‘Fever Year’ marks directorial debut, Bird in handWelcome to the biggest week of Xan Aranda’s life. Her directorial debut Andrew Bird: Fever Year, a concert documentary about the reclusive indie-rock violin virtuoso, makes its international premiere at the Vancouver International Film Festival on Oct. 8. That’s just five days after it makes its world premiere at the New York Film Festival. Excuse her if she’s freaking out just a little bit.
“The first festival to take it was Vancouver,” Aranda says, over the phone from her home base in Chicago, where Bird also resides. “Before [VIFF] and the New York Film Festival came along, I was just wigging out, thinking we would work so hard on this film that we like, but that people would be like, ‘Oh man, another music doc.’ I really hoped to make something that would pull outside of that.”
Fans of Bird know little about the man himself, other than what they glimpse through his carefully constructed, lush folk-rock songs. Since 2003, he’s released four solo albums and several live records, amassing a devoted cult following that grew in legion as chamber pop and his practice of violin looping caught on with the more mainstream indie rock crowd. His live shows reveal a genius-like approach to detail, both sonically and visually. But Bird’s not an accessible, knowable musician like his peer Owen Pallett (formerly Final Fantasy). Interviews are rare (he declined to participate in this story) and he’s not big on social media. His identity as an artist is carefully controlled. On the surface, it’s not a lot to work with when crafting a documentary.
But Aranda isn’t just any filmmaker. She’s been a friend of Bird’s for almost a decade, working with him on a variety of short film and music video projects over the years. When he came to her for a consultation about filming his final two concerts of 2009, Aranda saw the potential for something more.
“There’s no point in doing a concert capture,” she says. “That’s only for the fans and they’ll watch it once and put it on the shelf. I really wanted to make a film that — I don’t know if I captured his essence, but gives you a chance to be with him. He’s a very private person and I don’t think that this film really tells you who he is, but you do get the chance to be with him and that was a goal. I very much wanted this to be story with music and music with story and for you to kinda not realize when one is happening and then the other, just the next thing you know 80 minutes went by... I know he’d talked to a lot more directors who were more experienced and famous than I am, and ultimately he said he wasn’t comfortable with that.”
Admittedly, as Aranda discovered, Bird wasn’t always comfortable with her approach either. He proved reticent throughout about the documentary aspect to Fever Year, but Aranda kept pushing.
“It took a lot of coaxing,” she laughs. “Andrew would be very happy to only have the on-stage be what he shares... It was very collaborative, but lots of reluctance. We tried one direction for a while, but ultimately we both watched it and were like, ‘This is so stilted!’ I’m 100-per-cent a fan of verite. I told him I wanted to shoot more with him. I’d call him and be like, ‘Hey, what are you doing today?’ And he’d say, ‘Oh, I’m recording.’ We’d say we want to come with you and he’d be like, ‘Okay, you can come by between two and three.’ And I’d be like, ‘Well, when are you getting there?’ And he’d say, ‘Nine.’ And I’d be like, ‘Ok, I’m going to meet you at your house.’ That was hard for him. He’s so focused. He doesn’t want his recording messed up, either... My first and foremost concern was that it honor his pace as a human. Imagine an MTV version of Fever Year. Andrew is really deliberate, he’s really thoughtful, he’s very careful in everything he does. It wasn’t hard to just look at who he is and honour that; and, it’s the style of film I wanted to make, so it wasn’t a stretch for me either.”
Fever Year takes its name from the unidentified illness that daunted Bird throughout his tour in 2009. In the film he estimates he had a fever of about 103 degrees at least 150 days out of the year. He also ends up on crutches at one point. Aranda immediately says “No,” when asked if she was worried about her subject and friend, then laughs.
“It sounds really callous, but I wasn’t worried about him, because I knew it was cresting soon, I knew what his schedule was,” she explains. “I always describe him as a frog in hot water. When you tour, you just take it moment-by-moment. It’s not until later you realize, holy shit, I just had a fever for 150 days. He was alarmed and towards the end of the year he saw some doctors, but there’s so much frenzy involved, you don’t even realize. But he does say in the film that he’s only not had a fever for three or four shows, and I like that he’s laughing when he tells you that. I wasn’t worried. He’s fundamentally very strong. But, I know what it’s like even in my own work — it really does take one to know one.”
For both the filmmaker and her subject, Fever Year is the culmination of over a decade of hard work, seizing every opportunity with dogged determination.
“I know what it’s like — and this does bring me both pause and calm — to be at a heyday that’s a result of 10 years of really hard work, and knowing that you have to respond regardless of what your physical resources are,” Aranda says. “And there’s a tragedy to it. Because if you didn’t take a bite out of every pie, you would be okay, but it’s everything you’ve worked for. I’ve been a producer for 10 years. I’ve worked my fucking ass off,” she laughs. “I was busy when Fever Year came around. I was tired and broke. It wasn’t the best idea for me, but I had to do it and I’ve never been sorry.”
Andrew Bird: Fever Year screens at VIFF Oct. 8, 10, 14. Tickets and showtimes: VIFF.org.