Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Alan Parker|
|Produced by||Alan Marshall|
by William Wharton
|Music by||Peter Gabriel|
|Edited by||Gerry Hambling|
|Distributed by||Tri-Star Pictures|
|Box office||$1.4 million|
Birdy is a 1984 American drama film, and adaptation of William Wharton's 1978 novel of the same name. Directed by Alan Parker, the film stars Matthew Modine and Nicolas Cage. The film focuses on the friendship between Birdy (Modine) and Al Columbato (Cage), two teenage boys living in a working-class neighborhood in 1960s Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with a frame story depicting their traumatic experiences upon serving in the Vietnam War.
Parker first learned of the novel in 1978, and initially turned down the opportunity to helm an adaptation, as he found the novel's narrative and fantasy elements too difficult to be made into a feature film. The project resurfaced in 1982 when A&M Films, a newly established film division of A&M Records, acquired the film rights and commissioned Sandy Kroopf and Jack Behr to write the script. Upon reading the script, Parker returned to direct the film and took the project to Tri-Star Pictures. The film's principal photography began in May 1984 and concluded in August of that year, with a budget of $12 million. Filming took place on locations in Philadelphia and Santa Clara, California. Birdy is notable for being the first film to be partially shot with the Skycam, a computer-controlled camera system created by Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown. The score was composed by Peter Gabriel, and marked his first work on a feature film.
Tri-Star Pictures intended to give Birdy a "platform release", which involved releasing the film in select cities before expanding distribution in the following weeks. However, the film's failure to garner any award nominations during its limited theatrical run resulted in the studio cancelling the film's wide release in late January 1985. Birdy won the Grand Prix Spécial du Jury prize at the 1985 Cannes Film Festival, but received mixed reviews and was a box office bomb, grossing only $1.4 million during its limited run in North America.
In a 1960s working-class neighborhood in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a teenage boy nicknamed "Birdy" befriends his next-door neighbor, Al Columbato, and relates to him his fascination with birds and their ability to fly. The two begin pursuing Birdy's hobby of catching pigeons and caging them in a large, wooden aviary that he has built outside his parents' home. One night, the boys climb atop a refinery building. While hanging on the ledge of the building to catch the pigeons roosting under it, Birdy falls several stories, but lands on a large pile of sand. Slightly dazed, he tells Al that during the fall, he flew. After Birdy is hospitalized for minor injuries, his parents dismantle the aviary.
Birdy concedes to Al's wishes of pursuing another venture. After they purchase a 1953 Ford vehicle and restore it, Al drives Birdy to an Atlantic City boardwalk. The next day, they are arrested after Al's father Mr. Columbato, who registered the vehicle, reports it stolen. Upon bailing the boys out of jail, Mr. Columbato sells the vehicle. Birdy later confronts him, claiming that the car was not his to sell, and he refuses a sum of money offered to him on principle.
Birdy builds a new aviary in his bedroom and purchases two canaries. He names the female Perta and the male Alfonso, after his friend. Upon returning to school, Birdy encounters a classmate, Doris Robinson, and Al encourages him to ask her out on a date. At the prom, Birdy dances unenthusiastically with Doris, leaving her confused and humiliated. Afterwards, Doris drives him to a secluded spot and offers to make love, but Birdy rejects her advances. Birdy returns home to his bedroom where he strips naked and lies down in the aviary; in a semi-conscious state, he expresses that he wants to die and be born again as a bird. He then imagines himself flying like a bird around his room, throughout the house and outside in the neighborhood.
Upon graduation, Birdy and Al enlist in the United States Army and serve in the Vietnam War, during which Birdy is placed in a mental hospital after being missing in action for a month; a flashback reveals that he was the sole survivor of a helicopter crash. Al is hospitalized in the same facility, his face heavily bandaged for injuries that he sustained from an exploding bomb. Al meets Major Weiss, Birdy's doctor who informs him that although Birdy's injuries are relatively minor, he has not spoken since he was found. Al speaks to an unresponsive Birdy at length, but grows increasingly frustrated by his friend's lack of response. He is elated, however, when Birdy smiles at a joke he makes, but Weiss dismisses the response as dissociative behavior.
Al suspects Birdy of feigning insanity to hide from the world, and expresses that he too wishes to hide due to his injuries. Birdy responds by telling Al that he is "full of shit". Al alerts Weiss of Birdy's response, but when the doctor arrives, Birdy remains silent. Not seeing any progress, Weiss orders Al to leave, but Al attacks the doctor. After Weiss flees, two orderlies rush in, but Al fights them off and takes Birdy to the roof of the hospital. Birdy rushes to the ledge, raises his arms and jumps off the side of the roof as if he is about to fly. Al runs over to the ledge and finds Birdy on another level of the roof perfectly fine.
