"Kids are perfect and our job is to not screw them up." I heard this from a parent once, a statement that in all honesty I haven't thought about much since. Maybe because I am not a parent, maybe because my years as a kid are long passed, or maybe because preceding the moment I sat to watch the movie A Birder's Guide to Everything and before I started writing this piece, I had long lost the sight of those wonder-full years.
But as I watched the movie, childhood didn't just come back into my peripheral but as a full frontal vision that got all of my attention and made me wonder, are kids perfect? Was I ever? And before I lost the illusion I found in glimpses of my past that life wasn't any easier, but it was instant. That I, just like the kids portrayed on screen, had once possessed the perfect ability to seize the moment, and that perfection was not in the living being but instead in the way of living. As if it had taken my whole lifetime in reverse to master the art of being present, and it had arrived all the way back then. The wisdom that time had made me forget; to be in the moment.
To be a kid was to give attention and intention to what was right in front of me: to love, to lose, to win, to hurt, to be frustrated without excuses or reservations, to have an infinite amount of possibilities and the passion, courage and heart to go get it. To be a kid was to have carte blanche on my life, free from a history of responsibilities and heartbreaks that should have become pillars of fortitude to build a better future, but instead became fearful walls that made me lose sight of a beautiful sunset.
As the movie led me to meditate on all things gone, so did talking with its makers, Writer/Director Rob Meyer and Writer Luke Matheny. They turned a Q&A interview into a game of keeping up with sentences that had two voices, while their enthusiasm resembled memories of all things possible.
A Birder's Guide to Everything follows a kid, David (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a birder who on the eve of his father's (James Le Gros) second marriage, and in the grieving state of his mother's recent death, sets on an adventure with the help of his friends (Alex Wolff and Michael Chen), and oh yes, the new girl at school (Katie Chang), into the woods on a quest for an extinct duck.
portraits by Leslie Hassler
Who was the bird watcher? When you were kids....
Rob Meyer: Neither of us were bird watchers, but I was a fish...
You know what I mean....
Rob Meyer: We were both pretty nerdy if that is what you are asking...(laughs). I was in Latin club, fishing club, student council, orchestra member, debate team, student activities community... Luke was more of a theater dork I think.
Luke Matheny: I was in magical choir (laughs), also Latin club, academic bowl...a pretty comfortable resume I think.
Rob Meyer: I think we both early on said we were going to do better with girls later on in life, so we didn't put a lot of pressure. (Laughs) We are both academic, and have great fondness for kids who care more for what they are passionate about, rather than how they look or if they sound good...
Luke Matheny: Yeah...we have a soft spot for the passionate un-cool people...
Rob Meyer: ...and the kids...I went out birding with a lot of young kids from the birding society in New York, and these kids are cool! They are not nerdy at all, and I don't think the kids in our movie are either, they are just passionate, they are young ecologists, they are young naturalists, and they are going on these amazing trips, and they are doing studies and they are writing papers for online journals...you know? They are just kickass kids, and some of them are great artists; a teenager of the young bird society did some of the sketches on the film, so they are really cool, well-rounded kids. Once I got to know them I was like, alright, let's throw out all the old stereotypes and make this about kids who are passionate, and I think kids who are passionate about stuff...you know, even the hipsters in Brooklyn...right now caring a lot about what you do is not looked down upon, which is what I am really excited about. You can care about beets and pickles, and you can care about bird watching and no one is going to make fun of you, which I think is great!
I think the process of filmmaking can be really grueling, you have to have the heart, there is pre-production, casting, writing, financing. So, what was it, after all, the one thing that said I want to tell this story?
Rob Meyer: (to Luke) I think what you said about friendship was really nice yesterday, what the movie is about, why we care so much for making this film.
Luke Matheny: Yeah, I think that is something about adolescent friendships that just stays with you for your whole life...that is sort of closer in a weird way than the kind that you experience later.
Rob Meyer: It's like that quote from Stand By Me, "you never have friends like you did when you were twelve". These kids are a little older but the intensity of those feelings and these friendships and first feelings of coping with loss, love and everything, is heightened in such a state...it is in all of us, but we get much better at hiding these feelings from ourselves.
Luke Matheny: I think at that age your emotions outpace your ability to articulate a little more...
