A Love Story Underneath an Animal Rescue Story: Director Richard Miron, Co-Editor Jeffrey Star and Producer Holly Meehl on For the Birds
If there’s one thing we can be sure of about Kathy Murphy, the middle-aged woman at the center of the moving debut feature, For the Birds, by director Richard Miron, it’s that she loves animals. Birds in general, ducks and turkeys in particular.
Kathy has been “collecting” them for years now on her small makeshift farm in Upstate New York alongside her begrudging husband, Gary. Less an obsession than an inherent need, Kathy values her birds above all else, and as crowding and cleanliness prompt local animal sanctuaries to threaten legal action of behalf of the wellbeing of Kathy’s feathered friends, For the Birds becomes both a document of a legal battle and the perseverance of a marriage on its last legs.
For the Birds has recently been deemed a New York Times Critic’s Pick, being cited for its multi-layered editing that juggles multiple perspectives and narrative throughlines. I spoke with Miron, his co-editor Jeffrey Star, and producer Holly Meehl about that editing process, gaining access to a rather secluded family, and how characterizing a person with a mental illness can do more harm than good. For the Birds is now in theaters.
Filmmaker: Richard, with a background in editing other filmmakers’s documentaries, how did that experience better prepare you for embarking on your directorial debut?
Miron: While I had begun filming For the Birds right out of college, my first job out of college was as assistant editor on Sam Cullman and Jennifer Grausman’s Art and Craft. I learned a lot from editor Mark Becker on that project. I then moved on to assistant editing Roger Ross Williams’s Life, Animated before editing a documentary called The Surrounding Game. Through each of those experiences, I was soaking up as much as possible from the editors around me and the stories we were telling. Each film taught me something about how to structure a story and how to engage an audience with characters. I think it helped quite a bit. But For the Birds was a really unique project that required a whole lot more learning, on my part, once we began the edit.
Filmmaker: Did those past experiences enable you to have a better working relationship with Jeffrey Star, your editor on For the Birds?
Miron: Yeah, I think the biggest thing about collaborating with Jeffrey was to be totally open-minded to the possibilities of what this movie could be and allowing new ideas to come in. I had to be willing to admit that I was wrong.
Star: Or that I was wrong.
Miron: We were constantly pushing and challenging each other. We had known each other for years and went on to spend about two years in the same room together working on this film. I think whatever small conflicts of perspective we had led to a richer edit.
Star: This film really pushed us quite a bit and we had to be willing and able to wrap our minds around the experiences of the characters. They lived really full, complicated lives and were much older than we were (we were fairly young filmmakers at the time). We really had to stretch ourselves to tell their story with the appropriate level of depth and realness.
In the edit, it was important to get a real depth of feeling for these people. We were trying to find a way to bring that out on screen.
Filmmaker: Kathy and her husband Gary live a very secluded life in Upstate New York. I assume access was something difficult to obtain?
Miron: Well, I originally entered the story via the animal sanctuary after they had received a complaint about Kathy’s birds. We went to meet Kathy and I brought my camera along with me (this was in late 2011). It was really important, from the get-go, to let her know that I was independent, that I wasn’t with the sanctuary. I was a student at the time just looking to film people who loved animals. That’s kind of where it started.
The second time I went up there, I brought Jeffrey along to spend time with Kathy and Gary, walking around their property, interviewing them, and getting to know the greater context of their lives. The access came naturally as a result of spending time with each of them and really listening and caring about them.
Filmmaker: Given the tight quarters of their home, did you have to adjust crew size/gear and equipment?
Miron: The crew and equipment were pretty small from the get-go. The camera I used was a Canon VIXIA HF20, a pretty small camera, and it had a little shotgun microphone on top of it. It was all very agile filmmaking, going where the interesting places were, looking in the corners of the room and at the people that were on the sides [of the frame]. When we had busy, chaotic scenes, it was just about finding what was interesting and moving over there accordingly. I don’t know the ratio of how many times I went Upstate myself versus going up with Jeffrey or with one other sound person, but it was a pretty tight, intimate crew.
Filmmaker: As the film takes place over several years, how did you establish “eyes and ears on the ground” that alerted you of when to return? Was it important to establish a relationship with the animal sanctuaries to be alerted of when they might return to Kathy’s property to seize further animals?
Miron: I was in touch with everybody during the beginning stages, calling and checking in at least once a week to find out when the next visit would be from the sanctuary and any kind of tip off as to what might happen next. I was borrowing friends’ cars and renting Zipcars to drive up initially from school and then from New York City. I tried to be available as quickly as possible whenever something was happening. It was only a two or two-and-a-half hour drive, so I managed to be there for most of the film’s major events. I mean, the court hearings went on for about nine months and there were a lot of court hearings where nothing happened. It became a question of, “If we’re already up here, how can we still film something that might be useful?”
Star: Over the course of several years, we got pretty ingrained with everybody in the community. We got to know not only Kathy and Gary really well but also her neighbors and her friends and the members of the sanctuary. We had a pretty large network of people, to the point where we’d even start to run into them at the gas station…
Filmmaker: It’s implied at one point in the film that Kathy may be suffering from a mental illness. As filmmakers, what precautions did you have to take to show respect for a subject who may be a little less than fully functional?
Star: It’s worth mentioning, from the outset, that while people suggested that she may be dealing with a mental illness, it was not something Kathy was ever officially diagnosed with. Treatment, for example, was not a part of her life nor a part of how she viewed herself. It’s nothing that’s discussed outright. The best we could do was listen to her and treat her as a full person and follow our gut as to what was the best way to work with her, as much as she was sometimes being defined by the local media or by people in the community as something of an obstacle.
