Filmmaker Q&A

Three parrots perched on a branch, eating seed out of a human hand

Filmmaker Judy Irving shares how observing the parrots changed her understanding of animal consciousness.

I saw the parrots interacting in complex ways that Mark was able to describe in words, and what he said made sense. They experience fear, jealousy and joy; they are curious, funny and wacky. They have full individual lives and a rich flock culture: flying together as a team, then squabbling as soon as they land. In many ways they reflect human society, but to speak of these shared qualities is not, as some would assert, “anthropomorphism.” Better to describe human behavior as avianomorphism—after all, birds were here first, by millions of years. Maybe we picked up our personality traits from them! Birds were fully evolved by the time we stood upright.

Director Judy Irving discusses what attracted her to Mark Bittner and the wild parrots, recalling the challenges and thrills of filming wild animals and the surprising moment of a fledgling’s first flight.

What led you to make this film?

I had made a short “hobby film” about the great blue herons who nest at Stow Lake in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, and when I showed it to some bird lovers at the Randall Museum one of them said, “You should make a film about that guy who feeds the wild parrots.” I've been a filmmaker for over 30 years, and birds have managed to sneak into all of my films, even one about nuclear power. My grandfather taught me how to feed chickadees by hand when I was eight years old, and when I first saw Mark Bittner feeding the parrots, his gesture—palm up, birds alighting—reminded me of the first time I was ever touched by a wild animal. I think I made the film for all of these reasons. But really, I made it because of the parrots: their wild, nutty, comic natures, their brilliant green-and-red bodies and their unlikely appearance in San Francisco. There would have been no way to make sense of their behavior, though, without Mark’s longterm relationship with the flock and his knowledge of the individual birds who were his friends.

How did you meet the film’s central (human) subject, Mark Bittner?

In a 1995 article Mark wrote for a bird magazine, he said that he would soon be leaving the Greenwich Steps. I didn’t contact him, even though I was intrigued by his story, because I thought he’d be gone before I could even get started filming. But over three years later he was still there, and when friends reminded me he’d make a great subject for a documentary, I finally called him up and went over to see what he was up to.

I had a few rolls of film left over from another project, and I thought I could use it up. I didn’t think you could go very far with one guy feeding some parrots. At least I thought it would be colorful.

What was it like filming characters as unpredictable (not to mention mobile) as birds?

I’ve been filming wildlife for three decades, and they do what they want, when they want! The joke was that I’d be set up on the turret of Julius’s Castle all day, waiting for a good shot of the flock flying, and get nothing. I’d pack up the tripod and camera and head down to the parking lot. At that moment the flock would fly over and do lovely aerial acrobatics, which I could only record as a “psychic exposure.” This happened many times. But this is what nature photography is all about: slowing down, getting onto their schedule if possible. I like the meditative aspects of being outside, standing by the tripod, watching the sky and the trees. You get tuned into your “habitat” that way. It’s actually one of my favorite things to do.

Besides filming the birds, what were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making this film?

I originally conceived of the film as a children’s fable, about 20 minutes long. We did three days of shooting, working with kids from a progressive elementary school in San Francisco. It didn’t go well; the birds didn’t show up when we wanted them to, and the kids kept looking at the camera, no doubt out of boredom! W.C. Fields advised against working with wild animals or (wild) children, and I was trying to do both. It was hard to admit that the children’s fable idea wasn’t going to work, but I had to re-conceive the project. Eventually the film evolved into a full-length documentary portrait, largely because of Mark’s charisma and his great storytelling abilities.

Another challenge was funding. Foundations that had funded my previous environmental films about the San Francisco Bay, Greenbelt and Delta wouldn’t touch this film with a ten-foot pole, because the parrots are politically incorrect: They are a non-native species. Eventually I did get significant support from an animal welfare foundation that didn’t care about this distinction and from individuals around Telegraph Hill who love the parrots. I also deferred my own pay, supporting myself with other work during production and editing.

Periodically you become a presence in the film, propelling the narrative by asking Mark questions. How did you handle the balance between observation and participation?

Oh, it was hard, and for the longest time I stayed out of it. The film wound up taking four-and-a-half years to finish, in part because the story kept unfolding. We would be logging film and starting editing and then we'd have to rush out and shoot something new. I like to work behind the camera, not in front of it, but issues arose that demanded I take a more active role. A couple of film editor friends who saw the rough cut just insisted on it because I had become somewhat of a mystery woman lurking at the edges. You’d hear me asking Mark devil’s advocate questions off-screen, like, “Why don’t you get a job? Why don’t you cut your hair? What’s the difference between you and the pigeon lady?” But because of how the film ends, I had to become more than a disembodied voice, so I added a brief autobiographical sequence earlier.

What was the most surprising moment for you in the making of WILD PARROTS?

