Friday, April 19, 2013

The Next Birding Movie, Part 5: from Director Rob Meyer!

Filmmaker Rob Meyer in action, on the set
From Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kenn writes:  Okay, here's the deal about being the director of a film.  It's like being God.  Only better, because people actually do what you tell them to do.

Or at least, that's what I would have told you a couple of years ago.  That was just based on impressions from things I'd read.  Cecil B. DeMille demanding that Victor Mature wrestle with a real lion during the filming of Samson and Delilah.  James Cameron screaming at the extras bobbing around in the water during the sinking scenes in Titanic.  And so on.  But until I visited the set of A Birder's Guide to Everything, I wouldn't have guessed that a movie director could be the most decent, kind person you could hope to meet.

I first connected with filmmaker Rob Meyer by way of an email introduction from our friend, the great nature writer Scott Weidensaul.  Scott told me that Meyer had a screenplay that involved birding, and he wanted some expert birder to read it over to see if it sounded plausible.  Of course I was intrigued enough to say yes.  

It quickly became obvious that this was no amateur with a pipe dream about making a movie.  Rob Meyer had solid credentials.  He had worked as a producer at Nova and National Geographic, and had received his MFA from the graduate film program at New York University.  He had already produced a short film, Aquarium, that had received awards at film festivals all over the world.

And the screenplay that he sent - coauthored with his friend Luke Matheny - was amazing.  Yes, it had birding as a central plot element, but it also had a wonderful story, well-defined characters, superb dialogue.  I was captivated.  (And I wasn't the only one: Oscar-winning actor Sir Ben Kingsley had read the script, and had tentatively agreed to star in the film.)  I promised to help in any way I could.

So over the next few months, as Rob and his colleagues worked to pull together the funding to produce the film, I had occasional email contact about bird-related elements in the screenplay and in the plans for the set designs.  And finally in August 2012 I traveled to just north of New York City, to meet Rob Meyer in person and to watch a few days of the filming of A Birder's Guide to Everything.

As I mentioned in a previous blog post, it was amazing to watch all the dedicated professionals working on myriad details on the movie set.  And it was impressive to see Rob's directing style.  The director is the person in charge, of course, but this director wasn't acting like a dictator - more like a "first among equals."  Rob is a young guy, and some members of the crew probably had been working on films before he was born, but he had earned their respect and he in turn respected their experience.  A powerful collaborative energy pervaded the set, everyone striving together to make the film as good as it could be.  

On one day we took over a local school, where the principal let us convert his office into the offices of the fictional "Birder's Way" magazine.  Here, Rob Meyer pauses to check out the monitors while several members of the crew are setting up the next shot. 

Working on a tight schedule and tight budget, working very long days, dealing with a billion pesky details, Rob obviously was under an extraordinary amount of pressure.  But it didn't show in his interactions with people: he was phenomenally courteous, thoughtful, and considerate to every single person involved, at any level.  In the innumerable discussions about how to set up each shot, he was respectful of every opinion, even if he ultimately wound up going a different way.  Whenever anyone helped out with anything - people delivering supplies, people serving as extras in the background of a scene - he made a point of personally thanking them.  When someone new arrived on the scene - even a birding consultant from Ohio - he went out of his way to make them feel at ease.

In short, Rob Meyer is a brilliant writer and director, but he's also the most thoughtful, courteous, considerate, kind person that you could imagine.  He's talented enough that he wouldn't have to be as decent as he is, so it's just a reflection of his genuinely good character.  That's part of the reason why I'm sure he's going to be hugely successful.  In the movies, you know, you want the good guys to win.  

Rob Meyer and Kenn Kaufman on the set of A Birder's Guide to Everything

I'm sure some of my birding friends are still waiting for birding content in this post (and more than the fact that I'm wearing a Black Swamp Bird Observatory T-shirt in the photo here).  Okay, consider this.  Rob Meyer himself is not a birder - or at least, he didn't become one until he started developing the film - but he takes this hobby seriously.  In a recent interview in IndieWire, he said that one theme of the film was "an ode to birding and the restorative power of nature."  In answer to a later question, he said, "I'm hoping everyone who sees the film wants to go birding."  When I read that, I thought, Wow!  What a great idea!  When the film The Big Year came out in 2011, its portrait of extreme birding may have seemed out of reach to the average person.  But in A Birder's Guide to Everything you have appealing characters going birding on a local level, in a way that should be accessible to audiences.  This film might make a lot of people decide that "Hey, I could do that!"  

