By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood September 1, 2014 at 6:05PM
Alejandro González Iñárritu is a happy man--a little tired, perhaps, as he flew to Colorado from the Venice Film Festival, where "Birdman" earned raves, to introduce the North American premiere Saturday at the Telluride Film Festival, which he described as a "Disneyland for adults," a "heaven" for cinephiles. He laughed as he shot the film for the first time in his life, he added, describing the process as "a joy. Michael Keaton got naked spiritually and physically."
When the filmmaker turned 50, his examination of his life and psyche led him to collaborate with a team of writers on this sharp show business comedy that skewers the current Hollywood obsession with superheroes as it reveals the psychological pitfalls of the creative process. This is something Iñárritu knows something about, as he followed up his breakout "Amores Perros" with a series of tough English-language dramas ("Babel," "21 Grams") as well as Spanish "Biutiful," which garnered an Oscar nomination for Javier Bardem. Now he's already prepping his next movie set to start in three weeks in Calgary, revenge wilderness adventure "The Revenant," starring Tom Hardy and Leonardo DiCaprio. So Iñárritu is squeezing in a few interviews on "Birdman" before he heads to Canada for six months.
Telluride proved that this radical departure, intended as an experimental art film, is both brilliant and devisive, dark and exhilarating, hilarious and entertaining. It may not be hugely commercial, but it will be a must-see for film geeks and Academy voters alike, and will earn multiple Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. Actors should support the film with nominations for Michael Keaton and Edward Norton for Best Actor and Supporting Actor, respectively.
We start out talking on video (below), and then turn to audio (Q & A below).
This movie was not easy to get made, the director reminds, given the logistical and aesthetic risk of shooting in a radical new way via a series of long single takes--giving the illusion of a film that is one continuous shot. Finally Fox Searchlight (with investor Dune) and New Regency are splitting the cost (in the low $20 millions) as well as returns around the world.
The digital camera device works brilliantly, even if it can be distracting for those who want to figure out where the dark splices are (examining doorways and night to day exterior shots). Iñárritu and his team, including last year's Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki ("Gravity"), had to elaborately plan the shots (the first one is "very long" is all he will admit to) and rehearse in advance on a Los Angeles soundstage encompassing the Broadway theater where Keaton's Riggan Thomson is directing and starring in his own adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story.
From the start, we can see that our recovering superhero is holding onto a fragile thread during previews leading up to opening night as he tries to deal with the loss of one actor, replaced by another more headstrong talent (Edward Norton) who is breaking up with the play's leading lady (Naomi Watts) as he flirts with Thomson's daughter Sam (Emma Stone), fresh from rehab, who is working as his assistant. Needless to say, this does nothing to settle down Thomson, whose producer/lawyer (Zach Galifianakis) is right to be worried about him. Neither does the news that his girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough), who is another costar, tells him she's pregnant. He tells his ex-wife (Amy Ryan) that he's hearing a voice in his head telling him what to do --it's Birdman, the mighty winged superhero he played in a huge Hollywood franchise (not unlike Keaton's own "Batman"). Thomson has to remind a doofus media questioner that he did turn down "Birdman 4."
Right away, we're thrown into a giddy maelstrom of Steadicam shots, temporal disjunctions and percussive drumming, alternating with stage readings and performances, intimately quiet scenes, a wrestling match and conversations at the bar next door with the intimidating newspaper critic (Lindsay Duncan) who has the power to ruin everything.
Anne Thompson: Explain how the drumming worked--you also have music in some of the quieter scenes.
Alejandro González Iñárritu: The drums, for me, was a great way to find the rhythm of the film. Allow the audience to flow with the beat and find the temple of each film. In comedy, rhythm is king, and not having the tools of editing to determine time and space, I knew I needed something to help me find the internal rhythm of the film. The sound, I was interested to put in, and it helped me. I recorded those tracks one week before we started with Antonio Sanchez. He did an amazing job.
Without having seen the film?
No. I just told him, he read the script, and I said what I needed in each scene — what was the emotion I wanted to create. I’d go “ooh, ooh, ehh, ehh,” and he’d go, “Like this?” [Mimes playing of drums] He was amazing. He was improvising, and I’d say, “Okay,” or, “A little bit like this.” Basically, I would record that, so I’d use it, even, sometimes on the set. The classical music, I wanted to have. All the music that is not drums comes from the real scenario — the play that Riggan chooses. If you notice, all that music comes from the play. It’s the music that plays during the show. Or when Naomi opens the door and Riggan is playing it through the radio. The classical music always belongs to the film.
Could you submit this drum score for Oscar consideration?
The drums? Absolutely. The only instrument in the film’s score is that. A French company is doing the album. So, yeah, the score is the drums, and the classical music belonged to that thing. Then I wanted to put the drummer at the end, so I could have him —
Was he the real guy?
No. Antonio wasn’t available. But I wanted him to become a character in his own film, and have the play become a play of a play. [Laughs]
The whole issue of the long takes: at some point you said, “I want to do it this way.” And then you asked if it was achievable, how you would achieve it, and what rules you were going to follow. Were you afraid it would be distracting for the audience?