I was standing beneath a palm tree with the camera pointed up at Olive and Pushkin’s nest hole. Pushkin, the dad, was hanging onto a palm frond near the hole. Olive wasn’t around. All of a sudden I saw one of their babies appear at the edge of the nest hole. Pushkin and the baby looked at each other. They seemed excited. I started shooting seconds before Pushkin took off flying, and the baby followed! This was the first time the young bird had ever flown. As it “fledged,” I got it on film just by luck.

What material was the most difficult to edit out of your film?

Certain “beauty shots” that didn’t serve the narrative were very hard to let go—a dawn shot near the parrots’ roost site, parrots perched in a cedar tree looking like red-and-green Christmas ornaments, Connor (the blue-crowned conure) moving among cherry blossoms, etc. Ultimately I had to go with whatever would tell the story best, and lose the rest. I don’t mind this honing process any more, though. I’ve had to do it over and over, and I just keep reminding myself that it works.

What impact do you hope this film will have?

The film has already been screened in over 500 theatres nationwide and is among the top 25 highest-grossing documentaries. It has been released in Canada, New Zealand, Australia, the United Kingdom and Latin America. It has been out on DVD for over a year. Despite this wide distribution, there are millions of Americans who haven't seen or even heard of the film. A well-publicized PBS broadcast will add millions to the audience, adding to its impact, helping people think about and perhaps change their opinions about the relationship between humans and wildlife (particularly urban wildlife), the nature of consciousness and the importance of finding one's true path in life. People who have seen the film in theatres and have commented afterwards have also talked about how the film helped them understand the nature of consciousness (not just human consciousness, but a broader consciousness that we share with animals), and, through the film's Zen waterfall story, they have come to a clearer, less fearful understanding of death. These "impacts" are all in the nature of internal paradigm shifts in how people think about themselves in the world, particularly in relation to animals. The ultimate impact would be more peace in the world, because people would understand that to harm an animal is to harm a conscious being, and hopefully this feeling will translate to how humans treat each other as well.

Over what period of time did filming take place and when did it conclude?

I started shooting in late 1998 and shot final pickups shortly before the sound mix in the spring of 2003: four and a half years.

The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?

I learned very early on that I don’t like to work for a “boss”—I prefer to pursue my own projects. Truth (reality) is more of a draw for me than fiction, so I accept the ups and downs of documentary filmmaking. Ultimately, it’s satisfying to “have my say” via film—to put in my two cents, to influence the direction of our culture, even in a small way.

Why did you choose to present your film on public television?

Most of my previous films have been shown on public television; it’s a good fit. Plus, the other networks (ABC, CBS, NBC) don’t normally buy films from independent filmmakers. The film had an offer from the Sundance Channel but we decided to go with PBS because of its larger audience and the fact that it was “free” for viewers (rather than pay cable).

What are your three favorite films?

Burden of Dreams
The Last Picture Show

If you weren’t a filmmaker, what kind of work do you think you’d be doing?

Every so often I’d get fed up with the insecurity of independent documentary filmmaking and fantasize about becoming an environmental attorney, so I could “sue the bastards” who were ruining the planet for profit. I even got so far as looking into what it would take to prep for the Law Boards. That did it: too much paper pushing! Plus, I don’t really like to fight, so lawyering was out. Recently I’ve read about a new field that combines my college major, psychology, with my interest in the outdoors, and now I fantasize about becoming an “environmental psychologist,” investigating the role of nature in human well-being. But ultimately I think my fate is filmmaking, because I have no skills for anything else!

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?

Making a film always takes longer, costs more and is far more complicated than you could imagine. You’ll need patience, persistence and attention to detail. Having a good intuitive sense of what works and what doesn’t also helps. Try to shoot for the editing room; in other words, make sure that whatever you shoot will cut together. Look at your edit as if you were someone who knew nothing about the subject. Submit your film to critique before it’s finished—better to endure humiliation before the first public screening, not after!

If you could have one motto, what would it be?

“Start slowly, and taper off.” (Actually that’s the Dolphin/South End Running Club’s motto. I love it, though I don’t know what it has to do with filmmaking per se.)

“Onward and upward with the arts!”

What sparks your creativity?

Occasionally, while shooting in the field, everything clicks and the camera work flows effortlessly with the subject. For example, when the shape of the flock as it flies across the sky works perfectly with how it is shot—how the camera moves with the motion of the flock. So I would have to say that the spark for creativity in that case is the flock itself. But any subject could become a spark. In the editing room, what sparks creativity is good material and quiet, uninterrupted time to work with it.

What’s an example of a shot in the film that especially moved or resonated with you?

Lonely Connor on Wires—that’s the name of a shot in which the “star” bird, Connor, walks slowly toward the camera along a telephone wire. He was the outcast blue-crown in a flock of cherry heads. His feathers were all messed up because he didn’t have a mate to preen him, and he walked slowly because he was old. Seeing him so sad and alone made me cry. (A portion of this shot is in the final film, but its full impact is only felt watching the whole thing.)

Have screening audiences asked any questions about the film that we didn’t cover?

Mainly they want to know what has happened to the flock, and… ”Are you two still together?”
(Read the update.)

Find out more about the flock >>


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