Next for Snowmass birder: ‘The Big Year’ on big screen

Madeleine Osberger
Snowmass Village correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
Ann Larson/Snowmass SunSnowmass Village birder Al Levantin on the lookout for - you guessed it - birds.

SNOWMASS VILLAGE – It’s been more than a decade since local Al Levantin embarked upon the amazing bird watching journey that became fodder for the non-fiction book “The Big Year” by Mark Obmascik. Levantin remains an avid birder, searching trees and hollows, landfills and even somewhere so mundane as a feeder, both here and in far-flung locations.

“I go to places most people haven’t heard of,” Levantin said this week with a hearty laugh. That may all change with next year’s release of a movie that promises to spotlight some of these distant bird havens – in Alaska, Arizona, Texas and even northern Minnesota. Levantin’s character in the film will be played by Steve Martin, with Jack Black and Owen Wilson cast as the other two male leads in “The Big Year.” Supporting actors include Anjelica Huston, Brian Dennehy and JoBeth Williams.

Levantin and his wife, Ethel, recently visited the film production set in Vancouver and enjoyed watching the action from the seat of Steve Martin’s director’s chairs. “They could not have been nicer to us,” he said about the film crew, which included director David Frankel.

He also remains in touch with author Obmasick, who was part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning team (for the Columbine shooting coverage) at The Denver Post. Obmasick, who went on to pen an account of climbing the state’s fourteeners in a single year, “Halfway to Heaven,” has fond memories of his first work and the intense dedication of “The Big Year”‘s protagonists.

“Most people live their lives with the brakes on. What happens when you take them off? These were three guys, middle-aged and older. They still had that sense of awe and wonderment. What is it about a tiny creature that makes a grown man’s mouth gape?” Obmasick asked rhetorically.

The year, 1998, when the book takes place was a special year indeed. “Birds that had never been seen in quantities or single sightings of such species” were being recorded, Obmascik said. In part, there were the physical conditions produced by an El Nino season. The season also could have been chalked up to one of those rare events when the stars align and the moons converge. How else to explain how three very different characters from very different walks in life chose to embark upon this journey during the same 12-month period?

Obmascik said his initial interest in the story was based more on the men’s “obsession” than on the subject of birding, which to the outsider may seem quite dull. Au contraire.

In “The Big Year” he writes: “Every year on Jan. 1, hundreds of people abandon their day-to-day lives to join one of the world’s quirkiest contests. Their goal: spotting the most species of birds in a single year.”

Over the course of the year it took to research and write the story (which is surprisingly funny), the author had a change of heart.

“I don’t look at the world the same way anymore,” he said this week. In the book’s forward, Obmascik writes: “Today I stroll in the park and I no longer see plain birds. I see gadwells and buffleheads and, if I’m on a really hot streak, a single old squaw.”

One suspects that Levantin, a self-made man who can claim success in a number of careers (he was yanked out of retirement three times but now remains happily unemployed), didn’t find his life had changed all that dramatically because of his own big year and/or the book of the same name.

Because he’s been renamed in the film (which also will be set in present-day, rather than the late 1990s), it’s unlikely that the film’s release will impact his routine, either. You’ll still see him on a road bike grunting up steep hills with his gang, two or three times a week.

Other days, if you see a man with a pair of binoculars dashing after a rosy finch or a favored bird of prey, you’ll know that you’ve found Al Levitan in his very natural habitat.