A filmmaker’s guide to the outside world
September 30, 2013
Rob Meyer is well aware of a filmmaker's bit of old wisdom: Never work with kids or pets or water.
But Meyer professes to have a contrarian streak in him along with a history of being an outsider to things, including accumulated wisdom. He is also a lover of animals; his early goal was to be a naturalist and possibly make wildlife documentaries. As a filmmaker, he has come to believe in the potency that child actors can bring to the screen.
"Kids can be a bit more honest and direct in their emotions," he said. "While there are challenges, the emotions are straightforward. As a teenager, you don't have a lot of baggage."
And perhaps just for kicks, Meyer has made sure to include water features in all of his work. His 2007 short film, which showed at Aspen Shortsfest and earned numerous awards on the festival circuit, was titled "Aquarium" and featured visits to the New England Aquarium and an immersion of a dog in water.
Meyer's debut feature, "A Birder's Guide to Everything," features an extended scene in a river (as well as animals), but the overall theme is less aquatic than in his previous effort. The film, which shows Saturday at Aspen Filmfest, focuses on kids — teenagers to be precise — and loss and what it's like to be an outsider. The film, which took a second-place Audience Award at the Tribeca Film Festival, stars Kodi Smit-McPhee as David Portnoy, a New England high school kid who lives outside the mainstream. The main interest of David and his friends is birdwatching — or, in geek-speak, birding — and attending meetings of their school's tiny, marginal birding club. Gradually, it unfolds that David is an outsider in more than his ornithological tendencies. There is tension with his father and with his father's girlfriend; there are other things amiss in the Portnoy household. David has a friend in Lawrence Konrad, a local birding expert played by Ben Kingsley, but it turns out the friendship is not on the most solid footing.
Meyer, a Boston-area native, is 37 but feels closely connected enough to his teenage self to examine the internal lives of David and his friends.
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"I started writing 'Aquarium' at 29 — that's a little close to my teenage years," he said from his apartment in Manhattan's West Village neighborhood. "And living in New York keeps you feeling attached to your youth. I relate to teenagers well — I could have been a teacher. Or if there's such a thing as a professional camp counselor, I could do that."
Meyer notes that it's common for filmmakers early in their careers to look back into their own past for material. But it's also possible that his attraction to teenagehood stems from the fact that his own teen years were somewhat haunted emotionally and made for rich source material.
"My teenage years and young-adult years, I had a lot of existential issues," Meyer said, noting that reading "The Catcher in the Rye" was a seminal part of his youth. "I was shy and weird, didn't have a girlfriend in high school, was into the club-activity world. The way David and his friends speak, their enthusiasm for Latin, that was all drawn from my experiences as a teenager. The sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll — that was not my experience.
"In all walks of life, I find outsiders more interesting. People into things outside the mainstream — birding, Civil War re-enactors."
Meyer notes the paradox in the idea that most people relate to the outsider story.
"Everyone feels like an outsider," said Meyer, who majored in environmental studies and humanities at Yale before going to New York University's graduate film school. "That's more universal, the idea of people struggling against the world."
For his first feature, Meyer recognized the need to add an element beyond kids, pets and water. He chose the subject of loss.
"After 'Aquarium,' I needed to up the stakes a bit for a feature," he said. "So we made it loss. For me, it started with an exploration of a teenager's first brush of coping with loss."
While making "A Birder's Guide to Everything," Meyer, who directed and co-wrote the film, saw that loss could dovetail nicely with birds and with a plot about David and his friends searching for a supposedly extinct duck.
"That's metaphorical, the bird coming back from the dead," he said, noting that that part of the plot is based on the true story of the ivory-billed woodpecker. "That's funny and bittersweet, which is the world I like to live in."
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