It’s worth seeing Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “Birdman” a second time. For me, the first viewing was about spotting cuts and marveling at the elaborate camera work. The second time I was caught up in the performances.
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 G. 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.
This movie was not easy to realize, 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. G. Iñárritu and Emmanuel Lubezki had to elaborately plan the shots and rehearse in advance on a Los Angeles stage, later filming in an Astoria soundstage encompassing the theater where Keaton’s Riggan Thomson is directing and starring in his own adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story, as well as the actual St. James on Broadway.
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 (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 (our interview with Antonio Sanchez is here), 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.
Check out Vanity Fair’s on-set photo spread by Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki–who could win the cinematography Oscar for the second year in a row.
Anne Thompson: Congratulations on your opening, by the way. It’s doing very well. [Audience claps] I understand you started out with a very intense rehearsal period. Talk about that, in terms of choreography and everything else that’s involved. Andrea Riseborough: Yeah, we did. We had three weeks of rehearsal on a soundstage. We were negotiating with pieces of tape that are supposed to represent walls, but then you get seven people into what’s supposed to be a small corridor, with the DP trying to get a 360-degree shot, you can’t imagine what’s seen. So we did three weeks of rehearsal, which was very beneficial in many ways, and then we shot 13 days.
So it’s almost as if the movie was edited in advance, which means you can’t make any mistakes — right? Edward Norton: In a certain sense. There’s a very yin-yang experience to what some people have been assuming is a set of restrictions that gets placed on you by these wonderfully extended, choreographed things. And the type of things Andrea was talking about — the finesse of that kind of choreography within confined spaces, and the difficulty for Alejandro, really, more than us, of envisioning a fluidity and a flow and a pace that sustains and doesn’t collapse.
To me, the most impressive thing of these guys working at the height of their powers as a cinematographer and director were to envision a continuity for this entire thing, without these enormous collapses of pace and tension and all that. But, for us, within that, it’s very liberating. I felt very liberated. Not unchallenging, but it’s very, very liberating to be free from the very artificial and unnatural experience of all this micro-fragmentation that happens when you make a film “normally.”
Although you didn’t shoot in sequence, right? Norton: No, it wasn’t like a true-to-life flow, but there’s a wonderful liberation in the idea of carrying the through line and energy of scenes through, from one to the next, each in their entirety, and on to the next. It does to you, as a performer, a version of what it does to you as an audience, in the theater. An energy builds. There’s a charge that builds among people — not just actors, but the entire collaborative team. There’s a tension that builds into the work. It becomes daring. It’s like surfing: you get good enough, you’re on the right wave, and you sort of have the balls or inspiration to throw a little flourish or inspiration into that. That’s very exciting, because it’s risky. Everybody did assume, on some level, “Oh, it must become incredibly choreographed.” But every time I watch it, I laugh at things Andrea or Zach or Michael did. There’s an incredible amount of stuff in there that people just seized in the moment and added little backflip to. It’s great, and it keeps it alive.
Riseborough: In a strange way, this felt more natural to me. In terms of what Edward was saying, it is so artificial, conventional shooting. In the theater, although you do have that fourth wall, you do get 90 minutes to run through it — you’re just like a race horse. Again, you have those choreographed steps where there are those beats you have to hit, and you have to respect that there are about 150 people out there hoping to get their money’s worth. There’s really a freeing, because there’s nobody coming in to say, “Oh, yeah, okay, tea break. Let’s all scratch our ass and fiddle around a bit,” at which point it’s ruined.
Actually, one of the things I loved about shooting this is that you hear things — you hear stuff happening down the way, then it comes to you, and it moves on, just as life does. That was great, because you have a moment to take reflection, like you would in life. Watching the film, you always get to stay with Michael’s reflection, so you get to see him reflecting his inadequacy and shame about himself.
