Interview with Filmmakers Toby Hayman & Paige Smith Lee (THE BIRDER)

THE BIRDER played to rave reviews at the January 2021 DOCUMENTARY Short Film Festival. Interview with director Toby Hayman & producer Paige Smith Lee.

What motivated you to make this film?

This film grew out of a shorter vignette that was part of a campaign for The Nature Conservancy. Dr Lanham had been recommended for that project, and when we initially talked to him on the phone for that it became clear that his passion and eloquence would make for a good film. I was particularly interested in how he talked about how birds had influenced his world view, and showed him how we are connected with places that seem far away.

The initial campaign only wanted digital short pieces, ideally 1-2 minutes long and we created a lovely short piece on him, but as I was working with the footage I felt strongly there was a much longer piece that needed to be made from his extraordinary interview. His personal story and passion for the subject was inspiring to me as a person and I felt that it was a message that not only would resonate to a larger audience but it would also be meaningful to many people.

From the idea to the finished product, how long did it take for you to make this short?

From initial idea to finished product it was about 6 months, but the actual working time was about a month.

We spent several weeks developing stories for the initial campaign. Researching possible stories and talking to possible subjects, but we ended up with a very condensed schedule to film all the pieces. Scheduling the shoots was tricky as we had a small team, several locations and little time. This was the last shoot just before the Covid lockdown hit, and in fact Clemson University, where Dr Lanham works, began to shut down the day after we filmed him. We filmed for 2 days. Paige edited the first short pieces, and then, after those had been published, spent a few weeks creating the longer film.

How would you describe your short film in two words!?

Passionate inspiration

What was the biggest obstacle you faced in completing this film?

We were lucky that we had few obstacles with the shoot, but would have not been able to shoot if we had scheduled it for even a day later, because of the Covid lockdown. The biggest challenge was that there’s pressure to create films that are short, dramatic and move quickly and we wanted this to be slower, more measured, and make the viewer feel like they are on location with Dr Lanham birding.

What were your initial reactions when watching the audience talking about your film in the feedback video?

I felt very moved by it, because the feedback seemed really well thought out and genuine, and it really did seem that our film touched the reviewers. To see people take an interest in something new because of our film is really gratifying.

Watch the Audience FEEDBACK Video:

How did you come up with the idea for this short film?

The initial idea came from someone else at The Nature Conservancy who knew about Dr Lanham and thought he would make a great subject for our campaign focusing on people who speak up for Nature. The idea to make it into a longer piece really came from Paige and her passion for the story from working on the short piece.

As I finished working on the Earth Month campaign, the Covid quarantine was instated. Dr. Lanham’s story and personality were so compelling that I didn’t want to stop working on his story. I told my director, Toby Hayman that there was a great, long piece in the footage and I really wanted to bring it to life. Toby was incredibly supportive and believed in my vision for the piece. As I worked on the film, Dr. Lanham inspired me daily to get out and enjoy nature and specifically our native birds. It helped me to see my surroundings in a different way and find peace in an incredibly difficult time. I knew his message could be as powerful for other people.

What film have you seen the most in your life?

Vertigo. it was on my college Film Studies list.

I am not a big re-watcher of films, but I have teenage children so I am revisiting all of my favorites with them-so now it is split between The Royal Tennebaums and Pulp Fiction.

You submitted to the festival via FilmFreeway, what are you feelings of the submission platform from a filmmaker’s perspective?

I liked it. I found it made it much easy to apply to several festivals, and it made them feel accessible to a first time submitter.

What song have you listened to the most times in your life?

Toby: (Don’t Go Back To) Rockville by R.E.M.
Paige: Midnight by Yaz

What is next for you? A new film?

Toby: The very next project is about Sandhill Cranes in Nebraska from existing footage. I’m hoping we can do more personal stories about people in nature once we can travel again.

Paige: I am working on a series that I produced and edited for WETA our local PBS station that focuses on neighborhoods in the DC area.

By matthewtoffolo

Filmmaker and sports fan. CEO of the WILDsound Film and Writing Festival

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