Sick as a Bird: An Interview with Fever Year Director Xan Aranda

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In her new documentary, filmmaker Xan Aranda captured a fever-ridden Andrew Bird recording on his family’s farm. Photo courtesy: Xan Aranda

When most people come down with a fever, the tendency is to seek refuge in the comfort of bed, load up on meds, and call in sick for a while. For musician Andrew Bird, a 102-degree temperature is no reason to cancel shows or take a break. In fact, despite being under the weather for most of 2009, Bird not only managed to stay committed to a relentless touring schedule of 165 shows, he also commissioned indie-filmmaker Xan Aranda to direct the aptly titled documentary, Fever Year.

In the new film, which makes its Utah premiere at the Salt Lake City Film Festival on August 13, Aranda puts the musician on display in a way never seen before onstage. Both heavily involved in the Chicago scene, she has known Bird for a decade, in which time she collaborated with him on music videos for the songs “Imitosis” and “Lull.” Fever Year gives audiences a front row seat to Bird’s multi-instrumental skills and his distinct looping technique, wherein he layers his violin and guitar playing, over his whistling and singing.

The 80-minute film features live performances taken from a two-night stand at Milwaukee’s Pabst Theater in October  2009. A three-piece band made up of Martin Dosh, Jeremy Ylvisaker and Michael Lewis joins Bird on-stage, but this is no ordinary group of musicians. Bird spent approximately five years assembling the group, and therefore wanted to document their final show of the tour, which Aranda does beautifully. Thanks to Fever Year, there now exists great footage of Bird performing live, instead of cheap YouTube videos from fans’ camera phones
or a brief set on the Austin City Limits TV show.

The movie also provides rare, behind-the-scene glimpses of Bird making preparations for the shows at the Pabst Theater, including an intimate rehearsal with Annie Clark of St. Vincent. There is also archival footage of Bird’s early days as a musician, as well as clips of him just hanging out on his large family farm three hours outside of Chicago. In a recent phone interview, SLUG talked to Aranda about filming the endeavor.

SLUG: Fever Year was your first attempt at making a music documentary. What was your initial approach to the project?
Aranda: Knowing that Andrew is not someone who’s going to be part of a film that’s like an E! True Hollywood Story or something really statistics-based, I knew that we would have to provide a lot of mood and transparency with him for 80 minutes rather than stats. Those are the things that inspired us: making a film about a multi-instrumentalist who plays with multi-instrumentalists.

How was this experience different from the music videos you previously made with Andrew?
Aranda: This project was so much larger, and it’s also a lot more personal. [Fever Year] actually turns the camera on him, so there was a big difference there. He knew that he was going to have these final shows with the band and he wasn’t going to play with them again, but he really loved what they were doing.

When you first started filming, did you know that he had been sick for a long time and that it would be part of the film?
Aranda: I’d often talk to him in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere, and he’d say that he’d been sick for weeks. When he arrived at the Pabst Theater, I’d seen him two weeks previous in Indianapolis and he was fine. At that point, there was no way that we weren’t going to include it in the film in some way. In the middle of the show, he started riffing about what to call the [film], and that was kind of an invitation to explore it deeper. People have asked me before if I was afraid for him or worried. It may sound callous, but I wasn’t. I was probably the least afraid out of most people because I understand what that’s all about and the fever wasn’t mysterious to me. I was freaking out during the shows about not blowing it. It’s a lot of money and a lot of humans, and I just wanted it to go well.

SLUG: When you watch the film, are you happy with it or are there parts you wish you had done differently?
Aranda: I don’t always watch the screening because I’ve seen it so many times. But if I see it with an audience, I’m not sure how they’re going to react, so I’ll usually watch it with them to see what they’re getting from it. Filmmaking is choices, and there’s always something to see if you’re watching it with new people’s eyes. I recently watched it in Mexico City and I hadn’t seen it in a month, but I watched it because they had subtitles in Spanish. I speak Spanish, so I wanted to see what kind of choices they made for the subs, and also just to see if the tiny handful of jokes in the movie translated. You just have to let go of the movie at some point. I took it as far as I can, and I truly exhausted myself and gave it everything that I had. I’m very much at peace with the film.

SLUG: How involved was Andrew in deciding what to include in the film? Was it easy to work so closely with him?
Aranda: The first cut of the film we did was … all interviews. He kept refusing to let us follow him places and observe him, but that’s the kind of stuff that gives the film breathing room. He had a lot to think about and work on, and it’s scary to let people come shoot you recording your new album. You don’t want to screw it up. For me, I didn’t want to go there and mess up the recording of the new album, so it was kind of this little delicate dance that you do. There’s no script. You can make a plan, but it takes a while to sift through all of it. After that phase we would check in with him every once in a while—it was kind of like this long, massaging process. He didn’t really let go of the process until he started making his new album.

As the director, how do you feel about Andrew owning the rights to the film? Did that make you reconsider whether or not to do it?
Aranda: I always knew that he owned the film, since he commissioned it and mostly financed it. I paid for a portion of it. The reason I took it on was because of two things: One, I had a strong opinion for many years on how it should be made. And two, I was in the middle of making another film (Mormon Movie) but I knew that [Fever Year] would be a great learning opportunity for me. I’m not known for taking projects that I know how to do. I’m known for taking projects that I really want to do and have the resources for.

If you can’t make it out to the Utah premiere of Fever Year on August 13, the film will also screen at the DocUtah: Southern Utah Intl Documentary Film Festival at Dixie State College on September 8. The film truly does a great job capturing Bird’s live   act, but if you want to see him live for yourself, he will be in Salt Lake performing at Red Butte Garden on Aug. 14. For tickets, check out