Rob Meyer and Luke Matheny have been trying to make bird-watching cool for a while now. The screenwriting pair started working on A Birder's Guide to Everything about six years ago, and the film, directed by Rob, finally comes out in theaters today.
I met the duo back when they were first working on the script and they needed someone to take them bird-watching for research. Meyer believes the stereotypically nerdy pastime has potential to connect with hipsterdom — the obsession with old-timey hobbies and craft — and all.
"We all met up in Central Park and had our first genuine birding experience," Matheny recalled in a recent Gchat conversation.
"We saw this small group of birders freaking out, and we found them all looking at the most amazing little owl — that is the moment I always refer to as when I got hooked on birding. It was so tiny and incredible to watch," Meyer added of our North American Saw-Whet Owl sighting.
That day, they went home and wrote a scene for what's become A Birder's Guide to Everything — the story of four teenage bird-watchers who set out on a road trip after they see what they think is an extinct duck — about that outing. "Unfortunately, it didn't make it in. But it's my favorite scene that we cut. We didn't shoot it. It's on the cutting room floor...in our minds," Matheny said.
Below, the co-writers chat more about their long road to getting their movie made (which included Matheny winning an Oscar along the way), why they care about birds, and whether Ben Kingsley, who plays a jaded bird expert in the movie, is as scary as he seems.
So you guys wrote the script years ago, and it was a long road getting it made.
Rob Meyer: Yeah — really long. But actually one of the good side effects of all the wait was getting to go birding a lot, and getting experts to help us make the script more accurate. Luke, how into birding would you say you've gotten?
Luke Matheny: Well, there was that time I went with you guys in Central Park… And...
LM: Yeah, pretty much that one time.
RM: Luke's too cool.
LM: Untrue. It was sort of quietly understood that Rob would be the one who was more into birding.
If you didn't know much about bird-watching, why write a movie about birding?
RM: Well, birding basically started out almost like a good plot device — we wanted these kids to be chasing something on a road trip and we wanted them to be kids who were into hobbies, activities, etc. … I knew of the ivory-billed woodpecker story, so I started with that.
Getting to go out birding a lot, I realized birding is, essentially, searching. And searching is what characters do in movies (on all sorts of levels). And, in this case, searching for a connection, for an answer to an unanswerable question, for romance, for beauty in a world that seems cruel and shitty sometimes. And birding is also discovery. Like, all the time — seeing something new, something beautiful, and it's fleeting. So it turned out to be a great theme for the film, and honestly it probably changed the way I look at the world.
Luke, you won a freaking Oscar for a short film in 2012. What is that like? Is that insane?
LM: It is insane. It gets a little old/easy to say an experience is surreal, but it really was, in the sense that it did seem like an actual dream I would have had, as in, "So I had this dream I was at the Oscars...and I won...and I met Tom Hanks at the Vanity Fair party..." Really weird.
To what degree does that open doors or opportunities for you?
LM: It definitely helped to get me some TV directing work. I directed eight episodes of the IFC show Maron, and I just did a pilot for Amazon for a kid's show that I'm really excited about. And those things definitely happened because of the Oscar. I also got to direct a feature, and the production company were fans of my short, and that's how they found me. It's still hard to get my own feature made, but the Oscar certainly opens doors.
RM: And obviously with the ladies.
LM: Oh, don't get me started.
So, Rob, on a scale of 1 to 10, how scary is Ben Kingsley?
RM: I will not lie. The first day on set, it was pretty close to 10. There's a couple of reasons: He has played so many intense roles (like Sexy Beast, etc.), and he is an intense person — he's very passionate about what he does. But also, it was so huge that he was doing my film that that was a bit scary for me too. But once he got to set and we started working on the scene, he was an absolute pleasure to work with. I wouldn't say he went down to a 1 (I mean, who is a 1?) but he wasn't scary at all — he was inspiring and really generous.
LM: I'm a 1.
RM: Ha! Luke, you are a 2 at least. You have the height intimidation factor.
Is he into birds?
RM: He was a bit into birds: He has ducks on the pond at his property. He was actually upset because a fox killed a couple of them a few months before we started shooting.
Aside from the scariest Englishman possible, you also chose to work with kids and animals. Classic missteps. How was it working with a cast of teenagers?
RM: I loved it. I have come to think the "don't work with kids" applies to kids under 12. These were young adults, so they were really smart, nuanced collaborators. I mean, they were a bit hard to wrangle at times because they were having fun, but that was really important to getting the right atmosphere.
How does it feel to have your first feature in real theaters? Or you won't know till Friday?
RM: I was really excited just to buy tickets to it on FANDANGO. That felt real!
That IS so real.
RM: It feels really great, and we're incredibly lucky to get a theatrical distribution — a lot of great films go right to VOD, which is a little less celebratory feeling. Oh, and a friend of my parent's saw a trailer for it in the theater. That was somehow even more exciting.
LM: I keep pretending to buy tickets to Friday's screening in L.A. so I can see how many people have bought advanced tickets on the seating chart.
RM: I am NOT planning on going to see, like, an 11 a.m. screening. I don't want it to be, like, me and one other couple in the audience.
This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.