Filmmaker Interview

POV: Tell us about the film in your own words. What inspired you to make this film?

Big Birding Day Filmmaker, David Wilson

David Wilson: Big Birding Day started out as a chance to spend time with my uncle and explore this world that I knew next to nothing about. Like many people, the idea of "competitive birdwatching" struck me as funny — how, and why, would people compete at birdwatching? I went to Mexico to document the "What?" — the highs and lows and details of the big day. But the movie ended up being far more about the "Why?"

POV: How did you get started as a filmmaker?

Wilson: I think I always wanted to tell stories on film, but growing up I didn't have any resources to do so. It wasn't until my senior year of high school when two friends and I were given the freedom to write and produce a short film as part of a research project. We borrowed equipment and editing facilities from the University of Missouri and taught ourselves how to make a movie. After that, I attended Hampshire College and was exposed to whole worlds of documentary and experimental film and video. It was an amazing place and one that encouraged risk-taking and leaps of faith — good traits to cultivate for a life in independent film. Since graduating from Hampshire, I've done about every job one can do around the world of film — from directing to film journalism to running camera for the TV news to starting a film festival. But the feeling of being in the field with a camera in my hand is still about as close to perfect pleasure as I can imagine.

POV: Tell us about your interest in documentaries.

Wilson: It was when I first started going to underground film festivals in Chicago and New York that I learned to seek out the documentaries. The fiction films were often pretty terrible, but the docs, even if they weren't expertly constructed, were at least always interesting. It's a more forgiving genre than fiction in many ways, but it's also much more fertile right now. I really believe that we're living in a golden age of creative nonfiction filmmaking — one where the bar keeps getting pushed higher and higher. People like James Marsh, Laura Poitras, Kim Longinotto — these are some of the greatest filmmakers — in any genre — working today. They inspire me to make documentaries.

POV: Since you may not have been able to anticipate what would unfold on the big day, what was the preparation process in capturing the right moment?

Wilson: We did a surprising amount of planning for such a short film. I knew early on that getting good shots of birds would be one of our biggest challenges — and a glaring weakness if we missed them. At the same time, we couldn't hope to produce images like those of Planet Earth or Winged Migration. In the end, we settled on using two cameras, one to capture the guys and the immediate action and a second camera with a VERY long lens (lent to us by Michael Palmieri) to get the birds and the scenery. Nathan Truesdell, who is just a stellar camera operator, took the second camera, and in between driving the truck, dumping data cards and charging batteries managed to nab some truly beautiful images.

POV: Were there any nature documentaries or other films about birding that inspired you? Do you think birders will have a different reaction to Big Birding Day than non-bird watchers?

Wilson: I didn't really think too much about other docs, but I did read two books that gave me a lot of insight into this world of hardcore birding. First was Kingbird Highway by Kenn Kaufman. It's a great read and a fascinating true story of a guy who graduated from high school and became a birding hobo. The other book was The Big Year by Mark Obmascik, which is now going to be a movie with Owen Wilson and Steve Martin and Jack Black (!).

POV: How many birds are currently on your life list? What are the three birds you hope to catch a glimpse of someday?

Wilson: As my friend and subject Chris Hitt would say "I don't really keep track." But I'm pretty sure that I have more rare birds on my very short list than most folks. Since doing the movie, I've become a big raptor fan, and like looking for Northern Harrier and Cooper's hawks on road trips.

POV: Are you excited to have your film air on POV and PBS?

Wilson: Are you kidding? I don't' think that there's a better outlet for short nonfiction films in the US than POV. It's a huge honor. And it makes my mom really proud, too.

POV: Tell us about what new projects you are working on.

Wilson: I'm nearing completion on a multi-year portrait of Branson, Missouri called We Always Lie to Strangers that I've been making with AJ Schnack and Nathan Truesdell. It follows four families who live and work in what is undoubtedly one of the strangest towns in America. I'm also writing a fiction screenplay.