Regardless of how it impacts the birding scene, I think this film will earn a lot of kudos and recognition for the talented young Rob Meyer.  Of course, I haven't seen the film yet!  But Kimberly and I are heading off to New York to attend the premiere, and we will report back after we see it!

As a final note, I enjoyed a longer interview with Meyer in which he talks about writing, acting, birding, and a wide variety of other things.  Clearly this is an individual who is thoughtful, original, and talented, someone with a brilliant career already under way.  
The link is here.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Next Birding Movie, Part 4: Meet Kodi Smit-McPhee

Kodi Smit-McPhee, who stars in the forthcoming film A Birder's Guide to Everything, is a young actor with phenomenal talent and a brilliant future.

From Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kenn writes:  Last August, as I described in a previous post, I spent a few days with the crew that was shooting Rob Meyer's forthcoming film, A Birder's Guide to Everything.  I was involved as a consultant on the film, which has birding as a major plot element.  But while I was there, I enjoyed the opportunity to learn more about the craft of filmmaking.

A movie looks very different when you see it from that perspective.  When you're in the theater, the actors and actresses loom larger than life, occupying all your attention.  On the movie set, there may be dozens of people hurrying around, focused on dozens of important tasks - lighting, sound, backgrounds, props, script details, makeup, costumes, and so on.  Everyone is a professional, everyone's work is essential.  When the cameras are not rolling, the actors almost disappear into the background, waiting to contribute their part.  

Personally, I was interested in every aspect of how the film was made, but I think most members of the public focus on the actors, the people that they see on the screen.  It occurred to me that the second-most-important person (after the director) in the creation of a film might be the person in charge of casting all the actors.  In the case of A Birder's Guide to Everything, that would be Avy Kaufman.  She's no relation to me, as far as I know, but she's a brilliant casting director who has assembled the casts of actors for scores of major films, including the 2012 blockbusters Lincoln and Life of Pi.  Ms Kaufman obviously knows what she's doing, and the people that she found to star in A Birder's Guide to Everything are remarkably talented.  

Undoubtedly the best-known actor in the film is Oscar-winner Sir Ben Kingsley, who plays an expert birder, author, and editor.  I may write about him in a separate post; for the moment, suffice it to say that it was astonishing and inspiring to see him at work.  James LeGros, a well-known film and television actor, plays a major role as the father of the main character.  I had a chance to talk with him and found him to be funny, intelligent, with wide-ranging knowledge and interests; for example, we had a great conversation about water policy issues in the western states.  

The young stars of the show: Katie Chang, Alex Wolff, Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Michael Chen
But the main characters in the film are all teenagers, and the teens that play those parts are all exceptional.  Katie Chang is just as poised, smart, and independent in real life as the character she plays in the movie.  Alex Wolff is a talented musician as well as an actor, and also a practical joker, making things a little too lively around the set at times.  Michael Chen can play a slightly nerdy character if he has to, although he's a cool kid in real life. 

The central character in the film, a 15-year-old birder named David Portnoy, is played by the remarkable Kodi Smit-McPhee.  When I met him last August, Kodi had just recently turned 16, but I was powerfully impressed by his level of maturity and professionalism.  He was courteous, friendly, and totally focused on the craft of acting.  The screenplay for A Birder's Guide to Everything places a lot of demands on him: he has to convey a wide range of complex and subtle emotions.  For the scenes that I saw being filmed, he totally nailed it every time.  Even when the same scene was being shot over and over and over - because the director wanted to try different camera angles or lighting, because someone else flubbed their lines, etc. - Kodi came through with a stunning performance every time.  It was a striking confirmation, if I had needed one, that acting is a true art.

Of course, even at the age of 16, Smit-McPhee is already a seasoned professional.  He had already had many roles in television series and small films before his breakout role in the post-apocalyptic drama The Road in 2009, where he starred alongside such heavies as Viggo Mortensen and Robert Duvall.  He has been very busy since then, starring in Let Me In (2010) among other films, and landing major roles in several others that are now in the works, including the next installment in the Planet of the Apes franchise.  I predict that it won't take long for Kodi Smit-McPhee to gain the recognition he deserves as a major talent in acting.

