When you put Steve Martin, Jack Black, Owen Wilson in the same room, it’s nearly impossible for them not to joke around and go off on a humorous tangent. That is exactly what happened when the three actors sat down together at a New York City press conference for “The Big Year.”
“The Big Year” tells what happens when three rival “birders” — Stu Preissler (played by Martin), Brad Harris (played by Black) and Kenny Bostick (played by Wilson) — compete in the Big Year, an intense contest to see who can spot the most species of birds in North American in one calendar year. Here is what Martin, Black and Wilson said at the press conference.
What did you find most interesting about doing “The Big Year”?
Martin: Jack, you want to answer that?
Wilson: The highlight, for me, was seeing an eagle … And then it turns out we saw thousands of eagles, so it lost its excitement. But the first time we saw an eagle, we were filming in Canada. That’s a very exciting thing.
Martin: We were on a boat. Is that where we saw your eagle?
Wilson: I saw it at the hotel. They were trained to sort of stay perched on that … Where was that? Tofino [in Canada].
Martin: I saw an eagle on the boat out when we were out in the water.
Wilson: With other birds.
Martin: Yeah, well, you know. That diminishes the experience?
Wilson: What I mean is that it was …
Martin: Yes. The other birds parted the ways for the eagles.
Black: They were kind of the bullies of the bird community.
Martin: Is that true?
Black: In a way. The other guys get out of the way. “Here comes an eagle! Let him have the fish.”
Martin: I literally thought the other birds went [he says in an astonished voice], “Ahh!”
Wilson: But then it was odd to see the eagles like buzzards. They’re scavengers.
Black: How dare you! Take that back.
Martin: The American eagle.
Wilson: The dump is where we saw the most eagles.
Martin: That’s where we saw the most eagles.
Wilson: They were just hanging out.
Martin: That’s because they’re smart.
Black: I don’t like where this is going. Can we change the subject? I’m very little patriotic.
The production notes for “The Big Year” say that the movie was filmed in more than 100 locations over 55 days. What location that you never went to before surprised you the most when you got there?
Wilson: Don’t think that we’re bragging about how many. Over 100 locations.
Martin: That makes sense: 100 locations in 55 days … The most beautiful location — and I’ll think you’d agree — was my house. No, the Yukon. We shot it in a little town called Dawson, which by the way, was in the crossword puzzle the other day, and I knew the answer.
Wilson: What was the clue?
Martin: The clue was: “The highway that takes you from the city of Dawson to California” or something like that, which [the answer], of course, is the Alcan Highway.
Wilson: I wouldn’t have gotten that.
Martin: As I was saying, what was interesting is that the Yukon, where we had to helicopter in (the cast did; the crew had to drive), we were flying through the Rockies. And there’s a good reason they call them the Rockies, because it’s just rocks. There were no trees. And it was quite a beautiful experience.
Martin: And there were bears.
Wilson: Jack saw a bear. Did you see a bear?
Black: I did not see a bear, but I heard that some people saw a bear.
Wilson: Well, we did have somebody there with a high-powered cage.
Black: We had two forest rangers protecting us at all times from grizzly bears.
Martin: As an acting coach protecting us at all times.
Black: From bad acting? Let’s hope it worked.
Did you get any formal education from birds, such as from the Audubon Society?
Wilson: Our characters are based on real people.
Martin: I don’t think we’re allowed to say that for legal reasons.
Black: We did have consultants come by — real birding experts … [“The Big Year” is] loosely based on a book.
Martin: We did a lot of extensive research, meaning Jack did, and then we asked him about it.
Black: [He laughs.] Well, that’s very kind of you to say. I did some research.
Martin: And my wife loves birds and has a bird app. She knew a lot about birds. And once at our apartment here [in New York], a hawk sat on our windowsill. And that’s the extent of my birding education.
Wilson: What kind of hawk?
Martin: A red-tailed hawk. I know you are challenging me.
Wilson: But those don’t exist in New York, Steve.
Martin: Yes, they do because I have a photo.
Black: But you can’t read about birding and do research about birding and decide you want to be a birder. You have to have the compulsion, the obsession with birds. I don’t share that with the birding society at large, but it was fun to hang out with some real birders and watch them in action, because it’s kind of remarkable. They’ll be able to spot a bird from really far away. It’s just a speck, and they’ll say, “That’s the Mongolian Goose Fly.”
Martin: By the way, do you know who I heard was a birder on the radio, NPR, the other day? Jonathan Franzen. After he wrote his last book, “Freedom,” he took a vacation and birded. Can you say “birded”? Anyway, you might want to write that down.
Wilson: [Valdimir] Nabokov, I think, was a birder.
Martin: Who was?
Wilson: No. Butterflies.
Black: Close enough.
Martin: If he looked at a butterfly and said, “What kind of bird is that?,” then he does not qualify as an expert.
Wilson: Well, everybody’s sort of a birder, in the sense of if you’re walking through the park and you see a cardinal or something …
Martin: You wonder where their pope is.
