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VIFF 2015 Interview: THE MESSENGER director Su Rynard

by Jason Whyte

"All across the globe, songbirds are disappearing. We have only half the birds now than we did in the 1960's. THE MESSENGER is the artful story about this mass depletion and the compassionate people who are working to turn the tide. By way of a visually stunning and emotional journey, the film reveals how the issues facing birds also pose daunting implications for our planet and ourselves. In ancient times humans looked to the flight and songs of birds to foretell our future. Today, once again the birds have something to tell us.

Is this your first VIFF experience and will you be in Vancouver to attend your screenings?

My feature drama KARDIA screened at VIFF in 2005 and I am thrilled to be attending VIFF this year with a new feature documentary, THE MESSENGER.

Tell me a bit about yourself and your background!

There are those who knew since they were X years old that they wanted to be filmmakers, and this is not me. My life journey feels more like a storm than an arrow. I went to art school and I love making things. I admire drawing and painting but felt hopeless when doing this myself, so media became my palette. I started out making video art, then short dramatic films, then feature films, all the while developing projection based installation art, and feature documentary. Sometimes all of these things happen at the same time. Recently my work has been inspired by science and our very complex human relationship to the natural world.

So with your background and experience in media, how did THE MESSENGER come together?

Producers Joanne Jackson & Diane Woods approached me in the spring of 2010, we joined forces and created SongbirdSOS Productions Inc. In 2011 to 2012 creative development with the CFC/NFB Documentary Development Program began, and I pitched the film at Sunnyside of the Doc and we won Best Feature Film Pitch. At this time we teamed up with Films a Cinq, our co-production partners. Sally Blake became my much needed co-writer. Cameras rolled in 2013. We shot over the course of 15 months. During the entire filming process we were continually reflecting, researching and re-defining and re-writing the film; such is the nature of documentary.

2014-2015 was the year of post-production. After several months of editing, we had a good solid rough cut and a fantastic TV version, but not a great feature film, so we dialed the name of Ricardo. Ricardo Acosta, an incredible talent and award winning editor (HERMAN'S HOUSE, MARMATO) proceeded with love in his heart to tell us that the film was unemotional, lacked structure, and had too much "blah blah blah". After a few tears, stiff drinks, and a supportive producer who launched an Indiegogo crowd funding campaign to raise more money, we were finally back in the edit suite. We discovered what worked and didn't. We did numerous intimate test screenings and listened to the feedback. Finally, we whipped the film into an Audience Award Winning Film (Hot Docs Top Ten 2015) that even Ricardo can be proud of!

While you are working on a movie, what keeps you going? What drives you? How much coffee?

My coffee is always "Bird Friendly" and I use an AeroPress to make it. But my real tonic is nature. I need to stare at a frozen lake, float in open water, hear the wind and feel the rain. I need to feel my hands in the garden dirt, and buy my food from a farmer. We worked flat out on this film, not just for months but for years. I live in downtown Toronto, and my nature hits were rare, but always essential and revitalizing.

What was your biggest challenge with THE MESSENGER? The birds?

Storytelling. Our central characters were birds! How do you get people to emotionally connect to a non-human issue? The story stakes are high; simply put, if birds die, we die, but how do you unravel the story of an environmental disaster in the making without making people feel overwhelmed and helpless? There is awe, poetry and hard facts in the science, so how is that best communicated? How do you distill complex science into a story that is accessible and impactful? How exactly we did this is hard to pin point. It took a long time, and the solutions were found through process rather than a single "eureka". But the real answer lies in the experience of watching the film.

If you had to pick a single favourite moment out of THE MESSENGER, what would it be?

This would be when we locked picture. Editing is "the final stage of writing" and I was fortunate to have talented collaborators on this journey, namely Picture Editor Eamonn O'Connor. We had 120 hours of footage and a story that could be told a zillion different ways. To create a signature tone and style was an intense process.

For the aspiring filmmakers who read our site, I would love to know about the technical side of the film and who you worked with.

