Interview: Rob Meyer from "A Birder's Guide to Everything"

Photo Credit: © Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival
April 4th, 2014

Attention all birders! Director Rob Meyer is pleased to bring you a very special new film called “A Birder’s Guide to Everything”, which is now available on VOD.  The film follows a young group of teenagers as they try to prove the existence of an extinct duck by snagging a photograph.  Veteran actor Ben Kingsley is an expert birder who tries to help the kids hunt down fame.  Movie Room Reviews was lucky enough to talk with director Rob Meyer all about his new film.

Nick Leyland from Movie Room Reviews: I got to watch your new film “A Birder's Guide to Everything" which premiered at Tribeca last year, I think, right?

Rob Meyer: That's correct, yes.

MRR: Now it looks like you just released it on video or something. Can you tell us about that?

Rob Meyer: We released it both in limited release in theaters, as well as Video On Demand, at the same time. And so basically right now it's playing in eight different cities. And then simultaneously you can get it on demand through Comcast, and Time Warner or download it on iTunes or Amazon. So that seems to be the new model for smaller films is to use any kind of good buzz you're getting from the theatrical release to also drive the Video On Demand release. Especially, when you don't have a huge budget to advertise, that seems to be the way forward.

MRR: Well it's a unique film, not only because there are only a few movies about birding but this is a movie about teenage birders. And the other major part of the film is the fact that the main character, David, his mom had just died and his dad is getting remarried. Why and how did you wanna make these two stories balance together?

[chuckle]

Rob Meyer: I know it's a good point. That was, I'd say, our main challenge in writing the script, was balancing the fun and the lyricism and the off-beat qualities of birding, with really genuine serious emotions and weighty subject matter. Luke and I used to liken it to the scene in Top Gun where they're flying the planes and they take a Polaroid picture. Like one flies upside down and takes a Polaroid picture of the other. It's a difficult aerial maneuver. So we thought, in writing the script we're imagining the challenging aerial maneuver to balance bird watching with the loss of a mother.

But actually, I think once we got into the writing of the script, especially the story of searching for birds and I've been birding, a lot, it wasn't that far of a stretch. And actually, Jonathan Franzen writes beautifully about birding and often deals with topics of loss. And when you're out there looking for something rare or looking for a glimpse of something, or seeking something, it's not a stretch to feel like the character is also looking for answers, looking to feel something again after a loss. I thought at the end that the theme helped us. Those two themes actually worked really well together.

MRR: They did. It wasn't just a film about birding and it wasn't just a film about a kid whose mom had just died.

Rob Meyer: That was our hope, that those two themes felt not like they were fighting, but that they were complementing each other.

MRR: You almost got to see the main actor, David, have to act while acting. 'Cause he had to act happy or sad or whatever.

Rob Meyer: Yeah, exactly and Cody's so good and subtle like that, getting that layered performance of holding back his emotions and being withdrawn. That's a really hard thing to show as an actor. I think very few actors can pull that off, especially young actors, and he's one of the few out there that can illustrate that in a really compelling way.

MRR: I'm sure you've heard this question a lot, but tell me about working with the birds. You got some great shots, the scene with the owl was really great.

Rob Meyer: Yeah. You a birder, at all?

MRR: No, my girlfriend is.

Rob Meyer: Okay, so you know how frustrating it can be. The birds do not cooperate. They don't really care. You're trying to film them or see them with binoculars. We went out about three times before the film had started shooting with an Alexa camera and actually one time we went out with a Red Epic camera. They're both quite big and require a couple of people to move them around. So it was really challenging to... First of all just find some good birds to film and then on top of that, to have a long enough lens to get a good shot of them, get them in focus and get the shot off before they fly away. I'd say 90% of the time, the birds flew away before we got the shot off. So we have a lot of footage of leaves and a blurry bird in the distance.

We had some great birding guides with us who helped. They can pish and they sort of know where the birds tend to come out into the open and where you might be able to get a good look at them. So they helped us get to the right spots. Yeah, I'm really proud that all of the shots of the birds in the film we got. Not during the shoot. This shoot was so fast. It was a 20-day shoot, which for this scale of film was really ambitious. So we didn't have a half a day to go shoot birds. But all the inserts of the birds were shot before we actually started principal photography.

MRR: I think I would've just cut corners and gone to the zoo or something.

[laughter]

Rob Meyer: Yeah. I guess a couple of them we did cut some corners. But the shot of the owl and the kestrel, those are both rescue birds that we had a trainer with and we had placed. And then also the duck at the beginning was a pet, a somewhat trained... As trained as a duck can be which is not very trained. [chuckle] But it was a domestic duck that we set out on the road and chased around.

MRR: Well tell me about working with a young cast. You had these high school kids and there are not much adults in the film, so tell me about working with those guys the whole time.

Rob Meyer: I love working with young actors. I think these guys, they were 14 through 17 so they were young. They're not little kids though. You really could treat them as collaborators and creative equals and their ideas, especially about what teenagers would say and do, was something I really wanted to listen to and empower them with being in charge of their characters and the film. A week in we hadn't really done a scene with an adult yet, [chuckle] and I realized sort of how crazy/ballsy it was to actually do a film so driven by young teenagers, but I knew as we were shooting that we were getting good stuff.

You never really know till you edit it together, but especially some of the heartfelt conversations that David and Ellen had and some of the funnier bits with Timmy, I could tell on the set that we were getting good stuff. My strategy was really simple. It's just casting great kids, which I have to give all of the credit to Avy Kaufman, who was our casting director, and also then just sort of giving them the space and the freedom and the security of knowing that they were doing a great job and so they wouldn't get insecure and clam up, that they would feel like they were the best kids in the world for these roles and that they were gonna nail it. And then they did.

