Be advised: If you’re looking for a documentary on the ivory–billed woodpecker, which was declared extinct in the 1940s, Woodpecker isn’t the film for you.
Six years ago, several people — respected ornithologists, not your garden–variety unreliable witnesses from down trailer park way — claimed they’d seen the big black, white and red bird in a heavily wooded section of Eastern Arkansas.
Thus began a mad scramble to tiny, impoverished Brinkley, the nearest town to the “discovery.” Brinkleyites were quick to paint woodpeckers on everything, from diners to barber shops, and happily welcomed the international influx of birdwatchers (and their dollars).
There is a documentary out there, about Brinkley and the bird people. It’s called Ghost Bird.
Ah, but Alex Karpovsky’s Woodpecker, which screens Jan. 11 at the Lucas Theatre (with the director/co–writer in attendance), isn’t a “mockumentary,” either. That implies Best of Show or Waiting For Guffman, those Christopher Guest comedies with actors improvising small–town dialogue.
Woodpecker stars Jon Hyrns, of the indie favorite Johnny Berlin, as a sad–sack birdwatcher named Johnny who’s come to Brinkley to document the ivory–bill, and therefore become famous and kick–start his dreary and unexceptional life.
His story is pure fiction. Brinkley, and most of the people in Woodpecker, are real.
The line between fact, fiction and wishful thinking: That’s the sort of thing that appeals to Karpovsky, whose most recent film, released after Woodpecker, is a documentary about improv comics – Trust Us, This is All Made Up.
What was the genesis of this film?
Alex Karpovsky: I heard about this ivory–billed woodpecker re–discovery – in quotes – on CNN. Wolf Blitzer was proclaiming it to the nation. It just really caught my attention; I thought it was a weird, interesting story that was fueled by hope rather than fact. I was puzzled by how much seeming confirmation there was – “Oh, it was a miracle” – but very little discussion swirling around where the actual proof was. I thought that was weird and interesting. And telling, in many ways, of our society.
It seemed like a very interesting hook, and a very interesting landscape, the South. The bayou has its own character and aesthetic and so on. Then I started building a story and a character for this real–world setting.
Near the end of the film, a TV commentator talks about blurring the line between fact and faction. That’s what the movie is about – but isn’t that also kind of the moral of the whole ivory–billed woodpecker story at this point?
Alex Karpovsky: Exactly. You hit the nail on the head. That’s what I was trying to do. I was trying to have the basic story of the film parallel, or shadow, the state of the ivory–billed woodpecker. It seemed to have been flying in this twilight of uncertainty between fact and fiction, and I wanted to stylistically represent that by making a film that sort of inter–wove fact and fiction – or, in more cinematic terms, narrative and documentary components. More of a hybrid film.
How many of those people are real? Are they all actors?
Alex Karpovsky: It’s a small sign of victory that we were able to seamlessly weave in the actors and non–actors. There are actors in the film. I needed to have plants in the story to help propagate the story. I didn’t want to put words in the mouths of people who were not actors. And I knew that just relying on them I couldn’t convey the story in the three–act structure that I wanted to convey. So yeah, there are helpers along the way, and I did my very best to disguise them.
When you went to Arkansas, how did you present your film to them? Did they know what you were doing?
Alex Karpovsky: I was pretty upfront. I didn’t give them a truckload of details. There were already two other films being done on the ivory–billed woodpecker, and they were both documentaries. Straight–up Nature Channel–type documentaries, for the most part. They were actually filming at the exact same time I was. It’s a very small town, so everyone knew about these other two documentaries before I even started.
I told them I was trying to do something different, which I was. And I wasn’t interested in following the strictly tight and semi–conventional documentary path. I said I’m trying to have more fun with it; I’m trying to insert some more comedic components, some existential components. And that’s pretty much all that I said.
I just told them: I’m making a movie, I’m trying to do something different, and if you want to help out, I’d love to talk to you on camera.
How much of Johnny’s dialogue was scripted, and how much was improvised?
Alex Karpovsky: He loves to talk, so I heard a lot of his stories, and I made notes on which ones could fit somewhere into the story, and which ones we could modify a little bit to make them more applicable.
What’s your feeling on the ivory–billed woodpecker? Is it there?
Alex Karpovsky: I feel that if it was there, at the time that all this news broke out, someone would have found it by now. That’s my feeling. I know it’s a large area to cover, but they had a lot of people, and a lot of eyes on the ground that weren’t specialists either. It was on everyone’s mind at some point.
So I’m kind of doubtful.
Film screening: Woodpecker
With writer/director Alex Karpovsky
Where: Lucas Theatre, 32 Abercorn St.
When: At 8 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 11
Presented by Southern Circuit of Independent Filmmakers