EVERY LITTLE THING

SALLY AITKEN IS AS FREE AS A BIRD

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL INTERVIEW
By Connor Dalton
5th June 2024

It's beyond doubt at this point that Sally Aitken is one of the most versatile documentarians currently working.

Only months prior, she unveiled 'Hot Potato: The Story of the Wiggles', a remarkable illumination of the 30-plus-year history of the children's supergroup, at the inaugural SXSW Sydney. But in no time at all, she has already returned to the festival scene with a new project, and it couldn't be more polar opposite in tone and theme. Set in the canyons of California, her latest film, 'Every Little Thing', presents the story of Terry Masear, a woman who has been rehabilitating hummingbirds for the past several decades. And, yes, you read that correctly.

At face value, the premise sounds a little too cutesy and a tad too niche to justify a feature-length duration. But for those familiar with Aitken's body of work, which also includes chronicles of venerated film critics and underwater photographers, it should be of little surprise that she's unearthed something beautiful. She treats the hummingbirds as near-mythic beings, exemplified effectively through the use of high-speed cinematography. Moreover, as we witness Masear tend to her little companions, Aitken weaves in the carer's own tribulations and resilience with great elegance. Working within the most untraditional of frameworks, what she has managed to accomplish is another testament to her boundless range as a storyteller.

'Every Little Thing' will have its Australian premiere at the Sydney Film Festival, with Aitken in attendance - but before she enters the prestigious State Theatre, we discussed the benefit of being an outsider to the world of hummingbirds, the rigours of observational filmmaking, and how Bob Marley played a hand in the film's title. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

This story contains spoilers for the film 'Every Little Thing'.

CONNOR DALTON: Sally, I can honestly say I never know what you're going to do next.

SALLY AITKEN: I obviously like variety (laughs).

DALTON: 'Every Little Thing' has a radically different subject and form from your previous films. How did it become your latest project?

AITKEN: [Producer] Bettina Dalton and I had collaborated on 'Playing With Sharks', which was the Valerie Taylor story. That film had done very well. It was a great experience. It premiered at Sundance and was also very nicely reviewed. Then it sold very handsomely to Disney+ National Geographic. So instantly, Bettina and I were like, "Well, what's next?" And she had sent me a review of Terry Masear's memoir, 'Fastest Things on Wings: Rescuing Hummingbirds in Hollywood'.

The book review was intriguing to me because I was like, "What? There's someone who rehabilitates hummingbirds? That's weird!" It was a stranger-than-fiction story, and my interest was piqued by that strangeness. Then I read the book, and it is very beautifully written. It's quite metaphoric, and obviously, it was also full of information about hummingbirds. And I was immediately drawn into the possibilities of these tiny birds as connectors for humanity.

In the beginning, I thought, "There's something so cinematic about that. Hummingbirds are very visual. They're beautiful to look at. They're iridescent. They're fast. There's an incredible opportunity in terms of the cinematography." But when I thought about this grand story told through the microcosm of the tiniest birds in the world, I thought, "There's something very beautiful about that as an idea." So it was then embarking on the project with the idea that it wasn't really a story about the oddity of someone who looks after hummingbirds - that's your way in - what you go on is this invitation to examine your own humanity.

DALTON: Do you look for certain qualities in a subject before determining whether you will tackle their story?

AITKEN: Great question. Connor, you always have such good questions. If I do, it's not conscious. I'm very moved, I suppose, by the idea that everyone has a unique story. It's always about trying to find the points of difference within that person's story but not making it inaccessible. With all my films, I always think I'm making a different film. I always think, "This is a new person, new subject, new approach, new treatment, new visual realisation, new location." But it's interesting when people say, "Across the canon of your work, it's always very emotional." It's always interesting to me when people find threads in your work that you don't necessarily see yourself because maybe you're not conscious of them.

With characters, I don't think I have a particular litmus test that I put people through. It's more what's the best vehicle for telling this story? In the case of The Wiggles film, we got an opportunity with this beautiful archive and incredible concert. That was the framework for telling that film, and I creatively came to an idea with the contributors, who have been interviewed so much, of creating a space to elicit something new. Terry is quite different. She hasn't been interviewed extensively; her story is totally unknown. So I never approached Terry's storytelling like that.

I approached it from the point of view of illuminating the story I'm interested in, which is the great compassion, empathy, and touching on the chords of our interconnectedness that Terry provides. What she sees in the birds is not something I would see immediately. So I wanted to visualise very poetically this realm of the hummingbird. So I started to think about Terry not so much as a character but as a conduit - can we see the story as if we're looking through Terry's eyes?

DALTON: Did you shoot the film entirely at Terry's property in Hollywood?