Norton: I totally agree with that. I remember some architecture teacher I had saying that form should follow function. Sometimes, you’ll see things in films, or you’ll work on something, and someone will come in with a big idea, but you get this sensation that the big idea has more to do with the idea than an alignment with what’s trying to be communicated in the moment. The thing that was really kind of exciting, in a very tingling way, to me: the first time Alejandro talked about this concept, he never said, “We’re going to do this because it’s going to be the most amazing, seamless…” He didn’t really talk about it as a technical matter.
He said, “Look: this is a movie about a guy on the edge of insanity through his anxiety, and he is close to the brink. He may be going crazy, and I don’t want anybody to have a break from the bubble of his mounting fear at all.” He defined the whole thing, from the beginning, as a desire to have the audience nested inside Riggan’s anxiety as it grows. And once you put it that way, it’s a totally different… it just has a totally different intention underneath it that is much more valid.
I found the tension very exciting. Do you believe Alejandro’s statement that we all have a little Birdman inside us? That it varies in size in scope, but that we all have one? Riseborough: Mine’s a parrot. [Audience laughs]
This is a great examination of actors and the way they behave. I got a kick, for example, out of Michael Keaton putting on a little performance for the press. Everybody does– I know that. Norton: I think if you walk down the street in New York City, you can see twelve people in two blocks who are talking to their Birdman. Shakespeare’s whole idea, that life is a play on a stage–people have always had fun with the idea of performers playing their play, and the ego of the performer is a great ego for everybody. But there’s nothing about Riggan that anybody who, at a certain age or point in life, feels maybe that they’ve drifted a little further than they wanted from an idea they had of themselves at a younger age, can’t relate to.
There’s a lot of fun to be had with the idea of melodramatic people, but I think Alejandro nested it inside the arts because he is an artist, and he works in as personal ways as any filmmaker I’ve ever worked with. I think the idea of that struggle to express yourself, authentically, for him is in the arts, so he leaned into that and he sticks a fork into the things he didn’t like. But I don’t think there’s anything about it that he intended not to communicate to people and their anxieties in general.
Riseborough: Also, as far as being “relevant,” the feeling of being torn, in any profession, between wanting to make a substantial mark in the world and being fulfilled in doing it — between that and looking for admiration, for love — is an age-old idea. For instance, Shakespeare. That feeling of wanting to leave a legacy, and the fear of being able to disappear. Like, literally just disappearing in every way. And also wanting to disappear. One of my favorite parts of the movie is where we get to stand outside of the claustrophobia, we get to see why it’s so gloriously tantalizing for Riggan to believe these things inside of his head, or that he can fly. It’s like so much of our experience of life, for me, undermines that. It can be very difficult to be in-touch with what’s really going on, to be present. Especially now. It’s difficult to be present now. There’s a lot of stimulus coming at us from every angle.
What would you say are some of the things you’ve done that best-prepared you for being able to run in this situation. Mike Leigh? Riseborough: Yeah. My apprenticeship was with Mike Leigh, whose film, “Happy-Go-Lucky,” I appear in for two minutes. I did spend seven months with my character. It was the most wonderful thing. But I”m not sure if that’s a thing that prepared me. It’s strange, because, without going too long, there was an ease in playing Laura, to me, because I’ve worked with that actress over and over again. A lot of people who I work with, in my routine, I think would like it if I was a bit more like Laura. As an actress, it’s valued not to have an opinion. To me, that’s a sad thing. The characters have this deficit inside that they need to have filled up, and Laura is chasing Riggan, but it’s not reciprocated.
Norton: In my case, when you dive into something like this, to do well and for you to do well in it, you have to put an enormous amount of faith in the director. But you also have to decide you’re so interested in the material, this director, his work, and his process, that you don’t care about the outcome. It was a very big swing he was taking, and by not shooting with a lot of cuts, he was essentially taking away the insurance package that a director has to massage and make something work later. By definition, you knew it was a bet on double-zero. This could be, like, one of the Altman films that isn’t quite your favorite — you know what I mean?
