A woman is on the edge of dying from cancer. She has two children who need someone to look after them post her death. The best person she thinks can help her is her birthmother, who had left her newborn child in an orphanage.
The Birdwatcher is a Canadian Indie film about the relationship between life and death; about the matters that matter more than death itself. It’s about motherhood and its great purpose that makes Saffron (Camille Sullivan) to make a life changing decision.
On Saturday morning, I had the pleasure to sit down with Siobhan Devine to discuss her feature film, being a woman in the film industry, and how the indie film can reach a wider audience.
MOVIEMOVESME: How did you come to know about this screenplay?
Siobhan Devine: We have an interesting background; there is this program in Vancouver called Crazy Eights where hundreds of people pitch and then six of them get to make a short film in 8 days. So, we were in the line to register and we met each other and liked each other. We said, “Okay, if neither of us gets in we’ll make a film together.” So, neither of us got through and she had written a film called OMG, a short comedy and she sent that to me. I said I liked the film and so we made the short film OMG which is about a young girl who runs away from home and goes to live with her grandma. She runs away because her parents want to take away her phone. It’s an intergenerational comedy with just the three women in it: the mother, daughter and the grandma. We got along so well that we decided to make a feature film together. She had written The Bird Watcher because her sister had passed away from cancer. She sent me the film and didn’t tell me anything about. She just sent me the script and what was weird was I had just a few weeks before had a very good friend of mine pass away from cancer who had a teenage daughter of the same age as my teenage daughter. Anyway, I get this script and I read it and it made me cry. I thought I just had to make this film, it felt like the right film at the right time. So that was the origins of how we met and how the film started, the place of truth you know.
MOVIEMOVESME: Was there any discussion to maybe add something more to make it more touching?
Siobhan Devine: Yeah, we worked on the script together for quite a few months. We had about thirty drafts, which is a lot. The film is not autobiographical or biographical in any way, it’s only really the feeling of the film that has that kind of meaning. The rest of the story is all made up. One of the advantages of having a writer-director team instead of it all being just one person is that we were able to be more objective about the script as for her it was her heart and since I joined later it was more objective. I think part of the reason the film works is because I was able to move it out of “too emotional” to more like making sure the characters were drawn. This I think was an advantage of being a writer-director team, at least for us.
MOVIEMOVESME: Was it intentional to leave the cancer aspect aside?
Siobhan Devine: I think it wasn’t on purpose. Originally the script was going into the chemo world and all that but we realized we can’t do everything in the film. Secondly, for me the most interesting part was when the two women meet. We made a conscious decision to make a film that was not about cancer. She was just a woman who had cancer and what she did as opposed to her battle with cancer.
MOVIEMOVESME: Can you talk about the location?
Siobhan Devine: I live in Vancouver and so the film is set in Vancouver. We live in a temperate rainforest where we are surrounded by trees. So, it’s so much part of life as a Vancouverite, the mountains and the trees and the rain. We can just drive twenty minutes and be in the middle of nowhere, in the woods. For me setting the film in the pacific Northwest in the rainforest was really important because it’s so much part of life as someone who lives on the West coast.
MOVIEMOVESME: How did Gabrielle Rose and Camille Sullivan come onboard?
Siobhan Devine: Gabrielle Rose and Matreya Fedor, who plays the teenage girl, were both in the short comedy. So, we already had a relationship with them from OMG. I went to Gabrielle with the script and she was onboard and the Matreya came onboard. For Camille, we auditioned for that role and we had some really fine actors from Vancouver. She just brought fragility and empathy to the role. It was different to what everyone else did. She was strong yet fragile all in the same moment which was something special. It’s funny because originally, I thought the role would go to someone more like Birdy, a bit harder but it was something so beautiful about Camille’s take on the character and that’s why we went for her.
MOVIEMOVESME: This is you first feature film. Can you talk about the financial risks you had to take to make this film?
Siobhan Devine: The difference between a short film and a feature is big. It’s funny I tell people you can actually make a film so we shot in fourteen days, which is crazy. Everybody worked for the UBCP where they have a program that is $100 a day for the actors. I won an award called Women Director’s Chair Feature Film Award which is up to $120,000 worth of goods and services. A lot of local film businesses gave services and that was really the key for us because that was the first money in. From there we did an Indigo Gold campaign. Eventually we went to Telefilm and they were really kind and they invested some money. It was sort of like a patchwork and everybody worked for pretty much free. So many people gave us stuff for free or cheap and even the location, they gave it to us for half. Everybody tried to help us make this film. Also, you either have time or money. It took three months to edit because the woman who edited was basically contributing her time.
MOVIEMOVESME: In USA people are more loyal to indie films compared to Canada. What in your opinion could be done to generate more interest here?
Siobhan Devine: I think it’s something filmmakers here grapple with a lot because we don’t really have much of a tradition of people going to support local indie films. There’s many problems; first of all, there’s so many films and secondly we don’t have access to our own theatres. I don’t really know what the answer is honestly. I’m also the producer on the film and we decided to self distribute as nobody is going to love the film as much as I do. And I really feel that all the people who worked on the film and the writer and everybody pushed as hard as we can. So, that’s hardly why it’s even here because I feel this tremendous sense of responsibility to everybody who helped me. How many people are gonna see it? I don’t know. We’ll put it online and keep pushing but I don’t know how to breakthrough. I just know the traditional way of making a film doesn’t work, so that’s why we tried to take a bit of a more alternative track and just do it ourselves and not rely on the system.