A documentary about a scientific debate in the field of ornithology could have been one of the best sleep aids of the year. Instead, Scott Crocker's Ghost Bird, which follows a path of intrigue from a shadowy Arkansas swamp all the way to the Bush White House, is the documentary sleeper of the year. It made its San Francisco premiere in 2009's Cinema by the Bay (a San Francisco Film Society presentation), and gained steam on a targeted 50-city tour of bird-loving audiences throughout America in what it claims was the largest theatrical distribution by a Bay Area filmmaker since Sin Nombre. The Berkeley-based filmmaker, Scott Crocker, and Bay Area-based cinematographer, Damir Frkovic, along with its Oakland-based distributor, Matson Films, bring the documentary back with engagements at the Roxie Theater and Smith Rafael Film Center this weekend. Its DVD release (beginning December 14) arrives via San Francisco-based Microconema International. SF360 spoke with Crocker over the phone about the phenomena in the film and the film's phenomenal success.
SF360: What was your entry into filmmaking?
Scott Crocker: I've always been interested in film; when I went to college (Bowdoin), I had intended to get a degree in English and go to film school. I ended up taking more anthropology classes because there was no film department of any kind, and visual anthropology is essentially documentary filmmaking. I ended up cobbling together a visual anthropology degree though they don't really offer one. It included a semester abroad studying film culture and social change and an intensive summer school program at Harvard that supplemented that. By the time I was done with college (in 1988). I didn't want to go learn about making films; I just wanted to start making them. I came out to Berkeley, interned with some filmmakers at Fantasy Studios (Bill Farley, for one). I'm kind of self-taught in that respect.
My first film is about self-taught outsider artist from the Deep South.... (Bone Shop of the Heart). I learned a lot about the craft of filmmaking from the editing process, really. There's so much that you come to know about storytelling—too much coverage and not enough coverage.
I've been in and out of filmmaking. It's a medium I wrestle with. It's such an unforgiving and unrewarding medium in that it takes so long, so much effort, so much money, that you always wonder whether your time would be better spent doing something else. It's a love-hate relationship.
SF360: What's that something else been?
Crocker: I was involved in a co-housing project for about five years (in Haley, Idaho). In some ways it was similar to filmmaking in that it involved a lot of people and a lot of coordination and big ideas. That absorbed me for quite a while. It was something that didn't go through; it's still in development hell, you could say. I also spent a lot of time writing screenplays.
SF360: How did this particular story come to you?
Crocker: This story jumped at me when it exploded into the news and it had already leapt off the science pages and hit the front pages of some papers. I was initially just aware of it as a story. It struck me as a theater of the absurd; the descriptions of avid birders parking themselves in snake-infested swamps for 14 months at a time waiting to get photographs of this bird, or see it. It was almost as if this was a Beckett play: Waiting for a Woodpecker. The ingredients in it were so striking and intriguing. That got my initial interest and as I dug a little deeper, I found a little about the bird and its history and efforts to find it, which have been many. The bird was first rediscovered in the ’30s; there have been other rediscoveries, but none have had enough confirmation. This one initially looked different than the others. My anthropological background, rather than any 'birding' lens, is how I started to look at the stories. The impact on the town, the collision of interests—sociopolitical interests, environmental assumptions—in this bird. It became a mirror that reflects back to us who we are and at times who we wish we were and who we wish we weren't as a species.
SF360: Can you talk about the characters? They were compelling.
Crocker: From a filmmaking standpoint, it's paramount to have interesting characters. It's also a story that just attracts interesting people to it. The bird is a mirror but also a magnet, and attracts people who are willing to sacrifice to chase it.
SF360: I loved how the film talked about importance of doing good science; and one of the good scientists even says, as he's pulling out a precious drawer of dead Ivory-Billed Woodpeckers, that those who were finding specimens killed this particular bird.
Crocker: Scientists, they may be neutral, but they are very interested. They wrestle with how you maintain a scientific mind while maintaining a strong curiosity. What keeps you interested and looking for answers? In the case of the Harvard Curator of Ornithology, Scott Edwards, here's a guy who's been interested in ornithology since he was a kid. He's surrounded by them, but they're all dead. The Ivory-Bill is part of that conflicted history; the bird was on its way out; the populations had been separated and gotten small enough, it was a matter of time, more than hunting that would have taken it out, but the collectors, who were also hunters, cleared out the remaining populations, so you couldn’t even see a whooping crane-type resurrection of the species.
