The birdman of Snowmass goes Hollywood

 

Steve Martin has been “The Jerk” and “The Man With Two Brains,” he’s been cast as “The Father of the Bride” and “The Pink Panther.”

But until he portrayed Snowmass Village’s Al Levantin, the legendary comic actor had never in his career depicted a real living person.

“You’re the first live one I’ve played,” Martin told Levantin when they met last year on the set of “The Big Year.”

The film, which opens Friday, is based on a year of Levantin’s life in the whimsical world of competitive bird-watching.

And “live one” is an apt description of Levantin — an affable and energetic retiree who you’re as likely to find schussing Snowmass or biking to the Bells as scanning aspen stands for fowl.

“It’s an ego trip,” Levantin said recently of the feature film production. “My ego will soar on October 14th. And I will be a has-been on October 15th. But my friends are all excited to see it.”

The movie is based on former Denver Post reporter Mark Obmascik’s 2004 book “The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature and Fowl Obsession.” It follows three men who set out, in 1998, on the annual competition among birders to see the most species of birds in North America in a calendar year. Among birders, it’s known as a “big year.” The species tallies are kept on the honor system. And the only prize is to have spotted the most birds.

1998 turned out to be the biggest of big years, with Levantin and two other men far outpacing other competitors and seeing more than 700 species apiece — the only such occurrence on record.

Levantin’s rivals are played by Jack Black and Owen Wilson in the film version. The trio of comic heavy-hitters in the cast have made the movie a highly anticipated comedy for the fall season. It’s directed by David Frankel, whose resume includes “The Devil Wears Prada” and “Marley & Me.” The supporting cast includes Dianne Wiest, Anjelica Huston and Rashida Jones of “The Office.”

With Martin, Black and Wilson sharing top billing, the film looks to be a slapstick affair, potentially mocking birders much like “Best in Show” poked fun at the dog show subculture.

Levantin said that’s alright with him.

“It’s an adaptation of the book, which pretty much follows our obsessions, what we did, where we traveled,” he said. “So, from that point, it didn’t make fun of birders. It made fun of us and our obsession.”

He hadn’t yet seen the full film at the time of his interview for this story.

A larger concern, he said, would be if the filmmakers identify birds incorrectly or put species in the wrong locales. That would surely ruffle the feathers of fastidious birders watching “The Big Year.” The filmmakers hired Levantin’s real-life big year competitor Greg Miller — played by Black in the film — as an onset bird consultant, to help keep it authentic.

The screenplay and film changed Levantin’s name to “Stu Preissler,” but kept his character otherwise intact, as a fun-loving and newly retired businessman with a ski bum’s heart and an unflappable birder’s eye.

Obmascik, the writer, said he was drawn to the odd story as an escape from the darker world he found himself in as a reporter. For instance, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his Post coverage of the Columbine shootings.

“I always liked stories about fun, smart people like Al,” Obmascik said. “And I always liked the premise of, ‘What would you do if you could do anything you wanted for a year?”

(He used the premise for another book, 2009’s “Halfway to Heaven,” where the middle-aged writer attempted to climb all of Colorado’s 14ers in a year.)

The men he found chasing birds for “The Big Year,” and their story, were intriguing enough that he actually sold the movie rights before he had written the book.

Obmascik said he had two offers — from DreamWorks and from Ben Stiller’s Red Hour Productions — to option it, based on a 50-page proposal sketching Levantin’s quest and the competitive birding scene. Red Hour won out and produced the film.

“I couldn’t make up a story like this,” Obmascik said. “This is nonfiction that’s wilder than fiction.”

When Levantin and his wife, Ethel, visited the set near Vancouver, British Columbia, they watched filming from the canvas directors’ chairs behind the cameras.

“They gave us the seat of honor,” he laughed.

Between takes, Martin — who is also an award-winning bluegrass player — serenaded them with songs on his banjo.

Obmascik said he saw the infectious birder culture catching on during filming.

“I sat there and Jack Black and Rashida Jones were blowing a yellow-breasted flycatcher call and I just said, ‘Wow,’” he recalled. “They were having a blast with it.”

The most endearing part of his undeniably engrossing book, however, is the quixotic hearts of Levantin and his rivals.

“To talk to them, you feel like you’re talking to Tom Sawyer,” Obmascik said. “They have this natural awe and wonder about them.”

In his book, Obmascik described Levantin as “the guy you wanted at your cocktail party.”

Movie trailers peg Levantin’s character as setting off on his big year after leaving his successful business career, showing Martin going forth from his office with the full-screen caption: “work-life crisis.” Wilson’s character is the “mid-life crisis” guy. Black’s slacker character is in the midst of a “no-life crisis.”

Levantin said his characterization is about right.

“For me it was a case where, I had worked for 40-odd years and been reading about people who had done this,” he said. “So I wanted to try it.”

Levantin’s real-life big year started with watching birds from skis on the Snowmass Ski Area. In the film trailer, Martin is seen getting plowed over as he stops to spot a bird on a ski run.

On New Year’s Day 1998, Levantin spotted a Clark’s nutcracker while skiing Fanny Hill and a gray jay snagging someone’s French fry at the Ullrhof on-mountain restaurant. He had begun that morning at dawn along the Roaring Fork River, where he logged 32 species, including an American dipper, an evening grosbeak, and a red-tailed hawk. He soon set out on his journey to points east and west, north and south, including a trek to Alaska.

When he returned to Snowmass in December that year, he’d logged 711 different species.

He hasn’t tried to top the count since then — and the Daily News won’t spoil the film by saying whether the total won him the “big year” title — but he remains an avid birder.

“This is my fun thing and I’m enjoying it,” Levantin said. “There’s no money in this, but boy is it fun.”

andrew@aspendailynews.com