- Matthew Modine as Birdy
- Nicolas Cage as Alfonso "Al" Columbato
- John Harkins as Dr./Major Weiss
- Sandy Baron as Mr. Columbato
- Karen Young as Hannah Rourke
- Bruno Kirby as Renaldi
- Nancy Fish as Mrs. Prevost
- George Buck as Birdy's father
- Dolores Sage as Birdy's mother
- Robert L. Ryan as Joe Sagessa
- James Santini as Mario Columbato
- Maude Winchester as Doris Robinson
- Marshall Bell as Ronsky
- Elizabeth Whitcraft as Rosanne
- Sandra Beall as Shirley
- Victoria Nekko as Claire
- Crystal Field as Mrs. Columbato
- John Brumfeld as Mr. Kohler
Following publication of William Wharton's 1978 novel Birdy, Alan Parker received galley proofs of the book from his agent, who advised him that the novel was going to be optioned. Upon reading the novel, Parker discussed it with his colleague, producer Alan Marshall, before turning down the opportunity to helm a film adaptation. On his decision, Parker reflected, "I had thought it was too difficult to do. So much of the story happened inside the boy's head, and the poetry of the book was literary. To make it cinematic - I didn't know if I could make the jump. And it wasn't just that it was inside his head, but what happened inside his head, for instance in his dream, when he's flying. In the book, it was two or three lines of poetry. To write poetry, all you need is a pencil. But to shoot it is infinitely more difficult." In September 1979, Orion Pictures optioned the novel for $150,000. In October 1982, A&M Films, a newly established subsidiary of A&M Records, acquired the film rights and commissioned Los Angeles-based screenwriters Sandy Kroopf and Jack Behr to write the screenplay.
Kroopf and Behr made various changes from the novel, opting to focus primarily on the friendship between Birdy and Al Columbato. Behr said, "What attracted us to it was the friendship story, which I think is the heart of the book - the story of these two guys in Philly whose lives are kind of screwed up and oppressed, and who have these ways of coping." Kroopf and Behr decided to set the screenplay during the Vietnam War, as opposed to the novel, which is set during World War II. Behr said, "We were in high school in the mid-1960's, so growing up then was our experience." Structuring the film required the writers to create a nonlinear narrative. They also had to manufacture much of the film's action and dialogue from anecdotal fragments mentioned during Al's narrative in the novel. Behr said, "We really created our own story line. There are a lot of scenes in the movie that aren't direct scenes in the book, although I think every scene is inspired by the book. And there is very little dialogue in the book."
Kroopf and Behr found difficulty in finding a film studio to produce their script, and they spent nearly a year pitching it to various studio executives. Kroopf reflected, "We had some really bizarre meetings. We always felt the story was really accessible, but we'd have these conversations in which people would say, 'The guy thinks he's a bird? You mean he really thinks he's a bird?' They just didn't get it." In 1983, A&M Films sent the script to Parker, who agreed to direct the film after reading Kroopf and Behr's script. Parker said, "They'd minimized the internalization inside Birdy's head and cunningly interwoven the past and present ... They also moved the story forward so that it was more relevant to contemporary times and now hinged on the horror of Vietnam rather than World War II." Parker discussed the project with executives at Tri-Star Pictures, and the studio subsequently agreed to finance and distribute the film.
In their search for actors, Parker and casting director Juliet Taylor held open casting calls in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose, New York City and Philadelphia. Parker said, "Looking for Birdy and Al was obviously our priority and I met with every possible young actor who could play the parts ... In Philadelphia we saw over 2000 in one day each reading a few lines from the script, smiling for the Polaroid and being shown the back door. We went through the same process in San Francisco and New York."
Matthew Modine originally auditioned for the role of Al Columbato before Parker decided that he best suited the leading role of Birdy; Parker felt that Modine possessed an "introverted honest quality", as the director had grown "tired of pseudo method-actor weirdoes bringing in stuffed pigeons and photos of dead relatives for motivation." Modine reflected, "I was flabbergasted because I hadn't auditioned for Birdy. I had never imagined playing the part of Birdy. So, I had to really go through an extraordinary transformation in my mind of trying to bring this remarkable character to life. It was an incredible experience making the film."
