In Canada to shoot the new birder/buddy flick The Big Year, Owen Wilson encountered a Wilson's warbler in Vancouver's Stanley Park, Jack Black lost at poker in a Dawson City casino and Steve Martin, in the landscape, detected the work of one of his favourite artists.
"I'm a huge admirer of Lawren Harris, the great Canadian painter," Martin – who owns several Harris works – told The Globe and Mail last week from New York.
"Some of his paintings are kind of weirdly abstract, abstracted landscapes, and I could completely see the landscape that he was painting while I was there. It was very clear that he was painting Canadian landscapes. Very beautiful."
Set against The Big Year's majestic backdrop is the cutthroat world of competitive birding, where the drive to spot a yellow-bellied sapsucker or a pink-footed goose can turn a regular schmo into a scheming opponent.
A big year is a real (but informal) competition where birders spend a single calendar year trying to spot as many species as possible within a defined geographical area – in this case, North America.
In the film, inspired by Mark Obmascik's book The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature and Fowl Obsession, Black plays Brad Harris, a cubicle-dweller who writes computer code while listening to bird calls on his iPod. Martin is Stu Preissler, a wealthy Wall Street businessman who keeps trying, unsuccessfully, to retire. And Wilson is celebrity birder Kenny Bostick, the world record-holder for a big year, with 732 species spotted. They all, for different reasons and facing different challenges, embark on a big year.
"I was drawn to the emotional stories of these guys," says Black. "When they weren't birding, there was a lot of depth there. And it was a cool departure for me."
At the heart of the story is the question: What are you willing to sacrifice in order to make it to the top of your chosen game?
The film's stars, clearly at the top of theirs, have made some sacrifices of their own along the way.
"When I first started my career, I was travelling all the time," says Martin. "I travelled probably for 18 years. And you just can't develop any kind of ordinary home life. ... If I'd stayed in one place, I probably would have been married with kids." (Which Martin – now married to his second wife – adds may or may not have been a sacrifice, but "probably was.") Black, the voice of Po in the Kung Fu Panda films, had an "intense interest" in animation in high school, which he did not pursue. "I might have followed that as a career path had acting not swept me up," he says when asked what he's sacrificed for movie stardom. "So the world will never know what they've lost in the animator Jack Black."
The Big Year's gruelling if-it's-Tuesday-it-must-be-Tofino production schedule was a 55-day whirlwind of more than 270 scenes and 100 locations, most of them in British Columbia and the Yukon.
"It was like a decade's worth of travel crammed into one month," says Black.
Osoyoos, B.C. stood in for parts of Arizona and California; Tofino for the Pacific Northwest; Whistler for Colorado, and the Yukon for Alaska's Attu Island, a birding mecca.
"That was kind of spectacular," says Wilson, of the June 2010 shoot in remote Dawson City. "When we were there, it was the land of the midnight sun." On one particularly memorable bright night, Wilson finished shooting at about 11:00 p.m. and then teed off at the golf course an hour later, at midnight.
That part of the shoot was also "a real bonding trip for us," says Wilson, recounting a trip to Diamond Tooth Gerties, where the guys saw cancan dancers and faced off in a late night poker game.
"I did not," says Black. "I think actually our director David Frankel was one of the last men standing."
All that time in nature led to some encounters with wildlife: there were eagles, and Wilson's Stanley Park Wilson's warbler, a "beautiful, beautiful bird" he says, which he was able to identify, thanks to this project. "Before the movie I was probably limited to blue jays, cardinals, those types of things."
Under Frankel's direction, the film is meant to be more than a comedic romp through the bird habitats of North America. There's a message about the real goal of any pursuit being the journey, not the destination. And that sometimes doing something crazy to pursue your dream might not actually be such a bad idea.
"I did 100 [crazy]things" says Martin, early on to pursue his own dream, including quitting a lucrative job as a television writer. "I wanted to test my career as a stand-up [comedian]and there's only one way to do it, which is go on the road and do it."
Black, too, had moments of crazy in his climb up the Hollywood ladder.
"I went to a couple auditions in full costume," says Black, whose breakout role was the judgmental record store clerk in High Fidelity.
"I think it was more desperate than crazy, though."
The Big Year opens this Friday.