It’s a bitterly cold afternoon on a Sunday in February when I agree to meet up with filmmaker and writer Rob Meyer during this winter’s TIFF Next Wave Festival. There to promote his debut feature, A Birder’s Guide to Everything (available on DVD and VOD in Canada now, and available on DVD in the US next Tuesday), the weather certainly isn’t conducive to the core activity portrayed in his coming of age film, but it’s certainly conducive to talking about his film’s almost equally epic journey to the big screen.
A true labour of love over the past several years for Meyer and his co-writer Luke Matheny, it’s a throwback to the kinds of low key adventure and questing films that he grew up with and admired. It tells the story of David Portnoy (played by rising star Kodi Smit-McPhee from The Road and Let Me In), a 15 year old teen and devout member of his school’s Junior Birding Society, who idolizes local birding legend (and somewhat suspect father figure) Lawrence Konrad (Sir Ben Kingsley). Still not over the death of his mother and at a crossroads with his soon to be remarried father (James LeGros), David and his fellow birdwatchers (Michael Chen as the taciturn, business-like president and Alex Wolff as the irrepressible Timmy) and a tag along girl that he has a real kinship with (Katie Chang) set out on a road trip to Connecticut to find a rare mallard long thought extinct.
Not only does the film mark a return to the simple and sometimes naughty minded storytelling of the films the Newton, Massachusetts native grew up with, but it’s also a reflection of the person he was growing up as a member of his school’s student council and an adoring member of the Boston Aquarium.
We talked with Meyer about the energy his young stars brought to the production, how he pulled unlikely inspiration from Monty Python, why it’s impossible to look cool while birdwatching, and why he was actually really excited to fight his film’s initial R-rating in front of the MPAA.
Dork Shelf: I remember interviewing Kodi a few years ago for a different movie that he had a really small role in, and you guys had just wrapped production on this film and it was clearly fresh in his mind how excited he was to get to talk about this film.
Rob Meyer: Kodi’s been working non-stop these days. He’s so in demand, and he’s such a special kid. He’s still very much like a kid, but he’s also really wise beyond his years. I don’t know how much you know about him, but he’s really into philosophy, and he has a lot of really interesting views that help him to bring a lot of intelligence to the roles that he takes on. He’s very aware for a 16 year old. I know he was really excited and is excited about this film because it gets to show off a side of him that he hasn’t really had a chance to showcase just yet. Obviously coming off of films like Let Me In, The Road, and even something like ParaNorman that you don’t really see him in, you can see that intelligence, but I think that he really wanted to show off that he can be kind of funny, and goofy, and awkward, and that he likes joking around and hanging out.
He said the first thing that really crew him into the script was this love-hate relationship that he had with his best friend in the film. That was something that he said he really related to; that feeling that you love someone so deeply, but you can still be at their throats all the time. It just shows how you love each other. I though the relationship between him and Alex (Wolff) was really special.
DS: That dynamic really comes out nicely in one of the opening scenes where the birding club first meets and they’re trying to be very adult and business-like and you can tell that David is kind of rolling his eyes at how formal his friends are trying to be.
RM: Yeah! It’s kids trying desperately to come across as adults even though no one is watching. When we were writing that it was one of the earliest ideas we had. Luke (Matheny), who was the co-writer, wrote that entire scene. Well, at this point it’s hard to remember who wrote what, actually. (laughs) Pretty sure that was him. I want to give him credit for it. Most of that’s because of how long it just took us to get the film made. There were so many rewrites that it’s all mixed together. I would write a scene and hand it off to Luke and he would rewrite it, and it would go really well because we have really similar voices.
I’m almost positive that scene we’re talking about though is all him. I was just, like, “write a scene where the Young Birders Society does something like Robert’s Rules of Order.” I didn’t even know quite what that meant, but Luke looked all of that up and kept really precisely to them. We wrote the whole first draft in about six days, and then we took about two years to rewrite it, but that scene was the one scene in the whole film that didn’t change at all from that initial six day writing period version. That scene really helped us understand tonally what the whole film was going to be like, and I think that was why we never changed it. That was our Rosetta Stone. That was the world we were in.