Nicolas Cage secured the role of Al based on the strength of his audition. Parker said, "The first time [Cage] came in to read for me he seemed so strong, so assured, that I was never sure if he could reveal the vulnerable side of his persona. The more he came in, the more he looked like Al who swaggered through life with big enough shoulders for the frail Birdy to lean on, but deep down, he needed Birdy more than Birdy needed him." Cage reflected, "I was terrified of the role of Al, because it was like nothing I'd ever done before, and I didn't know how to get to the places the role was asking me to go emotionally." For scenes in which Al's disfigured face is swathed in bandages, Cage lost 15 pounds and had two of his front teeth pulled out. The actor also kept the bandages on his face during four weeks of filming. "... I felt that having his face damaged, Al might have had trouble eating. I wanted to look like I was hit by a bomb. It gave me a feeling of something I had lost. I felt this was a once-in-a-lifetime part, and it deserved that much." Parker recalled, "[Cage] had taken the biggest step of all in changing his personality ... a brave decision on his part as it impeded his eating not to mention his social life. But it helped him to sense the feelings Al might have had, imprisoned as he is behind the bandages. Each morning as fresh bandages were applied Nic would keep his eyes closed."
Elizabeth Whitcraft had been working as a waitress in Philadelphia before securing the role of Rosanne, a teenage girl who becomes briefly involved with Al. The film marked her feature film debut. Maude Winchester secured the role of Doris Robinson, a teenage girl who Birdy encounters, during auditions in San Francisco. Dolores Sage, also making her film debut, plays Birdy's mother. Parker said of the actress, "[Sage] had never acted before and so much of my time was spent giving her the necessary confidence, coaxing her into what the script asked for, but allowing her to be herself – her wonderful Philly accent cutting through the air as she overcame her nerves." Danny Glover secured the role of Mr. Lincoln, a bird owner who befriends Birdy, but his scene was removed from the final film, according to Parker, as Glover had trouble remembering his lines. The director also felt the character's scene "was rather misplaced within the framework of [the] story, slowing things up somewhat when the film had gathered momentum."
Parker had originally planned to shoot the entire film in Northern California—based on pleasurable experiences while filming Shoot the Moon (1982) in San Francisco—before visiting the actual Philadelphia locations described in Wharton's novel. Upon arriving in Philadelphia, Parker and producer Alan Marshall set up production offices at a Holiday Inn hotel. Location scouting began as Parker was holding casting calls in New York City. Location manager Rory Enke and production designer Geoffrey Kirkland visited run-down areas of the city, and offered suggestions to Parker on his weekend visits from New York. They found difficulty in securing houses that could be used for filming. Parker said, "It was continually 'good news' 'bad news' time as doors closed in our faces. By a process of patience, skullduggery, and common prayer, the jigsaw gradually fitted together as we traced supposedly dead owners of properties and the occasional dead dog behind boarded up houses." Parker made an arrangement with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) that permitted the British crew members to work alongside members of both the east and west coast union locals; he had to employ no less than four members of the two camera locals in order to allow director of photography Michael Seresin, camera operator Michael Roberts and editor Gerry Hambling (all frequent Parker collaborators) to work on the film. Following an accident during the production of Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), the use of helicopters during filming was the subject of frequent discussions with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regarding the safety of the cast of crew.
Filming was scheduled to start in December 1983, but was postponed for six months to accommodate Modine's shooting schedule for Mrs. Soffel (1984). Principal photography began in Philadelphia on May 15, 1984, with a budget of $12 million. The script for Birdy required that a total of 24 locations be used for filming in Philadelphia and Santa Clara, California. Production of the film was supervised by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which oversaw every aspect of the film's production. Parker said, "There was ... a Teamster on every moving object - and even some that didn't move." Animal trainer Gary Gero employed the use of 80 different canaries for various scenes in the film, as well as pigeons, a hornbill, a cat, eighteen dogs and a seagull.
Birdy was the first feature film to be partially shot with the Skycam, a computer-controlled, stabilized, cable-suspended camera system created by Garrett Brown, inventor of the Steadicam. The system had 100-foot high posts with four hanging wires controlled by a computer, and a lightweight Panavision camera with 200 feet of film hung at the center of the wires. The filmmakers intended to use the Skycam to fully depict Birdy's point of view during a fantasy sequence in which he imagines himself flying. Parker said, "I had devised a shot that swooped past the steeple of Birdy's local church, across the waste ground strewn with junk, over the back yards, the baseball field, down Birdy's street and finally up into the immense freedom of the sky. This meant that an area covering a half square mile had to be built and dressed accurately to the '60's period – a tall order, but worth it because Birdy's 'flight' was at the very heart of the piece and our chance to climb inside Birdy's imagination." The filmmakers faced difficulties with the Skycam, as it would often malfunction. Although the Skycam proved successful on its first take during filming, Parker wanted the filmed footage to be shot more rapidly. During the second take, however, the camera system malfunctioned after capturing 40 seconds of footage. This resulted in the film's camera operators shooting the remainder of the sequence with a Steadicam mounted on top of an improvised camera dolly. Parker reflected, "[We] frantically began running down alleyways, across rubble, down streets—in a golf cart atop a bicycle dolly, with me charging behind on a bike. We quickly built a ramp 20 feet high and 30 feet long to get the POV of the canary smashing into the window."
