Howdy, this is my second post here on North American Birding but my first time writing to you, the readers of this blog. For my first post, the Bossman let me run an interview I did on my own blog, the Z Bird Birding Blog, and he was kind enough to do all the copying and pasting for me. Today, I’m again running another interview I published on my blog a few week ago, and it’s again about The Big Year, but this time I’m moving up in the world and doing my own copying and pasting. I figured this would be a good opportunity to say thanks to Greg Neise for letting me write for North American Birding.
Before we jump into the interview, I’d like to add something new about the interview’s subject, Greg Miller. I asked Greg for a picture of himself to put in the interview. He sent me this photo:
It’s a nice photo. Greg uses it on the home page of his website. But otherwise nothing special about it, right? Well, I was reading another interview he did over at the Birds & Blooms blog and found this version of the same photo:
Huh?! It blew me away that anyone would have a photo of himself with an A-list movie star and then cut out said movie star before showing the photo to others. But I knew that Greg wasn’t one to brag, so it wasn’t entirely surprising either. I asked him about it, and he said that he wasn’t using the full photo on his website because maybe it was unfair to use a celebrity just for self-promotion. Another example of why Greg Miller is a great guy.
Now, without further ado, here’s the interview:
Greg Miller first came to the attention of the American birding community with what was possibly the first “online” big year in 1998. Then the release of Mark Obmascik’s 2004 book The Big Year, covering not only his big year but those of two others (Sandy Komito and Al Levantin), introduced him to an even wider audience. As regular readers of this blog know, a movie based on the book, starring Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson, is scheduled to be released on Oct 14. Greg, an Ohio native who has been birding for over 50 years, got to work as an on-set consultant on the movie. Recently I was able to talk to him about his big year, the book, and the movie:
John Puschock: Writers have been notorious for getting things wrong about birding. From your perspective, was the book The Big Year an accurate portrayal of you and your big year?
Greg Miller: Yes. I thought it was quite accurate–right down to the embarrassing details.
JP: At the time you did the big year, what was the most important thing about it, the thing that really kept you going? Was it the number, the planning, the thrill of the chase, something else? And in hindsight, what was the most important thing you got from it?
GM: The curiosity of the whole concept drove me pretty hard. I called it my Dream Year. I wanted to know what it would be like to go to all the best birding spots in North America at the best times of the year–and to see how many species I’d end up with. And wanting to keep my mind distracted and out of self-pity after the divorce was a constant source of energy, too. I threw myself into the year early on. I probably drove quite a bit harder than if I had been in more normal circumstances. I actually started out the year with a goal of 600. I did not even think that 700 was possible while working. But that changed in mid-year. And the most important thing I got from my dream year was a wonderful collection of memories from birding and travels and all the wonderful people I met along the way.
JP: In the book, between a divorce and getting the “just friends” talk, you don’t have a lot of luck with the ladies. Did being featured in a book help your luck? Do you think being an inspiration for a major motion picture will improve it even more?
GM: Help my luck? Haha. I wish. No, I am still pretty much the epitome of single. Will the movie change things? I don’t know.
JP: Attu played an important part in the book and everyone’s (you, Sandy Komito, and Al Levantin) big year. Would you mind if I mention my company did a tour to Attu in 2010 and we’re looking for participants for our 2012 tour?
GM: Sure. That would be fine if you don’t mind me mentioning that I’m doing some guiding now.
JP: The book mentions that your dad punched a bear on the Alaska Highway. Did that really happen?
GM: Yes. Still a very amazing story to me.
JP: I bet you’re known as “the big year guy” to a lot of people. Do you think it’s your defining birding achievement? Is there something else you’d rather be known for?
GM: Yes. It is by far my biggest accomplishment. I don’t mind being known for The Big Year, even though it was entirely a selfish pursuit, and it has nothing at all to do with science or conservation. I am just hoping that the whole thing somehow translates into more people being aware of the wonderful world of birding. I hope folks are curious enough to give birding a try.
JP: Quite a few serious big year attempts have ended up being documented in book form. Which ones have you read, and what’s your favorite?
JP: A lot of big years are now documented online in blog form as they’re happening. Before that it was through updates on a website, such as Lynn Barber in 2008 and Dan Sanders in 2005 (which just happened to be on your website, correct?). But were you the first have an “online big year” in 1998? I used to check out your website for rare bird reports back then and I remember marveling at your year list (it was larger than my life list at the time), but I can’t remember if you were updating it during the year or if you published your list after the fact.
