Steve Martin, director David Frankel and Jack Black on the set of The Big Year

One of the biggest mistakes critics and audiences made last year was the complete dismissal of The Big Year. I include myself in that statement, as I saw it just recently. The lack of box office and mixed-at-best reviews were mostly a result of misplaced expectations. When a film’s poster sports the likes of Owen Wilson (Wedding Crashers), Steve Martin (Father of the Bride) and Jack Black (The School of Rock), one can hardly be blamed for thinking a group of comedians normally known for their scene-chewing and pratfalls were up to their normal shtick. In truth, director David Frankel, helmer of The Devil Wears Prada, Marley and Me, the “Entourage” pilot, and some of the best episodes of “Sex and the City,” took the comedic trio in an entirely different direction. The Big Year follows these three lead characters on a year-long journey to travel the world and see who can claim to have seen the most species of birds. A cast of all-stars plays their parents (Brian Dennehy), accomplices (Angelica Huston), spouses (Rosamund Pike), and love interests (Rashida Jones), all affected in different ways by the men’s  obsessions.  With its subtle humor, affection for its characters, and its insights into the human quest for excellence, The Big Year felt like a film that easily could have been made in the seventies by the likes of by Hal Ashby (Harold and Maude), Arthur Hiller (The Hospital), Arthur Penn (Alice’s Restaurant), or George Roy Hill (The Sting). The Big Year comes to DVD today and to celebrate, I spoke with Frankel about filming all over the world and working with this esteemed cast.

Jackson Truax: It sounds like you fell in love with the script when you read it in 2006. How did it come to your attention?

David Frankel: My representatives sent it to me. They read a lot of stuff. This screenplay stood out to them. Even though they didn’t know what to make of the subject matter, my agent and my manager fell in love with the characters. When the script got to my desk…there was just no way I was going to make a movie about birds. Then two pages in, I was hooked. I fell in love with the characters, and the cinematic potential of the movie seemed really inspiring to me. The opportunity to explore the themes in the screenplay, the nature of competition, the struggle to be excellent at something, and that profound desire to get outside your everyday life and reveal your talents to the world, and the sacrifices to be great at something and fulfill your ambition. Those are all themes that are near to my heart and very personal to me. So for all those reasons, the movie was really compelling.

JT: The movie explores a subculture based around an obsession, and the characters and cliques within that, as well as what drives these people. What fascinated you about that? Have you ever been in a similar subculture?

DF: I consider myself as a filmmaker a little bit in a strange subculture. The experience of making The Big Year is not that dissimilar to doing a “Big Year.” Years and years of preparation and cajoling and corralling people into it and raising the money and then finally setting off and covering thousands and thousands of miles in preparation for this mad adventure for which you have a very limited amount of time to achieve your goals. And there are…a hundred people that share your pursuit. You all seem equally crazy about doing it, at the same time equally passionate about doing something you really believe in. So in all those ways, there were great parallels between the story we were telling and the film we were making. I’m not a birder. But one thing I did love was connecting with nature. It was a thrill to be in every location we went to, from close to my home down in the Everglades, or the [Florida] Keys here, all the way up to the Yukon, which doubled for Attu Island. I was up there three times. In February, when it was twenty below. In May, when it was eighty-five degrees. We had to have armed guards protecting us from grizzly bears and we’re working under the midnight sun, and it just could not have been more thrilling to be out in that landscape… The experience of making the movie is part of what I think is so inspiring to that specific to that subculture of birders, which is just getting out there and seeing every part of the globe.

JT: You had a lot of years to develop the script, and you worked on it with Howard Franklin during that time. How did the script develop, and what did you bring to it?

DF: We worked a lot on Martin’s character. And on the friendship between [Martin’s] character and [Black’s] character. We tailored [Wilson’s] character more specifically to him as time went on. I think what I brought to it was sort of trying to connect it to the themes of the other films that I’d made, which is really the nature of what it means to be excellent, and what you have to give up. What I think drew the actors to these characters was the same thing. They’re all extraordinary actors and huge movie stars and excellent at what they do, but they also know the price you have to pay to achieve that level of excellence. And that’s similar to Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada and it’s similar to Owen’s character in Marley and Me… The cast all [brought out] those themes along with me.