The production next filmed a scene in which Birdy purchases a canary from a porch aviary. Parker, who has a fear of birds, expressed difficulty in filming the scene: "I started directing everyone, standing on a ladder in the rain, outside the porch using a megaphone to be heard through the glass. It was hopeless and I had to brave the aviary ..." The filmmaker then filmed a deleted scene, in which Birdy encounters Mr. Lincoln (Glover), another bird owner. A women's prison wing located in the Philadelphia House of Correction doubled for a scene set in an Atlantic City jail. The elevated railway where Birdy and Al clamber among the girders to catch pigeons was filmed at the 46th Street Station above the intersection of Farragut and Market Street in the Mill Creek neighborhood. The cast and crew then moved to Philadelphia City Hall. Wilson Goode, the city's first African American mayor, visited the set and gave the production his blessing. Parker said, "During a local TV interview I had mentioned that our experiences of working in Philly had been less than enjoyable and so an alert P.R. person at City Hall promptly persuaded [Goode] to pop along and present us with a 'tribute plaque'."
After four weeks of filming in Philadelphia, the production moved to Wildwood, New Jersey, which doubled for scenes set at the Atlantic City boardwalk; the casinos and skyscraper hotels had ruled out filming at the actual location. Filming then moved to San Francisco, California; the scene where Birdy and Al climb atop a refinery building was filmed on the rooftop of an abandoned gasworks in Hercules, California. The scene required Modine and Cage to hang off the edge of the roof secured by safety wires, while the sequence in which Birdy falls off the roof was performed by a stunt double. Parker found this scene difficult to shoot, based on his fear of heights: "Filming on a pitched corrugated roof 100 feet up was especially disconcerting to those of us fearful of heights ... Our stuntmen rehearsed the fall onto the sand pile and we shot for what seemed like a bone-crunching number of times."
The production next filmed Birdy's flight on an ornithopter at the Newby Island landfill in Santa Clara County. The filming of the scene was considered to be a health concern among the cast and crew, due to the exposed garbage and smell of methane gas. The filmmakers originally planned to shoot Birdy landing in a reservoir thirty feet away from the landfill, but a test of the water had shown it to be hazardous. Parker said, "We experimented with a 100-foot wire hanging from a helicopter to allow us to 'fly' Birdy into a pond we'd constructed at the bottom of a hill of garbage." The hospital scenes were filmed at the Agnews Developmental Center, a psychiatric and medical care facility located in Santa Clara. Parker felt that this aspect of the film's production went smoothly mostly due to Modine's minimal dialogue, as well as Cage being fully prepared for his monologues and sticking very closely to the words in the script. A corner of the hospital was used to film scenes set in Birdy's bedroom.
The production then moved to Stockton, California to depict a scene involving Al aboard a train. The Vietnam War sequences were filmed in Modesto, California. The location had been previously used to film the battle sequences in More American Graffiti (1979). The art department found difficulty in pinpointing filming locations, as the entire area was flooded. The special effects department used fifteen 20-gallon drums of gasoline rigged with explosive charges to depict a napalm strike. A total of four cameras were used to film the explosions. Principal photography concluded in early August 1984.
Music and soundtrack
The film's score was written, co-produced and composed by English singer and songwriter Peter Gabriel; it marked his first work on a feature film, as well as his first collaboration with co-producer Daniel Lanois. Parker first met Gabriel during the film's post-production, as he had been expirementing with his music, incorporating the percussive rhythms from the musician's solo albums into the film. Parker said, "His music had a fresh and original edge: the unique rhythms were an editor's dream and at the same time his music had a mysterious presence that lingered long after the music had finished." Parker contacted record producer David Geffen, who advised him that producing the soundtrack would be a slow process, as Gabriel was known for moving at his own pace. While working on his fifth studio album So, Gabriel agreed to work on the soundtrack for Birdy after viewing a rough cut of the film.
