Lucinda Spurling’s Rare Bird is a captivating documentary film about the attempt to save a species long thought extinct, the Cahow, a seabird nesting on an obscure island in Bermuda. Prior to the 1950s, no one saw these birds for over 300 years. They were rediscovered with the help of David Wingate, the film’s subject, and for the past 50 plus years, he has dedicated his life to keeping the birds alive and bringing their numbers up to what they once were back in the 1600s, before man entered their terrain. The film premiered at the 2006 Bermuda International Film Festival, where I was lucky enough to sit down and have a chat with her.
Is this your first film?
This is my first feature film. I’ve made a bunch of shorts prior to this and they’ve all been no budget, so this is my first film with a budget as well.
How did you hear about this story and what compelled you to make a film about it?
I’ve heard about this story about David and the bird since I was probably 5 years old. My father and David are friends, and they both trustees at the Bermuda Biological Station for Research, which is my charity sponsor. I remember being very young and my dad taking me over to Nonsuch (an island in Bermuda) and David giving me a tour of the island, and it’s especially magical for little kids. It’s something that doesn’t exist in Bermuda anymore; it’s what we used to be. I knew the basic story but when I actually get into the filmmaking process, it became so much more. It became such a better story.
All throughout the film, there are various watercolor-style animations, illustrating various parts of the Cahow. How did those transitions come to fruition?
That’s an interesting question actually. it comes back to the BIFF (Bermuda International Film Festival). The festival has been a big part of my career. Its inception was along the same time as my inception as a filmmaker. At one point, I met the filmmakers of “Daughter from Danang” (Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco). They had an incredible title sequence for their film. I was amazed by it, so while I was working on this film two years later, I contacted them via e-mail asking them who did their title sequence. They gave me the name (James Kinney) but I had a hard time finding him. Did I tell you I am a certified Private Investigator?
Really? That’s awesome.
Okay, this is a valuable skill for any documentary filmmaker. I put these skills into action and I found him but he was extremely busy at the time. But since I was so determined to find him, he agreed to work with me. And that was only for a title sequence. We then started talking about the bird flying over water because I wanted to show that. With a nocturnal bird, like the Cahow is, you really can’t photograph it too easily as they never have a distinct time they choose to fly. There was just no other way to show it. We didn’t have a “Winged Migration” budget. There would be nights were our camera crew would sit out there with the cameras pointed up and nothing would happen for days. They were very hard to photograph.
You only wanted the animation for the title sequence originally?
Yes, so I got him to do that originally. Then I found that I had this problem about finding footage of them flying and also, you don’t learn about their rediscovery until about 25 minutes into the film. At that point, the audience doesn’t know what it looks like. So we didn’t want to show the bird right away – we wanted to give the audience a sense of mystery. I called him and gave him my editor’s suggestion of a painting-style animation. We would do it in parts – the feet, the head, the wings – as the audience learns more and more about the bird as the film goes on.
Are you going to continue to make documentaries or do you have any kind of ambition of making a narrative film?
I love documentaries. I think they are far more resonant films. There is a huge potential audience out there that is quite realized yet. When I was in college in the early 90s and I told people I wanted to make documentary films, and no one understood how I was going to do it. Then, all of the sudden, we sort of came out into the digital revolution where editing systems were easier to come by. I remember when Final Cut 1 came out. It was fantastic and I feel fortunate to be right at that age. It takes a long time to develop as a filmmaker and that more accessible technology helps. We are at a very interesting point with documentaries. We are starting to see them more released to the public theatrically, and people are actually watching.
What’s next for you?
I have a film in mind that I want to make, another true story of course as true stories are better than fiction stories, and it’s also historical about the relations between the United States and Bermuda. Have you ever seen the Peter Sellers movie, “The Mouse that Roared”?
I can’t say that I have, no.
It’s about a little country that takes the US to war and wins. That’s not exactly history but we have very interesting ties to the United States and it would be very interesting to make a film about it.