Rob Meyer: Right! Right, so they come out in an unfiltered form. And also, we busy our lives with work and careers and everything else and we don't think about issues that adolescent kids think about more...you are not as programmed as you go through life and you have all these things to do...
Luke Matheny: ...and I think your social priorities are heightened when you are fifteen.
Rob Meyer: Right! Right, and you are only caring about the right things at that age.
Luke Matheny: Right!
Rob Meyer: And we kind of learn to care about the wrong things. Actually, teen angst, I think they are on to something...(Laughs)
Luke Matheny: They don't have to worry about their jobs.
Rob Meyer: They are caring about finding love for the first time, coping with a parental loss; I think there is nothing greater than that, any real personal loss. Plus I think we just wanted to see this movie, we really liked it!
I put the movie in; there is the kid, the bike, the music... I thought, "Oh my God! The Goonies!" What a feeling! Thank you.
Rob Meyer: Chris Columbus was actually one of our first supporters; he wrote The Goonies and we got a prize through NYU from Chris Columbus and Richard Vague... that helped get the financing going. So he really connected to it, I think probably for the same reasons.
Luke Matheny: If The Goonies guys didn't like it, we would be in trouble (laughs).
How was it directing kids?
Rob Meyer: I love directing kids, especially these kids, they are more straightforward than adults, and they haven't learned a lot of...
Rob Meyer: ...tricks. And if they are insecure about something, if they are upset about something, its not subtext, they just get upset, or they get tired, but these kids were actually pros, and my feelings, my strategy was to make them feel trusted by me..."You guys don't have a net, I'm not going to tell you what to do, I cast you because you are perfect for these roles and you are going to nail it."...and they all rose to that challenge.
This is a movie in which there are cameras with celluloid film, and then cell phones, only for necessity. Was this part of a bigger thing? "Let's put kids in the woods and let them be kids?"
Rob Meyer: The nostalgic thought quality that we hope the film has was certainly intentional, but this is not supposed to be period, it is supposed to be timeless, that was our intention, that was what we were looking for, but these kids brought their personalities to their parts which I think feels contemporary, but yeah things...
Luke Matheny: ...like film cameras into the woods, to get away from technology, becomes not too dissimilar from the same experience twenty years ago.
Did you ever think, "This may not fly?"
Rob Meyer: No. People make a big deal of generation deficit. I think that there are a lot of universals in childhood and in adolescence - a hike in the woods I don't think is ever going to change for any generation, I think it is always going to have the same effect. And, that is why I wanted to make this film, because I need to get into nature every year, every couple of years, to reset something inside myself, and I think that these kids going outside of the suburbs and having this moment with the owl in the woods, this moment with the duck in the lake...you know...these are like important moments that all people have and especially teenagers need to have, to commune with nature, not to get poky.
portraits by Leslie Hassler
I stated before that I have been locked in some vision of the world where childhood was barely existent, and so it is not surprising that I have been one of those "people who make a big deal of generation deficit". That I, in my jaded state of adulthood had started to believe that kids nowadays are not the same as kids were back then, that the gap between the generations was as far and deep as the Grand Canyon. I believed that the immeasurable difference between our computer skills and the surge of globalization in this new world had made them miss the point of what it was to find hidden treasures, and that camaraderie was solely shared on Facebook and lifestyles posted on Instagram. But just like the movie and its makers had brought to my attention all things perfectly past, its players AKA kids: Alex Wolff, Michael Chen and Katie Chang, brought to a close the gap of a wronged perception.
As Michael and Alex talked enthusiastically about filmmaking, skateboarding, The Beatles, girls, and getting lost in New York City and Katie Chang talked about reading amazing poetry, cooking with friends and playing raunchy card games, I found that their tastes and experiences weren't only similar to my own twenty years ago, but they weren't so dissimilar from my present time self.
Riding the subway home later that day a few teenagers sat near me, and as I watched them talking amongst themselves my head became filled with thoughts. I thought about responsibilities, hidden feelings and caring about the right things. I thought about eating with friends, reading, writing, skateboarding and getting lost in the city. I thought about nature and I thought about resetting. I put my headphones on and smiled when the voice of Cyndi Lauper came on, the song: "The Goonies 'R' Good Enough". The subway doors opened and I got out. It was late afternoon and I couldn't help but notice how beautiful the sunset was as I walked, heading into the neighborhood where, according to Rob Meyer, passionate people live.