Recording sessions took place at the Ashcombe House in Somerset, England from October to December 1984, with Gabriel accompanied by Parker and Lanois. Gabriel used tapes of previously recorded material from the past four years, which he and Lanois remixed for individual scenes in the film. The score "Close Up" originated from the song "Family Snapshot" (from Gabriel's third album), which was composed on a Yamaha CP-70 Electric Grand Piano. The scores "The Heat", "Birdy's Flight", "Under Lock and Key" and "Powerhouse at the Foot of the Mountain" borrowed musical elements from the songs on his fourth album, which had been composed on a Fairlight CMI IIx, a music workstation with an embedded digital sampling synthesizer. The remaining seven tracks featured on the film's soundtrack were all new material composed by Gabriel.
The soundtrack, titled Music from the Film Birdy, was released on March 18, 1985 by Geffen Records and Charisma Records. AllMusic's Tom Demalon awarded the album four stars out of five, writing, "The fact that Birdy is comprised of all instrumentals means that listeners whose familiarity with Gabriel is limited to "Sledgehammer" and "In Your Eyes" will be largely disappointed. However, its meditative nature makes it fine, reflective listening for the more adventurous."
The film's distributor, Tri-Star Pictures, had planned to give Birdy a "platform release", which involved releasing the film in select cities before expanding distribution in the following weeks. Although it faced difficulties in marketing Birdy, the studio was confident that the limited theatrical run would generate strong-word-of-mouth interest and awards consideration. The film opened in limited release on December 21, 1984 in New York City, Los Angeles and Toronto. It grossed $13,720 on its first weekend, and an additional $19,853 the following week.
The film's failure to generate any award nominations resulted in Tri-Star cancelling the film's wide release in late January. Prompted by A&M Films, Tri-Star decided to refocus the film's marketing campaign, which placed emphasis on the friendship between Birdy and Al. Parker, Modine and Cage heavily promoted the film by personally visiting film critics, journalists and radio reporters. On March 8, 1985, Birdy was screened in 29 theaters in New York City. The film was a box office bomb, grossing only $1,455,045 domestically, well below its estimated budget of $12 million. Following the film's poor box office performance, Birdy premiered at the 1985 Cannes Film Festival, and on May 20, 1985, it won the Grand Prix Spécial du Jury prize.
The review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes sampled 25 reviews, and gave the film a score of 88%, with an average score of 7.4 out of 10. Initial reactions among film critics were mixed. On the syndicated television program Siskel and Ebert at the Movies, Gene Siskel gave Birdy a "thumbs down", while his colleague Roger Ebert praised the film and gave it a "thumbs up". Siskel, in his review for the Chicago Tribune, felt that the film was "far better as an antiwar film than as a poetic tribute to flight". He added, "The war sequences touch us quite deeply; the flying material comes across a precious, overworked conceit. The result is a film that touches us the least where and when it intends." Ebert, in his review for the Chicago Sun-Times, awarded the film four stars out of four, writing, "Birdy ... tells a story so unlikely ... and yet a story so interesting it is impossible to put this movie out of my mind."
Pauline Kael of The New Yorker wrote, "It feels morose and unrelieved, despite the efforts of [Modine and Cage] ... The movie is based on the late-70s novel by William Wharton (a pseudonym). It probably needed a director who found the story lulling, tantalizing, its meanings hidden; Parker's technoligical sophistication nails everything down." Janet Maslin of The New York Times wrote, "Mr. Parker has for the most part directed the film deftly and unobtrusively. Every so often, though, he introduces the kind of overstatement Birdy didn't need, as in a shot of Birdy lying Christlike on the floor of his hospital room ... Fortunately, the heavy-handedness is in limited supply. Most of Birdy is enchanting." Variety wrote, "Belying the lightheartedness of its title, Birdy is a heavy adult drama about best friends and the after-effects of war, but it takes too long to live up to its ambitious premise." Jack Zink, writing for the Sun-Sentinel, gave the film a mixed review: "Birdy, an emotionally black tale of friendships and deepening obsession, takes a while to hook you into its story. This is one occasion we can afford the wait; Parker keeps us awake by repeatedly slapping us across the face visually."
Birdy was released on VHS in mid-June 1985 by RCA/Columbia Pictures Home Video. The film was released on DVD on February 15, 2000 by Columbia TriStar Home Video. The DVD presents the film in optional fullscreen and anamorphic widescreen versions on both sides of the disc. Special features includes the film's original theatrical trailer, as well as trailers for other films starring Cage and directed by Parker, a booklet featuring production notes on the film, and information on the cast and crew.
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