What got me best-prepared is having watched his films across the years — many of the same years I’ve been working in film, and I’ve known Alejandro a long time — and just film after film after film getting more and more impressed with the fact that he seems to push himself outside the boundaries of what’s normal. Get great work out of people, but take himself over and over again into related, but new creative territory. His film, “Biutiful,” is an underappreciated masterpiece. Among actors I’ve worked with and know, Javier Bardem’s performance is one of the great performances of the last number of years, and it’s a masterpiece of a film.
I remember watching it and thinking, “I’ve been making movies for fifteen years, and I cannot understand how they did this”: in the sense that it’s an enormous, sprawling, ambitious film that has no plot structure, other than the emotional experience of a dying person. Knowing the way that films get made in this out-of-sequence and fragmentary way, I watched it and I literally thought, “I don’t think there’s any way that anybody but Alejandro and Bardem could possibly have known what was going on day to day to day. I don’t think there’s any way to communicate to all the people involved in the film, ‘This is what we’re doing today fits within this.’” And I was just boggled by Javier’s ability to hold a nuanced emotional through line that exquisite through such a difficult process that fragments itself in so many ways.
I was just blown away that he said, “I know what we’re doing. I know where we’re going and what the signposts are. None of them are going to be the traditional ones, but I know where I’m going with this.” I watched it and said to myself, “If he’s got something to do, I want to go inside that and see what it’s like.” That was the headspace I needed to be in, just to surrender. You have to have a religious faith, almost, in someone’s capacities.
I think of you as someone with a lot of confidence, so this felt like good casting to me. Do you have a lot of confidence, like Shiner?
Norton: The funny thing is, the reason Shiner is interesting is because he comes off like a confident freight train, but very quickly — as soon as he gets into these sort of neutral spaces — you get glimpses, very quickly, that his tank may be on empty.
Is that why he’s such an agitator?
Norton: The thing I found great about the film is that almost everybody in it has a lot to offer, and, in many cases, a lot to say that’s very valid, but they’re really victimizing themselves with their own ego. The duality, right across the board, has an equal opportunity throughout the film. I’ve just gotten used to the sensation of not feeling certainty and sort of liking that sensation. Acting’s a lot about being present, being able to listen to things, and the biggest impediment to that is getting yourself up in here [points to his head].
And what gets you up in here is the sensation, “Oh, God, I’m a fraud. I don’t know what I’m doing or what I really am.” I think the difference is whether you know. Either that’s just the way this feels, and I’m comfortable about it, or you just tighten up. I don’t necessarily think I’m “confident” in what I’m doing, but I’m comfortable within the headspace of not knowing. [Audience laughs]
I love the intimate scenes between you and Emma Stone. Where was that filmed?
Norton: It’s a roof over Broadway. We might have moved a door or two down, but it was just a roof on Broadway.
You shot interiors on a set in Astoria and some in the theater?
Norton: It was the St. James, and I don’t want to say exactly where — because I don’t want to bust open the magic box of the whole thing — but there are points of transition, where we move to different parts through the bowels of the backstage created on the sets.
And when you’re opening a door and go outside?
Norton: Yeah, although one thing that is most amazing about what those guys pulled off is that I’ve had a lot of people, who are very technically sophisticated filmmakers, already writing me emails. There are a lot of places people think there’s a stitch where there’s not. And there’s some fantastically lo-fi things, from quick changes to techs running in and hauling furniture away, that make it feel like there has to be a digital stitch, and there’s not.
What was the most frightening and challenging of all the shots you had to do, and why? Was 15 minutes the longest of the shots?
Norton: There were certainly ones that were that long. I don’t think anything was under seven or eight. The funny thing is, the biggest, longest ones created certain anxieties, especially if you were late. If you were toward the back-end of something like that, and especially if you’re going to stall, that was a charged feeling, in the sense that, if six other terrific actors do some bang-up, inspirational stuff, and you hit the corner the wrong way, that’s a bummer.
It was sort of counter-intuitive, but the thing I found most difficult, in some ways, were the roof scenes. I think Emma and Alejandro and Chivo, we, I won’t say “struggled,” but that was a place where, because of the literal roof’s edge, the limitations… it was much plainer that the ways to engage with the camera and to cover it were limited.