The other thing about scientists; you can look at Cornell, when you look at the question of interest vs. neutrality. What became clear in this story is they lost their neutrality and became heavily invested in the outcome of their search. For me this is one of the deeper lessons of this that can be applied well beyond science. It has to do with desire. If the title wings of desire hadn't already been taken.....
SF360: It's interesting how Bush-era did politics are part of this.
Crocker: This project was started in 2005. The Bush era was still very much in evidence at the time. There again, we talk about losing your neutrality for a desired end, it was another bubble think in manipulation and confusion. For me the story, coming back to why I chose to pursue it, it was a touchstone of the time. So many issues coursed through it. It seemed so emblematic of the time.
SF360: The cinematography, particularly the nature shots, was phenomenal.
Crocker: The cinematography is Damir Frkovic, who is a Canadian who lives in San Francisco. He worked at Pixar for a long time but is also a still photographer. The sensibility that we created for the film was one of immediacy and unobtrusiveness. When we did our interviews, I would pre-interview the person over the phone—in a very cursory way, really more to get them to know me and trust me. And then we would arrange for timed interview and show up, pretty much just walked in and found them where they were, without a whole lot of moving things around and lights setting up. We wanted it to feel like how it felt to us, like we were just invited into their home, their space.... just arriving, so the audience would have that sense of immediacy and intimacy. They were long interviews. (We spoke with David Sibley for close to two hours.) They were really generous with their time. It was on a subject not all of them wanted to publicly speak about. In the case of David, he felt compelled; he had written articles. [But, still] it's one thing to put your name in the newspaper, and another to put your face on the screen and make statements on something. How many of the people who are birders are going to want to buy books by David Sibley if he gets this wrong? For him, it felt like the right thing to do. That was the yearning I was looking for in the people I was speaking to. What, in them, did they need to express in this story? Getting that aggregate sense of the emotional truth in them to convey a deeper story about hope and belief and loss. There were minimal setups; we used available light, and a really small HD camera that disappeared in the room.... The nature scenes were Damir's eye and quick read of the visual landscape. In the editing room, the beauty shots really express the central core of the film, in that the main character never shows up, but the habitat where that bird once lived, the second growth of it, becomes the second character. We start with the swamp and end with the swamp and that habitat. Those trees and that water become the surrogate of the ivory bill. It's what's left.
SF360: It's really ghostly and beautiful.
Crocker: Partly because we filmed a lot of it in the winter (and had that incredible experience of the snow, which rarely happens).... that wintertime look of the swamp has its own haunting beauty.
SF360: Can you talk about the film's distribution, how it's getting out there?
Crocker: Distribution is a moving target for all filmmakers these days. It's a little slower-motion train wreck than the music industry had. In the five years I've been making this film, there've been major changes. YouTube, all kinds of things have been shifting and changing the way filmmakers and all people who deal with media are responding. I took a conventional 15- or 20-year-old approach initially: Make the movie, submit it to film festivals, try to release it to the best film festival in your first pass, loop down to more secondary ones. Meanwhile you're hoping you’re going to find a distributor for your film. (Ghostbird first appeared in the Bay Area in San Francisco Film Society’s Cinema by the Bay festival.)
More and more that means just giving your movie away for pretty much nothing in return and so then you start looking: How do I reach my own audience? For a film like this, that has such a passionate, engaged, active and affluent (birders are better educated than the general population and more affluent as well). How do I find them and tap into their passion and get this film to them?
The Audubon Society is a national organization, but the chapters are all independent. They’ve been an incredible resource and champion of the film. I kind of conceptualized this way of getting the film if not in theaters, at least in front of communities: Audubon people, environmentalists. I crafted the biodiversity benefit tour. We reached out to environmental organizations all over the country and offered the film to them in return for a small licensing fee where they could turn it into a fundraiser for their organization. That has grown into hundreds of screenings in small towns and bigger cities all over the country.
Out of that effort grew a semi-distribution/alternative plan. Richard Matson, out of Little Rock, who's been booking independent films (though now he lives in Oakland), he got a hold of me, thinking I was in Little Rock, but I, too was in Oakland—we were blocks away from each other—he began booking the film into art house theaters all over the country which leads to the DVD release on December 14.
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