JT: Building the film around a twelve-month period gives it a natural structure. At the same time, there are periods of time that are explored in great detail, and long periods of time that are glanced over. How did you decide what points in the year needed to be more central to the film, and how they matched up with the events in the narrative?

DF: There were some very specific events where the three characters come together. Birders tend to all be drawn to similar parts of the country at the same time. Because essentially they’re following the migratory patterns of birds who appear at regular times during the year. But…the nature of a great Big Year is that…there are unusual weather patterns so there are surprising collections of birds at different times of the year. In this case, it was the incredible opportunity at High Island in Texas. Or the remarkable appearance of dozens of…species at Attu. So the film is structured around the main interactions of our three main characters and when they bump into each other where they were genuinely competing. And then a lot of what was going on in-between was compressed. Except for obviously when we’re telling some of the more personal details.

JT: How did the script change once Wilson, Martin and Black were cast? What did they bring?

DF: A lot of very specific questions about the nature of Bostick’s honesty. This contest is based on the Honor System, and he wanted it make it very clear…that Bostick didn’t cheat and why he didn’t cheat. Then we wanted to explore Bostick’s marriage in greater detail. That was something that we adjusted in the script to really show the high cost and the deep sacrifice that somebody that’s going to be on the road that much has to make. In [Black’s] case, his relationship with his father was only part of the screenplay. But it got much deeper when [Black] got involved. I think it turned out to be one of the most memorable threads in the movie is his relationship with Dennehy as his Dad.

JT: At the beginning of the film Bostick is the antagonist, but by the end of the film he’s become someone the audience is endeared to and really wants to succeed. How did you figure out how to make that transition and walk that fine line?

DF: That’s the nature of the people that are great at what they do and what they have to give up… So often there are people that are reviled or feared. At the same time, I find their ambition so sympathetic. One of the great themes in The Devil Wears Prada was that somebody could be [disliked] yet excellent. And what drives those people? And why do we build people up and then expect them to be great at everything? Why can’t they just be great at what they do? Do they have to be great husbands as well as a great [birders]? So that was part of what we were exploring in the film. I think [Wilson] embraced that approach also.

JT: In addition to these three stars, you had this really massive cast in place of all these remarkably talented people. What did they bring to the material? Who really surprised you?

DF: I was really taken with the relationship between Dennehy and [Black]. [Dennehy] actually looks like [Black’s] dad. They physically have a similarity. They really bonded on the set. Even when we were shooting the scenes, we were deeply moved watching them… Huston grew up [with] her brother [who’s a] falconer. She’s been around birds her whole life. So there was wild enthusiasm. She’s only there a few days… She really threw herself into learning the birdcalls. She and [Black] had great chemistry. That was kind of magical.

JT: There were a lot of places you went to on location, and some of those locations substituted for others. Of all the locations you went to, what was the most arduous and how did you make it work once you got there?

DF: The most arduous was definitely going up to the Yukon. I was already four thousands from home in Vancouver, then we went two thousand miles north from Vancouver. We were sixty miles south of the Artic circle where we shot. You have to fly two thousand miles in a jet and then another two hundred miles… From the town where we were based in, we had to trek another ninety miles up into the tundra of the national park up in Canada. And that’s where we started shooting. Probably the most arduous thing was building a set there. Not only getting permission from the parks department and the tribespeople who control that area, but then marshaling the resources to build the barracks for where the birders stay in Attu up in the tundra there. So our art department did a phenomenal job of making all that happen. Then we had to get [cameras] up there. And fly in over the mountains and capture it all on film… On top of that, we had to somehow figure out how to get three movie stars there on a regular basis and convince them that they wanted to be in a place where there are no five-star resorts and there are grizzly bears wandering around up in the hills. All of that was part of the challenge, but also really thrilling.

JT: What do you think film lovers will get from The Big Year if they watch it on DVD or Blu-Ray after it’s released on the 31st?

DF: I think one of the great things about having the time to watch the film at home is having the time to enjoy the cinema of the travelogue. It’s a really, really beautiful film. And the more cinematic the experience that you can have watching it at home, the greater the details of [Lawrence Sher’s] photography and the nuances of the performances will, I think, make the DVD a really valuable experience.

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