AITKEN: With the landscape of the film, I was very interested in that juxtaposition of this tiny bird and this sprawling metropolis. The film is set in LA, one of the most mythologised cities in the world. You've never seen the natural history take on it, so there was a delight for me in that. Interestingly enough, we hired the property for the film. Terry had lived and worked in Los Angeles for the last three decades. Then, in COVID, she moved to Portland because her husband had a job opportunity there, and he had been diagnosed with this degenerative cognitive illness.

So what actually happened is she continues to run the hummingbird hotline. But her book had been written before the move to Portland, so it captures the last 25-odd years of her work as a hummingbird rehabilitatior. The book, therefore, is very much set in Los Angeles. So when Bettina optioned the book and we went, "What's the documentary's story?" It was like, "Well, we can't really tell that story in Portland, and Terry wants to move back to LA anyway."

90% of the calls she takes on the phone, she actually solves on the phone, but when she would bring the birds to a physical location, it wasn't in LA. So we decided to get a house situated in Benedict Canyon, which is a good place for hummingbirds to be reintroduced into the wild because there are lots of canyons with lots of food around. And as a production reality, this was a property that could accommodate all of us because we were going to be working all hours of the day and night. However, the long-term intention is that Terry will get a property just like the one in the film that will become a hummingbird sanctuary.

DALTON: How much time did you spend in La La Land?

AITKEN: We were there over the spring/summer season. We were very interested in having a chronological framework that we could tell the story through, so I did it over a couple of trips. We also worked with a beautiful team of cinematographers because, as you can probably imagine, the cinematography was quite complex on this film. It's beautiful, but it was complex to capture. We had three different cinematographers. Ann Jonhson-Prum was one; she is an expert wildlife cinematographer who has a specialism in hummingbirds. She intersected with our main unit DPs over two different trips, so there were sort of two blocks of three weeks or something like that across that period, which Ann punctuated with the nesting and fledgling behaviour she captured.

But it was at periodic times that we did the observational filming with Terry. We were there for the height of her busyness when she was triaging all those birds and little babies coming in and out of her ICU and so on. We were also there during the release period of reintroducing the birds that made it back to the wild.

DALTON: The wildlife cinematography is absolutely mesmerising. What type of equipment did you utilise to capture the hummingbirds in all their glory?

AITKEN: Well, if I divulge all of Ann's tricks and tips, I will be murdered, and we don't want any deaths on account of 'Every Little Thing' (smiles). But seriously, the starting point for me was this kind of magic realism. The experience I had reading Terry's book, thinking, "Wow, there's such an amazing opportunity to see these birds through Terry's eyes as these carriers of higher wisdom. These opportunities for us to reflect on our relationship with the natural world and each other. The possibility that they exist in ways that are not temporal. That there is another world that they might access." Everybody thinks of hummingbirds as fairylike creatures, and biologically and physically, they are extraordinary in the way they move and feed and fight.

Very early on, visually, what we wanted to do was really lean into the possibilities afforded by high-speed cinematography. I thought there was an amazing opportunity here, and Ann is a specialist in Phantom technology. She had been an early adopter of the Phantom camera for wildlife. We talked about how we could capture the birds at a high frame rate, and that would allow us to be drawn in and see things more clearly, but also see them in a dreamlike way. We played around with the frame speeds because if it was too slow, it would look like the bird was stationary, which wouldn't reflect the fact that they are these incredibly fast and quick creatures. Equally, if it was too low a frame rate, meaning it was too fast, you wouldn't have that dreamlike quality.

So we settled on 120 frames per second to about 250 frames, depending on what the scene was. We shot a lot on RED because we wanted a beautiful image, and with the lensing, we really wanted to have these macro lenses to go in super close. Honestly, Connor, they are tiny, and they allowed us to go in very close so you could see the bird how you wouldn't with your naked eye. That was critical, as was how good our cinematographers are because they needed to focus on the most minuet movements. Then the final element was the absolute contrast of the drone and having these aerial views, which gives you an expansive feeling. It evokes the stories of LA, and it's quite literally the bird's eye view. It's giving you the impression of this all-seeing hummingbird. We played around with all these different visual ways of telling the story.

DALTON: The film spends considerable time following Terry's unpredictable day-to-day. How would you plan your shooting around her somewhat unstructured schedule?

AITKEN: Essentially, we were very responsive to the rigours of observational filmmaking. We were responding to literally what came through on the phone and in the door. In fact, it's probably one of the hardest shoots I've ever done in my life, and I never would have expected it to be so challenging. I think it's because of the volume. It was a situation where you have so many cases; she received something like 30 calls a day. Which one do you choose? You're almost choosing them all, and what that meant was I had to be both very responsive but also very decisive. Obviously, no feature version of this is ever going to be able to capture all the birds she looks after.