And you were in close-up.
Norton: Yeah. Those scenes felt, in a lot of ways, like the tricks and kind of drama that was going on sort of got pulled away, and you were just sitting there to make it: “Oh, you guys just have to make this interesting, because we really can’t do a lot here.” And I think we wrestled with those scenes a lot harder.
Speaking of which, there’s a fight between naked guys in underpants in this movie.
Norton: Michael was wearing underpants. Mine was, I think, called a “Brazilian underwear.”
I understand Alejandro gives a lot of feedback — he’s right there giving you a response after each take.
Riseborough: Yeah. Yes, he’s always there. That makes him sound omnipresent. The thing is, he was behind a monitor, and because we were really trying to achieve a lot in the one take, he really was the only person who could say “yes!’ at the end of it. Because he really was the all-seeing eye, wasn’t he? We each played our part the best that we could. The most difficult moment for me is where I was just at the top of a scene, I’m distraught and crying, and I had to decide what level that was going to be — whether she was going to be subdued or pissed, and what led her to be so.
There was so much stuff going down at the end of the corridor. Michael is in every moment of the film as well, so I thought, “God, poor Michael” if he has to do this a hundred times. So I slam the door, crying, slam the door — that was like twenty times — slam the door, I’m still crying. That’s not always the way it went. It was just that particular day, because there were so many things happening down at the end of the corridor. It wasn’t bad, but it was great, because it gave me lots of chances. Actually, I would keep going, as so many actors will if you don’t stop us. But, Alejandro was just a wonderful support. The other thing is, he has a lion in his heart. Not to use many Shakespeare references, but he just goes into battle. You just want to hit the mark for Alejandro, because you trust him.
Norton: He’s sort of like a Fidel Castro-Roberto Benigni love child.
So there’s a dictator there?
Norton: He’s a loving autocrat, but all of us are loving autocrats. He is, for an actor, your fantasy of working with Fellini. He lives into that; he fulfills that. He has a larger-than-life personality, he has a larger-than-life voice, he has a larger-than-life intellect, but he lives up to it — he has big ideas. He has a lot to say. If he’s coming in and ripping your hair out and telling you literally not one single thing is working, he’s three times more passionate about the magic. He weeps when he gets the one he wants. It’s like Brazil has scored a goal in the World Cup and he’s that commentator. The level of passion is hysterical, but also wonderful and authentic.
He, one time, said something to me that was very declamatory and specific about what we were doing, and we said, “What’s the basic note?” He said, “Just take what you are doing and go 180 degrees the other way.” [Audience laughs] We did two or three, he came back in and went, “Guys, guys, this is not working. You have to go 180 degrees in the opposite,” and I said, “You recognize that means we’re going back to where we started? Two 180 degrees is back to the original place.” [Audience laughs] He said, “Guys, whatever! Just do it.” He went off and I looked at Chivo and said, “You heard that, right? You heard that contradiction?” They’ve known each other sense they were in college; he looked at me and went, “He’s not talking to you; he’s talking to himself.” That was, like, the second or third day, and that’s all I needed to get through this: “If he’s not talking to me, then I’m just waiting for him to sort it out in his own mind.”
What would be the average number of takes?
Norton: It was widely variable.
Audience member: Considering Mr. Keaton played Batman and you played The Incredible Hulk, did you figure it was a pre-requisite that they previously played superheroes?
Norton: Nope. [Audience laughs] That’s a “no” and “no,” because I know that Alejandro considered a variety of actors in a lot of roles, including mine and Michael’s, and met with people and felt his way through it. Everybody knew there was a bit of meta fun in that kind of underlying kind of fact that we danced in the worlds those films are referencing. But even Michael, a really specific thing with Michael specifically having done two things in the Caped Crusader suit, I really never got the sense that that was of anything but a very tangential significance or interest to Alejandro, because he said to me, right from the get-go, “He is the most fantastic!” I said, “I know.”