We shot on three different continents, so we had two main documentary cinematographers; Daniel Grant for North & South America, and Amar Arhab for Europe. Because we were shooting tiny birds that live high in the tree-tops, migrate at night and are often heard but rarely seen, we had three additional talented cinematographers who are experts at filming wildlife. Joshua See, Laurent Charbonnier and Michael Male. Our main unit shot with the Sony F5, and our wildlife unit shot with a variety of different cameras that could support the huge long lenses necessary to capture the unique images required to tell our story. My relationship to all the cinematographers was frazzled! Before we rolled, Daniel Grant and I had some intense conversations about the visual language for the film and these became our guideposts. As a director it was my job to make sure we were all on the same page, with the goal of creating a uniform look and style. Somehow we managed to do just that.

Sound was a very important element of the production. We recorded location ambiances and site-specific sound everywhere we went. All of these ambiances had to be carefully edited in the film, as the natural sounds of each location are biological signatures for that specific place and time. We could not use sound libraries, and this made for the biggest sound design challenge on earth. Composer and sound designer Phil Strong took this on, he wove ambiances into rhythms, and rhythms into music. The result is magic.

What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie at VIFF?

It is great to be at the screening to connect with the audience. I'm interested to listen and learn from the people who watch the film. People are often moved by the film, and ask what can I do? To this end we are launching an impact campaign to connect people who care with ways they can help. Our outreach partner in Canada is Bird Studies Canada and at VIFF we will have a special guest from BSC with us for the question and answer.

Where is this movie going to show next? Any theatrical release?

We have several festival screenings right after VIFF including The Mill Valley Film Festival in California and CinemAmbiente in Italy. And HOT OFF THE PRESS. We are very excited to share the news that THE MESSENGER will soon be coming to theatres across the USA! Kino Lorber is releasing the film and our run starts in New York and LA this December. Check our website for more news on US release and Canadian theatrical with SongbirdSOS in Canada.

What would you say or do to someone who is talking, texting or being overall disruptive during a screening of your film?

As a Director working in a theatrical medium, my goal is to create an immersive theatrical experience. Ideally, people should escape into the film, to go with it, to be present, free yourself from your devices and just forget about the rest of the world for 90 minutes. When the credits roll, THE MESSENGER offers engagement on all social media platforms, viewers can add their voice with the hashtags #songbirdsos #birdsmatter and join the impact campaign. Go wild!

On another note, my film KARDIA played in a massively huge theatre in Shanghai. While the film was rolling, people whispered to each other, occasionally took a picture or fiddled with their mobiles. This was the first time I had experienced this. At first I found it upsetting, then I realized they were engaged, and that murmur of chat was excitement about the film. All 2000 people stayed until the final frame, clapped loudly, then gave me flowers.

There are many aspiring filmmakers reading us for our articles and reviews on If you could offer a nugget of advice to them on how to get their start, what would you say to them?

One. Be inspired - always try to feed your creative self and maintain balance in your life. Two. Find a way to generate a subsistence level income that will allow you to pursue your creative endeavors. And three. Persevere; keep going no matter what and don't give up.

And finally, what is the best movie you have ever seen at a film festival, and why?

Impossible question! Okay, Julian Schnabel THE DIVING BELL & THE BUTTERFLY. Why? I found the visual metaphor that opens the film profound and deeply moving. Schnabel so perfectly grounds the life of the character in the hospital bed, yet allows the world of the imagination and memory exceed all boundaries.

For more information on THE MESSENGER point your browser to and on Twitter at @themessengerdoc or @songbirdsos or on Facebook at SongbirdSOSfilm. Also use the hashtag #birdsmatter!

VIFF page on THE MESSENGER with screening times can be found by clicking HERE.

This is one of the many films screening at the 2015 Vancouver International Film Festival taking place in beautiful Vancouver from Septembe 24th to October 9th. For more information on this film screening times, point your browser to or use the VIFF app for Android and iOS.

Jason Whyte,
Twitter: @jasonwhyte / Facebook: jasonwhyte / Instagram: jason.whyte

link directly to this feature at
originally posted: 09/22/15 02:14:49
last updated: 09/22/15 02:19:05
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