The Big Screen

The author writes about what it’s like to have his book made into a major motion picture featuring some of Hollywood’s biggest stars. Will birding ever be the same?

When I started working on my book The Big Year, I often had to assure people that this quirky tale of competitive birdwatching was really true. After all, it’s hard to imagine three otherwise sane men choosing to do one thing—and one thing only—for an entire year. They spent 270 days away from home, traveled 270,000 miles, and lived for weeks on a desolate Alaskan island, closer to Russia than Anchorage, to wait for the strongest El Niño on record to blow Asiatic birds into North American airspace just to count them. In West Texas one birder went face-to-face with a mountain lion. Another guy grew so broke from chasing so many birds that he maxed out five credit cards and lived for four days in the Dakotas on nothing more than a jar of Jif peanut butter and a bag of Mr. Salty Pretzels. A third man grew so obsessed with finding new species that he even braved a Christmas Eve dinner, alone, at a Chinese restaurant, in Duluth. (Oh, the horror!)

These three men were a writer’s dream—smart, funny, and with a sense of natural wonder and curiosity that would put Tom Sawyer to shame. For some reason, though, they decided to dedicate 365 days of their lives to gallivanting around the continent with hopes of seeing a creature with a brain no larger than a belly button. Sandy Komito, Al Levantin, and Greg Miller had the time of their lives racing to break the North American birding record, and I had the time of my life recounting their tale.

And then The Big Year turned even wilder. I got a call saying Hollywood producers, including Ben Stiller, wanted to make this story into a movie.

No joke: On October 14, Fox 2000 will release the big-screen version of The Big Year. It’s directed by David Frankel, an Oscar winner who also did Marley & Me and The Devil Wears Prada. The stars are Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson. Anjelica Huston, Dianne Wiest, JoBeth Williams, and Brian Dennehy play supporting roles. The ensemble cast includes Rashida Jones from The Office, Jim Parsons from The Big Bang Theory, and Anthony Anderson from Law & Order. The whole shebang is narrated by John Cleese from Monty Python.

So what happens when your nonfiction book is made into a fictional film?

For starters, a lot of stuff gets changed. All the characters receive new names, new personality turns, and new plot twists. Instead of being set in 1998 like the book, the movie takes place in the present. Say goodbye to checking tape-recorded rare bird alerts from phone booths. The film version of this story has bloggers and web pages that can be monitored with something I couldn’t have imagined a decade ago—smartphones. There’s no more running through airports to catch a plane to Harlingen just as it pulls away from the gate; the new post-9/11 travel restrictions did away with that.

For financial reasons, most of this movie was filmed in Canada, but the filmmakers did find some pretty convincing stand-ins for places in the book. Pelagic birding trips shot in Tofino, British Columbia, look a lot like the real things in Monterey Bay and Newfoundland. B.C.’s Okanagan Valley, in the rain shadow of the Cariboo Mountains, makes for a fairly convincing desert Southwest. (To ensure the correct species appear on screen, I’m told some birds were added later—so, for instance, Jack Black points binocs into a bush and then stock footage is added.)

And then there’s Attu. This is where the sheer size of the movie business sank in for me. To replicate a mountainous Aleutian isle with fantastic birds—like the great knot and yellow-throated bunting—but no trees, permanent human residents, or reliable plumbing, the director packed up the entire movie production into semi-trailers and trucked three days up the Alaskan Highway to Dawson City in the Yukon. There, in a forsaken valley not far from the Arctic Circle, they built a striking replica of the ramshackle World War II barracks that birders in my book had relied upon in Attu.

My wife and our three young sons visited the film soundstage during filming in Vancouver, where producers had built another version of the Attu barracks for interior scenes. They had rusty old corrugated siding and National Geographics from the 1980s (the movie also has Owen Wilson on mock covers of Audubon) and reams of aquarium tubing running up and down ceilings and walls to duplicate the steady drips that, in real life, plopped from leaky roofs onto creaking cot springs. They even had trained Norwegian rats scamper, on cue, through the barracks from one actor to another. I was thrilled to hear that Owen Wilson and Steve Martin talked about Nutting’s flycatchers and rufous-capped warblers. Rashida Jones played stump-the-chump on birdcalls with Jack Black by whistling her own imitation of a painted bunting. Black—or at least his character—could not be stumped. 

So what’s the movie like? The truth is, I haven’t seen it yet or read the script. (Authors rank pretty low in the Hollywood food chain, after all.) It’s certainly not a documentary. At the same time, the director was working hard to make it ring true to birds and birders. Greg Miller, one of the men I wrote about, was hired as a consultant for the film, and he taught the main actors how to act like real birders and not some cartoonish pith-helmeted Miss Jane Hathaway from The Beverly Hillbillies. I feel fairly confident that we won’t hear the cries of red-tailed hawks coming from the beaks of robins, and we won’t see any albatrosses cruising Kansas reservoirs.

I do believe the film will convey the excitement of the chase, as well as the natural beauty of birds and the landscape they live in. After my book was published, I got many calls and letters from people saying they had been inspired to try birding for the first time. My hope is that the movie sparks the same reaction, but on an even grander scale.