Two things: since I conceived the idea, I knew I wanted to do that. The reason was, really, to have the audience explore and experience the emotions of this guy in a radical point of view, so I knew that it would be in service of the drama or the comedy or what I was discovering at that time, but I knew I wanted to try that, and that it would serve the dramatic purpose of the narrative. I think it did.
I was afraid of many things. First, how to do it. I went into the script, and, when we were writing it, we were writing it with that already in mind. My partners knew. We were all writing, so it wasn’t impossible when the script was serving that thing. It was conceived, written and then, when it comes to execution time, I need to know how the fuck I do this. That’s where Chivo [Lubezki] came. Then we said, “It was conceived like that, so let’s start.” We began to explore, and one of my fears was to distract people.
Sometimes showy long takes can take you out of the movie.
I agree. Especially if it’s a show-off. I was always tempted to do showy things, but I tried to keep it humble, in order so that nobody noticed but that people should feel it on an emotional level.
Is there someone who uses long takes in a way you admire? Perhaps Steve McQueen or your pal Alfonso Cuarón?
Well, I think Alfonso used it marvelously. I think the guy who, really, is the most incredible guy is Max Ophüls, and every time you wonder, “How did he do it?” He’s such an elegant guy, because I think everything is in service of the experience, not showing it. Or Tarkovsky, for example. When you have a guy who’s so in control of real time, where there’s so many things happening, that’s what I really admire. It’s difficult when you have to make things go around, and even when it’s static, something has to be going through. I love, sometimes, how Carlos Reygadas uses it, too. To use those kinds of “holding” things is not easy.
In this case, I want to serve that purpose — but I know the challenges as a director. Again, when you go against cinema’s nature, which is fragmented time and space, which is the nature of film, you have to be so aware of what you’re doing and so clear. All the decisions that you take, normally, six months to come up in your room, you’re changing in terms of pace and tone, hiding your mistakes, changing everything. If some scene was absolutely wrong, I’ll never be able to take it out or hide it. That was a very terrifying thing.
Though it creates an energy.
It creates energy, and it creates reality, because everybody was shitting their pants. Anybody that “faked,” technically or emotionally or anything… it was like that all day, every day, until the last hour, and it was an exhilarating kind of thing, but it was terrifying.
How long is the first one?
I prefer to have the rabbit in the hat, but “long.”
You’re shooting digital.
Digital. The Alexa.
Are there no limits?
45 minutes is possible?
Someone timed the first shot at 45 minutes, and I said there was a possible splice on the top of someone’s head.
I don’t want people to get distracted while I take care of the rabbit, but it was terrifying. It was beautiful. Again, it’s just to decide whose point of view, who should be in that moment, who the fuck would be there.
How many people do you actually follow? There are only a few characters. Birdman, you follow him. You follow Norton. The daughter, you follow her.
Sometimes, I think, the film is very much in the point-of-view of him, but then it diverts to some other character. I will say that Michael is the sun and these other guys are satellites, and the camera goes “whoosh!” into the sun.
I loved when you pan up to the top of the building and change the time, so that’s one place you can make a transition. And in and out of the doors. But somebody counted 12 takes. Can you tell us that?
There were a few. Few and long, I can tell you that.
Less than twelve or more than twelve?
Few. For me, the thing is not to ruin the experience of the film. I don’t want them to get distracted; I think they should just see the film. My brother said it was a continuous shot, but I want him to be affected by it without being aware. That was my fear, that it would be something that distracts people. I think the important thing in the end is that the film should work, as a film, beyond how it was made.
But you made some magical realism. You’ve got the kinetic things he thinks he can do. The first shot is him, in the middle of the room, levitating. You also have temporal disjunction. The reality of the long take usually tells you you’re in real time, but you’re not in real time.
It’s an experience. I never deny a true experience in one shot. That’s what I want to see. For people, the experience should be one shot. Now, “the cinephile,” such as you, will get whatever, but it should be about the experience.
You’ve done comedy in the past.
Not ever? In the radio?
Yeah, I had a lot of shit in the radio, and I did a lot of commercials that were very, very humorous.
How did that come back into your work, and was it a welcome return there?
I think it was a need of lightening up and enjoying a little bit. After four dramas, the energy that it demands, it drains you a little bit, and I wanted to get deliberately in a territory where I could challenge myself, and just conceiving the idea was terrifying. That terror is a very positive thing, that you find yourself terrified by doing something good, and you’re going to the journey. It should be a journey. This was a journey. Beyond the results, I really enjoyed it. It was very alive, very present. I will never change that again in my life. If I do another drama, I could do it better or worse, but I knew how it works, and that, maybe, was not fun anymore.
Was there a question of wanting more people to see the film?
Not necessarily. I really am very surprised by the reaction.
You were willing to take the risk it was still a small art film.