For him, he cared that a guy who has genuinely thrown away the best things in life because he can’t distinguish between admiration and love, is still appealing, in his quest. You can’t help but like him. That’s one of the things since “Night Shift”: he was that guy who had that magic quality that just makes you want to be on his team. I think it was more that.
Audience member: In this film, did you find yourselves to have a little more camaraderie as an ensemble, what with the longer scenes? As in a theater group, you might have to “do your part” in a scene to avoid jeopardizing someone else’s performance. Did you feel something akin to that theater ensemble?
Riseborough: It felt so refreshing to be on that stage, certainly to feel like there was such camaraderie. We’d just sit in the doorways on the sets and talk for hours and hours on end, because we were all part of a “vision,” in a sense, and we were behind each other. It was really wonderful. It reminded me why I do this. During the scene where we’re rehearsing lines, I thought, “Ahh, I really missed this,” being able to talk to one another.
Norton: Yeah. I thought the whole thing was completely… it was all the best thing. Not just with the actors. I think everybody there understands film, the way that, so often, a shot gets set-up, and everybody perks up and goes, “Does this involve me?” And about 60% go, “You know, no, it doesn’t,” and a certain number of people take the job. 90% of everybody involved in the cast and crew was “on” in every one, and it’s such a fantastic, celebratory… I’ve never, ever been on a set where every day ended with an enormous, authentic sort of cheer at having made it. You’re waiting for the scream from him and everybody was genuinely excited.
Audience member: Alejandro’s movement of camera made it so very cinematic, in terms of how you’re framed and move, beat-to-beat. Would you prefer to do films with this kind of movement and choreography, because of the honesty you were giving to each other? Compared to other films, where it’s staged some other way, there was a kind of energy, because you’re in a theater with them. Would you continue doing this?
Riseborough: Whatever reason you do this, you just want to share it with a whole bunch of people. I feel like I spend a bunch of time on the set where people complain because a tissue isn’t the right color, and we have to get somebody from that particular department to get a certain kind of tissue, which takes six hours. In that way, it’s very clunky, non-conducive to whatever sort of flow you’re supposed to have on-set.
Norton: I think it’s great, and it highlights some of the laziness that gets intrinsic or baked in to sort of the convention of making movies. There’s some wonderful efficiency and wonderful elegance. But, at the same time, a) not all material lends itself to that kind of achievement; it just doesn’t. And the other thing is that not only do I not take for granted that not anyone can pull that off, these guys were operating in the zone; it was very apparent, it was very, very interesting just to watch two guys working in that kind of zone. They didn’t storyboard the whole thing, they didn’t pre-viz it — they couldn’t reel that in — and you would look at these soundstages.
They would say, “Give us a few minutes,” and you’d kind of look over, and they were standing, staring into nothing, with their heads near each other, Alejandro with his eyes closed, doing this weird, Stevie Wonder-ish kind of dance [stares down at his pointing hands]. [Audience laughs] But what he was doing was like those Olympic skiers who mentally rehearse the run. And he was just imagining it in his head, whispering and talking it, and Chivo was sitting there, going, “Yeah, yeah.” It was the weirdest thing. It was remarkable.
Audience member: The music played a big part in how we felt. Were you aware of the music? Was it playing every so often? Did you feel how we felt? I’m interested in how that related to your experience.
Norton: No. There were a couple of times that he was in the shot.
Who’s not the real guy, by the way. Antonio Sachez is an old friend of Alejandro’s.
Norton: Yeah. The drummer who’s occasionally seen is a drummer, but he’s not Antonio Sanchez. So you got a taste of it a couple of times, but no. The short answer is, we weren’t hearing it, but I think Alejandro was always hearing it, and he was in his own mind mapping the way that that was he going to communicate within these bridges between things, so the emotional tension could sustain during the shot of Michael moving down the corridor. Again: that, to me, is astonishing. Somewhere in there, he tossed around a disc. So we heard a sense of it. Alejandro was a celebrated D.J. in music, and his relationship with musicians is incredible. I think he thinks a lot in musical terms.