In making “The Big Year,” how would you describe your time together when you weren’t in front of the cameras?
Martin: [He says jokingly] Mainly, it’s this: “Is Jack on the set yet? I don’t want to be there. Is Owen on the set? I don’t want to be there. You tell me when Owen leaves his trailer, because I’m not going to leave until Owen leaves his trailer.”
Black: I was the first one down here [at this press conference], by the way, waiting for these guys to come down here.
Martin: No, I was waiting.
Wilson: Steve is very punctual.
Martin: They told me not to come. I don’t want to say [more]…
Black: I don’t want it to come to blows. Next question.
Martin: No, we did hang out on the set, I would say. Did we?
Wilson: And it was also nice back in base camp, because you’d hear for lunch maybe Steve playing the banjo or Jack reading a comic or something.
Martin: [He laughs.] You can hear him read a comic. He has to speak the words.
Wilson: “No! That cannot be what’s going to happen!” [He laughs.]
Black: I am a very vocal comic-book reader.
Jack, do you think that your Brad Harris was stuck in adolescent mindset?
Black: My character, I guess you would say, is “stuck in his nest.” He needs to break free of his dependence on his parents financially.
What did any of you learn about obsession from making “The Big Year”?
Wilson: Well, I think the idea that like with anybody that takes a hobby — and in this case, it’s sort of a sport — and they’re obsessive, to me, that’s almost a life-affirming thing because they’re engaged with something. It’s better than being sort of bored and kind of aimlessly walking around. This [birding] gives a lot of shape and meaning to their lives. And that seems to be true of anybody who has a real interest in something.
Martin: I don’t think this movie is about obsession. To me, that’s a psychological term. To me, this was about loving something …
Martin: Yeah. I’ve certainly have had passions that have led to something.
Wilson: Eyes on the road, Rodolfo.
Martin: I’ve had many passions and obsession: magic and juggling and banjo and all kinds of art. Many, many things. [he says jokingly] Doing interviews. I love that. [He says to Black and Wilson, who have been laughing] You know, you can listen while I’m talking.
Black: I wanted to know who Rodolfo was.
Martin: Who’s Rodolfo?
Black: He’s the guy from “The Producers”!
Wilson: You know, when Zero Mostel is with the little old ladies in the beginning.
Martin: Are you talking about the movie or the play?
Wilson: The movie with Zero Mostel.
Black: Well, you started talking about passion, and he tried to focus you on back to the movie. Is that what it was about: “Eyes on the road, Rodolfo”?
Martin: We have a movie out that we should be talking about. And “The Producers” is really an old movie that we should not really be talking about.
Wilson: Yeah, they don’t need our help.
Martin: So “The Producers” will be out next week. And we hope you’ll see it.
Black: I’d already explored my own obsessions. That was one of the things that attracted me to [“The Big Year”] script: a chance to focus on that kind of stuff. I find it interesting. I have a few different [obsessions].
For instance, I love Scrabble. It seems to be a waste of time. There’s no career there, but it still feels good to be the best in the room to win, even when it’s a small, meaningless game.
Martin: I know you’ll know this: What is xi?
Black: I know that it’s a word. I believe it’s a monetary unit of Vietnam.
Martin: That’s right.
Black: Thank you.
Martin: I think it’s a Chinese coin.
Wilson: And that counts [in Scrabble]?
Black: Of course it counts.
Wilson: A monetary unit in Vietnam?
Black: And you have to stay up on the latest ones. What are the latest two-letter words? Za is also a word.
Martin: I don’t know what that means.
Black: Pizza. You’re not supposed to be able to use abbreviations, but if an abbreviation becomes part of the vernacular, sometimes it becomes its own word. Za. “Let me have a slice of za.” That’s a good one for the New York crowd.
Martin: I’m sure Fox is loving this conversation right now. [Black laughs.] “What are they talking about now? Oh God, I can’t believe it!”
Were there any pranks played on the set of “The Big Year”?
Martin: I’m not a prankster.
Wilson: April Fool’s: You want for that day to come around like nobody’s business. [He laughs.]
Martin: On April Fool’s, I go around and change people’s calendar to April. Not really.
Wilson: It wasn’t a big prank-filled set.
Martin: When I hear of a prank-filled set, I think, “Oh, I’m so glad I’m not on that movie.”
Black: Every time I’m on a press junket, I always regret that I didn’t pull some kind of a George Clooney prank, so that I would have a prank to talk about later. We really missed an opportunity there, guys.
Martin: You know, we should have hired a writer to come up with pranks that we could’ve said we played.
Black: [He laughs.] That is a brilliant idea. How long do we have before our next …?
Martin: Does anybody here have any ideas for pranks that we could’ve said we pulled? To me, it’s nose to the grindstone. We like to get the work done.
Black: I’m going to offer right now $50 to the best fake prank that we can say we pulled on each other. The offer is there. See me afterwards.
