Richard Miron, director of For the Birds, reflects on discovering protagonist Kathy Murphy’s surreal story while studying his undergraduate degree at Yale University and the profound impact of emotional connection when making a documentary.
You can see our full review of the film >here<.
Reel Steel: I suppose the first question I really want to ask is how you came across Kathy and why you decided to make a documentary out of it?
Richard Miron: So this started as a senior project for my undergraduate at Yale and I was interested in animal rights and I was looking for a story about animal rescue and so I went to the Woodstock animal farm sanctuary to volunteer there and look for some kind of story to follow.
While I was visiting, they heard about this woman nearby and all these ducks and chickens, and asked if I wanted to join them on the car ride. I went with Sheila, who’s in the film, on the very first visit to Kathy’s place and as soon as I met Kathy, I was really struck by how warm and welcoming she was and proud of her birds she was. Especially juxtaposed by what I’d been told before about the situation. So I found a lot of tension in the situation that I wanted to keep following.
RS: Why do you think Kathy wanted to take part in the film?
RM: I was just showing her a genuine curiosity about what she does and I told her that I was interested in animals and peoples’ relationship with animals, and she saw herself as an expert on ducks and chickens and geese and turkeys, and I think she was proud to tell her story.
RS: How did you get backing for it in terms funding, support and getting a crew involved?
RM: It was originally just me up there with a camera, and another classmate of mine named Jeffrey Star came with me on the second shoot and was holding a boom mic and we were both just really intrigued by Kathy and Gary. So he was sort of the first crew member and eventually became a producer and editor on the film and that was over six years ago.
And then it took several years of filming before it turned into something real. The story kept evolving and we started editing trailers and trying to show them around to funders and stuff, and eventually we found someone to invest in the film which was really fantastic.
RS: How did the film evolve then? It wasn’t originally meant as a feature was it?
RM: It was originally a short film at first. The short film led up to the turkey situation, and that ended up being my senior project. But after that I just kept filming because I realised that triggered a whole series of events. And then I think as soon as it spread into the town and went into a court case and Kathy’s lawyer showed up, that’s when I realised that it could be a feature.
RS: What was the filming schedule like? Did you have to do a lot of negotiating with Kathy? Because there’s a bit in the film when her husband says that she is the way she is to keep people out, so was there a lot of negotiating with Kathy to get access?
RM: No, Kathy pretty quickly trusted me I think. Because I just kind of showed her a neutral curiosity and I was there for her and listened to her, so I didn’t have trouble for access with Kathy.
I lived in New York City at the time and it’s about a two and a half hour drive up there, so anytime the sanctuary was going to visit her – I was in touch with the sanctuary and Kathy, and I would just kind of check in about when like “when’s the next time you’re gonna visit Kathy?” and then I would go for those days. And then in between I would just spend time with Kathy and Gary just to get to know them.
RS: That was going to be another one of my questions, about gaining that kind of trust. How did you go about doing that, this being your debut? What was the process of gaining that kind of trust with them?
RM: I think, it just kind of happened naturally. It’s not like a place where there’s lots of cameras around or lots of press, it’s a pretty isolated property. I think it was just about showing interest and being nice and withholding judgement, you know?
I think for both sides, you know, there’s a lot of different sides to the conflict for everybody. Like for the sanctuary, I came to the them as somebody with an animal rights background and I’m a vegan and they’re all vegan, so I think there’s a sort of instant trust in that realm. And then with Kathy, similarly, I mean Kathy’s a vegan too so everybody, like, on paper agreed with each other so I was kind of in the middle and agreed with everyone and just tried to listen.
RS: What about with Gary, the husband? Because he’s kind of … he’s just exasperated at the start, so what was it like hearing Kathy’s side of it and then hearing Gary’s which was kind of just like “I want them [the birds] gone”?
RM: It’s … I would spend time with Kathy and Gary separately towards the beginning. I mean, there wasn’t much time where I spending time with both of them together. They would each pull me aside and tell me their side of things – it’s all understandable, you know?
I think that’s what kept driving me to make the movie, was because I kept agreeing with everyone whenever I was with them, you know? I was like “oh, that’s a good point, I hear your side of this” and so I was very much in the middle of these opposing viewpoints even though … but found that they had a lot in common.
RS: I think that’s what makes it such an interesting film, because it’s not just like “this woman has 200 birds and they don’t have access to a pond or anything, she’s crazy”, there’s such a conflict in what’s being said because you do come to feel sorry for Kathy because she does genuinely care about these birds, but then you also see the point of view from Gary’s side because he’s like “these birds sleep on my head at night”.
Did you find that the process of filming affected you in any way? Because it does take such a sour turn with the courts getting involved and stuff, did you get affected by it in any way?
RM: For sure. Yeah. There were times when I would get in the car after shooting and I would just start crying, because it was really high stakes and really serious for everyone involved. So I … it was a lot to handle, a lot to spend full days up there immersed in that. I care about animals a lot, so I was also, you know, trying to observe for myself how bad things were and how true what the sanctuary were saying was and how true what Kathy was saying was.
