The natural environment has been a prominent theme in Canadian born writer and director Michael Stasko’s films. His previous movie, Iodine, chronicled the mental decline of a man searching for his lost father in the northern Canadian wilderness.
His latest movie, the revenge comedy The Birder, is no exception. The film follows middle-aged school teacher Ron Spencer (played by Tim Cavanagh) as he competes for the head of ornithology position at Point Pelee National Park. His rival is the younger, cooler Floyd Hawkins whose popularity and knowledge of modern cultural trends leads to him getting the promotion. Angry that a less experienced birder has leaped ahead of him, Spencer decides to takes matters into his own hands and win back the position he believes is rightfully his.
I sat down with Mike to discuss his latest film, his love for nature and the influence it has had on his film making.
Dylan: Hi Mike, thanks for agreeing to the interview.
Mike: No problem. I’m glad to be here!
Tell me a bit about yourself. What’s your life like now?
Well, I teach film and communications studies at the University of Ottawa and Ryerson University, but I also write and direct films. I do government and industrial contracts for training videos as well. My goal is to be a full time teacher and also make a movie every few years. I want to teach a really good film program to students and get them inspired to go out and make Canadian films.
What originally got you into film making?
In high school, I was pushed into the sciences. I did a test in the 80s that told me I should be something like a dermatologist or an air traffic controller so I took it like: “Oh, a computer printout told me to be a dermatologist so I must do that!” Eventually, I ended up going into biochemistry, but early in University I became enamored with the TV show Twin Peaks which got me interested in film more. Eventually, it came down to one of those life decisions: Do I become a doctor or do I do the thing I really want to do which is film making? It was definitely a hard decision to tell my parents and make that move into film, but once I did I was happy.
The root of film making I’m attracted to is the art of storytelling. It’s about finding a narrative and finding an arch and doing things in a unique and different way. Storytelling is something that isn’t going to go away. It’s a rock; it’s been around since cave men and the invention of fire. Now we’re seeing it transition into new media like video games, but it’s essentially the same thing in regards to characters and plot.
What made you decide to focus on the world of ornithology for your latest film?
The very first kernel of a concept was having a teacher live in a school for a summer. But as we started to develop the character Ron Spencer more, a lot of his qualities and quirks reminded me of the world of birdwatching and birdwatchers.
Also, I grew up in the Windsor-Essex region and the Pelee area is a major birding hotspot so it kind of made sense to go with what you know and write about it. It was pretty early on that we decided to make the main character an ornithologist and show that world. It works well because it’s a scene, in film making at least, that hasn’t been tapped too much yet.
Are you a birder yourself?
In University, I did a lot of birding, One of the things that I really liked, and kind of attracted to me to hang out with the other birders, was the idea of just quickly jumping in a car and traveling east on the 401, heading out of Windsor and off to a small hamlet in the middle of Essex County to see a bird. A place so close to my home, yet I would have never visited otherwise. It gave me an excuse to
explore my own backyard. As I got into it more I realized I was a big time novice. I would call myself a birder and would go out maybe twice a month which is not even close to what a hardcore birder does. Some go out every day and they’ll drive thousands of miles to try and find a specific bird that has been spotted in a certain location.
What was your most memorable birding experience?
I saw a beautiful blue heron once. It was a notable sight because if you see them, they’re usually out on the water, but this one was up in a tree actually making its nest. I pointed it out and a bunch of people gathered around to come look. That was exciting!
How much research on ornithology went into making the film?
Ted (co-writer Theodore Bezaire) and I did a lot of research. We learned stuff like how to identify certain bird calls and even how to properly hold your binoculars. There’s probably some hard core birders who will watch our film and find some mistakes in it and that’s fine, it’s not meant to be a bird watching documentary, but rather a family revenge comedy set against characters from that universe. However, we had a couple ornithologists on set, to make sure things were going right. Sarah Rupert was the head ornithologist there. She does a lot of birding down in the Windsor region.
Your previous film Iodine and now The Birder, both feature the natural environment prominently in the script. Is the Canadian environment a big influence on your film making career?
Yeah, for sure. I was lucky enough to spend 13 summers of my youth, starting around age seven, as a sailing instructor or camp councilor. For four months of the year I was living in nature either in a cabin or by a lake. And I still go camping – real camping. Not the kind where you bring beer and stay with friends who are right next to you, but like, I’ll go to Algonquin park with a bit of food and a canoe and that’s it. So yes, I’ve always been very attracted to nature and that element.
I find that in film making, nature becomes this crucible in which you can explore so many things. For example, if you walk into a forest in 2014, it will look pretty much the same as it did 200 years ago, but our cities now are so different from the environment humans have usually lived in. There’s something interesting about taking a character, putting them in the forest and being able to relate to it in a primal brain sort of way. That’s something generations of humans can relate to. On the other hand, these past couple generations are the only ones that know the feeling of putting their hand out of a car window and feeling the wind pass by; it’s a completely new sensation. Today, we’re addicted to Iphones and blackberries which seems normal to us, but for the last 5000 years, we’ve all been living much closer to nature. That kind of more natural storytelling has been going on for a long time and is something I like to explore.
As a teacher, do you find it hard to inspire students to become film makers in Canada’s film industry?
It’s very difficult. Canada doesn’t really have – I think we have a lot of talent – but the resources haven’t been pooled together yet properly. Telefilm Canada is trying to produce films good enough to compete with the American market, but we still only have about 1.5 % of total Canadian box office revenues coming from Canadian films.
What’s happened up to this point – and I get in trouble for saying this – is that they’ve been trying to make Canadian films about playing hockey or how funny beavers are and presenting that as Canadian content when, in reality, Canadian content should really look a lot like American content. I don’t think we should be ashamed of displaying stuff that’s modern to show off Canadian society. Let’s tell stories about 2014 and our melting pot society. To try and make a culture about Tim Horton’s and maple syrup is weak material. What about a story about a teenager who is unsure about what to do in his life, and it happens to take place in Toronto or Montreal? That’s Canadian! He doesn’t have to also be trying out for a hockey team.
Now that your work on The Birder is coming to a close, what’s your next project?
I’m working on a comedy called Boys Versus Girls. It’s about a camp in the late 80s early 90s where, for economic reasons, it turns co-ed for the first time. It’s kind of based on a true story because in that time period camps were closing left and right and in order to make them viable, some decided to integrate male and female campers. The first few summers when they were trying this out were actually very hostile where boys and girls sort of hated each other because they thought they were trying to take over each other’s territory. So I’m on my third draft of that right now. I’m also doing some sci-fi stuff that I can’t talk about. I’d rather just let it happen!
The Birder has already had theatrical showings across Ontario, but you can catch it when it opens in Orillia, Ontario July 25 at Galaxy Cinemas Orillia or in Ottawa July 31 at The Mayfair Theatre. The film is also set to be released for wide distribution in late August. For more information please visit: http://www.thebirdermovie.com