In a way, I took inspiration from the book. Terry had taken specific characters that she had treated over the course of 25 years to tell her story. I thought, "Well, maybe we can find these characters in the birds that represent certain journeys of love or overcoming adversity or comedy." I was interested not in anthropomorphising the birds but in making them become representative and almost human transformative experiences under the big umbrella of the film and its overall theme.

It's about trauma and resilience and where you find the way through those experiences. I found these wisdoms that Terry talks about really moving and inspiring. I tried to make a film that wasn't didactic; I wanted to extend an invitation to an unusual world with this very idiosyncratic woman where you cheer for her birds and feel uplifted, devastated, and that there's something bigger than what it actually presents.

DALTON: We spend so much time with these birds, but sadly, not all make a recovery. There is a haunting sequence where you show Terry burying a couple who didn't make it. How was it filming moments like that, given how sensitive they were?

AITKEN: I'm so happy you found that moment moving. I took my cue from Terry. I found it amazing that for all the birds that don't make it through rehab - and there are many - she buries each one. She gives each one a send-off, buries them with dignity, gives them a flower, and takes the time. She is honouring the bird, and it is healing for her. It's a way of acknowledging what she talks about elsewhere in the film: the compassion you put in says something about you. It's an encapsulation of that mantra.

I had the experience of witnessing one of these funerals, and I was just like, "We have to elevate that because what she's doing in the funeral is elevating that bird's life." So that spawned the choice to make that incredible drone shot. On location, I wanted to capture the trees, and if I were crude about it, I would have said they were spirits, but it did feel really spiritual. In the moment, I was standing there when she's burying the bird, feeling like there was a presence, and I wanted to shoot it in that way.

In terms of the edit, this is where you get the joy of working with amazing collaborators. I didn't need to tell [editor] Tania [Nehme] how to cut it; she spotted that intention in the rushes. She brought her own level of craft in terms of how to pace and cut it. We also became conscious of paralleling these moments in Terry's life with what she does with the birds in the edit. So, hopefully, that means that when you're retreating through the drone, you've got the cumulation of all that going through the scene.

DALTON: Observing how Terry worked made me surprised she was receptive to being filmed. While she is very gentle and sincere, she is undoubtedly all business, and I would have thought she wouldn't want this to potentially interrupt her duties. How was she to work with?

AITKEN: You are so perceptive, Connor (laughs). She was like, "Out of my way! The birds come first. You want to hang on for the ride? Knock yourself out, but I am not bending over backwards for you guys." She's like that with people. There's a moment in the film where she's like, "Yeah, well, just so you know, if you take that extra half hour, that bird is probably going to die. That's on you." She's totally all business; I love that she is. She's like a field medic in that regard.

If I said to you, "Hey, Connor, I'm making a film about a woman who looks after hummingbirds," your immediate first association might be, "Awwww, that's so sweet. She must be so cuddly and nice." Well, it's actually really hard work and time-sensitive. Those birds are delicate, and if she doesn't do things exactly right, they will die. There's no sort of fluffiness with how she approaches the work. She has to be the character she is in order to be successful at what she does. That doesn't mean she's without compassion. It's actually the most compassionate response she could have.

I love that counter-intuitiveness. When she starts to sound off about the finders, I was like, "Woah, you are harsh!" And she was like, "You're the fool! You're the one who's gullible if you think people don't lie to you!" She's deeply honest, and I think that allowing themselves to be who they really are is what's great about any screen character. There's authenticity there. You can't buy someone's character transformation if you don't buy into them as a character first.

DALTON: You've spoken about your reverence for the memoir and specific themes you wished to delve into, but you weren't working with a traditional three-act structure. Did that make for a testing paper edit?

AITKEN: I had a very clear aspiration of how I wanted the film to feel, but I did not have a defined sense of exactly how that was going to be executed. And when I started filming, I didn't know what you find out about Terry's personal story. But when she felt confident enough to reveal that, it became very clear to me that was how I'd approach the story. Like any documentary, there is an exchange and reciprocity between subjects and their director. When Terry explained her story, I thought, "That is kind of an answer to what our question at the beginning of the film might be," which is why does she do what she does? There was a classic approach to that idea of structuring the film as a hero's journey where their challenge in Act One becomes their strength in Act Three.

I was interested in this idea of Terry's contemporary world of rescuing hummingbirds, but clearly, what had happened to her across her life needed to be visualised in a way that had its own execution. I was moved by the way we found the texture and archive. We tried to bring that archive alive in a non-literal way. It's not like we went out to shoot reenactments; it's a much more impressionistic treatment. The metaphors of the spider webs and the flowers create a visual execution of these thematic ideas. That was a lot of craft in the edit. That was a lot of structuring and restructuring and figuring out how scenes might sit with each other. Also, there's a certain logic. You can't have Jimmy flying around if Jimmy hasn't learned how to fly first. So it was quite the task going from the shoot where I had these core ideas of the bird characters and Terry's biography to then wondering how are we actually going to put that together.

