Chicago filmmaker gives peek into Bird land
There`s a scene in Xan Aranda’s illuminative documentary Andrew Bird: Fever Year when her subject, the enigmatic songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, locks in on a piece of chocolate completely obscured by the wanton clutter on a table in a backstage artist lounge. It was as if he saw through the chaos to liberate the sweetest bits, an act itself a microcosm for Aranda’s own film. Fever Year documents a touchstone in Bird’s career. It focuses on the two-night conclusion at Milwaukee’s Pabst Theater to one of the most rigorous years of touring that Bird had ever undertaken, but also set amidst the artist’s personal struggles — the unyielding desire to offer his audience a unique experience, a vexing personal breakup that’s mostly unacknowledged, and a pervasive illness from which Bird the performer and Bird the person seem to experience differently.
YES! Weekly caught up with Aranda — her first name pronounced with a hard Z — as Fever Year prepares to screen at the RiverRun Film Festival to talk about the ever-private Bird’s personal decision to want this film, and how her longstanding friendship with him put her in the unique position to make a piece that no one else could have made.
Y!W: With such a guarded subject, the fact that you were able to make this film without any sort of third-person exposition was quite a feat.
XA: I knew it had to be experiential, and I prefer experiential documentaries in general. The less narration, the better. Once I embraced that the film was going to be about mood and spending time with him, and less about statistics, then I could stretch out into that creatively.
Y!W: Were you surprised he would let a camera into his life?
XA: In some ways. He’s been camera curious for years. This is our fourth project together and I had been advising him for a while. I had been advising him on a piece like this for a while with my colleague Peter Gilbert, the legendary director who produced Hoop Dreams, whether to make a music film. In general my advice was that you don’t want to do a concert capture. I think it’s a waste of time and mainly for archival purposes. After a couple of months, he came to me and said he thought I’d be the only person he’d be comfortable doing this with. We looked at lots of different things; I remember we rode our bikes to the Music Box Theater in Chicago to see A Hard Day’s Night, which he’d never seen before and is one of my favorite films. We talked a lot about Jazz on a Summer’s Day, watched Woodstock, all the classics that give you something more than what you’d expect.
Y!W: You mentioned in your director’s Statement that you had an idea in the beginning as to what this film should be. How did the final product reconcile with that?
XA: I’d say for almost a year, we really grappled with the shape and form of this film. There’s an entire rough cut that we both agreed we never wanted to see ever again. But that’s a normal part of the process. The film is… you can kinda smell what’s happening and then there’s a moment when it really opens its eyes. It kinda grew over time, which is what you hope a doc will do. I think it surprised both of us what it ended up being about, but that’s the excitement of the pursuit, you know?
Y!W: How did you as a director settle your fandom with the objectivity that you needed to honestly portray him?
XA: I don’t really consider myself a fan of his, I mean I know and love the music, but I’m just a friend. I really do think that he asked me to do it because I’m not enchanted by him, and I mean that in the simplest way. I think that he had spoken to some other teams about making this and had some really famous directors recommended to him. Even they had this thing where it was like, you ever have someone who wants to put clothes on you? It was like that. I think he just wanted to be himself.
Y!W: Considering your rapport, were there moments in interviews when you thought you were getting the same kind of canned responses he might give a typical interviewer?
XA: Yeah, it would fluctuate with how tired he was, or how aggressive I was being, how good he was feeling versus how comfortable either of us were. That’s pretty normal when you’re working with a human being. I would get frustrated at times, because I knew all those answers. The hope is that you get enough time together that you have these conversations that lend variety there. There’s a moment in the film where he’s actually visibly annoyed where I gave him a strong poke. I think as a documentarian you’re not doing your job right unless you’re taking both of you to the edge. I did get in a couple of really solid tricks. There’s an audio-only interview that I did after a big meal and a bike ride, so we were both very relaxed. That’s where I got a lot of the best statements, many of which were from re-approached questions. One of the major gets on that is when he says, “I might be turning into a turtle or a bear.”
Y!W: The title refers to his persistent illness over this tour. Did that ever become sort of a boondoggle for you?
XA: Well, Andrew doesn’t smoke weed, and I think that having a fever is another way to alter your sense of reality. I don’t make a practice of speaking for him, but I know it has to be hard to watch yourself struggle like that. It happens to be what the story was that year. I mean he was homeless, he was ill and overworked. He was going through a major breakup. Think about the hardest year you’ve ever had. There’s a movie about it and you’re not feeling well. That’s tough to take.
Y!W: Was there a worry that you as a documentarian with such a fragile subject would influence how he behaved?
XA: I think that year had such a force to it, at first I was fearful that we would affect things. I had seen Andrew and his team make a couple of failed attempts at recording shows. Ultimately those performances were blown and I didn’t use that footage. The days that he would show up sick, I would give him every opportunity to back out. The fear is that you spend all of this money and have all of this expectation, and it won’t be for anything. It will fail again. I took my knowledge of him and what keeps him invested and I drew on that. If anything, I think that was my advantage. I don’t think any one else could have pulled that off.
Andrew Bird: Fever Year will screen at a/perture Cinema on April 14, 15 and 19.
Note: The print version of this story incorrectly referred to the Pabst Theater as being located in Chicago. It is actually in Milwaukee, Wis.