MRR: Well, what formula were you looking for between all the kids? Because it reminded me a little bit of something that Spielberg would have done or something with Goonies and things like that.

Rob Meyer: Yeah. I like that, yes. Spielberg, '80s coming-of-age films are my favorite and I feel like that nostalgia for our childhood and the somewhat simpler time doesn't get told very often, and I've used something that's quite relevant, and these kids, I know in real life certainly responded to the material and said, "Oh, this is great." There are kids who aren't glued to their cellphones or watching the Kardashians all the time, who are more into more interesting, alternative stuff and are into doing simpler things.

When I printed out their pictures, just the look of these kids, I don't know why, when I printed out stills from their auditions and I had them all lined up, I just kind of smiled. I'm like, "This is a group that I want to hang out with." I like this group. They just look interesting and funny and kinda sweet and you wanna root for them as a crew in a way that not a whole lot of movies are able to do. I know why. It's very hard to market a film based on four likeable kids going out on an adventure. That doesn't sell as well as four superhero kids or four kids who are out to rob houses and do drugs.

MRR: Well, you also got veteran actor Ben Kinsley, he plays the role of a lifelong birder. When you get an actor of this quality, what do you do? Do you rewrite the script a little bit to include them a little bit more, or do you just kind of stick with your guns?

MRR: It's funny you should say that. We rewrote the script to expand that character, which I'm really glad we did because it improved the script. When we knew we were going to go out to some of these bigger actors and Ben Kinsley was the biggest, I didn't want to send Ben Kinsley a script without something that I knew he would be interested in, so we did a couple of passes, my writing partner and I, to really beef up that role and the role of the fathers to make them more attractive to seasoned actors who could help us get the movie made, but also I think it did improve the script as well.

MRR: I don't want to give away the ending or anything, but why did you choose to go with the way that you did it at the end?

--SPOILER ALERT--

Rob Meyer: So we're giving a spoiler alert. The duck gets shot. There's two things that happened that were important to me. One is the duck gets shot and dies, and David has to watch something die in front of him. I always wanted a cathartic moment of seeing a living thing die, and I recently just had to kill a mouse in my kitchen, and it's traumatizing. It pointed out how rarely we actually watch things die in the modern day in terms of our food or older relatives in our family, it's just something we're very removed from. So that was always important.

And, then the decision to make it so that it turns out it wasn't actually a Labrador duck. We didn't think a movie about a kid who may or may not have found a Labrador duck was all that interesting, but we thought a movie about a kid who may or may not estrange himself from his father at a critical crossroads in their relationship and his growth over the movie to the type of kid who wanted to get back and make amends and stand up and ask some difficult questions of his father, that to us sounded more interesting. They call it a MacGuffin in film, after like a Hitchcock old film, it's like... It turned out not to be the important thing in the film.

MRR: It was very interesting. I was expecting a different ending and it caught me by surprise, which is nice.

Rob Meyer: Oh good! Well that's good. That's great, I'm glad to hear that.

MRR: Well, you know, sometimes you just expect it to be the way that you think it should be, and then it totally takes a different direction.

[chuckle]

--SPOILER ALERT--

Rob Meyer: Yeah. Certainly, when the duck gets shot, I've seen it with audiences and there's gasps. Certainly not a lot of people see that coming.

MRR: Tell me about the Audience Award at Tribeca.

Rob Meyer: That was really thrilling and it won this at San Luis Obispo Film Festival recently and it recently won best narrative there too.

MRR: Ttell me what you find is different or unique about narratives compared to other styles of film.

Rob Meyer: Well, I came from a documentary film-making background. I use to work at NOVA, the science documentary series. In some ways, a good film, in my opinion, if it'd be a doc or a short or a narrative, it is narrative, it tells the story, it's engaging, the audience empathizes with the character and goes through a journey. But making a narrative fiction film like this is really my dream, more so than making a short or a doc.

Rob Meyer: When you make a film like this, there's no other experience like it, in my experiences, in terms of working with a really talented team from the hair and makeup people, to the grips, to the cinematographer, and the production designer, and the editor, and the colorist. Everyone on a film set, that's sort of their life dream, to be doing what they're doing. So that, to work with a group of 50 people for a month in that kind of capacity, it's a real dream coming true experience and that's what drives me to directing narrative films. Documentary films, it tends to be a much smaller crew and it's a much longer process.

MRR: I'm always intrigued by young directors like yourself. Do you follow the three-act pattern that most go by?

Rob Meyer: Yeah. This one we did for sure. It's my first screenplay and I wanted to make sure it worked. The three-act structure, it gets a lot of flack I feel like, for being "formulaic" but it's like saying every story needs a beginning, middle, and end. To me it's not rocket science. I do think most films work well in that structure. Memento has a three-act structure and it certainly feels revolutionary and weird and pushing boundaries. It goes back to Aristotle, I think that first put that structure forward as the kind of way we think of stories, and it does make a lot of sense to me. So we certainly weren't trying to reinvent the wheel structurally with this film.

MRR: It's out now for everyone to see, right?

Rob Meyer: Well, it’s in LA and New York right now. In Ohio, actually we're gonna do I think a special screening with the biggest week in American Birding, which is a big birding conference at Magee Marsh, I believe it's called. And we're also, right now, on Video On Demand and iTunes. So the easiest way is actually just to head over to one of those things and you can watch it instantly. But I like also pushing people to the theaters, 'cause I think seeing it theatrically is a much more rewarding experience.

MRR: Cool. Thank you so much, man. I enjoyed the film and I wish you the best.

Rob Meyer: Thank you so much. Really appreciate it, appreciate your help.