And so I was really conflicted internally about everything and it definitely wore on me, especially as things got worse and worse towards the end. That was by far the most moving and the hardest part for me, was the relationship between Kathy and Gary in what we call the third act of the film.
RS: Was it hard to retain some kind of impartiality? You said you have a connection to animal rights, but as a filmmaker did you have to maintain some kind of distance?
RM: Yeah, I mean the camera is definitely … it’s between me and the situation, so it protected me in a way emotionally to know that my job is to observe this and my job is to capture it. So yeah I … it was difficult but I also know that the film I set out to make and the films that were interesting to me as I was getting into documentary are the films that put the audience in a dilemma, so it was important for me to put the audience in my position of like “I see this side, and I see this side”.
I think it structured the movie or the way we edited it, to allow for that to happen, to allow for audiences to empathise with one person for a little way and then move over to somebody else, which is what it felt like to film.
RS: How did you decide what to include in the final film and what to keep out?
RM: The editing process was a little over two and a half years actually and it was really difficult because it was a very complicated story to tell, especially to tell it the right way because it was really important to move past the label of ‘hoarder’ to me because that’s what the news coverage is and that’s a much easier film to make, is a film about someone who’s you know labelled as this or that and so it was important to present Kathy through her own voice and her own proactive desires.
And so it took a while to really understand, like sifting through all footage and really internalising what she was feeling and what she really wanted because it’s about the birds – you know she says she wants the birds back but there’s other layers to what she wants out of the situation, and I think that the editing process was a lot about understanding the layers of what everyone wants.
RS: How did it impact the film when all the media coverage started – it just sort of blew up in the media at one point didn’t it?
RM: Yeah, it was really exciting. I first heard about it because a friend of mine was on Reddit and he saw a thread about this duck video that came out from the Woodstock sanctuary of the ducks swimming in the pond for the first time and that video went viral and millions of people were watching these ducks swim for the first time and there were all these comments on the YouTube page – very negative comments about this hoarder and people really just got a lot of joy out of those ducks. So it spread like wildfire and then the news coverage kept piling on.
It’s odd because it’s obviously very exciting when you’re making a film to have news coverage come in, especially because I’d been involved for at least a year before that so I knew that could drop in the middle of the movie and just expand the world of it.
RS: Going back to what you were saying about your emotional involvement, how did you cope with that?
RM: There was a very long … the court case was about nine months I think. And there were a lot of court hearings, I would go to every single court hearing that happened. And the American court system is sometimes not as efficient as it should be, so I would definitely go up … because I was driving up from the city and these court hearings would start at 9am and I would have to get up super early and go and then nothing would happen in court and they would postpone it, or someone wouldn’t show up.
So yeah, there was frustration on that end but often I would get something out of the trip, like I would get a good interview or do something while I was up there. But overall I think we had a little over a hundred days of shooting across five years which is kind of a lot for a story like this I guess! But i always felt like it was worth it to go up there, because I felt like there was something new I was learning each time.
RS: Are you still in touch with Kathy?
RS: How is she doing?
RM: She is great, she’s been Facebook messaging me. She’s excited about the premiere, she’s seen the movie and she loves the movie so that was really nice.
RS: What is she doing these days?
RM: She’s in a similar situation to the end of the movie. She’s still living in the same place and her birds are in the coups behind her house, and she’s seeing her family a lot more, which is really fantastic. Her daughter is more involved in her life now.
RS: What’s the reaction to the film been like? You said that Kathy really liked it, but what about the rest of the community that are involved such as the volunteers at the sanctuary? Have they seen it?
RM: Not all of them, but there’s generally been a good reaction. We just finished the film so we’re starting to share it with everybody now but my sense … I mean, we’ve gotten some reactions from the animal rights community in America and it’s been very positive, so I think people appreciate the way the animals are portrayed and the way the nuances of these perspectives are as well. Because ultimately, everyone’s on the same side but it’s how it’s expressed that becomes the conflict.
RS: Have you got anything else planned? Anymore films in the pipeline?
RM: I would definitely like to make another documentary about animal rights but in a different part of the movement. I can’t say too much about it, it’s just an idea in my head.
RS: Now it’s all done, how does it feel?
RM: It’s been really interesting to hear people’s responses to the movie, because the movie … we intentionally designed the edit of the movie to allow people to make up their own mind about the situation and to present everybody through their actions and less through what they say.
So I think … I mean I really approached it like a fiction feature in that regard, of letting the subjects do things and us witness that rather than it just being talking heads or interview based. Yeah, so I’m really excited to see how people respond to the story, and we’ve had test screenings with the rough cuts and that’s given us a sense of the different opinions that people have, so I’m looking forward to sharing it with the world!
We’ve been very careful with what we share about the movie because we want there to be an element of surprise because there was while filming it, for sure. There was a lot of times when we thought the movie was over and then something else big would happen and it would turn the tables and so we tried to give the audience that experience too.
You can see For The Birds at Sheffield Doc/Fest, info and tickets available here: