
SM: It was an apartment building.
OW: Oh, okay. [Laughs]
CBJ: Out of all the locations you guys have been to – and you’ve been to a lot of locations – which one do you still remember, whether in awe or retrospectively as…
SM: The locations in the movie? First of all, so many of the locations were fantastic – from the city of Vancouver, which is really nice, from great restaurants and great streets and great exercise areas and biking paths…
JB: Mountains within minutes of your apartment…
SM: And then we loved the Yukon, which is a beautiful mountainous area in the Rockies, very far north – land of the midnight sun where the sun never sets, at least that time of the year…
JB: No civilization.
SM: Well, I think the people who live there might object.
JB: Oh right. You know what I’m saying, though. When you go deep like we did. There was no cellphone connection…
SM: I saw a bear through a telescope where we were shooting, so that means what, it was a mile away?
OW: That was me, Steve.
SM: In a bear suit, I know. But it was the color of sand, and it was maybe…I’m guessing, because it was big – it was on its hind feet picking up things and looking around – maybe six feet tall.
OW: I saw a black bear, actually, and they seemed sort of like eagles – black bears just seemed like scavengers – when we were driving back from someplace, just on the side of the road…
SM: Not as interesting as my story.
JB: I thought Tofino was the coolest location, though. We went to a place that was on an island…
SM: Vancouver Island…
JB: Yeah, in northern Canada that had just sort of a haunting quality. It was a destination for vacationers, but it wasn’t a sunny beach resort. It was a beach that’s just covered in this beautiful misty fog…
SM: And it’s a place where people go in the fall to watch thunderstorms.
OW: Yeah, to watch them roll in.
CBJ: The film is about a calling – the characters respond to a calling. What has been your calling, for each of you? Have you been through a similar crisis?
SM: I’ve had a lot of callings. I seriously have. Currently I would say it’s music and playing the five-string banjo, and writing songs for music. Playing with a band.
OW: Mine, I guess, would be the ocean. I love the ocean. That would be definitely something for me – swimming.
JB: It’s obvious, but I think we all share the calling for the stage – to put on a show. We’re showmen. It’s something that resonates deeply for me, and I assume for the other two…
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation's 'The Big Year' is released on October 14, 2011.