The making of the Andrew Bird documentary
Xan Aranda’s Fever Year almost didn’t see the light of day.
Inside a dimly lit room, behind film-editing machines with enough knobs and dials to control a small plane, director Xan Aranda is mulling over a tricky scene from her first turn as director of a feature-length documentary, Fever Year, about Chicago singer and multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird. At this moment in the film, Bird is performing at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee and the blinking kaleidoscopic stage lights have turned his skin into light shades of yellow. “He seems a bit too butterscotch,” Aranda says to the editors.
Both editors nod and one types a color correction into a computer. Meanwhile, Aranda flips open her laptop and her all-business attitude subtly shifts. Vancouver International Film Festival organizers have just officially announced the acceptance of Fever Year, and Aranda dashes off updates on Twitter and Facebook: “World premiere announced! The team is proud.” Not bad for a film that, just three months before, was destined never to be seen in theaters.
In the following days, Fever Year would rack up an impressive list of slots at some of the industry’s most prestigious, invitation-only festivals, including the New York Film Festival, where the film had its world debut October 1, and the Chicago International Film Festival, where screenings are set for October 15 and 16. “It’s important to me that people see the film, no matter what they say or how they react,” Aranda says. “So that the people who worked on it know it was something more than just hanging out with me in the dark.”
It’s an unusually humble goal, considering the film’s main character is one of the indie music scene’s more popular musicians, giving Fever Year a built-in audience. And the film’s growing list of festival invitations is a sign that Fever Year appeals to more than just Bird’s fan base. But this project has never gone according to plan. The mere fact that it will be seen, in theaters, is an accomplishment. “I have to respect where Andrew comes from,” Aranda explains, “and that is this: He doesn’t want people to see the film and I don’t expect that to change. He would just rather the whole thing go away.”
Fever Year focuses on Bird and how he makes music, his “process,” as Aranda puts it. The film’s title also has literal connotations. After about 13 years of nearly constant music making and a grueling, vagabond life of multiple-city national and international tours, Bird’s body began to rebel. In 2009, he suffered through a fever that lasted an entire year. “It’s kind of ridiculous what I do to myself,” Bird says on camera. “I’m either sweating bullets or I’m freezing.” As a result, the 80-minute film is a portrait of an artist, but it’s also a look at a musician too obsessed with his craft to slow down. At one point, the feverish Bird injures his heel so badly that, hours before showtime at Chicago’s Fourth Presbyterian Church, he’s shown walking toward the stage on crutches. Why does he do it? Because, he says, “It seems like a worthy thing to do with your life.”
Aranda had worked with Bird before, on music videos for the songs “Imitosis” and “Lull,” as well as live show projections. For Fever Year, she was able to capture intimate moments with Bird, thanks in part to a trust the two shared that went far beyond the typical subject-filmmaker relationship. Seven years earlier, they had met at the Hideout and, two years later, became a couple. The relationship lasted five years. The two were still friends when, early in summer 2009, Bird began exploring the idea of a concert film that would document the end of his 150-gig tour, the final chapter in a year that had been his most successful to date. He was exhausted, Aranda remembers, and he seemed aware he couldn’t maintain the same brutal pace. If the film could be finished in relatively short order, Bird hoped it might allow him to take a break from touring without disappearing from fans. “He felt that the film would be something that could stand in for him,” Aranda says.
A few months later, Bird and Aranda were talking on the porch of his Bucktown apartment. “He said, ‘We’ve done everything we could to not ask you, but I don’t think I’m going to be comfortable with anybody else doing this [film],’ ” Aranda recalls. Their history was an obvious sticking point, but Bird wanted to get past it. “My first response was: ‘Are you fucking crazy? That’s awesome, but no.’ But you know what, I’ve had an opinion about this for, like, seven years, about…how his film should be made.… By the time I got home I was like, ‘Oh, man, I totally have to do this.’ ”
Aranda and Bird discussed ways in which the film could weave concert footage with documentary-style interviews and personal elements that might allow people to get to know him and his music. “I told him a concert capture would be very temporary,” she says, “something that his fans would watch a few times and stick on a shelf.” They looked for inspiration in nontraditional music films such as Woodstock and the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night, one of Aranda’s favorite music films.
Within weeks, Aranda had a budget and a mutually agreed-upon plan to anchor the film to the final stop on Bird’s 2009 tour, a two-night stand at Pabst Theater. Dozens of other film professionals soon joined her, agreeing to work for little or no pay, which is not uncommon among documentary filmmakers who rely on each other to overcome tight budgets on passion projects. It seemed like a plum assignment, affording a rare opportunity to make a music documentary in Chicago.
“Most of the people [working on Fever Year] started with the idea that we could document Andrew at an interesting time, when his career was really starting to take off, and pull together a lot of Chicago film people to really get a high-quality film done for very little money,” says Peter Gilbert (Hoop Dreams, At the Death House Door), who volunteered as the film’s director of photography. “In a way, it was less about Andrew, the singer, than it was about promoting Andrew, a hometown guy.”