At one point while the cast was waiting for the crew to set up the next shot, Kodi spotted a distant Red-tailed Hawk.  He was watching it through binoculars, and wanted to know more about it.  That was the extent of the birding that we did together.  With his busy schedule of film projects, I doubt that Kodi will have time to take up birding as a hobby.  But in A Birder's Guide to Everything, I think he's going to make birders look very appealing to the general public. 

In just over a week, Kimberly and I will be attending the premiere of the film at the Tribeca Film Festival, and we can't wait to report back to you about our reactions to the film!

Friday, April 5, 2013

Introducing, "The Kids’ Outdoor Adventure Book"

From homebase in Ohio, Kimberly Writes: The Destination Nature team of Stacy Tornio and Ken Keffer are celebrating the release of their new Falcon Guides book, The Kids’ Outdoor Adventure Book: 448 Great Things To Do In Nature Before You Grow Up.
The cover alone makes this book worth owning! 
Since a lot of our time and energy is devoted to getting young people interested in spending more time outside, Kenn and I are SUPER excited about this fabulous book, and we're honored to be a part of its official launch! 

To let people know about the book, we invited our friend Ken Keffer to do a guest post. He is writing about Mothing, which is summer activity #21 in the book. We hope you enjoy the post, and if you want to win your own copy of the book, visit Stacy and Ken’s website.

MOTHING! by Ken Keffer 
Moths are the new birds. All of the reasons people love birds apply to moths, too. Plus you get bonus fun with moths, including fermented bananas and black lights! Mothing can be an especially appealing activity to do as a family, which is why we put it in our book as one of the essential checklist items. Here are some tips for getting started.

People enjoy birding because birds are widespread. During the warm summer months, moths are everywhere, too. Don’t believe me? Leave you porch light one night. It won’t take long before you’ve got more flying action than your bird feeders have seen all month.

While some moths will have certain habitat requirements, many species are abundant in neighborhoods and backyards across the country. A few are downright striking, and many have a subtle beauty, similar to sparrows. My personal favorites are the underwing moths. A mix of gray and brown above, they flash brilliant pinks, yellows, and oranges when they spread their wings.

Kimberly likes to call them "Underwear" moths
You might casually encounter a few months from time to time, but using attractants is far more satisfying. I’ve hung a small window feeder filled with fruit in the summer to attract moths as well as butterflies. Then a few times each summer I’ll bust out the moth bait and the black light for a full-fledged night of mothing.  
All the moth baiters have their own secret recipe. The basic ingredients usually include mixing smashed bananas (the browner the better), canned beer (the cheaper the better, although microbrews can be used to bait additional moth watchers in), and sugar (I like brown, others use white, I’ve even heard of people using molasses). Once you have the recipe mixed, just paint the bait on bark in the early evening and you’ll be set for the night.
You can also use black lights projected on a light colored sheet to bring in the moths from near and far. Here’s a little trick—if you use a paisley patterned sheet, you’ll have a built in scale for your photos, plus it’ll be easier to ID. And remember it’s not just moths you’ll attract. You can see tons of cool night life.

Backlighting with Kenn and Kimberly and friends! 
Remember, mothing is a leisurely activity. The kids can run around and frolic outside as the sun goes down. Then they can pop in and out as their interest desires.
Despite the vastness of moth diversity, there are a few all-stars. The Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North American  has a solid selection of moths represented. Pick out a your favorites. It might take you years, but someday you could be rewarded with seeing the moth of your dreams. One of my favorite Biggest Week in American Birding memories was when a Cecropia Moth showed up. This thing created as much buzz as any of the warblers that year. After laying binoculars on it, numerous people exclaimed it was a lifer moth for them.

So set a goal of spotting a few moths this year, and then check them off your list. By the way, it’s okay if it takes you a little while to ID moths and have success attracting them. I hear Kenn Kaufman has a certain month that eludes even him. (Psst—it’s the Harris’s Three-spot.) Good luck mothing this summer, and to you too, Kenn!.

For 447 other great things to do in nature before you grow up, pick up a copy of The Kids’ Outdoor Adventure Book