“Sick Birds Die Easy”: Becoming Our Own Gods | Feature Story

I. Prologue

When Nik Fackler imagines the common people’s ambassadors of the Western world in the African country of Gabon, it’s something like a twisted, neo-colonial version of The Breakfast Club.

A drug-addicted conspiracy theorist. A pretentious, self-involved musician. A woman preoccupied with her lipstick in the heart of the jungle. And then himself.

Or a version of himself: The overly ambitious, string-pulling documentarian with enough artistic ego to want to document the others on their quest for sacred knowledge and psychedelic drugs in an African country. To an extent, they’re envious of the jungle around them but so blind that they stomp on its beauty the whole way.

Sick Birds Die Easy is a film both about these people and the man behind the camera. But it’s also a bit about any man with such a camera who thinks he can teach those people a lesson or that they might teach him one.

Fackler’s second feature length effort is ripe with illusion, allusion and mythology that are both Judeo-Christian and shamanistic.

In 90 minutes, it envelops so much that it pains Omaha director Fackler to try to sum up Sick Birds Die Easy up into a tagline, but he does it.

“A bunch of people from the Western world go to the ancient world to try and heal themselves and then completely fuck everything up.”

Sick Birds Die Easy will see its Nebraska premiere tonight at 7 p.m. at Film Streams with Fackler and members of the crew on hand for a Q&A afterward. Tickets are available here while they last. After that, Sam Martin, who acted in and composed the score for Sick Birds Die Easy will be featured at a corresponding album release party at Slowdown with InDreama, Greg Elsasser and Dave Matysiak. The concert is $5 or free with purchase of a ticket to the film.

It’s a film that in its very construction aches not to be called just a fictional movie or a documentary, not to be short-sold by marketing brevity. The plot points of its creation, its rearing, its maturation and its execution can be difficult and murky. They’re swirling in a haze of hallucinations, divine dreams and grand plans that lost themselves in the jungle.

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II. A World Full of Little Gods

Sick Birds Die Easy began humbly. Nothing too ambitious. Just thinking about adding a chapter to the Bible.

Fackler, who wrote and directed his first feature film Lovely, Still in 2008 and plays in the Omaha bands Icky Blossoms and InDreama, remembers sitting in a room with friends while they talked about the beauty of the Adam and Eve story. He offered his own interpretation.

“You know what that Garden of Eden of story means? It means we were all connected to God at some point and then we all chose to become our own god. Because of that, we left Eden.”

Those were the roots of Fackler’s script. Before producer Steven Hays ever approached the director with an offer to travel to Africa. Before they decided to make a movie featuring some of Fackler’s Nebraska friends on a pseudo-scripted journey into the The Heart of Darkness in search of a hallucinogenic and, perhaps, miracle drug called iboga. The film opens with testimony that iboga is capable of curing addiction.

Almost as foreshadowing for the trip Fackler would take to Gabon with his actors and crew, he recalls the Eden conversation and imagining all of life as a jungle, an ecosystem working in perfect harmony before humans arrived. Something idyllic and natural and inspiring enough to add to Scripture.

“Humans have this self-awareness that comes and that was our separation from Eden,” he says. “So why don’t we write a new chapter of the Bible that says we can get back to that? Because right now, it just says the world ends, and that’s fucking horrible. I wanted to write a story about redefining the apocalypse. I was literally just going to write an end chapter to the Bible where Adam and Eve show back up.”

When Hays — who Fackler met at the Toronto premiere of Lovely, Still years before — called with a pitch for a documentary/movie hybrid set in Africa some of Fackler’s bubbling and untapped cinematic energy began to stir. The director was hesitant at first about the format, and its potential gags or being related to films like Paranormal Activity. He told Hays the only way he’d undertake the project is if he could have control of the film to make it (at least somewhat) on the fly and if Bwiti culture and iboga could be a part of it.

For his part, Fackler had long been interested in psychotropic drugs and had experimented with many himself, though with the rigid caveat that it was never for any hedonistic recreational rush.

