Prior to directing The Big Year, David Frankel had directed The Devil Wears Prada and Marley & Me, both of which were based on very popular novels. The nonfiction book, The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession, was one that was geared toward more of a niche crowd. That didn’t stop Frankel from creating a film about three men competing to see who can spot the most birds across the United States in one year.
The sport of birding may not be one that many people get. It may not even be one many people know exists. Frankel knew that the sport may not be widely popular, but a film about the sport can have a wide appeal if done correctly.
Recently, we spoke to Frankel about how he went about creating the film, learning what it’s like to be a birder, and working with Owen Wilson, Steve Martin, and Jack Black.
Check it out below.
We Got This Covered: Were you originally into birding before taking on this movie?
David Frankel: I was not. My wife was into birding, and my kids were into birding. I got sort of caught up in the experience when we were out in the field doing the location scouting. My D.C., Larry Sher, is a big birder, and his enthusiasm was infectious. In all seriousness, the actors themselves got really engaged. We had some spectacular scenery, and we saw a lot of birds. We had some terrific birders amongst the extras, who were really helpful in guiding us and showing us different species.
WGTC: Had you read the book on which the film is based prior to production?
David Frankel: I read a version of the screenplay first, and then I read the book. I did some more work on the script after reading the book. It was definitely informed on the way we made the film. In the end, we fictionalized the characters, so that we could tell a more dramatically satisfying version of the events and take some liberties with some real life events. The book led some guidance to the tone of the movie and the thrill of the adventure these guys had.
WGTC: As I was watching the film, I saw that it travels all across the United States. Did you film in all these places, or did you get a good rationalization as to what most of them look like?
David Frankel: Well, I live in Florida, and we shot some here. We shot in New York City. We shot in Rhode Island. We shot in Joshua Tree National Park out in California. Then we shot all over British Columbia in Northern Canada to simulate a lot of the other locations. The Rockies were shot in an area called The Okanagan and also up Whistler, the ski resort. We shot a lot of the interiors in Vancouver, and in Vancouver Island, we simulated the Pacific Northwest. A lot of parts in Canada served as simulations of a lot of parts of the U.S. in the film.
WGTC: Aside from your wife and kids being into birding, how long did it take for you to do research on birding and how to be a birder? Did you already know and just kind of get tips from them?
David Frankel: No, I didn’t know very much. Mark Obmascek’s book was really informative, and I read a lot of other books on birding and competitive birding. Along the way, I got to know more about birds than I ever imagined I would know. And part of the fun in the experience is immersing yourself in a world that’s so different. What’s nice about the experience, and I think that it’s true for almost all moviegoers, is that it really opens your eyes to birds.
I don’t think it’s going to make everyone in the audience want to become a birder, but you definitely become much more aware of birds in the environment after seeing the film. You see things floating around in the sky and you pay attention. I think the film also illustrates how much fun it is reconnecting with nature, especially for people who work in an office all day. This is the opportunity to get out and, especially for these guys who travel so much, to see much of the world.
WGTC: Your two films prior to this, Marley & Me and The Devil Wears Prada, were both very popular books and The Big Year is more of a niche story. How is it like to go from adapting two very popular books to one that’s geared toward a specific group and then trying to expand that story to a wider audience?
David Frankel: I read the screenplay, and it really intrigued me. I thought it was a beautiful way to tell a story about competition, friendship, and the incredible allure of having a great passion that drives you to be excellent at anything. I think the one theme that connects all the movies is the desire to be great and to escape the everyday.
WGTC: Did you screen this for any birding groups?
David Frankel: I personally didn’t screen this for any birding groups. I know a lot of them went to see it when it was in theaters, and the response was consistently excellent. There’s a big concern that when Hollywood studios say they’re going to make a film about birders, the birders will be mocked in some way, or belittled, or that their passion will be condescended to. In fact, I revere their passion, and the movie has a lot of respect for people who do something special, even if it is a niche.
WGTC: You had worked with Owen prior to this in Marley & Me. How was it like to work with him again, and then work with Steve, and Jack, as well?
David Frankel: Well, Owen, over the course of making Marley & Me, became a close friend of mine. I love working with him. I think he’s an extraordinary actor. He’s got a great range, and he deserves the opportunity to be in all kinds of movies. He definitely proved that last year by being one of the voices in Cars, being in The Big Year, and starring in Midnight in Paris and Hall Pass.
He’s just got this enormous range of all kinds of films. He’s got a real everyman quality, and he’s really funny. Steve Martin is a legendary actor, and a wonderful person to work with. He’s incredibly well prepared, and funny off the set. He’s a man of astonishing, almost unlimited, talent as a musician, a writer, an art connoisseur, as a comedian, and, obviously, as a performer, so it was a joy. With Jack, what you see is what you get. He’s got an incredibly lovable persona on screen, and is equally lovable off camera. He’s very hard-working, and very professional.
The three of them had never worked together, and I don’t think they had ever met. So, it was a really happy experience for everyone concerned.
WGTC: What was their initial reaction to the idea of a film about birding?
David Frankel: The idea for any film is always going to be surprising or unusual. What they responded to is they same thing I responded to, which is the strength of these characters and the depths of their passion. It’s also the opportunity for people who are very unlike themselves to go out and do something they never do. One of the themes of the film is the nature of competition, and they’re all intense, competitive guys underneath their lovable, comedic exteriors. I think they had that in common.
WGTC: Are there any projects you’re currently working on that you would like to mention?
David Frankel: I’m in the middle of post-production on another film with Meryl Streep that’s currently called The Great Hope Springs. It also stars Tommy Lee Jones, and Steve Carrel.
This concludes the interview, but we would like to thank David for talking the time to talk to us. The Big Year will be available to rent or own on DVD/Blu-ray on January 31.