DS: It’s a nice set up for these kids who want to be really formal and have some sort of major recognition for their accomplishments, but they’re really just three kids working on this really silly, potentially dangerously stupid road trip.
RM: Yeah, and I think that really applies to organizations that adults find themselves in, too. I always kept going back to the Monty Python sketch “The Society for People Putting Things on Top of Other Things.” They have a meeting and they go around the room and you see this silliness that goes on in government and things like that throughout. I don’t think teens are immune to that wanting to have some formality to seem more legitimate, but I do think it’s a bit funnier when kids are doing something that might be a little bit silly. It’s funny about birds and about putting things upon other things.
DS: These kids are kind of nerdy, but not stereotypically so. They have really specified interests, but they also live in their own kind of bubbles. They only have a few things that show them how the outside world works.
RM: Yeah, and that was something that I was definitely going through growing up. I was a member of the Boston Aquarium Society for Juniors and I was on the student council. I was a pretty nerdy guy, and I think one of the misperceptions that people assume about outsider groups is that the members are somehow desperate to be the popular kids. Me and my friends, if anything, looked down on that group quite a bit. That wasn’t us and we weren’t interested. I think there’s something enviable about having that group of friends where you can have that shorthand and have those friendships where you have an understanding and you don’t worry so much about the outside world is thinking. I wanted people to envy being a part of that group here rather than saying “Ugh, look at those nerds.” It’s like how I never played Dungeons and Dragons growing up, but I wish I had that group so we could not worry about rolling dice and pretending to be monsters and soldiers because that kind of stuff is awesome! You can watch Game of Thrones and feel the same way, I guess, but young people can really give into what they are passionate about and care less about what others think.
And birdwatching is kind of the ultimate in not looking cool while you’re doing it. I actually got a chance to talk to Jonathan Franzen about this, and he said that when you put binoculars up to look at something, you’re trying really hard to do something, and whenever you try hard to look at something you aren’t going to look cool doing it. The definition of looking cool is not looking like anything is hard to do and it looks like you’re not trying at all. Birdwatching, you have to go places and go to great lengths, and no one looks great straining their necks with binoculars. But when you see it through those binoculars and you can see what a birdwatcher sees, you understand that the allure of something you haven’t seen before, or you can appreciate a bird that’s travelling from South America to Kansas for the season. You know more about why it’s exciting and you can envy that excitement, and I always wanted the film to really have that element and perspective.
The last thing I will say about looking cool while birding, is that I got to hang out with the Young Birder Society of New York, and there was a huge range of kids there. There were some kids who weren’t good at socializing, but there were also a lot of really cool kids: artists, rock star type kids, kids who grew up in Brooklyn who were really into birding. You could tell me these kids were indie rock stars in training and I would have believed it, but they were really into birding. Once I saw these kids of different races, demographics, boys, girls, I really saw the scope of what birding could be. Luckily, when we were about four or five weeks away from shooting, the memo went out to the people on our team, except for Peter who was kind of our timid voice, to forget any kind of stereotypes and to just make them cool, relatable teenagers and to let the actor’s personalities show through and drive the characters more. It freed up the notion of what kids who are into birding can be like, and I’m glad because it really made the film feel a lot more authentic.
I wish we could have gotten more shots of the birding, but that’s really hard to set up. (laughs) All of the shots of the birds, though, we were able to get all of those ourselves, which was great. We just didn’t have a lot of time and there was a lot of story and a lot of character that I wanted to get in there. In the end, the actual birding was never going to be the most important thing to the film, but if I had maybe five more days, definitely one of them would have been getting more stuff. It’s a really cool activity. If you like trekking or just discovering amazing things, which I think is most people, you would really enjoy birding.
That being said, you can also go out and see nothing. (laughs) You can go out on a cold and rainy day and just not see the point. It takes some patience to hit the right conditions where everything will come together into something that can be a lot of fun.
DS: One of the more interesting aspects of the film is that while these four kids on this trip are friends, they never really seem like the best of friends. They come together over a shared interest, but there’s also this sense that once school is over, these people might never keep in touch ever again.