“I’ve always been respectful with it,” he says. “I  have the right to experiment with my consciousness. I’ve never done it as a way to get fucked up. It’s always, ‘What other realities am I not experiencing?’”

In August 2011, he gathered Sam Martin (of Omaha’s Capgun Coup), Martin’s girlfriend Emily Sutterlin, actor (and friend) Ross Brockley, a real crew including Lovely, Still cinematographer Sean Kirby, and a fake crew of Dana Altman and David Matysiak. His pitch to the actors was simple. The film was partially written, and much for the beginning and end would depend on a simple question.

“Wanna go to Africa and take iboga?”

In Bwiti culture, the plant is used in sacred cleansing rituals by shamans.

Martin, who says he was both interested in psychedelics and in gaining further experience in film (in 2013 he and his brother Harrison made the short film “Pick Your Nose”) was sold fairly quickly as both an actor and as the film score’s principal songwriter.

“You don’t get to go to Africa for free very often,” Martin says.

Fackler’s friend and mentor Dana Altman took convincing, but Fackler said he pushed hard for Altman’s steady hand and for his outdoor skill. The director laid out principles for the filmmaking process fairly bluntly.

1. “Everyone gets a camera.”
2. “No one’s a character.”
3. “Everyone films constantly.”
4. “First week is planning how [we’ll] go into the jungle.”
5. “Interviewing everyone we meet.”
6. “Go into the jungle and do staged stuff.”
7. “React how you’d normally react.”

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III. Journey to the Center of the Earth

At one point in his voiceover for Sick Birds Die Easy, which can be both softly observational and loudly editorial (in the Herzog style), Fackler says he imagines Gabon as the exact middle of Pangea before the unicontinental landmass broke into pieces eons and eons ago. There’s some epic centrality to his whole vision. The travelers are looking for a secret of mankind abandoned in the center of all things, the sort of spiritual healing that the children of the Western world long ago forgot and/or purposely demolished.

With the script guided by a series of intentionally overwrought metaphors — i.e. the jungle is Eden, Brockley is humankind, Martin is Satan and the camera is God — their first point of entry to the inhabitants of Gabon’s farthest reaches is through the Ebando Village and an anarchist French convert to Bwiti named Tatyo.

“Once we got to Africa, it was over,” Fackler says of his confirmation of a working script with the producer Hays. They would take iboga, and to a large extent, see what happens. “Intuitive filmmaking” is the phrasing Fackler has come to embrace.

“Everyone I went to Africa with was really difficult and [me] as well. And it made the filmmaking process horrible. It was one of the worst experiences of our lives I’m sure. But now that it’s all done I think we can look back and say that was pretty sweet. But that whole hell in the film was real. I want the film itself to feel like a trip like by the end you don’t know what’s real and what’s not real.”

That’s where some of the idealistic rubber of the script met the road of the jungle and all of the on-set problems it presented. The film purports that Brockley is addicted to oxycontin and that iboga may the only cure for his crippling dependency. But everything about the tensions between Martin and Brockley in the film (who are always at each other’s throats), Fackler’s presence as a reality TV-style instigator behind the camera, and some of the intended rawness of these “characters,” who are much closer to the actors, arose out of the situations the Sick Birds cast and crew found themselves in for that month in 2011.

“It was supposed to be 70 percent fake, 30 real, and it completely flipped,” Martin says. “I think it worked out way better because it’s more raw. It would have been just a cheesy B movie if we would have gotten to do what we wanted.”

Martin explains that while he initially intended to act more outside himself to fulfill his metaphorical role as the demonic figure in Brockley’s quest for healing, that also fell by the wayside.

“When I’m wasted, I’m kind of psychotic person or at least I would look so on film,” Martin says. “I think Nik was hoping I’d be wasted the whole time and off the rails. And Ross for all his flaws is likeable so I think [Nik] assumed he’d be this likable human type character. Now that it’s in the film, it’s interesting how stupid and inaccurate some of those metaphors are. Some are potent and right on, but some are babble almost.

