Lights, Binoculars, Action!
Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson (above, from left) chat about portraying birders hell-bent on tallying the most species in their new film The Big Year, which hits theaters in October.
Q: Competitive birding is something that most people probably don't know even exists. What drew you to make a movie about this obsessive world?
Wilson: Well, I think it was working with David Frankel and the script. It just seemed like it was a funny idea. And then working with Jack and Steve. It was a great cast, and it seemed like a world that hadn't been explored.
Martin: I didn't know that there was such thing as competitive birdwatching. It piques your interest to think, "How can it be competitive?" That's the first thing that brings you in. When I do my banjo shows, I always mention the movie, and I tell the audience what it's about. I say "competitive birdwatching" and they always laugh.
Wilson: I heard Jack describe the movie that way, too. You just say that and people smile.
Martin: They get interested. Then you find out that it's on the honor system. And that even makes it stranger for the modern world, because almost nothing in the modern world is on the honor system.
Wilson: It's so much on the honor system that it almost strains credulity. You don't even have to see [the birds], you can hear them and it counts. That seems amazing.
Black: It may be the last stand of honor in the world.
Martin: I think it's a very interesting subject for the audience to get involved in. It's a reminder, in a sense, of chivalry.
Q: Greg Miller, who is one of the three competitors in the book, was on set as a birding adviser. What kind of advice did he give you? Was there a birding boot camp?
Black: There was a voluntary walk through the park, and I was the only one who showed up. I don't want to brag. I don't want to call out people for unprofessionalism, but no one showed up to the walk around the park except for me.
Martin: I wasn't invited!
Black: I don't know if that means that my performance is better than anyone else's in the movie. [Laughter from Wilson and Martin]
Martin: I wasn't invited based on my reputation.
Black: That may be true. It was great to have him [Greg Miller] on the set. If we had any questions, he was a virtual encyclopedia of knowledge.
Martin: My wife is an amateur birdwatcher, so I actually picked up a lot of things from her. And after Jack went to the trouble of going to the park with Greg Miller, I just picked Jack's brain.
Black: One of the first things I learned is that the bald eagle, while beautiful and majestic, is no big deal at all. They're actually fairly common. I saw a bald eagle and I freaked out and I tried to get everyone's attention. No one responded.
Wilson: The eagles were almost like seagulls, where they'd hang out at the dump. It's not what you want; you like to think of a bald eagle perched on a crooked snag.
Martin: But on the ship we were shooting on one day, only one came. It was magnificent to see, amid all the seagulls, the one lone eagle swooping in and getting its food. And I thought, this is a magic moment. Then the next day we shot at the trash dump and we saw 25.
Q: In the book, the competitors brave mosquito-filled swamps and stinky landfills, and they encounter mountain lions and crocodiles, all in search of birds. Did you have any challenging experiences during filming?
Martin: Sometimes we had to wake up at 6 a.m. to get into makeup. [Laughter] We didn't disrespect birders at all--we have a lot of respect for them. It's kind of a scientific pursuit already, and it's sort of a peaceful pursuit, except when there's a rare sighting and everyone gets mobilized. We found ourselves in a lot of exotic locations that I'm sure avid birders find themselves in.
Black: Sometimes we would have to re-create locations because actually going to some of those locations would've been impossible, like Attu. It would've been an incredibly expensive and difficult journey to make with a full crew, so we re-created it--and apparently to a 'T.' People who have actually been to Attu will be amazed at how well it was re-created in the Yukon.
Wilson: And it wasn't like we re-created Attu in Los Angeles, we did go up to the Yukon, to Jack London country. We weren't at Attu, but it seemed like it must've been nearby, because that was pretty remote where we were.
Black: We were out in the tundra with the grizzlies. In fact, I don't know if that was any safer. How come we didn't go to Attu?
Martin: Well I must say, Jack saw a grizzly and thought it was a bird.
Black: [Laughing] I thought, that is a rare bird. A wingless brown beast of a bird.
Wilson: Jack became so obsessed it was like everything became a bird.
Martin: So the walk through the park didn't educate him that much.
Q: Steve, you called your new bluegrass album Rare Bird Alert. Did the inspiration for the title come from this movie?
Martin: I wrote several songs while I was on that movie, and came up with several titles. My wife, who was with me sometimes on the shoot, did a lot of discovery. There's this thing that birders have called a rare bird alert--it's in the movie script--where they can call in to a hotline and get a report of a sighting of a rare bird. I was being immersed in the vernacular of birding, and she said to me, "That sounds like a good title for a song." And then it became the title not only of a song but of the album.
Q: Jack, your character identifies birds by their calls. Did you pick up any skills at recognizing bird calls, or imitating their songs?
Black: I knew there was going to be a test at some point in this interview that I would fail. Can I recognize any birds by hearing them? Yes, but only if I have my iPhone with the app available at my fingertips. I've got a great app.
Martin: Jack, you had to learn to make some sounds, I remember that.
Black: Let me see. Peep-peep-peep-peep-peep-peep-peep. That's the Abert's towhee.
Wilson: I heard that.
Black: Thank you. Okay, that's the app. I did listen to a lot of birds, but it kind of went in one ear and out the other. I would be able to re-create and recognize only for the length of time that it took to shoot one take. Then all of that information and knowledge was like dust in the wind.
Martin: You realize the publicists are going crazy right now.
Q: After making the film, do you have a greater awareness of birds in general?
Martin: I know I definitely do. The other day I was in Sicily and I saw a bird that was red.
Wilson: That was a cardinal!
Q: If you could have any kind of big year, focusing on one thing or experience, what would it be?
Martin: For me, I think I did that in college, and her name was . . .
Wilson: I guess maybe something like going to sporting events around the world. Going to all the Major League Baseball parks and continuing it on to the World Cup and so on. Something like that where you're going around the world.
Martin: I might make mine to see, for example, every painting by a certain artist who had a low output. There's a Russian artist, Malevich, who did maybe 60 paintings. You could probably see every one of them because they're all in museums; there are very few in private hands. And it might take you to Moscow and St. Petersburg and New York and here and there, and it might take you a year to do, or less.
Black: I might go around the world in search of music that I hadn't heard before and
hear it live. Like a modern-day Paul Simon, searching the world for new jams and tunes.
Q: You finished filming the movie last year. Thinking back, what has stayed with you most?
Martin: A lot of my memories come from the camaraderie--I think we had a good time on the movie. But also what sticks with me was the beautiful, beautiful landscape that we found ourselves in, especially in the Yukon. We had not quite the midnight sun, but I remember one day we finished shooting around 11 p.m. and then we had to take a helicopter back to the little town we were staying in. It was midnight, and Owen went to play golf.
Wilson: That's right. It was called the Top of the World Golf Course, a little nine-hole golf course. And on the third hole we could hear wolves howling in the distance. It was really unbelievable.