Interview: Rob Meyer On His Directorial Debut, ‘A Birder’s Guide To Everything’, Working With Ben Kingsley and More!
Rob Meyer is the director of a terrific new film called A Birder’s Guide To Everything (read my review here). Starring Ben Kingsley, James LeGros and four wonderful young actors – Kodi Smit-McPhee, Alex Wolff, Katie Chang and Michael Chen – the film is a coming of age story about David Portnoy (Smit-McPhee), a 15-year-old birding fanatic, who thinks that he’s spotted a now-distinct duck. So, he and his friends take off on a road trip just as David’s father is about to get remarried.
I talked to Rob about the film and working with his co-writer, Luke Matheny), finding his young cast and working with directing Ben Kingsley.
‘A Birder’s Guide To Everything’ is currently in theaters. You can also rent it on VOD and iTunes. Check out the website for more info!
For the full interview, check out the YouTube box below!
I’ve gotta ask you, how did you come up with kids being birders?
Rob Meyer: Well, it was… the film… it’s not too far off from my, you know, what kind of kid I was growing up. I was into aquarium fish, actually. So I was definitely into science and the natural world as a teenager. And so I made a short film about that called Aquarium, which did really well, got a bunch of awards, and played at Sundance. And that sort of was the thing that got some momentum for me as a filmmaker and had people saying, “Why don’t you adapt this into a feature?” So, we went from fish to birds.
It started out just as a logistics thing. We wanted the kids to be going on a road trip and chasing something and I heard about the Ivory Billed Woodpecker, which was a real story of a bird that was believed to be extinct that then someone thought they spotted and everyone sort of freaked out about it. So switching it to birds kind of was initially kind of just a practical decision and then it was a theme that kept on giving, I felt. I’ve become a birder since writing and making the movie and it does change the way you look at the world. You definitely look up more. That thrill of seeking and searching for something and the solitude feeling of being alone in the woods while also connecting with either a bird or with the people you’re birding with. Or really amazing experiences are very accessible to everyone, you don’t have to go on an expensive trip somewhere to get into it. So once I sort of got it, it was a natural fit for me.
You have a co-writer. How does that work?
Rob Meyer: I really love writing with a partner. I would highly… for writers out there, I’d highly recommend it, especially if discipline and motivation and self-doubt are issues, which I think it is for almost pretty much every writer I’ve ever met.
I think that’s with everything, not just writing.
Rob Meyer: Yeah. That’s called being a human being, I guess.
The way it worked logistically… I think one good thing was this was always really my project, so I was always, and I think Luke would agree with this, I was always kind of steering the ship, ultimately. So he was helping me develop this… we knew I was gonna direct and it was based on kind of my life and my story. We’ve written other projects where Luke is in the driving kind of writer, so that helped.
The way it would work is that we would… we’d outline it together. We’d need to talk through a lot of issues and talk about problems and come up with solutions and work out the characters and we’d end up with about a 6 to 8 page outline of the film with the beats all outlined and some dialogue written in.
And then the really fun part is you take that outline and I say, “Ok, I’ll write scene 1, you write scene 2.” We basically divvy up the scenes. And we wrote really quickly so that we could write, you know, you can write 10 or 12 pages a day, so between the two of us we had our first draft written in like 7 days.
Rob Meyer: And it was terrible and then we spent 2 years rewriting it.
But I think the other thing is sometimes it’s daunting as a writer to try new things and make changes because you’re worried it’s gonna take so long to do, where if it’s both of you doing it and you know you can write… you can actually do the writing quite fast if you have a good idea, you’re willing to try more things.
So we got a lot of notes and we wrote a lot of initial scenes, we wrote a lot of scenes many times, and in that we never got dragged down because we could always… if I was sick of trying to get a scene to work I’d give it to him and vice versa. So it worked out really nice.
We never actually literally wrote the same scene at the same time. I’d write the scene and then I’d give it to him and he would rewrite it and we would track changes. It always got better.
There’s a line in the movie that I just completely thought was hilarious. Timmy throws…
Rob Meyer: Oh, the inhaler?
Yeah, they gang looks at him because it was the world’s worst throw and he says, “I’m sorry, I’m a birder!” and that just completely killed me.
Rob Meyer: Oh, the person who wrote that line is gonna be so pleased and I’ll tell you who it was. It was actually Alex Wolff, the actor. Yeah, that was improvised. So it’s nice, neither Luke and I will be able to hold that over the other one for your favorite line.
That was improvised and the other really funny thing that Alex came up with was when they’re in the car and, “Seriously, it’s like we’re in a wagon.” That usually gets a really big laugh and that was improvised as well. So there was some improvising, for sure. I wish we’d had time to do more.
So there was a lot of improvising on the film?
Rob Meyer: I wouldn’t say a lot, but especially at the end of scenes, where I just kept rolling and let them kinda say whatever, Alex, who played Timmy, was really up for doing more improvising and it was just a matter of, again, the schedule is so short. We had 20 days to shoot this thing. That I had to make sure that we at least covered the script, which I knew would work, and then let them try stuff that may or may not work. It’s a bit of a luxury time wise to allow the actors to improvise.
Let me ask you about the cast. Man, they were terrific. I mean, Ben Kingsley and James LeGros aside, the core cast of the kids were terrific.