The film is very slight. In many ways, it's almost made with gossamer. You've got one woman, one activity, one location, and half a dozen birds. It's not exactly the stuff of great action films. Yet, hopefully, you go on a big journey because it's actually really emotional. I don't know if it was successful, but that was the hope. And approaching the edit with that degree of openness, we had so much content that we ended up not putting in the film to allow rhythm to dictate the story.

DALTON: You couldn't have had a more fitting needle drop to tie it all together. When you decided to make this film, how crucial was it that you secure that Bob Marley track for the credits? I bet it wasn't simple to do so!

AITKEN: No! It was super challenging and expensive. At the very beginning of the process, I remember saying, "It's LA! We have to have commercial music! I know it in my bones. I don't know what the tracks are. Don't ask me what the tracks are. I just know we have to have commercial music!" And initially, I thought there might be more throughout the film, but I again worked with [composer] Caitlin Yeo, and she did an amazing job on the score. It is glorious, especially in a cinema setting, to hear that score.

What became apparent was we needed to have our own way through the emotional story that wasn't going to run the risk of being overshadowed by a commercial track. But at the beginning and end of the film, those iconic songs are your way of coming through that commercial portal. They're so upbeat, and you'll be like, "Wait, what? There's a crazy lady in a car, and she's talking to a hummingbird." I thought that was a delightful way to say this is LA like you've never seen it before, and by the end, you've been on this existential and unusual journey. You've met Terry, you've understood her journey, and maybe you've thought about other things.

It sounds trite, but the film wants you to pay attention to the small things. The small things come together to make the big things. There's something about the wonder of the world around us, and hummingbirds are literally in people's backyards in California. Yet, absolutely no American had thought to make this film. Sometimes, it takes an outsider to come in and go, "Hey, let's look at this in a different light." The ideas of what they could represent maybe came a bit more easily because I don't have that easy familiarity with them. Maybe someone's going to make the great story about kangaroos by having an outsider's set of eyes.

But when it came to that end track, the story is about everybody doing their part and the planet being in crisis and taking care of what's in your backyard and hope, and you got Bob Marley literally saying, "Every little thing is gonna be alright." That was the inspiration for the title. Initially, we were like, "Should we call it 'Fastest Thing on Wings'? No, that's too natural history." Then it was 'Hummingbirds in Hollywood', which was too cheesy. Then it was even 'Jimmy and the Wild Boys'. But as soon as we had 'Every Little Thing', we were like, "Of course it's 'Every Little Thing'! It couldn't be anything else!" Then I was like, "Oh, god, I can't hear that we can't have that song." So the team did an amazing job of getting that approved.

DALTON: The film has been a big hit on the festival circuit. It debuted at Sundance, played at South by Southwest, and we're talking before its Australian premiere at the Sydney Film Festival. What do you cherish about screening to festival crowds?

AITKEN: There is no greater fear or thrill for a filmmaker because that feedback is live. You're going to know instantly whether or not the thing has landed, so to speak. Like you said, it premiered at Sundance, it was invited to South by Southwest, it also played at Copenhagen CPH: DOX, which is a major marquee festival on the European circuit, and heaps of film festivals in between - too many to list and there's more to come. The thing is, you are in different cultures, yet people laugh, sigh, and gasp at the same spots. That's kind of incredible because it's telling you that, somehow, the story is touching people. So I think it's special to be in a film festival environment. Every question is different at the Q&As; it's amazing to me what people read into a film. Every time someone asks me a question, I'm so happy they asked that because I'm often quite surprised in a good way. I'm excited to play at the Sydney Film Festival; the State Theatre is a fantastic venue.

DALTON: It'll be great. Congratulations on two films in the space of several months!

AITKEN: Oh, Connor, I have to tell you, when 'Playing with Sharks' played at Sundance, I never got to go and experience the festival because that year it was virtual. But for 'Every Little Thing', the programmers all made a point of saying, "This is the second film that Sally has had premiere at Sundance." So in America, people would say, "Wow, you tell these amazing stories about women in the natural world. What makes you gravitate to those stories?" And I was like, "Well, actually, in the midst of all that, I made another film about a group called The Wiggles" (laughs). That was quite surprising for a lot of people in the audience. The name drop recognition was high in the US.

'Every Little Thing' is screening at the Sydney Film Festival on the 15th of June at the State Theatre and on the 16th of June at Event Cinemas George Street.

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