It is generally a workplace hazard of verite documentaries that the cameraperson has to watch their step, but the fancy footwork required of Richard Miron as he walked around Kathy Murphy’s house in upstate New York was a particular challenge, less so for making sure he didn’t accidentally trample one of the hundreds of geese, chickens, ducks and turkeys that roamed around the property for his tender documentary “For the Birds,” than for how sensitively he needed to be in committing them to film.
“The camera is a little bit of a barrier between myself and the animals, so you feel a sense of purpose when you’re there filming, but the goal was to see past the chaos,” says Miron. “I always had patience and non-judgment when I went to Kathy’s. It was about seeing the reality that she was seeing with her birds and not judging it the way someone would from afar.”
Murphy’s massive collection of feathered friends had come to the attention of the Ulster County Society of Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and by extension, the Woodstock Sanctuary as the land Murphy and her husband Gary shared was far too small to safely house so many birds. Yet while many would find the dramatic tension in the standoff that ensues between Murphy and the organizations over a proper home for the flock, Miron finds even more when viewing it through a humane lens that doesn’t reduce the situation to a fight over custodianship, but rather goes deep into what’s driving Murphy’s steadfast refusal to part with her pets when it becomes clear she’s putting them in danger, not to mention jeopardizing every relationship she has, including with her husband, who has taken to cranking up his radio at night to drown out the birds so he can sleep.
Remarkably, this unusually sophisticated character study, both endearing as a small-town tale where the stakes of an odd domestic situation couldn’t feel larger and heartbreaking in depicting how much love Murphy is capable of showing to her animals while neglecting the humans in her life, is Miron’s debut feature, starting life as a senior thesis project and unfolding over the better part of a decade, and on the eve of its theatrical release, the director spoke about handling such a delicate story with grace, getting to know the Murphys and knowing when to keep the cameras rolling over such a long period of time.
How did this come about?
It started as my senior project in college. I had been interested in animal rights for a while — I had been a vegan for a few years at the time and really cared a lot about animals, but I wanted to explore the confusing grey areas of our relationship with animals, so I volunteered at the Woodstock Sanctuary for a couple of days during my winter break and happened to be there when they heard about Kathy and her birds. I hopped in the car and rode along with Sheila [Hyslop from the Sanctuary] to visit Kathy for the first time and was just very intrigued by the situation, to say the least. I had my camera with me and just started filming immediately, not knowing what I was getting into.
Kathy was very warm and welcoming and happy to be on camera and I was confused by the situation because I knew how much Kathy loved her birds and I saw the tension surrounding that with her husband and the sanctuary, so I kept following it out of curiosity, not knowing how far it would go. And I don’t think anyone else knew where it would go either because it was a lot of smooth interactions towards the beginning between the sanctuary and Kathy. She was willing to give up a lot of the birds and everybody seemed to be on the same side. It was only over time that there were differences of perspective that blew up.
How often would you visit Kathy and Gary in the time that followed?
After the first visit, I invited my classmate Jeffrey Star, who later became a producer and editor on the film, to visit Gary and Kathy with and just spend time with them. We were interested in filming in between the sanctuary visits as well as whenever the sanctuary was there [because] that gave us a chance to meet Kathy and Gary on their own terms and walk around their property and just get to know them as individuals and not just part of this case. It was really important from the beginning to capture the perspectives of everyone involved and not just tell the story the way a traditional animal rescue narrative might be told. I realized how important it was to take into account [that] nothing is in a vacuum. The way we treat animals is related to the rest of our lives and the human relationships we have as well. Ultimately in the edit, we tried to portray a worldview that treated everybody with respect for their autonomy and their desires, so that was a goal of the film that developed over time.
You may have just answered it, but was there anything that happened over the course of shooting that changed your ideas of what it should be?
For the most part, it was Kathy and Gary’s relationship to each other that surprised me and shifted the perspective of the film. This wasn’t just about Kathy and her animals. It was about her relationship with Gary and how tenuous that was because of these birds. Obviously after our second act climax happens with the trial, there’s a lot more that unfold in a very intimate way with Kathy and Gary that very much changed the way we viewed the whole story and as the third act actually happened, we went back and tried to make sure that the first act could signal to the audience that this is a bigger story than just about the animals, that it’s about a relationship and that’s going to change over the course of the story.
I imagine you could’ve stopped filming at the end of the trial – what was signaling to you to keep going?
Yeah, we certainly gave people a break for a little bit and were editing, thinking that the story had more or less been resolved. Sheila really cared about getting the ducks to their final pond, so we knew that that had to happen before we were done filming, which was a few months after the trial. But I also knew that Kathy wasn’t satisfied after the trial. I knew that she felt that it was unfair and that lack of resolution for her and also for Gary meant that there was still more that might happen. So the decision to keep filming had to do with visiting Kathy, calling her occasionally and getting a sense of where she was in her life several months after the trial and realizing there was still more to film.
You would never suspect this was someone’s first film, given how accomplished it is, but did it feel like you were learning on the job?
While shooting this movie, I jumped right into editing and assistant editing other documentaries after graduation, so I actually was trying to learn and took in as much as I could from other editors about the process of documentary storytelling. I worked on “Art and Craft,” and then “Life Animated” as an assistant editor and then I edited a feature doc called “The Surrounding Game,” where I was very active in learning story structure and just getting my hands dirty in editing in a way to prepare for “For the Birds.” But “For the Birds” was unlike any other movie I had ever seen. I didn’t know what I was making, so Jeffrey and I spent years in a room together, trying to figure out, “Are we allowed to do this? What is the story that we’re telling?” Just trying to find the right voice and tone to tell this story as sensitively and empathetically as we felt for these people was a really difficult process.
We had about 10 test screenings during the rough cut phase where we were just constantly trying to understand how the audience was experiencing this, how they were feeling about each of the characters, whether we were telling the story accurately. And then we brought on Brian Reed, who made the podcast “S-Town.” He’s a really brilliant storyteller who had just come off of a story about an individual in a small town community in the United States that was seen as an outsider in some ways, but has a lot of charm, so he was super helpful. We had a lot of help along the way and I tried to stay as vulnerable throughout the process and open-minded about what was working and what wasn’t.
What’s it been like seeing the reactions to it?
It’s been amazing. The audience reactions have been very, very emotional and the people who are in the film have really appreciated it, from Kathy and her family, and the Woodstock Sanctuary and the SPCA. They all came out of the screening with a lot more understanding and empathy toward each other, which is so rewarding, given how much conflict there is in the movie. So I think we accomplished what we were hoping, which is to equalize everyone’s emotional experiences even though they were in conflict with each other.