“And that plays into the fact that Nik didn’t know what he was getting himself into.”

Martin has spoke before in regards to his songwriting that he’s deeply interested in irony and what messages can be conveyed via a series of ironic voices. Tasked with playing a richer, more privileged version himself was a welcome challenge, even if the acting turned out a bit less like acting than he would have liked. Similarly, Martin planned to write music for the film while in Africa, but only one song came from the inspiration of the surrounding world. Otherwise, he found it “impossible” to write given the schedule of the film and the sheer stress he found himself under with a script and no way to follow it, essentially optionless but to play a turned-up version of his sarcastic self.

“It’s very ironic that I would play some rich kid, so that’s ironic,” Martin says. “I liked the chance to be able to do that. But none of us were really able to focus on performing something. That’s one regret I have. None of us got to focus deep enough to think about what we were actually doing. Except for Nik.”

Sutterlin, the French translator for the project, hardly speaks in the film when she’s not in direct communication with someone in Ebondo. But she does play something of a foil to Martin’s quarrels with Brockley and the dismissive traits of his “character.” Martin appears earnest to try and please her. He succeeds rarely, as Sutterlin can often be seen totally preoccupied with re-applying her makeup.

Brockley, an actor who first found success in a series of Holiday Inn commercials, but who also acted in Lovely, Still and has performed some very telling standup comedy comes across in the film as a high-minded, somewhat acerbic mess. He’s full of conspiracy theories involving 9/11, the Federal Reserve, some controversial views on the relationship between Israel and the United States. For Fackler, Brockley was emblematic of the sort of person who needed a spiritual journey, but would be intrinsically closed off to one.

“He kinda got black-listed because he’s notoriously hard to work with,” Fackler says. “His conspiracy theories can be very offensive to people.”

Fackler describes the month in Gabon like a bucking bronco. The crew had no choice but to hold on. Sutterlin and Brockley, at various moments, quit the project during shooting. No one was allowed to shower. They ate Clif Bars, because while in the Ebando Village, Tatyo wasn’t as forthcoming with food as he’d promised to be.

And then, of course, there were the natural bits of excess. The necessary substance tone setting for the film positioned to portray but also criticize privileged, drug-crazy Americans on a sort of spiritual Spring Break.

“Everyone else was drunk and stoned a lot, taking Iboga the whole time,” Fackler says. “The last five days everyone quit, and it was just me and Sean Kirby shooting interviews with Tatayo.

“When I was shooting I was like, ‘I’m fucked, this is all shit. It looks horrible.’ I learned a lesson with this film that a lot of acting is designed in the editing room. You design the pace of how people speak to each other all in the editing room.”

In post-production, Fackler set out to give Sick Birds Die Easy its mesmerizing, hypnotic aesthetic. He was inspired, in part, by the way the jungle and the forest floor behaves through the eyes of a person on iboga, with lifeform seemingly evolving and changing unpredictably and at once, with every single leaf chattering and moving.

“I tried to mimic it. In those type of worlds, things aren’t really obvious, like you’re tuning in a radio or TV and you can’t quite get it on the right channel.”

But there was one psychedelic experience that had more staying power for Fackler, if you can even appropriately call it psychedelic. There was an angel, he remembers, that visited him one night in his room in Ebando.

“It was like a ghost. It was right there sitting in the room with me. I could rub my eyes and look away, and it would still be there. I was kinda spooked. But that was the iboga. Iboga is powerful, powerful enough to put an angel in the room with me, and I felt sober.”

* * *

IV. The Ugly Side of Lovely, Still

If Fackler continues to make feature-length films that arrive on the festival circuit and continue to draw critical attention, tracing a line from Lovely, Still to Sick Birds Die Easy seems like an inevitability.

To see 2008 Fackler at age 23 talk about enjoying and requiring the comfort and familiarity of his hometown for Lovely, Still utterly contrasts with how he refers to the avant garde, challenging, intuitive, adventurous ways he conceived of Sick Birds.

