Saturday, August 12, 2006

Talking Parrots & Life with Mark Bittner (Part II)

(I recently sat down with Mark Bittner, author and the subject of the award-winning documentary, "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill." Here is a part of that interview:)

ERA: Have you found that people recognize you now since “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill” came out and was such a success?

MB: Oh, yeah, it’s strange. On some days, no one will recognize me. And, then on other days it just happens all day long. For instance, two days ago, it happened several times. At one point we were at a stop sign and somebody ran over to the car and that was kind of funny.

ERA: Is it gratifying, annoying?

MB: It’s neither, really. I mean, in a certain sense it’s gratifying, because you want to touch people, of course you want it to reach out to people. But, you know, it’s small. Fame doesn’t mean anything to me. I’ve always thought that fame was like nonsense. And now I can see it even more so. But, even on the small level on which I encounter it, it IS nonsense. You know, people are nice and it’s never been a problem. I’m not inundated by it, but I can see where if I were, it could get very annoying. Because I’m used to just walking around thinking about stuff that I’m working on, and if people were interrupting me constantly throughout a day, that would just be hell.

ERA: I know that some people who saw the people criticized the couple who owned the property and made you move. Was there any animosity toward them on your part?

MB: No, and that’s been kind of terrible in a way, because when we first showed the film at a test screening, a lot of people acted negatively to them, so we added some extra voice over to make it clear that they were actually being good to me. And the book makes it very clear that I had no animosity toward them. But, if you just see the film and you’re not paying real close attention – I mean, I say in the film that they’ve been real good to me and I meant it, but some people just see it as they made me leave. You know, a film only shows so much, because you only have so much time to tell the story in a movie. The facts of the matter were complicated. The building was falling apart. I was ready to go. I didn’t want to keep doing what I was doing. I had been doing it for six years and I had never intended on being the parrot man my whole life. So, when they said we’re sorry, we have to do something because this building is falling apart, that was true and I was grateful to them, because I had always felt I was on a path of some sort and I wanted something to naturally end it. So, I was grateful to them rather than being upset with them.

ERA: In what other ways has the film changed your life?

MB: Well, in many ways both the book and the film have changed my life. My issue coming into this whole thing was how to make a living. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do to make a living. I’ve always wanted to devote myself wholeheartedly to something, but I couldn’t find what that was. And, so the parrots opened the door. It wasn’t like tending the parrots was my answer, which is the way some people look at it. It was more like they just opened the door. It gave me a story to tell, for one thing. I’d always liked writing, but for a variety of reasons I had always discounted writing as a way of making a living. But, now I finally had a story to tell, it was a unique story and I thought it should be told. And the book did well so that kind of thing is open to me now. I’ve traveled all over the world giving talks.

ERA: Was there a moment when you remember saying to yourself, “These parrots are going to open this door for me?”

MB: No, not really. It wasn’t like that. It was like when I was doing it I wasn’t sure why I was doing it. That was always a big puzzle to me. I felt at first like I was being diverted. Because I was very conscious of where I was going, always, even though it looks to a lot of people like I was aimless, it was never that. I was very focused, but when I first got involved with the parrots, I thought they were a diversion and a danger, in that sense. But, I couldn’t get away from them and as I got deeper and deeper into it, all of this good stuff started happening to me. So, I finally just gave up. And it turns out that they represented a door opening for me, but it was a gradual realization. I wrote a story about the parrots to a parrot magazine, and that gave me the idea of writing a book. Then, Judy came along wanting to make the film. At first, it was just going to be a hobby film. But, it just kept growing. It was like everything with this. There was never any goal. Things just kept growing. And then we recently got married.

ERA: Yeah, I wanted to ask you about that. Could you see that you were getting attached to her during the filming of the movie?

MB: No, not at all. In the beginning it was really all just work, work-related and being kind of polite around each other, because it was kind of a professional relationship at first. I just felt comfortable around her, even though I didn’t view her romantically at all.
After awhile, we just started spending more and more time together, and it really all just came together when she wanted to film a baby parrot being born and I had always wanted to see that. So, the babies were late that year. They usually came out around the first of September, but that year they were as many as three weeks late. So, we had to go to the same place every morning and hang out under this one nest that we knew about and sit around in her van, waiting for this baby to come out, and day after day they weren’t coming. So, we spent more and more time, just sitting around and talking and getting to know one another. I knew I liked her and I had hoped it was mutual.

(More to come…)

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