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Interview with Irene Taylor Brodsy

Pelican with wing up

HBO

Why was this the way you decided to tell a story about the BP oil spill?

Irene Taylor Brodsky

We were so overwhelmed with those iconic and awful images of the oil-covered birds right after the oil hit the shore in Louisiana, and it seemed like the misery was never-ending. We were hearing of thousands of birds dying, washing up on the shore. HBO had this idea to follow one bird, so I went down there to do it.

HBO

At the time there were stories in the press about journalists having restricted access. Was that a problem you encountered?

Irene Taylor Brodsky

All of the agencies, including BP, that were managing the information about the spill would have to stamp their approval on each step of the process. The thing about following one bird is that it goes through so many different human hands and each time is a new round of permissions to obtain. It was very tricky. We probably couldn't have made the film if we were there earlier or later; we got there at just the right time.

HBO

Why did you decide to cover a pelican?

Irene Taylor Brodsky

Birds aren't puppy dogs or polar bears, they're a little harder for people to wrap their heart around. But once people saw these pelicans, I think the whole world responded. They have these expressive eyes and yet, they're so primordial-looking. They fly so beautifully, it's awe-inspiring. Also, the pelicans history in the region is very important. It had already been given a second chance after being nearly wiped out. On top of that, it's also the Louisiana state bird and is just so very iconic.

I knew the bird would be iconic in life or in death. Of course, I really wanted him to live though.

HBO

Was there something about this bird in particular?

Irene Taylor Brodsky

It was the first bird we filmed getting captured. And it was caught by a state biologist we knew would be a very strong character in the film, because he had worked to bring these birds back to the state in the 1970s. So not only was it a cute bird, and an adolescent bird, it was caught by someone who we were equally interested in covering.

HBO

What were 895's chances of survival?

Irene Taylor Brodsky

We know now that the pelican's survival rate in rehab is about 85%. But at the time, all we knew was that the majority of birds were being found dead. We were there three months after the spill, and the birds were getting harder to find. These weren't the ones you saw drenched in oil right away, they had less oil on them, but it was on them for days and weeks at a time and it slowly beat their bodies down.

HBO

What does being covered in oil do to a bird?

Irene Taylor Brodsky

It causes them to lose their ability to thermoregulate. So, basically, they get too cold, even in 100-degree heat.

HBO

Did you cover other birds as well in case 895 didn't make it, or were you sticking with this one no matter what?

Irene Taylor Brodsky

We were sticking with 895. I knew the bird would be iconic in life or in death. Of course, I really wanted him to live though.

HBO

Did this bird receive any additional attention because you were following him?

Irene Taylor Brodsky

As an inside joke, the technicians in rehab called this bird "HBO." But he did not get any special treatment. We also weren't able to spend too much time with him, since you don't want them to spend too much time with humans. All of the close-up intimate shots we got of the birds were when they were already being handled. We wouldn't go into the pen just to shoot.

They won't really know for years about the effect of the spill or the dispersants that were used after. But if you go to the Louisiana coast you will see a lot of pelicans. They are very tough.

HBO

How has the Pelican population fared in the months since the rehab efforts began?

Irene Taylor Brodsky

The state agency in Louisiana is still assessing that. They won't really know for years about the effect of the spill or the dispersants that were used after. But if you go to the Louisiana coast you will see a lot of pelicans. They are very tough.

HBO

Have the relief efforts continued now that the spill is out of the news?

Irene Taylor Brodsky

They're still cleaning up oil, but they're not really finding oiled birds. The rehab facility has been shut down, but if they do find an oiled bird, they are prepared to deal with it.

HBO

How did making this compare to making your other films?

Irene Taylor Brodsky

Getting the permissions to film every step of the bird's journey was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do as a filmmaker. Working on something when the whole world is watching puts a lot of barriers up. Also, I usually make character-driven films, so it was hard to focus on a main character who doesn't talk.

Saving Pelican 895