Lovely, Still was really about me as a young man exploring love and family. I was 17 years old when I wrote it and was falling in love for the first time. That was the press spin on that story, but it was true. [Sick Birds] is me growing up and asking bigger questions. How did I get here? How did my DNA get to this spot?”

While it was a critical success, Fackler acknowledges the cold-water wake-up call that came with the financial reality of his debut effort. He worked with aging veterans Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn in the film, as well as currently rising stars Adam Scott and Elizabeth Banks in supporting roles. But the film was not a hit.

Lovely, Still had such a huge budget, and we didn’t make that money back at all. I lost a lot of investors a lot of money, but that’s what happens. [Film] isn’t a good thing to invest your money in. It was critically successful, but it didn’t open up any doors for me. It enabled me to let go of that dream. Not let go of it, but redesign it. The idea that you’re gonna make this feature film, and it’s gonna be a hit.”

Stuck among two more conventionally narrative scripts he’d written (a la Lovely, Still), an industry expectation that his next film would be of that size and budget but without anyone to commit the money to that expectation, he’s sat on the two scripts for several years. He said he had an epiphany that if he really wanted to commit to a lifetime of filmmaking, he should be open to cinema of all shapes and scopes.

So when Hays offered up a movie/documentary hybrid, which Fackler predicts will become only more and more of the norm because of entertainment value and low budgets, he set aside qualms and welcomed a $100,000 budget for a movie an ocean away from his hometown. He pitched Hays on the Werner Herzog tilt of the project, and says he learned as much about film production on Sick Birds as Lovely, Still taught him about working with actors.

“It’s not often you get a movie that falls in your lap like that, especially in this day and age of filmmaking. So I had to say ‘yes’ to it. This will be great test for me as an artist. Here’s the genre I never thought I’d be interested in doing. But it might set me up to be a documentarian one day.”

While Fackler says they’ve already recouped a good portion of Sick Birds’ budget by winning film festival prizes, he still fears his second effort is caught inside a system that won’t let it grow.

“I’m sick of the distribution model for independent films. This whole process of putting your heart and soul into a film. They’ve only been with it a few months and then they release it. I hate that. It seems like a disservice to the film.”

The company Gravitas is distributing Sick Birds and Fackler estimates that in a sea of thousands of titles, his picture is barely a blip on their radar. For as proud as the writer/director says he is of this effort, he already speaks with resignation about its chances of even going viral in the world of independent film.

“[Companies] can be releasing two films a month and not really care about them. And they just get lost, which is what happened to Lovely, Still and which will inevitably happen with Sick Birds.”

“I hope it doesn’t.”

When Fackler talks about the infrastructure of film distribution he talks about Sick Birds Die Easy in the past, as though he were already looking toward having even more significant control over a to-be-determined future project. He talks about cutting four trailers for Sick Birds and struggling to dice his art into a highlight reel that was both appropriately representative and accessible to an unfamiliar audience.

“It took me two films to understand the whole system.”

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V. Crowd Control

One, perhaps, unintended consequence of the content of Sick Birds Die Easy is that Fackler has made movie that bafflingly complicates all the language — “reality,” “religion,” “documentary” — you’d want to use to talk about it. But the challenge applies to its creator, as well.

“It’s very hard to talk about it,” he says. “It’s thick with ridiculousness and obscurity. It has so many ideas and topics and tries to wrap them all together. I’ve been waiting and waiting for it just to come to me, this way of speaking of how it was made.”

The cast and crew have performed Q&As directly following screenings, like at the Hot Docs festival in Toronto for the film’s world premiere in April 2013 and in Los Angeles on January 24. Discussing a film that’s so deliberately ambiguous on what’s scripted and what’s not with an audience fresh off the closing credits presents its own set of problems.

“At first, we hadn’t really formulated a plan of how to go about talking it,” Martin says. “We didn’t know if we should lie and say certain things were real that weren’t. The first Q&A of the three we just didn’t answer questions, because we didn’t know how to talk about it. But we decided to be honest about it and that ended up working out better.”