Martin: By the way, I do want to interject. We did have a lot of fun on the movie.
Black: Yeah. We had good times on the Yukon. We had a night of debauchery — and by that, I mean gambling.
Martin: One night, which I find interesting, the Yukon has that midnight sun time when we were up there in the summer.
Wilson: It never got dark.
Martin: It never got dark. And we came home at midnight. And Owen went to play golf.
Wilson: That’s right. I teed off at midnight. And the course was called the Top of the World Golf Course. And you could literally hear wolves howling around the fourth hole. [He laughs.] And the ball flies a mile up in that altitude. I was crushing it that day.
Black: It’s like big on the moon.
Wilson: And we played one day.
Black: We did play one day.
Wilson: David [Frankel] is a very good golfer: the director [of “The Big Year”]. Our game’s probably …
Black: There was a competition there. We can talk about it.
Martin: Anyway, we did this movie …
Wilson: You won.
Black: We did win. I didn’t want to say it but you still owe me a bottle of wine. Before we got to the end of the game, you were emphatic. You wanted to make it interesting. The winner buys wine.
Martin: I have a question.
Wilson: Immediately, “No tears,” is what I believe I said.
Martin: I have a question. [He says to a journalist at the press conference] What was your question? That was my question.
What do you think are the basic elements that turn a comedy into a classic? And what are some examples of those classics?
Wilson: I think “The Producers.”
Martin: [He says jokingly] Well, my being in it. [He says seriously] You never know. You don’t know, but I found that it does take five to 10 years to be known for what it really is, after the fact.
Black: Or longer.
Martin: Yeah, it could be, but you know, I’ll never see that day. But it does take time. “It’s a Wonderful Life” was a flop when it came out.
Wilson: Is that right?
Martin: Yes, it was. It just takes time. People get back to you. I’ve had movies that didn’t do well when they came out, and then they sort of churn for a while, and then you start to hear about that movie again for some reason. I’ve had the opposite too. So you really don’t know what anything is.
Wilson: It’s so true.
Black: George Bush could be our greatest president. We won’t know until 50 to 100 years.
Wilson: And “Anaconda” was not heralded as a great movie when it came out. [He laughs.]
Martin: [He says jokingly] That’s amazing. I don’t believe that.
Wilson: It’s true. [He laughs.]
When it comes to playing against reality, is that part of the pleasure and challenge of comedy?
Wilson: Well, I think it’s always ready to put on the skin of a new character, but usually you find something in the character … that you can relate to.
Martin: I found your character to be very close to [how you are in real life], but not really. Your spirit came through in your character.
Wilson: Good. Cutthroat competitor. Do anything to win.
Martin: And actually, I am sort of uptight.
Black: And maybe we should’ve switched the roles to play against time.
Martin: Yeah, let me try on the T-shirt.
Black: Let me be the tycoon.
Martin: I don’t know quite how to answer that, because … it’s called acting. They say, “How do you play against type?” I know what it is. Let’s say studio executives (are there any in the room?) say, “Well, the character is not likable,” under the mistaken belief that likable characters do likable things.
By the way, at the end of “The Silence of the Lambs,” what is it with Hannibal Lecter, when he escapes and goes off to eat somebody, and you still [think], “He’s kind of cute,” because you kind of like that guy.
Wilson: You kind of want him to get away.
Steve Martin started out as playing “wild and crazy” characters, but he’s been doing more dramas. Jack, do you see your career going that way too as you get older?
Black: I don’t have a five-year plan. I just go with what I like at the time. We’ll see what happens. Sorry, I don’t have a good answer for that.
What is it about your characters in “The Big Year” that is similar to how you are in real life?
Wilson: I can get sort of competitive about something. Growing up with two brothers, we were always intensely competitive with anything — ping pong, skipping a stone, anything. So that part of the character I can relate to.
It’s usually more when I read something or just if I find something interesting or funny or recognizable about the character that I sort of understood where everybody was coming from. And that is something that I like when I read something, as opposed to “Now, why is this person …? And this doesn’t quite make sense.” And in this [“The Big Year”], everything seemed to sort of track.
You had to make some bird sounds in “The Big Year.” Did that take practice? Was it difficult to do?
Wilson: I didn’t make any bird sounds.
Black: Yeah, you did. On the boat. That one time you were out on the boat and …
Black: But Rashida Jones [who plays Brad Harris’ love interest in “The Big Year”], she did the most incredible bird calling. And she did work with the country’s foremost expert. I can’t remember her name.
Martin: You did a lot of bird calls.
Black: Yeah, I did some bird calls. But mainly, my character was all about the hearing of the calls and the distinguishing … No amusing anecdotes about that, unfortunately.
Martin: Well, make up one. Come on!
Wilson: [He says to Black] Maybe what I thought was you reading a comic was really you practicing your bird calls. [He laughs.]
Black: Lex Luthor! You did it again!
For more info: “The Big Year” website
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