RM: It’s true, and I mean, I know that I have maybe one or two friends from high school and from that age that I actually keep in touch with still. In high school, as opposed to college and in your adult life, you don’t really get to choose your friends as much. You don’t have a bigger pool to pick from with more people who can share your interests, and just because you share interests, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to be friends with a person. David and Peter probably wouldn’t keep in touch once college hits. David and Timmy because of that kind of strange rivalry they have would theoretically stay friends. I think that’s part of what makes the whole formality of their group so funny because that might be the only way they can all function together. And certainly with David and Ellen, there’s that dynamic that you can have when you first open up to someone, whether it’s because you like them or because you think they understand you as a friend. Everything looms larger at that age. There’s a line in Stand By Me that always stuck with me about how you never have friends like you did when you were that age. There’s something different about friendships at that age where everything feels higher in stakes. But they really are more associates than lasting friends.
DS: I find it funny that David finds himself caught between two vastly different adult male figures in his life. His dad has a problem listening to his son and might be one of the least self-aware people alive, and his idol, who can listen perfectly, but is also completely self-aware about how much of a jerk he can be.
RM: He really doesn’t have a lot of great role models, father figures, or authoritative types to look up to. The idea was to set up the Konrad character as an idealized version of the father that David always wanted, and then to have the reality come crashing down that he’s not a role model. He’s more of a cautionary tale. I wanted to always make it clear that David’s mother was his real sense of security in the world, and when that was taken away from him in a painful way at a young age. It’s why he finds Ellen so much easier to talk to than his own friends. Those people will never be his confidants or his mentors, so I wanted to make him as isolated and feeling alone in the world as possible. That would make even whatever friendly glimmer of a connection with Ellen that he had all the more important to him. I think that’s what most movies are about, whether it’s about The Hulk or a teenage birder, it’s about finding that connection, especially a person who needs one with a great urgency.
DS: You look at David’s dad, though, and you can see that he isn’t a bad person by any means, but he’s never given his so a reason to care about this new relationship that he’s starting, and David’s love of birding is so left over from his relationship to his mother that it’s painful for the two of them to bond over it. You really want his dad to get a clue and talk to his son because he has started to treat David more like a friend than like a teenager.
RM: Yeah, and it was important to me, and I tried my best, and I hope I succeeded, to make the dad character the opposite of a “parents just don’t understand” stereotype. He doesn’t understand, but it’s not for a lack of caring. He’s just not a sensitive guy. He’s never understood the birding thing. I tried to make the point that he’s struggling, too, and he’s found this woman who was a nurse that was close to him and his wife, and he hasn’t thought of anything from David’s point of view.
I think James LeGros did a great job of that, and he’s been so excited about the film and helping us promote it any way he can. He was such a great presence. He works a lot so to have him on board and happy with his work is great to me. His instinct was to play him as unsentimental as possible. Every take that we ended up not using were the ones where I would say “Okay, let’s soften that up.” At one point there was some things in the film that didn’t quite work. There were scenes that we had of them joking around and bonding over The Princess Bride. It tried to make him a lot more tender, and then we tested it with audiences and the biggest complaint with their relationship were that the stakes never felt high enough. It was about finding that balance between making him believable and multi-dimensional. But the problem with this film isn’t whether or not this duck they are searching for is real, but if things can be patched up between David and his father before they go too far off in separate directions. We had to really fine tune that in the edit.
DS: When you’re out in the woods essentially camping out all day with a bunch of teenagers, what’s it like trying to mount the film’s ACTUAL camp out sequences?
