What a surprise to have two of my unrelated passions come together during the Tribeca Film Festival. I can thank Rob Meyer for that, as he and his team coordinated a bird watching walk in Central Park to celebrate the premiere of his indie film at the fest, “A Birder’s Guide to Everything,” which stars Sir Ben Kingsley alongside mostly unknowns.
Kenn Kaufman is a well-known birder who served as a consultant (and an extra) on the film, and he volunteered to take us on the walk, which included some of the producers and three of the actors. I saw the film just after the walk and interviewed Rob Meyer by phone last week.
During the walk, Rob told me that having Ben Kingsley attached to his first feature film helped tremendously with the financing. The casting director, Avy Kaufman (who also cast “Life of Pi” and “Lincoln,” among others), got the script into Kingsley’s hands, and he loved it. During the couple of years it took to get the money together, Kingsley remained passionate about the project.
The real stars of the film, though, are the teenagers, several of whom are quite seasoned actors for their ages. The lead, Kodi Smit-McPhee, has a long list on his IMDB page and is currently filming “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” Alex Wolff is a musician and a veteran of “In Treatment.” His mother is Polly Draper of “thirtysomething” fame.
Kodi gives a touching performance as an awkward teen who is determined to document what he thinks is an extinct duck while dealing with a devastating loss and other unwelcome changes in his life. Alex deftly provides the comic relief but also has a great dramatic moment.
Katie Chang and Michael Chen also give excellent performances. Michael was on our walk, and he’s so different from his character that I had to ask Rob if it really was Michael who went birding with us.
Rob worked at Nova as an associate producer and was an aquarium enthusiast as a kid. He made a short award-winning film about aquarists called simply, “Aquarium,” so a movie that uses bird watching as a device to take the characters on both a physical and emotional journey seemed to be a natural choice. He co-wrote the script with Luke Matheny.
I asked Rob if the experience of making the film made birders out of any of the actors. He presented many of the cast members with excellent binoculars, including Kingsley. “He was amazed by them. He’s so passionate and intense about everything,” Rob said.
As for the teens, he said that most of them are city kids who came away with perhaps a mild interest in bird watching. “It mainly made a birder of me,” he said.
The day Kingsley arrived on the set was, of course, a big day for everyone. “I was definitely nervous – I’m not going to lie – to get to work with somebody of that caliber,” Rob told me. “But he was just a delight. Within an hour of him being there, he was just a member of the family.”
Kingsley approached the role with the same amount of discipline and time he would give to a major film. “He was so devoted. It was sort of mind-blowing. He had this incredibly in-depth back story to his character…. It was a real honor that he would have taken that much care and preparation to this role,” Rob said.
Kingsley even spent some time with birding consultant Kaufman on the set and asked questions that would help him add additional accurate details to his performance.
After the premiere screening at the Tribeca Film Festival, Rob specifically spoke to the few teenagers in attendance to hear their reactions, and he was gratified that they were very enthusiastic about the movie.
“I think the teens in the film are so appealing that other kids will relate to them,” he said. “I hope that’s what makes this film feel special is that it’s not Hollywood teen actor-style performances. And I really have to give most of the credit to the kids for that. I’m calling them kids, but they’re actually young adults.”
“A Birder’s Guide to Everything” was the runner-up for the Heineken Audience Award for best narrative feature at the festival, so it clearly appeals to adults as well as teenagers. I found it funny, touching, and utterly charming. And you don’t need to be a birder to enjoy it.
There’s no trailer yet, but watch for this movie. I highly recommend it.