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!


  1. So you don't think that this one will be another Hollywood "flop" like "The Big Year" was?

    1. I don't necessarily agree with the way Hollywood defines success, but "The Big Year" was a box-office failure partly because it cost so much to make (with a budget of over 40 million dollars) and didn't take in that much in ticket sales. However, it's still being shown on cable, so by my estimation it's still helping to break down older stereotypes of what birders were like.

      In the case of A Birder's Guide to Everything, that film was done on a more tightly controlled budget, so it won't have to sell nearly as many tickets to be profitable. And frankly, I think it has a much better screenplay and more emotional appeal, so I think it has a good chance of being more successful.

  2. Did you turn any of the cast or crew into Birders?

    1. Chuck, I can't say that I did. But during the time that I was communicating with the director, Rob Meyer, I could tell that he was becoming more intrigued with birds. I'll write more about that in the next blog post.


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