How Boston helped ‘Birder’s Guide’ take flight

From left: Katie Chang, Alex Wolff, Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Michael Chen in “A Birder’s Guide to Everything,’’ written and directed by Rob Meyer. Screen Media Films

For writer-director Rob Meyer, all those trips as a teenager to the New England Aquarium have paid off. Meyer’s well-received 2007 short film “Aquarium’’ drew on his own teen years as a self-described “nerd’’ and member of the Boston Aquarium Society. “I’d go there at least once a month for a lecture or a fish collecting expedition,’’ recalls Meyer, who shot the film in Boston and his native Newton.

For his debut feature, Meyer adapted and expanded “Aquarium’’ into a road-trip dramedy that swaps birds for fish as the geeky teen obsession at the heart of the story. The resulting film, “A Birder’s Guide to Everything,’’ opens Friday at Brookline’s Coolidge Corner Theatre.


The filmmaker explains that birds provided better metaphors for a deeper story about grief and nature’s restorative powers. The shift also gave him more opportunities for action, taking the teens into the woods, armed with binoculars, cameras, and a lust for adventure.

“In order to get the birding experience, you need to go out. There’s the thrill of the chase and once you have that experience, it clicks. It’s an elevated experience that expands the universe,’’ says Meyer, who studied science at Yale and later earned his MFA in film at New York University. In between, he lived in Cambridge and Somerville while working for WGBH making nature documentaries for “NOVA.’’

For their feature-film script, Meyer and co-writer Luke Matheny (who made the 2010 Oscar-winning live-action short film “God of Love’’) drew on the 1980s misfit teen genre and films such as “Stand By Me,’’ “Goonies,’’ and “Lucas,’’ as well as the late lamented TV series “Freaks and Geeks.’’ “A Birder’s Guide to Everything’’ is about David Portnoy (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a 15-year-old grieving the recent death of his mother and angry about his father’s impending remarriage. The possible sighting of a Labrador duck, believed to be extinct, sends David and his fellow birders, along with a young photographer (played by Katie Chang) and their mentor and possible rival (Ben Kingsley), on a trip into a sprawling Connecticut forest in pursuit of the rare find.


Meyer says he would have liked to have shot the film in Newton, but “all my connections are in New York now.’’ So shooting took place in the Hudson Valley.

Meyer didn’t consider himself a birder when he started his research, but gained confidence in his idea once he read author Kenn Kaufman’s memoir, “Kingbird Highway,’’ which Meyer calls “the birding equivalent of ‘On the Road.’ ’’ Kaufman wound up serving as a consultant on “Birder’s Guide,’’ and on April 16 he’ll present and discuss the film as part of the Coolidge’s Science on Screen program.

“He was the perfect guy to advise me and helped me get the details right,’’ says Meyer. “He read many drafts, advised the cast and crew, and even in post-production helped on sound. . . . Ken has a knack for making even a blue jay seem like an exciting find.’’

Kaufman says working on “Birder’s Guide’’ was a new experience for him. “I have been a consultant on television documentaries. This was more fun,’’ he says. “I was pleased with the way Rob’s script captured the feeling of what [birding] is like. I run into normal people who don’t know or who have misconceptions. And it’s hard to explain. Rob was intent on getting it right.’’


That meant drawing on resources at the renowned Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which has one of most extensive libraries of bird calls. The lab donated their use to the film.

“It’s so easy to get it wrong, which would be unforgivable,’’ says Meyer. “The call is everything to birders. . . . You have to get the calls right.’’


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