It was very difficult to get the money. When we were trying to get money, one of the guys who was willing to finance, he said, “It will be my show.” Everybody was terrified, and I understand.
You couldn’t lie.
No, I couldn’t lie, and that’s because it was an essential part of the film. It was fine that I knew. I needed the pre-production time with the camera, and I have a lot of pre-production time. It costs money, and I was putting the money in reverse… everything was upside down, and I couldn’t lie. Now that it apparently is working, it seems like it could have been terrible. Everything could have been wrong.
And when I was watching the film, I was feeling anxiety just to watch all that could have been wrong. Honestly. All the decisions that had to be made, we didn’t know if it was working, never. Because if I tell you it was a comedy in one shot, you’d laugh at me, because comedies are made a lot in rhythm and editing. And, coming from me —
It’s a suicidal comedy. It’s a tragedy, too.
But people have to believe I can do a comedy honestly. I would never put money in a guy like me, that has directed those films, to do a comedy in one take. Honestly, I’m amazed I got people to make the film.
But you’re saying that it’s one take. It isn’t really one take.
No, but it’s going to be experienced in one take. It doesn’t matter how I do it. The experience of the film is one take; the people see it in one take. That’s what is important — not how I did it.
Is Lubezki himself the operator of the camera?
Most of the time, yes.
When you gave him the challenge of figuring out how to do it, you must have had elaborate diagrams and arrows.
Of the sets.
And you could build sets. That’s how you could do it.
All the corridors and dressing rooms are a set built by Kevin Thompson. I rented an empty space in L.A. and I began to do blocking, first, with standings, and began to measure the steps, so we designed every corridor, every measure for lighting, so everything was kind of a chocolate box.
Except for Michael, really, a lot of them are theater actors.
Yes, most of them are theater actors, or they have explored theater acting, so that was fun.
Incredible cast. They’re all great, but Michael: that’s the big challenge, the risk. How did you talk him into doing it, or did you have to talk him into doing it?
First of all, I knew that him being a pioneer of the superhero era, he will find an authority and bring a dialogue — a meta reality. Then I knew that he was capable of doing comedy, capable of doing drama. I knew that he was the guy, and even when I haven’t seen him doing what I wanted, I trust him. I trusted him, and he trusted me, which is more valuable. These mutual trusts and confidence that I can deliver what I promised, which is terrifying — that I can do this and this and this. I will demand from you “this” because I will do it like “that.”
He didn’t even understand until we started to rehearse, where he went, “This is for serious! This is not a fucking rehearsal of the pages; we have to nail it before you go into the studio. We have to play with an audience and see it and feel it.” It was a process that was immersive for everybody. But, yeah, it was a matter of trust and I’m so happy with it.
So you cast Lindsay Duncan as the critic because of her eyes?
Yeah, I love her eyes. She can be a real, real cold bitch. [Laughs] Yeah, there’s kind of a vertical retina, in a way. They’re kind of like snake eyes when she wants to do them. It’s amazing. It’s scary.
The movie is also cynical and sincere at the same time.
I don’t consider… I really try, at least consciously, not to be cynical or ironic. I’m so fucking tired. I don’t like the ironic tone that our pop culture, in the world, has taken. Everything is “ironic.” Everything is “cool.” Everything has to be this attachment, emotionally. Everything has to be intellectualized and looked at from above. There’s something in the irony of our culture, what my kids consume. The lack of honesty, the lack of humanity, the lack of real weakness. There’s something missing from the whole thing, that I feel so cold. I try not to play from a truly honest point of view, even when the comments can seem, sometimes, a reflection of our culture. But I try to be at least heartfelt honest. I try.
One person who saw the film said he saw it as a deconstruction of acting.
Well, it’s an exploration of… yesterday, Laura Dern and Reese [Witherspoon], they were saying, “I love you, but fuck you.” I love it. We were laughing a lot. “How do you fucking do that? You’re humiliating me.” “Well, you’re an actress.” [Laughs] It was funny, but they felt very complimented that they recognized themselves. But don’t worry: I did it, too, and I’m laughing along at myself. All of us are included.
Your own personal relationship with Hollywood: you have turned down a lot of things. No “Jungle Book,” no big Hollywood movie. But now you’re doing “The Revenant.” So you’re going to start this movie...
And start in three weeks.
Sometimes you have long distances between these projects, but this is fast.
This is the first one that I did back-to-back in my life, and let’s see how it goes. But I’m happy. It will be six months, in the middle of nowhere, freezing my ass in British Calgary in the snow, and only exteriors. Tough locations, very, very difficult kind of weather conditions. This will be a tough movie for me, but a new genre.
What is the genre?
That’s a good question, because it’s kind of like a pre-Western kind of thing. 1823. It’s not a Western.
Well, you’re smarter than you might think: you’re get to skip the promotion for the movie.
I will. I will because I will be freezing off my ass, and I probably will miss that — being in L.A., going in some limousines, having some drinks. I will be in the middle of nowhere, suffering, but I will be happy if Michael gets something, because I think he did an amazing job.