Granted, it’s a bit of a mystery killer to talk coldly about what’s real and what’s not in Sick Birds Die Easy. Fackler is forthcoming about a few major plot points not to be spoiled here, but to make a two-column list with “fact and fiction” as the headings seems like an exercise that misses the entire point of a film that critiques the “truth” in documentary and celebrates the “truth” in fiction.

Martin and Fackler both say they were happy with the reception in Toronto, but a group of offended viewers immediately became apparent: people who take issue with the premise that a group of white Nebraskans would engage in this sort of “psycho-tourism” in an African country given a broader history of colonialism. Martin and Fackler strongly counter that viewpoint — also pointing to the fact that psycho-tourism happens regularly in Africa and South America with varying degrees of respect coming from the travelers — but realize that the film alone under its own power obscures their self-awareness.

“We were trying to portray ourselves as privileged idiots going to be saved,” Martin says. “But in the film, on purpose, you can’t tell that we know the things we’re portraying are kind of fucked up.”

Fackler says he’s received overwhelmingly positive feedback on the portrayal of Gabon from people such as Josh Ponte, a National Geographic photographer who’s spent substantial time in Central Africa. Fielding Ponte’s compliments was encouraging, but Fackler says the photographer also warned him that some viewers would likely take the movie’s events completely at face value.

“He watched the film and said, ‘It’s perfect, you nailed it. You nailed what the culture is like. But I have a feeling you’re going to offend people with this,’” Fackler says. “The film, even though it’s real and not real, is very honest in a weird way. I tried to look at it plainly. I’m not trying to speak for Africa. I’m trying to give an undistorted look at what it was like. I was trying to make a film about the people who aren’t taking it seriously. I wanted us to look bad in the film. I wanted us to look ridiculous.”

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VI. “The Enigma of Life”

Considering Siddhartha to On The Road to Into The Wild to Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, it seems intuitive in some ways that a group of entitled, intrusive characters desperately unleashing themselves on a quest for the secrets of the world will come up relatively empty-handed. It’s etched into the pancultural fable of the searcher. The destination is permanently elusive. The journey was always the point.

“I’ve always felt like that’s every fucking thing I’ve ever done,” Fackler says. “Every goal I’ve ever made for myself. You never get to where you’re trying to go. That’s the enigma of life.”

Accepting and immortalizing this result in a feature film is part of the truth of the movie. While in some ways, this confession is still a little bitter for Fackler, it might also be the most profound realization of Sick Birds Die Easy that it admits most of the sand of the script and the initial pitch and the highbrow pontification on the sojourn slipped through the film’s fingers.

“I thought I was going to heal the world,” Fackler says. “I thought everyone would change and I thought I was the documentarian who was going to capture that. I could have just made it up, a lot of documentarians would have. But that would be dishonest.

“At Hot Docs [Festival], they were like, ‘How could you put this film in a documentary festival?’ I think this film is more honest than a lot of the other documentaires. I’m so honest that I’m telling you that some of it’s fake!”

The director asks knowingly if Michael Moore documentaries count as truth, citing all the depths to which the documentary style will stoop to hide its own inherent subjectivities. Just like blockbuster movies and legends, stories are still their currency, not facts. Fackler says this not as a cursing indictment of fabrication, but as a viewpoint on how humans have always liked to consume lessons and ideas. A character helps. A plot helps.

“I’m really proud of the movie,” he says. “It brings up conversation that I think people wouldn’t normally have about documentary film and even religion and holy stories and myth. [The Bible] is just another form of documentary. Someone was documenting the lives of these people.”

Fackler thinks carefully when asked if he thought he was fibbing a little in the film when he claimed the camera was God, not him. After all, he is the one who wields the project’s visual existence in his hands and in his vision.

The director momentarily agrees, but then doubles back. No, the movie was probably right, he concludes.

“I’m just the guy writing the Bible. I thought filmmaking was the new modern form. If there was a new Bible to be made, it wouldn’t be written down. It’d be a movie.”