Frederic Lilien’s documentary “The Legend of Pale Male” documents a story dear to New Yorkers’ hearts. The film, eighteen-years in the making, has gone on to win awards at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, and the Palm Beach International Film Festival among many others. In anticipation of the film’s release this Wednesday, November 24 in New York, Lilien shared an exclusive scene from his documentary with indieWIRE.
This is the legend of an extraordinary hawk that comes out of the wild to live in the great metropolis of New York. It’s the story of how his very presence completes the world he has chosen and affects people from all walks of life. With the simple act of looking up, ‘hawkwatchers’ begin to open up, and in ways large and small, begin to change their lives. The story takes a dramatic turn when the hawk’s nest is destroyed and his followers face losing their hero. They rally to save him only to discover that he has already achieved the ultimate success.
Almost the entire film takes place in Central Park. In fact, the story might never have occurred any place else. It holds inherent and compelling contradictions – it’s both exclusive and accessible, civilized and wild. The model boat pond is a perfect oval reflecting a magnificent row of buildings on 5th Ave. In the center of the elegant skyline is the unexpected nest of our hero – the Red-tailed hawk Pale Male. As a filmmaker, I could not have designed a more theatrical stage. There’s perfect seating on the benches at the boat pond, and with the reflecting mirror of the pond between us, we watch his story and he watches ours. In many ways, what makes the film satisfying and gives it depth is all the contradictions it contains, and the first of those comes up in our indieWIRE clip.
This is the opening of the film and the introduction of the hero, Pale Male, and the filmmaker, me. The complete contrast in our characters sets the tone for the entire story. He’s a powerful wild predator full of purpose, unencumbered by self-doubt. And he can fly! I, on the other hand, am completely lost and can’t even figure out how to use the camera. We had been struggling with the opening and were intent on starting with the dramatic protest scene from the middle of the film. Then, a la “It’s a Wonderful Life,” we would go into the back-story of how Pale Male came to be. But try as we did, we couldn’t get it to work. We were almost two years into editing when I came across this old footage (my first day with the camera – and I can’t believe I kept it) and decided to give it a try. After struggling with how best to establish Pale Male, the contrast between us seemed to bring it all into focus. And right from the start Pale Male is seen as the architect of the story, the character that’s in control. The rest of us, in all our complexity and endless search for meaning, find in him a most unorthodox guru. This sets us off on a high/low, soaring and silly roller coaster of a story. And the fun, the friendships, the sorrow and hope spill out from there.
Pale Male’s entrance where he drops into the cityscape from above I shot from a small balcony just north of the nest a few floors below Woody Allen’s terrace. I knew Pale Male liked to perch up on Woody’s and spent days hanging out there. I always had a camera running in real-time getting material I could use for time-lapses and just got lucky when he flew into the shot.