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Behind The Scenes of the Film ‘The Big Year’ with Director David Frankel

The director talks about birding, birds and making a movie about birders.

BirdChannel News Division
Posted: October 3, 2011, 12:00 p.m PST

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'The Big Year' Director David Frankel learned a lot about birds and birding over the course of filming the movie.

David Frankel, director of "Marley & Me” and "The Devil Wears Prada,” helmed the screen adaptation of Mark Obmascik’s book, "The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession” (Free Press, 2005). The book relates the tale of three birders – Al Levantin, Sandy Komito and Greg Miller – who competed in a Big Year, attempting to see the largest number of species in 365 days.

Frankel directed a fictionalized version, working with actors Steve Martin, Owen Wilson and Jack Black.  The movie will open on Oct. 14, and – spoiler! – the trailer includes a short scene where Wilson holds two copies of WildBird.

Before reading the screenplay, Frankel wasn’t unaware of birding. "My wife grew up birding with her dad and is a huge bird lover,” he said. "We have gone birding in the Everglades before and after the movie. My son could probably name 300 species at one point; he was obsessed for a while.”

After reading the screenplay, Frankel read Obmascik’s book. "When my manager sent me the screenplay, I didn’t know what a Big Year was,” he admitted. "She said something about bird watching and promised that it was great. I read two pages and fell in love with it.

"The birding world is a fantastic world and takes these guys into wonderful locations, but I also loved the characters,” Frankel said. "Howard Franklin wrote a beautiful screenplay about three men who are redefining their lives and trying to be the best at something. It was moving and really funny.”

The film took big dramatic liberties with the characters and a little bit of the birding, Frankel said. "Most average birders will be aware of the liberties we took with which birds would be seen where – and usually for a good reason,” he said. "We usually fictionalized things for dramatic or comedic purposes. It’s not flawless, but we knew when we were departing from reality.”

Frankel hinted that the movie takes the pursuit of rare birds seriously. "It does not parody birders in any way. There’s no mocking. It’s very respectful,” he said. "Birders are a rare breed. I’m always shocked at the lengths they will go to to add something to their lists. That was certainly true, getting to know Greg Miller and Al Levantin.”

Howard Franklin wrote a beautiful screenplay about three men who are redefining their lives and trying to be the best at something. It was moving and really funny.

Miller was on the set for the first three weeks of filming, Frankel said. "He was a great aide to the stars, showing how to use binoculars, where you would be on a pelagic boat, how high to look in the sky for a gull. Greg was really helpful as a consultant and pointed out birds wherever we were.”

The crew and the stars became more interested in birds while working on the film, Frankel said: "We all learned the basics of birding. Jack went out with Greg Miller. Owen would pick up the binoculars and take a look. Once you’re aware of birds, you can’t not be drawn to the movement in the skies or in the trees of winged creatures.”

Frankel said one funny incident while filming in Canada involved a ptarmigan species. "We were up in the Yukon Territory, and it’s 2,000 miles north of Vancouver. There’s no civilization nearby, and we see a ptarmigan.

"The cinematographer, Larry Sher, spots the ptarmigan, and we all pull over, and Larry jumps out with the studio camera. We run up and shoot the ptarmigan, and we flush it and it makes noises. As we drive the 90 miles back to Dawson City, we probably passed another 2,000 ptarmigan. That was our great birding experience."

When asked which bird name made him giggle the most – a question posed by birder Ann Nightingale – Frankel said, "Smew. That’s in the movie, and every time it comes on the screen, it makes me laugh.”

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Behind The Scenes of the Film ‘The Big Year’ with Director David Frankel

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