Miron: Throughout the process, we found that labeling Kathy as a hoarder or as having a mental illness wasn’t particularly helpful when it came to empathizing with her. Our goal with the film was to draw the audience closer to Kathy and see the similarities we had as opposed to othering her, which was already happening in her life. We tried to do the opposite.
Filmmaker: When pitching the film to potential funders, did you know that it would become, in part, a story about Kathy versus the law, the struggle between animal neglect vs animal rescue? What did you foresee as viewers’ way “into the story?”
Meehl: What initially brought our main executive producer, Cindy Meehl, to the film, was the “animal story” component. She had made Buck and now has another animal film called The Dog Doc [on the festival circuit]. She was very much into the relationship between Kathy and her birds and the complexity apparent there. We initially were looking at people that were interested in animal stories and the gray areas involved in those stories. That’s how she initially came on board.
Miron: The story began, for me, as a story about animal rescue and animal rights. The question of neglect versus love was the main question for the first chunk of filming. But over the course of applying for grants — and there’s tons of writings you have to do and samples and trailers that you have to share with people before a film is finished — we started to realize how interested people were in the relationship between Kathy and Gary, basically the love story underneath the animal rescue story. I think that was a gradual shift over time of how we approached the film. Seeing it more as a love story and then, of course, later on in the filming, having Kathy and Gary’s relationship come to the forefront.
Filmmaker: Holly, could you describe the role of a producer on a film like this. How was your role defined/morphed as production continued over the years?
Meehl: I came on board at the very end of 2014/beginning of 2015. Richard and Jeffrey had been working on the film for three full years at that point and had a trailer cut together of a big piece of the story with the lawyer character coming in, etc., but there was still a lot that we needed to film. I watched the trailer and was immediately hooked into these characters and their world. I was oscillating at the time between whether I wanted to do more fiction film or documentary film. When I saw their trailer, I was like, “This is a documentary that I have to be a part of,” because it’s a wild story that you can’t make up. There were a number of rich layers that I could see Richard was in the process of capturing.
That was how we partnered up. As Richard had already been working with Jeffrey, my role was to try to help with funding. Although I would occasionally go up and meet Kathy on a shoot, it was Richard and Jeffrey whom were very much “in it.” My role as a producer was to be a little bit more distant to the story and the cut, to come in and watch stuff a bit later and guide how an audience member would take this in. Managing the budget as the production continued over three, four, five years, with our limited resources—and figuring out how to make the film the way we wanted to—was a big part of my role.
Miron: In total, the film took about six-and-a-half years to make and bringing in Holly and then Cindy and our other Executive Producer, Brian Reed (of S-TOWN fame), was incredibly helpful. These fresh perspectives came in to deal with all of our feedback and to give us a greater sense of the story we were telling.
Filmmaker: Without spoiling much, the film has a logical conclusion that provides the audience with a sense of closure. I’m curious if, since you began shooting the film in 2011, you were ever able to feel that as well, or if you had several narrative “end points” in mind that you were attempting to reach.
Miron: The question of what would provide closure to this story was an ongoing one. At first, we thought it would be the birds being taken away from Kathy. And then when Kathy’s lawyer came into the picture, we thought, “Okay, when there’s a trial, that’s when the story will be over.” And then, of course, after the trial there was another surprise that happened (and clearly the story wasn’t resolved for Kathy and Gary). We kept wondering when it would feel like there was a resolution. And of course the final resolution of the movie was completely unexpected for us. We never imagined in a million years that we could have such a cinematic ending to this story, one that merged Kathy’s intentions with her reality.
Maybe Jeffrey could speak more to this, but the edit process began to coincide with our understanding of Kathy, and her desires as a person were coinciding with what she was actually doing in her life. It was a merging of production and post production.
Star: And that didn’t happen for us until year six of making the film. We were roughly a couple of years into editing the film at that point. When we brought an early rough cut to the IFP Documentary Lab in 2016, that hadn’t happened yet. We were left with a very different final event that gave us what our ending was at that point in time. It was at a really difficult place to end the film. At that point, we thought that was all we were going to have. That’s part of the challenge of telling a true story as it unfolds: you have to go through a whole lot of caring for the people whose story you’re telling. That was a real challenge.
Miron: We were all rooting and hoping for an optimistic, hopeful ending. But we just didn’t know how it would manifest, to be honest.
Filmmaker: The film has played a number of notable nonfiction festivals. Was that strategic on your part? Did you aim for doc-specific venues?
Miron: We had hoped that the film would appeal to both nonfiction and narrative audiences. Premiering at the Sheffield Doc/Fest and then AFI Docs was an amazing launch for us. We got a lot of love for the film at both of those places. We had our eyes on a couple of others festivals, including the Hamptons International Film Festival, which had an animal rights program added which is pretty unique for a film festival. And then also the Woodstock Film Festival, of course, which was the home territory for this story.
Star: Our goal was to make a film that was both very universal and very specific and that would play to an audience in Budapest or in Sheffield or in New York City or would also play to Kathy’s community, that everyone would feel similar, universal emotions. Being able to bring it home to Woodstock and share it on a screen where Kathy was in attendance with members of the sanctuary and the attorneys was a major landing point for us, for everyone to see the film and feel represented by it, in a way that they felt good about. That it was accurate.
Meehl: I want to add that Dogwoof came on to represent the film at Sheffield and were a huge part of bringing us to so many places internationally. We played over 20 film festivals and Dogwoof really helped map that out. They have an amazing network comprised of the festivals that they’ve played at with all their films over the years. They helped our film reach a wider audience when we brought them on, beyond the American scene, which was great. Now, of course, the film is going into theatrical where we’re working with a theatrical booker. Her name is MJ Peckos, the president of Dada Films. She was a great help too.