Rob Meyer: Yeah. They were amazing and I have to give the credit to Avy Kaufman, our casting director, she found all of them. Yeah. I just loved their dynamic and they all had such distinct personalities and takes on their characters.
Kodi Smit Mcphee, I think is one of the best actors of this generation. And he has that thing, that rare gift, of he can be doing nothing, he can be saying nothing, and just with his eyes you’re sort of drawn into what he’s thinking. And that’s really hard for any actor, particularly a young one.
And then Alex Wolf, as I mentioned, he had a lot of comedic background. He did a TV show on Nickelodeon called The Naked Brothers Band, which was big with the tweens. I didn’t know much about it. So he had a lot of experience on sets.
Katie Chang had just done The Bling Ring, so she had just done an entire feature and she was… it was fun for her to do this one, I think, because actually I think this character is much closer to her in real life than her character in The Bling Ring. And she brought a kind of headstrong standoffishness that I think is a little… she’s not one to let people in too quickly and I was really glad that she brought that because she wasn’t just the cute, crushy girl that doesn’t have her own kind of spine or story.
And then Michael Chen had done a great film called Children of Invention and he could sort of… his audition mainly consisted of me having him kind of imagine himself in increasingly embarrassing and scary scenarios and see how he reacted. And I just find the way he kinda gets scared so unique and weird and it shouldn’t be believable and yet I totally buy it each time what he does. He was actually the one that probably made me crack up the most on set, just watching his… sometimes we’d just have the camera on him on reaction shots. We couldn’t use them all, but that’s when I just couldn’t stop giggling.
Did you at any point in the audition process get them all together?
Rob Meyer: I wish. I don’t think we got any of them together, to be totally honest, because Cody’s based in LA, Katie’s based in Chicago, and Alex, Alex and Michael were in New York, but the casting came so down to the wire, we basically all cast them all within a few weeks of shooting the film. So we only had them together for a day before we started shooting and I did… I took them to Central Park to go birding, but it rained and we didn’t see anything. And then they really just bonded on the van ride up to Westchester.
The nice thing is we were… we filmed in Westchester, not in New York City, so it really did feel more like summer camp than a professional New York City film shoot. And it meant everyone instead of driving back to their own apartments in New York City, they’d all take a van to the Holiday Inn in Westchester and then they would all hang out in I think it was usually Alex’s bedroom and watch movies and go over the scenes for the next day and bond and their own dynamics really grew. So that was the saving grace is that kids can really bond.
If you remember what summer camp was like, it was usually only 3 or 4 weeks and I’m still really good friends with my friends from summer camp. So especially I feel like at that age over the summer with no other distractions, you could really… you could get in pretty deep with each other.
Ben Kingsly, how did you guys get him?
Rob Meyer: It was Amy Kaufman, got him, got his agent the script. We were actually looking at some other actors that his agent represented and his agent said, “Ben Kinsley might consider this.” I think maybe because he’d just done Hugo and I think he does like working with great young actors. I said “Of course, get him the script and I’ll always remember getting that email from the casting director saying it’s looking good, dates permitting, with Sir Ben. I had to read it like 8 times. I couldn’t believe he even read the script let alone agreed to be in it.
I met him and sort of asked him, “Why did you do this?” And he just… he found the script to be very original and he loved the respect that it gave to young people and allowed the young people to drive the film and not be treated like mini-adults and have our voices put on them. I think he really found his character interesting. He’d never played a birder. He actually developed a really elaborate back story about his character, his relationships with his own family, his relationship with David’s mother, so I learned a lot from… I’d never seen an actor of that caliber and how they worked, so it was really an amazing experience for me.
And James LeGros as well. He’s I think a different type of actor. I think he’s a little more improvisational, immediate, kind of goes off his gut, but he’s been in the industry a long time and he knew how to deliver a whole range of different performances within an honesty of his character that I found really inspiring.
The first day of shooting with Ben Kingsley, are you nervous?
Rob Meyer: Yeah. I’d say scared, yes, scared as shit, basically. I mean, I’d met him a few times before the shoot and the last time I’d seen him he put his hand on my shoulder and it was at a party and he said, “Keep the faith, Rob. We’re gonna do this together.” And that’s honestly probably the only reason I did keep the faith. When you have someone like that believing in your project and you know that they’re gonna stick with it, then I felt like it was gonna happen. So I knew he liked the project, but still I’d never worked with him in the director/actor relationship before and this was my first feature and he knew that.
So, then once we were on set honestly, you know, as soon as I picked up on how he worked and what he liked and how he liked to work, I realized it was just my job to sort of give him the tools he needed, be they props, be they context, be they answering his questions about where we were in the film tonally. And we had to make sure he knew kind of what film he was in, because obviously from the script you wouldn’t know totally if this was a really goofy, silly movie or if it was a… the closest film I like to compare it too is sort of Tom McCarthy or Alexander Payne’s sort of small but heartfelt and funny in the way that life is funny.
So, that was my role and then, yeah, just to give him the space to work and to make sure we could sort of make him feel comfortable and let him do his best work.
And also, I have to give him the confidence that I knew what I was doing. I say that’s definitely was part of it. And at that point it was the last week of the shoot, so I was feeling great about kind of understanding how we were making this movie, how we were shooting it, lighting it, what our plan was, and we stuck with it and he was impressed and did great work. And he didn’t have to, he doesn’t need to prove himself anymore. So the fact that he really put the effort into this was really inspiring for all of us.