Below director Margaret Whitton shares a scene from her feature directorial debut, “A Bird of the Air.” The romantic dramedy comes out in limited release this Friday, September 23.
On the surface, “A Bird of the Air” is about how a solitary man (Jackson Hurst) has his life upended by the arrival of a sassy parrot and a free-spirited librarian. The mystery of the parrot’s origins becomes the motor of the plot or the McGuffin.
On another level the parrot mirrors Lyman’s dislocation, his journey through foster homes and inability to break out of his self- imposed cage to experience the world. The detective work stands in for the central mystery of Lyman’s search for meaning. The search for the parrot’s origins also leads us on a mini US history tour, connected by wars and religion. How do we move forward without confronting our past? And what are we moving toward? The animals in the film reflect each of the characters as well. Does Fiona’s dog Floyd’s sorrowful face mirror Lyman’s damaged soul? The parrot, like Fiona (Rachel Nichols), is fragile, invasive, bright, talkative — the steward of change, and maybe an angel of some sort. This scene is the beginning of the hero’s quest.
Setting Up the Scene
In the previous scene we see the end of Lyman’s day. He works on the highways at night – dealing with the national carnage that is our highway system. Lyman is a witness and a victim of that mayhem. He lives in a trailer, on an empty lot, isolated. I wanted his trailer to reflect his tight, monastic existence. Even the lost objects he collects have a place. He goes through the same routine every day. Who goes to sleep to news radio? Someone like Lyman, who prepares for any emergency. Despite this hyper awareness and aversion to danger, he is emotionally and socially shut down. If life makes no sense, he can at least be prepared for any eventuality. Eating his cereal in the afternoon (his morning), he doesn’t expect the life altering arrival of a 17-ounce messenger that will shove a shim into his locked heart — just as he is later hijacked by Fiona. His initial sense of wanting to re-order the world, and return the parrot to it’s home, changes to sympathy, then to obsession, after experiencing the parrot’s cryptic sayings in something like a context.
Treating Animals Like Actors
It was my passion for the story that made me ignore the first rule of film – never work with animals. I found it to be a pleasure. Since they were central to the story, I decided to treat them as actors. I gave them and their wonderful wrangler, Dave Sousa, the same props and set, as nearly as I could, to rehearse on. We didn’t have any money to spend on CGI or face-replacement. These animals had to perform. I asked Philippe Rousselot, our wonderful DP, to give Oscar, our hero parrot, and Meyer, our stunt parrot, ‘movie star lighting.’ Philippe didn’t blink at the request. Animals are so sensitive. I insisted that when they were on set, no one move unnecessarily, and only people essential to the scene be present — kind of like a nude scene. I wanted to give the parrot a big entrance. We had some problems getting the launch perch at the correct height for Meyer’s flight, vis-a-vis the camera angle, but he never missed his mark. I felt odd asking Jackson to play the scene in his underwear, but I wanted to see the contrast between the two animals, the vulnerability of human flesh and the glorious, color and sharp-beaked wonder of the parrot. I asked Jackson to be startled and oddly pleased at the moxie of this small, fragile creature, daring to bite him. I’m still unsure if Oscar really took a nip, but they made me believe he had. Jackson was terrific with the animals and couldn’t restrain himself from playing with them in between takes.
Sounding the Bird
Post sound was key to this scene. While Oscar was an amazing pro, rarely stepping on another actor’s lines, our stunt parrot, Meyer, was nick-named ‘the Yak –Attack.’
Additionally, we had the task of making the parrot’s lines sound as if they came from the previous owners. Damian Volpe, our sound designer, and I tried numerous techniques, with no luck. It either sounded cartoonish or too mechanical. Finally, after hours of dead-end attempts, we were rescued by an accident, or luck. Overheating, the playback machine slowed down. Energized, we found that if we slowed the vowels in the middle of the line, we got just the right amount of ‘croak’ to sound as if the line were from a parrot’s throat, with still recognizably distinctive voices. Like Lyman, I became obsessed with the sound. Late one night I found myself deep in the Cornell Orthinological web site, researching Yellow-naped Amazon fart sounds (yes, it does exist).
Reflecting on the Script
I was attracted to the story because it was unorthodox; it felt like the real romance of life, the way chance plays a role in shaping our choices. I loved the questions of our common quest for meaning, identity, and connection. I liked how the sharp twists and moods of the story reflect how our lives can change in a moment. The visual contrast of Lyman’s mayhem-filled life on the dark highways, and Fiona’s romantic, book-filled world, appealed to me. I love the philosophical layers of the quest, the life of ideas ‘caught and released’ into the world. How do we go about finding answers to the larger questions of meaning and identity on our shared journey? What happens when we romanticize/demonize each other’s beliefs and miss our chance for connection? How does contemporary man learn to navigate what the world expects of a ‘man’ and still keep an open human heart? It feels like a very American story.