One glimpse at the source material and many naysayers would have pegged 20th Century Fox’s box-office disaster as a tough sell from day one. The savvy production brass at Murdoch’s empire once viewed the property as a prestige title; the finished product would emerge as something else entirely.
The Big Year, creeping into Australian video stores this week having bypassed a theatrical release, is adapted from the cult book The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature and Fowl Obsession by Mark Obmascik. The 2005 non-fiction work is one man’s account of the year he spent in one of the most fiercely competitive pastimes in the world – bird-watching. It is a chronicle of the passion that drives many and varied enthusiasts to commit 365 straight days of their lives to recording as many unique bird sightings as possible.
A bestseller is a bestseller in the world of potential film properties and 20th Century Fox weren’t going to let a recognisable brand with a built-in audience slip by even if the subject matter seemed, well, a bit abstract. The studio brought Obmascik onboard so as his unique spin on character and understanding of the birding obsession could be utilised by Hollywood comedy veteran Howard Franklin to turn the flavoursome book into a marketable three-act movie. Franklin was a respected writer and occasional director, notable for having worked with Bill Murray on Quick Change and Larger Than Life (two of the actor’s biggest box-office duds)
The finished script, crafted into a warm-hearted story featuring three distinctly different comedic leads each going after a record number of sightings, was generating buzz. Director David Frankel was basking in the glory of 2006s word-of-mouth hit, The Devil Wears Prada, when the script came his way. “I fell in love with the characters and the opportunity to tell a story in a world that was really unusual, and that's one of the things I look for,” the director told ComingSoon.net. "...Prada was in the world of fashion, and (bird-watching) just seemed like this cool other world with equally passionate and obsessive characters.” He and Franklin made some adjustments, before the director committed to Marley & Me, but producers Stuart Cornfeld and Curtis Hanson kept at Frankel; by May 2010, Fox 2000 had okayed a hefty budget to cover the extensive outdoor shoot and production would begin (pictured, above - Frankel on-set with Martin and Black).
On the page, the film was full of rich, character-driven comedy potential and quality actors gravitated towards it (at different junctures, Steve Carell and Dustin Hoffman both showed interest). Also, the opportunity to work with a director who was quickly developing a Midas-like reputation was enticing. Jack Black was looking for a small-scale project after the FX-heavy Gulliver’s Travels and was cast as obsessed wannabe Brad; Steve Martin, in favour after his stellar hosting of that years Oscarcast, responded to the melancholy inherent to the ageing birdy Stu Priessler (a character who closely resembles ‘Neal Page’ in the much-loved Planes Trains and Automobiles). Owen Wilson had become the go-to guy at Fox for any lead material, having added his name and voice to a series of in-house hits (Marley & Me; The Fantastic Mr Fox; Night at the Museum 1 & 2; Marmaduke). "David was the reason we all signed on to do the movie," says Wilson in the film’s press notes. "We got swept up in his enthusiasm for the project. He explained it in a way that resonated with us -- the idea of people striving to do something with their lives; something that really makes a difference to them." The top-tier support cast included Rosamund Pike, Dianne Wiest, Brian Dennehy, Jim Parsons, Joel McHale, Jobeth Williams, Kevin Pollak, Tim Blake Nelson and Rashida Jones (both pictured, below, with Black).
The extensive shoot (California, Georgia and several remote sites in Canada) was not an easy one, especially for a director whose previous work had been in the film-production centres of New York and Los Angeles. The budget climbed to over US$41million, but the distant locations kept Fox executives at bay and the pedigree of the stars and track-record of the director allowed the film’s producers to ease the concerns of Murdoch’s minions.
Early indicators that the film was in some post-production trouble was when Fox shifted the film from a highly-competitive July 4 release date to the wilds of mid-October. Worse yet, the avid bird-watchers of North America were growing increasingly peeved at Fox for apparently pulling support for the film; the natural heritage website 10,000 Birds ran a scathing piece called ‘Birdersploitation’. Questions arose amongst enthusiasts as to the accuracy of several bird calls used in the film – an unforgivable error amongst full-time bird-watchers.
By the time The Big Year hit cinemas, it was already cinema non-grata amongst Fox executives. Meagre preview screenings to capital city critics had resulted in lukewarm reviews (it ranks a 39% on Rotten Tomatoes). Promotion was non-existence, ensuring none of the demographics that the three leads appeal to (Black’s goofball under-25 crowd; Wilson’s 35+-ers; Martin’s over 50’s) would be convinced their favourite stars could make a bird-watching film...watchable. The film’s ultimate humiliation was that, on a cost-vs-return basis, its international box office take of US$7.5million may make it 2011’s biggest money-loser.