GM: I posted my list online with updates after trips during the year. To my knowledge, I am the first to get help through posting my list online. I got a lot of unsolicited help from many birders. Yes, I hosted Dan Sander’s big year updates in 2005. (Yes, I hosted Dan Sander’s big year updates in 2005.)
JP: OK, let’s talk about the movie: You were a consultant on the film, a job I know quite a few other birders wanted. Did you have to lobby for that or did it just fall in your lap?
GM: It was both. It fell into my lap as an opportunity. I was personally recommended by the book author, Mark Obmascik. And when I was given an offer (they could have told me I was going to do it for free), I took it without any bargaining. I think it was probably the world’s most enviable birding job.
JP: Did you work with any other consultants? I know some of the optics guys gave notes on the script, but I don’t know how much they interacted with the actors or if they spent time on the set.
GM: No. I didn’t work with any other consultants. Well, that I know of.
JP: What did you actually do as a consultant?
GM: The folks at Fox sent me the movie script. I went through the entire document and made comments and recommendations about every bird mentioned in the document. Whether or not all those changes were made is entirely up to the director’s discretion. I was on the movie set and got to watch filming on a daily basis. I was consulted a number of times with various questions on-the-fly. And sometimes it was quite challenging, too. All-in-all though, it was a fabulous experience getting to see a movie being filmed and getting to meet the actors and actresses and all of the movie crew, too.
JP: Did you ever butt in and make a suggestion on your own when you thought something wasn’t right during filming?
GM: Yes. A couple times I requested changes to how things were done.
JP: It must be surreal to have a character in a movie based on you. Was it surreal to bird with Jack Black?
GM: It was so other-worldly that it was like a movie–something that didn’t really happen. Jack Black and I went birding in a local Vancouver park. Several other folks from the movie cast and crew went along. It seems so far away now. Although we didn’t see much, it was fun.
JP: What was it like birding with him?
GM: That first day was a little awkward for me. I really felt out of place. Jack was nice and seemed reasonably interested in birds, but more interested in me. We spent a couple hours in a light rain.
JP: How awesome is the craft services table?
GM: Incredibly awesome! Gourmet food in a truck. No matter where we were shooting we could always count on fabulous food–catered on set. I think I might weigh 800 lbs if I was an actor. haha.
JP: Historically, Hollywood hasn’t depicted birders and birding in the most favorable light. Has The Big Year finally gotten it right (other than perhaps some less-than-believable birds)? Will birders be happy with the movie, or will we be embarrassed to admit to being a birder as we’re walking out of the theater?
GM: Umm. I’m not sure how birders will take the movie. I mean, after all, they are using me as one of their examples. I am someone most people can laugh at and as a birder, might be pretty embarrassing as a representative of all birders. Many of the movie cast and crew were very impressed with the story (the movie script). Folks on the set called me “The Bird Guy” and would call me when they saw a bird overhead. Most people I talked to had no idea there was such a world that existed. I think the story had a good effect on the movie set as a whole. And I hope it has the same effect on the general public. But I am no expert in that kind of thing.
JP: I’ve heard some of the binoculars used in the movie were purchased by the crew after filming. Were there converts?
GM: I know of several people on set who went from never knowing about birding to buying field guides and binoculars to take up a hobby that was “the coolest thing ever”. I am really hopeful. But I am pretty biased. I may be too optimistic.
JP: For the premiere, will you be walking the red carpet and who will you be wearing?
GM: On my last day on the set, the movie director shook my hand and said “Thanks for all your hard work. See you at the premiere.” So I have nothing in writing, but I do have some hope that I’ll get to go to the premiere. Who will I be wearing? ahhaa. That’s a surprise. Yeah. That’s code for I have no idea.
JP: What are you up to now? Any more big years in your future? Are you trying to get hired as a birding consultant on other movies?
GM: I just started a short computer contract recently. I am doing some bird guiding now, too. Maybe you’ve seen my new blog, too, www.gregmillerbirding.com. <–shameless plug. haha. [JP: Don’t worry, Greg. I include shameless plugs all the time. Hey, have I mentioned my Ross’s Gull tour in October?]
Are there any more big years? Hmm. Yes. With lots of “ifs”. Maxing out 5 credit cards is not one of the things that I want to do again. Am I trying to get hired again as a birding consultant on other movies? Well. If I was asked again, I would certainly not turn it down. I very much enjoyed the work and would do it again in a heartbeat.
JP: Thanks, Greg. I hope the movie does well, and I look forward to seeing you on the cover of US Weekly and the National Enquirer at some point.Share on Facebook