Filmmaker Rob Meyer has been thinking about a bird-themed movie for a long time. So long, in fact, that he could have earned a second master’s degree in fine arts from NYU. He spent two years script-writing with writer-filmmaker Luke Matheny, and another two securing funding, casting, and making the film. When A Birder’s Guide to Everything—his story about four teenaged friends pursuing an extinct duck—premiered at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival in April, it earned an immediate following, and nearly took home the coveted Heineken Audience Award. We spoke with Meyer, 36, about Moby Dick, an opportune saw-whet owl spotting, and hormonal teenagers.
You used to be pretty obsessed with aquarium fish. In fact, A Birder’s Guide to Everything is based on a short you made about them. Why the switch to birds?
It was partly the story of the ivory-billed woodpecker, which struck a nerve with me. It captured my imagination that so many people got excited that this bird could come back from extinction. Then there were the logistics. I wanted the story to be about kids going on an adventure, getting away from the suburbs, getting away from their ordinary world. Birds were a more natural fit than fish—you can’t really chase a fish. I guess there was Moby Dick.
Why did you pick the Labrador duck instead of the ivory-billed woodpecker or another extinct bird?
There’s not a very long list of North American birds that have gone extinct and that the teenagers might have seen in the Northeast [where they lived]. Something about the Labrador duck, about the name and what it looks like—it has this lovable personality. We considered the passenger pigeon, and the ivory-billed woodpecker has its own story and baggage. I wanted something that didn’t have a lot of associations attached to it.
It sounds like portraying birding accurately was important to you.
I’m new to birding, but I’m not new to science and I’m not new to being passionate about nature. I certainly didn’t want to offend any birders with glaring errors if I could avoid it. I actually just thought the film would be better, honestly, the closer we could get it to reality.
Is that why you used real teenagers?
Usually when you see a movie about teenagers, they’re played by 20-year-olds. I wanted the authenticity of actual awkward teenagers, actual hormonal teenagers, whatever the actors really brought to their parts. That was something I was really proud we were able to do.
That, and securing Sir Ben Kingsley?
That was surreal and once in a lifetime. When you meet Sir Ben, you realize why he’s as successful as he’s been. He’s so focused and he’s so intense, and he takes his roles—every role he does—incredibly seriously. He tries to find something profound in them.
The people and relationships add real depth to the film, but they’re just one aspect. What’s the takeaway from A Birder’s Guide?
For Luke, it’s a lot about the love we have as teenagers for our friends and the types of friendships we have in our teenage years, how important they are. I always gravitate toward the more existential, angst-y themes of films. I consider the journey that David [played by Kodi Smit-McPhee] goes through processing the loss of his mother to be the central theme, coming to terms with it, accepting it, accepting his father’s decisions, forgiving his father. For me, it’s more about that—and nature.
This story could work against so many backdrops. Why birding?
Birding is an extension of all of the natural experiences we have, be it going on treks or mountain climbing or getting out into the water. They’re all essential experiences that I know I personally need to stay centered.
So are you a birder now?
For me it didn’t take much. My first trip to Central Park, we happened to be there when a saw-whet owl was perched almost in broad daylight. It was just so beautiful and had such personality. You felt connected to it. My heart was racing. That’s when it clicked for me why people go to such great lengths to find those moments. It’s not just about checking off a list, finding a particular species. The birders that I’ve spoken with are people looking for these transcendent moments.