RM: It was extremely fun! I think part of the reason why I wanted to make this film so much was because I missed those kinds of camp experiences. I wanted to just go out with a cool indie film crew, a bunch of teen actors who were into it, and Ben Kingsley all hanging out in the woods for a few weeks. You could have made a movie just about that. (laughs)
I never tried to over direct the kids. I wanted them to take ownership of their performances and ther characters. They determined most of the blocking and they had room to improvise through a lot of their scenes. It was kind of chaotic, but only so they can run around and goof around and play games with the material. On the other hand, we also only had a 20 day schedule and we were shooting like a feature film and not some sort of experiment or anything like that. I wanted to kind of recreate that 1980s kind of adventure film that I loved growing up, and for that you have to be on top of your game and not shoot haphazardly. It was a balance of keeping that freedom and fun and making sure everyone understood that this was a really high stakes operation where we could only shoot 8 hours a day with these kids. Every second counted, but before we rolled as long as everyone remembered what they had to do, pretty much anything else went. (laughs)
Actually, out of our entire cast, Alex was really the burst of energy we all needed. He was so on point, and yet so full of this chaotic energy that we all needed to keep going. Things could have turned so stiff and formal so many times and pretty easily, but he kept messing things up in the best ways while he was in character. He would do something and he would purposefully take it further than it needed to go and it would end up invigorating us as we went on. I didn’t realize it at the time, and we talked about it afterwards, that it was a conscious decision on his part. He wasn’t just having fun, but he knew that if it wasn’t fun to shoot the movie then the movie wouldn’t have looked as fun, so sometimes he’s the person really working hard to make things as fun as possible.
Especially the scenes in the car where they are driving. It was really hot for those scenes, and they were really hot because we couldn’t open any of the windows or turn on the AC. That’s the only scene in the film where there are literally no adults in the room because we were all off in a trailer and not around the car. They could just do whatever they want. There were some really funny outtakes where Alex was talking about getting boners at really inopportune times during gym class that were just killing everyone with laughter. You can tell in a way that this was their moment to take over the shoot.
DS: It seems like this isn’t a very easy film to sell people on, since it very much is in that 1980s kind of spirit, so what’s it like trying to sell a throwback adventure film instead of a throwback kind of comedy which could have sold easily in an instant?
RM: It was extremely hard. Even with Ben Kingsley, who was on board to his immense credit for a very long time, it was hard. He’s not the lead of the film, so you can’t sell it internationally as a Ben Kingsley film. You’re always going to get asked the same question when you package a script, and that’s “Who’s the audience?” That’s the only answer financiers are interested in, and my problem was that my answer was never once convincing. I thought teens would be excited to see it. Maybe not the teens who would watch something like Gossip Girl, but I know there are a whole bunch of other teens out there who like adventure and can really see themselves in it. I honestly think that any teens would like this film, and I think their parents would. I think older people could watch it and wonder why they don’t make films like this anymore or it would remind them of the films they grew up with in the 70s and 80s. There’s nothing offensive about it, but it’s smart and sweet and it deals with issues of loss and all of these really emotional things. It sounded, as you can tell from my answer (laughs), like I was floundering and just saying “everyone will like this film!” That didn’t work so much because they don’t hear that. They hear “no one will like it.” It wasn’t specific enough.
DS: You probably should have just thrown in more cursing for Ben Kingsley and you probably would have sold it very easily.
RM: (laughs) There were a couple edgier lines in the script that did end up getting cut. But it’s funny that you mention the cursing thing, because I don’t know if you read this, but we initially got rated R by the MPAA, which in the States means no one under the age of 17 can see the film. Up here in Canada, it’s rated PG. So Luke and I went to the board in LA to appeal the decision, and it was literally just like the debate club scene in the film all over again. We put on blazers and we had a prepared speech that we passed back and forth to each other, and we were passing notes back and forth while the defense was speaking. We got super into pretending to be lawyers, which was kind of funny and a little bit sad. (laughs) We were so excited! We imagined they would overturn the ruling and then say how sad it was that we were so excited to act like lawyers.
But for a teenage, young adult movie, it definitely isn’t “safe.” There’s some language, but I wanted to be honest to the world of these kids. They wouldn’t have had sex or do drugs, but they would have sounded like teens. We had to have them swearing and talking about sex and drugs, but they were never the kinds of kids who would ever do anything about it. To their credit, the board 100% agreed and repealed the decision and gave it a PG-13. It was one of those issues where if you spelled all the language out on paper, it looks worse than it actually sounds in practice. It looks like an R rated film, but when you watch it in context, it’s a PG-13 film.