2010's Birdemic: Shock And Terror set out to be a terrifying environmental fable, setting deadly flocks of vultures and eagles loose on San Francisco. Instead, blighted by wooden acting, primitive effects, sound issues and bizarre subplots, it became an internet sensation, celebrated as an inadvertent comedy masterpiece. As Patton Oswalt puts it, "It's like everyone in it escaped from that lodge in Twin Peaks." As the (slightly) bigger-budget sequel arrives, shifting the avian chaos to Los Angeles, we talked to Vietnamese writer-director James Nguyen to get the low-down on all things Birdemic...
Where did you get the idea to make Birdemic? Back in 2006, I drove down to Half Moon Bay, a beautiful city south of San Francisco. I looked out to sea, a very beautiful scene, and I saw a flock of birds flying towards me. It reminded me of Hitchcock's The Birds, and I thought, "What if I make a movie where instead of seagulls and crows, it's birds of prey?" There's nothing more shocking than eagles and vultures. So that's the original inspiration. The environmental theme came late on, when I saw Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. When he was pointing at the slides, he mentions that the mating cycle of birds has been disrupted by global warming. That's how I got the idea to make Birdemic about global warming.
One surprising element is that it takes nearly 45 minutes for the birds to show up... All my movies are romantic thrillers. In a romantic thriller, the first half of the film has a sense of foreboding and foreshadowing. Then, throughout the movie, it discloses the mystery. In Birdemic, you find out why the birds attack when you meet the tree-hugger. In Birdemic 2, you find out about it from the zookeeper. Hitchcock invented the romantic-thriller genre, and I went to the school of Hitchcock cinema.
Do you have any other inspirations? One of my favourite films is Apocalypse Now. You know the scene where the soldiers go on a boat and start driving down the Mekong river? That inspired me to put the van into Birdemic. It's a journey for the characters. A real one and an emotional one.
Why are the attacking birds limited to eagles and vultures? I just thought that if you're going to do a homage to Hitchcock's The Birds, birds of prey would be the most shocking and terrifying. But I was very careful to use only golden eagles, brown eagles and condors. Because in America the bald eagle is the national mascot. It's very political. You don't want to upset people.
Director James Nguyen on set
Are there plans to introduce more birds into the mythology? I've got some news for you that I'm going to tell you right now. The subtitle for Birdemic 3 is going to be Sea Eagles. The sea eagle is a real species, a white eagle that exists in Australia and Southeast Asia. What makes them different from the golden eagle and the vulture is that the sea eagle feeds from the sea, like a seagull. They will dive down into the ocean and pick up the fish.
Does this mean our heroes will be at sea in Birdemic 3, a la Hitchcock's Lifeboat?
We still have limitations with the visual effects here and there. I would like to perfect it for Birdemic 3.
The script is being developed right now, but I can tell you that it's going to take place in New York. There are islands there, the Statue of Liberty, Time Square - it's the perfect scene for a birdemic. In the second one, you saw Hollywood be attacked. This is even bigger. I personally feel that the plot of Birdemic 2 is even better than the first one. I'm going to quiz you now - why did the birds attack Hollywood, LA?
Because they hate movies? Fifty per cent of the answer is global warming. The other 50 per cent is that global warming has caused the colour of the rain to turn red. And because the red rain is toxic and mutant, it can re-animate the dead. So when the red rain falls on the La Brea tar pits, it resurrects the ancient birds. And when it falls on the cemetery, it resurrects the zombies.
Okay. This might be the first time zombies have been linked to global warming... This is a fictitious plot, but it's serious stuff. The jumbo jellyfish we have in Santa Monica Bay is a real species. It's attacking people in Spain and Japan. And they're huge. Global warming has caused them to appear. Do a Google search for "jumbo jellyfish" — they are a really serious thing.
Like the first Birdemic, the new one has an extraordinarily long scene where the characters dance in a nightclub. Why? Well, for Birdemic 2 I took what people loved in the first one and delivered it again. It's just my way of building the romance. People seem to like it. Like James Bond or any other franchise, you have to give the people what they want. But on the third, I may change the structure. I may start the film with a sex scene, or with a sea eagle attack. You never know.
Hitchcock was tough with his actors. Do you follow his lead with that? I am what is known an actor's director. I never went to film school so I've learned to cast people who fit in with my vision. Then I let them interpret the scene their way. I don't really give a lot of specific direction. In Birdemic's bedroom scene, where Rod makes love to Natalie, she walks out in the lingerie and says, "What do you think?" I gave a lot of very specific instruction for that, but most other scenes I left to the actors. Sometimes you get the best performances that way.
You see these movies as thrillers. But many people consider them comedies. How do you feel about that? There may be a few happy accidents that make them funny. But there's a lot going on in them. There's some economic satire as well. Above all, they are romances that are full of foreboding.
You made both Birdemics on a shoestring budget. Would you prefer to have more money to work with, or do the limitations add to the appeal?
What's next? The Hangover meets An Inconvenient Truth, but set in Vietnam.
I would take $100 million any day. I'd take the money and run! You know, it's always a struggle to raise money. The first one became a sensational cult hit and I was very close to a deal with a Hollywood studio, but it didn't happen. So I had to desperately raise money for Birdemic 2. Everything was hard. I managed to get us onto the Jaws set at Universal Studios. We were there, surrounded by a $200 million soundstage. A few feet away from Jaws is a place where they filmed part of The Birds in 1962. And nearby too is the set for Psycho. So although we were low-budget, we managed to get great production value. But the bigger the budget, the picture will get better. We still have limitations with the visual effects here and there, but I would love to perfect it for Birdemic 3. I want the birds to look totally real, but that's money we don't have. Then again, I think if the visual effects in Birdemic and Birdemic 2 were perfect, maybe it wouldn't be a hit. It would become too serious, too scary. People don't want that.
If you could pick one person to remake Birdemic, who would it be? That's a good question. I think a guy like Justin Lin, who did Fast & Furious 6, would do a great job. Any A-list director would be okay. I could be one of those guys, but I'd never remake my own film. I'd let someone else play in the Birdemic world.
What's next for you? We're about to go into production on a thing called The Sea Is Rising. It's kind of like The Hangover meets An Inconvenient Truth, but set in Vietnam.
What do you think Hitchcock would make of the Birdemic films? I can't read Mr. Hitchcock's mind, but I think he'd say, "James, you didn't do too bad at all." If it was a $20 million thing and I screwed it up, he'd say, "James, you blew it." But the first one cost $10,000 and made the front cover of The New York Times. Back in 2010, it got the most press ever since The Birds in 1962. So I think Mr. Hitchcock would forgive a lot of its imperfections and say, "James, you did what you could. Do another one and try to do it better."