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Interview: David Frankel on 'The Big Year', Owen Wilson and mid-life crises

INTERVIEWS - FILM

The director of The Devil Wears Prada and Marley and Me chats to Shadowlocked...

David Frankel and a little of his work (including 'The Big Year' with Owen Wilson

After spending over a decade directing some of the highest-profile TV shows (including 'From the Earth to the Moon', 'Band of Brothers', 'Sex and the City', and 'Entourage'), he re-emerged as a feature film director of big, all-ages, crowd-pleasers with 'The Devil Wears Prada' in 2006, and 'Marley & Me' in 2008. His latest film as director is 'The Big Year', starring Jack Black, Steve Martin, and Owen Wilson. In anticipation of its release on DVD and Blu-ray on January 31st, Frankel took some time to chat with us about the film...

It's an interesting world you threw us into, one I hadn't seen in a movie before.

Me neither!

Jack Black - 'The Big Year'Does that sort of camaraderie, mixed with suspicion, really exist amongst birders?

Well, it's a tiny world, in which everybody knows everybody, and everybody at the top of their game knows everybody else. These birds only show up very specific places at any time, and everybody who's any good will show up there also, so they all know each other, and they all see each other at all the different bird spottings. They know who's seen what, and at the same time, anybody who's setting records or besting everybody else is always under suspicion, which you see in almost every sport.

Sometimes the suspicions are right. In the case of birding, it's obviously quite easy to amplify your list because it is all on the honor system, and that was one of the intriguing things about the competition. At the same time, the system actually seems to work in the way golf works on the honor system. As competitive as they all are, there's also a certain respect and nobility of their pursuit and they wouldn't want to have a false record.

You pulled such an amazing cast together for this, I kept being surprised by who would show up - oh, there's Anjelica Huston! How'd you get all these people together, especially considering the physical demands of shooting in so many locations?

Everybody had some connection to either somebody else in the cast or to birding itself. In Anjelica's case, her brother is a falconer, so she grew up with a strong connection to birds in the family, and was really drawn to the screenplay. In other cases, people just loved the opportunity to work with Steve or Jack or Owen. And then there were other actors who I'd always dreamed of working with and got the opportunity.

With Owen especially, he has a unique ability to project tremendous energy that barely covers deep sadness - can you talk about that element of his character, and building it with him?

Owen Wilson - The Big Year © Murray Close/ 20th Century FoxWell I like to say that there's a lot of Bostick [Wilson's character] in Owen. So often he plays a guy who seems to not have a care in the world, and at the same time I know Owen to be a very ambitious, competitive guy. We'd play tennis or play golf and there's always score being kept, and he just thrives on competition. He seemed a natural to play a guy who really sacrificed a lot for his ambition, and that was one of the things  that really drew me to make the movie - what you have to give up to be excellent. All three of the stars are extraordinary actors and huge movie stars, so they know what it means both to be excellent and the sacrifices you need to make to get there.

He sort of provides a juxtaposition with Steve Martin's and Jack Black's characters - this is his life pursuit, while this is their second chance on life. Was that undercurrent a conscious thing?

It was one of the themes that was in the screenplay from the beginning. People are always looking for something that takes them out of their everyday lives. We all get this sad realization, especially in mid-life, of feeling trapped and wondering if there's something we can be great at. There are lots of films that explore that.

I think Moneyball explores that theme a little bit - is there a second act? Has all my value been revealed to the world? And that was one of the things that drew me, with Jack's character, who's kind of trapped in a cubicle for eighteen hours a day, even though he knows that he has talent that just needs an opportunity to reveal itself. So he decides to bet on himself. Steve's character really feels the same way, despite all the material successes that character experiences. For me, all the characters represented aspects of universal experiences, which is this desire for something more in life, and they get to act on it.

On a technical level, cinematographer Lawrence Sher has made a name for himself lending comedies a little more cinematic style than we're used to - especially his work with Todd Phillips. I really liked the darker color palette you guys crafted for the film to reflect the overcast skies; can you talk a little about that?

Larry's just an extraordinary film-maker, and one day you'll be talking to him as a director also. He has a fantastic eye and a great ear, he's a great storyteller; hilarious personally and unbounded energy. He's so good at what he does, and connects so well with the actors, makes them look so good and moves the camera so beautifully. In terms of the actual weather, our schedule was so tight and we covered so much ground that the look of the film was dictated a lot by luck. When it was raining, we went ahead and shot. When it was cloudy, we went ahead and shot. What emerged was a film that really covers a lot of ground, a lot of moods, and that's all due to Larry's work.

Were the birds stock footage, CGI...did you have to do any wrangling onset?

A combination of all three. There was some significant stock footage, and over my early protests, we did use a few real birds. There's a real pink-footed goose and a real raven. And there's a lot of CGI, and frankly I watch the film now and I forget which ones are real and which ones we put in. Certainly all the birds in the high islands are computer generated, and there are a few other very specific species that the guys see that we animated.

Many thanks to David Frankel - The Big Year is released on Blu-ray (R1) on 31st January


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