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Articles

Past Article

Mark Bittner, Judy Irving and The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill
By Heather Johnson
December 27, 2005 - 1:19 AM PST


"That's what the story of being alive on the planet is all about."

HJ: Judy, how did you find out about Mark?

Judy Irving: I read about Mark way back in 1995 in a magazine called Bird Talk. I had a little cockatiel for 16 years, so I subscribed to this magazine, and Mark had written a feature article about the parrots. I thought it would make a great film, but in the article, he said he was going to have to leave the Hill soon, because he was just caretaking this cottage and it was a very insecure future. So I didn't contact him then. Three years later, in 1998, a couple of friends urged me to contact him; he was still there, and I did contact him and started filming in the winter of '98, but he still felt that he was going to have to leave at any moment. As it turned out, I did get to film for almost a year before he had to leave the cottage. And then I did a lot of shooting after he left as well, of just the birds. So I was able to get the story on film.

HJ: The flock seems to dissipate a bit after you leave the Hill. Do you think you held them together in some way?

MB: I created a rhythm in their life. They didn't depend on me, but I did create a rhythm in their life. I was a regular part of their day, every day. When I moved, I weaned them, so it wasn't a big shock to their own schedule. Parrots love routine and if suddenly I'm gone, that's not so good. But if I slowly disappeared, I thought that would be better. The real difference in the flock came after Connor's death. You could feel that there was a vibe in the flock that was completely different. It just changed. It was very strange.

HJ: Judy, why did you decide to put more of yourself in the film?

JI: Not to give anything away, but late in the film I realized that if I was going to include that ending, I needed to put a little bit about myself up front. Although I really prefer to be behind the camera.

MB: She had very little of herself in the beginning, and she had editor friends saying, "You're crazy. You've got to build this up more."

JI: The part about my grandfather, learning how to feed the chickadees, and the connection that I felt between that experience and watching Mark feed the parrots. That sequence was constructed and edited into the film quite late. I think because of my basic...

MB: Hyper-secrecy [laughs].

HJ: How did you find former Van Morrison guitarist Chris Michie, who provided original music?

MB: I was a huge Van Morrison fan, and Judy once told me, "Oh, I'm going to this party and one of Van Morrison's guitar players is going to be there." I guessed that it was Chris Michie, and it was, and I jammed with him and it was really kind of fun. So then, when she was working on the temp music, I was feeding her these Van Morrison tracks that I liked, but just the instrumental parts of the songs. We had "Aryan Mist" playing at the end, and she really liked the track and wanted to get permission from Van Morrison to use the track. But we were going to have to take the vocal off if we were going to use it, and that would be hard to do, but we still had to ask. So we remembered our encounter with Chris Michie; he was a friend of a friend of hers. So we got a hold of him and asked, "How do we get a hold of Van?" And he said, "Ah, you don't need to get a hold of Van, I can recreate that myself and change it a little bit." So that's basically where it started, and he did one piece and then another. Originally he wasn't going to do the whole thing, but it turned out that he did, practically.

JI: And he was dying when he started the work. He had melanoma. At the very end of the film, it's dedicated to his memory. He didn't tell us that he was ill while he was working with us. He didn't want us to know or worry or treat him like a sick person. And he did a really great job. He actually composed seven new pieces for the film, and he let us use parts of five songs that he had already recorded that he had on CD. So there are 12 Chris Michie tracks in the movie. He died just shortly after he finished the soundtrack. We miss him.

MB: He has more pieces in the DVD extras.

JI: Some of the bonus features use additional tracks that Chris Michie had on that same CD. There's a music soundtrack that you can get that Chris did with a lot of extras. It's available from Catch a Rabbit Records [by mail order, send $17 check to Catch a Rabbit Records, P.O. Box 26, Fairfax, CA 94978], and it's on Amazon, too [also the Pelican Media Store].

HJ: How did you come up with the music video on the DVD? It's a nice companion to the deleted scenes, home movies and urban legends.

MB: The vocalist, Roberta Fabiano, had read my book and really liked it, before she saw the film. She wrote and recorded this song and wanted to send it to me. I was a little bit nervous because I was afraid I wasn't going to like it and didn't want to say anything bad about anybody's song that they were obviously attached to. But I liked the song; and I had a bunch of high-8 video footage that I had shot just before Judy came along. I just borrowed a neighbor's camera and wobbled along, following the birds. Judy got an Avid donated to her, so she had two of them. I was set up on one of them and made that video to go with the song.

HJ: What's the status of the parrots now?

MB: There's an issue with some trees. This guy wanted to cut down these trees, and it's not like the flock would be affected catastrophically if they were cut down, but it's like, how many times in your life have you had this place that you really like to go to, and all of a sudden it's out of business? It's the same thing for them. It's vital for their routine here where I live. And I'm beginning to think if the trees had been cut down I would have lost my connection to the parrots. I'm not positive of that, but I was starting to feel that way because they're coming by much less since they cut down some of them. It looks like we're going be able to save the ones that remain, but that's not finalized yet.

HJ: Do you still study them as closely as you did during the filming of the documentary?

MB: I'm not really as involved with them as I was. People see me as the "parrot man" living the rest of my life happily feeding the birds and that's not really what I'm about. That was a six-year experience that I had. They're my friends, I regard them as my friends more than anything, and I love being with them. But my life isn't that way anymore. That was a long time ago. In reality, I'm doing other things. Mostly I've been traveling, but that's coming to an end, too.

HJ: What do you make of the surprising success of recent documentaries such as Winged Migration, March of the Penguins and Wild Parrots? Is our society starving for simplicity?

MB: I just think that Hollywood formulas have played themselves out so many times that they're just not very involving anymore. It's all just special effects now. And documentaries, whatever comeback they are making, are coming from that fact that they are true stories and people; it's the only kind of stories that are being created generally. The storylines of most contemporary films are secondary to the special effects.

JI: That's why, in the end credits, I put up, "No digital special effects; shot entirely on location; this really happened." These really are real parrots that have real personalities and you can see them on the screen and they're not made up! In this day of digital fakery you never know what's real. This film was shot on 16mm Kodak film and occasionally I would do a freeze frame to make sure that you could see the baby bird flying out of the nest for the first time, for instance. Nothing more complicated than a freeze frame is in this movie, and I think people like that.

They also relate to the story itself, because I think in some way everyone is searching for their path in life. Even if you're on what you consider your path, you're constantly making course corrections as you work through your life, trying to search for what's good and right for you. And that's really what this film's about - Mark's search for right livelihood. And it's about how the parrots helped him find that. In the old days people used to go to the movies to sort out their own lives, and see what the characters up on the screen were doing, and they went searching for clues as to how to live and how to behave and how to relate. That golden era of movies is over now because of violence and special effects. But people still hunger for that. That's what the story of being alive on the planet is all about. This film is about that.

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Index
"They were the harbingers of my future."
"That's what the story of being alive on the planet is all about."

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Heather Johnson
Long-distance runner Heather Johnson lives in San Francisco, where she writes about music.

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