It’s hard to leave Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu‘s "Birdman" and not feel like you’ve witnessed something genuinely extraordinary. The story of a washed up actor (played by Michael Keaton) mounting his creative comeback via a Broadway show he also wrote and directed after being typecast for years as an invincible superhero, the film leaves an impression, thanks largely to the stellar performances and the swirling, hallucinogenic camerawork (by Emmanuel Lubezki) that makes the movie appear as it was constructed in a single take. In the midst of mounting Oscar buzz for Inarritu as well as Keaton and his co-stars Naomi Watts and Edward Norton, and in the middle of production of his next movie, the grim revenge western "The Revenant," we talked to the filmmaker about how moviemaking reflects the current socioeconomic climate, what it was like turning down "True Detective," how his relationship with fellow Mexican filmmakers Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuaron impacted "Birdman," and how he really respects film critics (seriously).
One gets the sense speaking with Inarritu that he’s an incredible soulful filmmaker who also doesn’t take himself too seriously. He can talk about how painful it is to make a film and is bluntly honest about the process in general. He knows what works and what doesn’t work, and making a film while involved in the Oscar circus, he says, allows his ego to remain in check. Wherever he goes, we’ll follow, which includes his first, soon-to-be-mounted TV series, "1%," for Starz).
Was "Birdman" always intended to appear as one long take, or was that something that you developed after production began?
It was always conceived like that since the script was written. The idea was born with this type of skin. Then it was just a matter of executing it on paper, which was difficult, and then again in the film.
The film is immersed in this Broadway world. What is compelling to you as a director about this milieu, and would you ever consider directing something for the stage?
No, I have never directed anything for the stage. I studied for three years in the theater and it was a very, very scary experience to direct live, being so vulnerable without the possibility to control things, to be so exposed.
What fascinates you about that world? Is it that unpredictability?
Yes. I think the way the film was shot was exactly like that —the fact that the guy knows that in three days he’s going to be exposed to the premiere of his play and he will be judged live after being a superhero movie star, which is exactly contrary to reality and naturalism. I think that’s part of the theme, and the actors felt like that while we were shooting, so we were rehearsing a scene that was about rehearsing a scene that will be presented in a live performance. When we were shooting that, we were mirroring the mirror of the reality of reality. There was a labyrinthine nature that we all enjoyed. It was fascinating and funny.
Were any of the characters based on your own experiences in Hollywood?
Yes, absolutely. I have been all of them, or I have known them, or I have observed them or I have been a victim of them.
There’s a pretty harsh portrayal of a critic in this movie. What are your views on critics?
I feel mercy for you guys, and I say this truthfully. Nowadays a critic has to watch 700, 800 films a year and I know through experience, being a juror in prestigious film festivals where supposedly the best films are arriving, from twenty films maybe you see two that are good, one that is so-so, and one that is extraordinary. And the other sixteen are terrible. It’s hard for you film critics to be exposed to so much junk and not be affected. When you have to watch all that… It’s like if you have to taste plates everyday and your tongue can get burned. I respect doubt about how you can come with a very objective opinion of [a film]. When I have been exposed to so many films that are so bad, my soul gets crushed, I just feel intoxicated.
You’re currently on the awards circuit for "Birdman." Was it a relief to take a break from shooting the new movie?
Honestly, it’s very nice, because you don’t have time to be reading everything and be exposed to the vulnerable state of being judged, and this race is a little bit crazy. And there is nothing you can do. The film is done. If it’s a piece of shit, it’s going to be a piece of shit, and if it’s great, it’s great. And besides that, there’s this strange state of being exposed to this kind of attention, which is great, but at the same time there’s nothing you can do, and to not be participating in that and being in my brain, and worrying about what I have to do now, is a healthy state for your ego to be in.
Are you done with "The Revenant?"
Not at all. I have just shot a third of it, as of now. So I have two thirds to go.
Megan Ellison came in and got the film off the ground. What was your experience with her?
No, I think she came in and went out. It was a very brief kind of recitation. She wanted in, but then she told me very gently that she was not a part of this thing from the beginning, that normally she is a person that gets into the process very early and this was not one of them, and she decided to not participate because of that. And I respect that. But I didn’t have any real interaction with her.
You were linked to one of the "Hunger Games" movies not too long ago. Was there any reality to that?
I was offered the film but I knew I wouldn’t be the best director.
Do those types of movies hold any appeal for you?
Not until now. I have been lucky enough to have great writing or to develop my own material, and for me to make a film is such a huge amount of time and such an intense process. Filmmaking can give you everything, but at the same time it can take everything from you. So to go through that kind of interchange or cost has to be something that is something very personal, and something that you want to go through all that for. And until now I haven’t found an external script that I love. I’m not saying I don’t want to. I would love somebody to find something and for me to say, "oh my god, this is something that I would kill." But I haven’t found it.
You were also attached to "The Jungle Book" for a little while, right?
Exactly. I felt there was certainly an attraction because the script was really good and very interesting, and I thought there was something there for me to explore. But again it didn’t work for the same reasons: I challenge myself and I tried to shake the tree, but when the leaves are suddenly gone, I have to make a decision.
You were originally going to direct "True Detective." Did you drop out of that to do "Birdman?"
Yes. But I thought the same thing: it was a superb script. I had a meeting with the writer, he gave me the second script and I knew that it would be great. There was a part of me that wanted to do it, but another part of me wanted to develop my own thing. I am glad, because I wrote a pilot this year [for a] series that is called "1%." I’m going to do my own type of thing that I can get really invested in.
You were going to direct the first couple of episodes. Is that still the case?
Yes. It’s new, exciting territory for me, and we’ll see what will happen.
Ed Helms is going to be the lead in "1%." What did you see in him that made you think he was right for it?
You will have to see the series, but he will do the character nicely and perfectly. There is something about this character that he understands well. It’s not an obvious thing, but there’s a discovery factor that will make it much more interesting.
You had a project called "The Flim-Flam Man." Is that going to be next?
No. It was a lovely project and a beautiful subject but it was impossible to raise the money. Nobody wanted to risk it at the time.
Does it get any easier?
It’s crazy. I think the film industry is just a reflection of the brutal capitalism that we live in now. The 99% and 1% pendulum of society is reflected in art. You buy the painting by whoever for $50 million, or you buy the shitty thing in the market for $1,000. There’s no middle ground. Or in films, you do the $4 million, $5 million movie or the $150 million movie. Suddenly, the middle class is disappearing and all of those middle things are gone. It’s a very difficult time for those films that I used to do.
You’re obviously still very close to Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuaron. Do you guys still show each other scripts and early cuts of your movies?
Absolutely. I just had dinner with Guillermo two days ago. I think his next film is going to be fantastic.
Do you think you’ll ever work together on a "New York Stories" type of anthology?
Well, we are very complicated people in the sense that we are very far away from each other: Guillermo is living in Toronto, Alfonso is in London and I’m here. When we tried to make "Cha-Cha-Cha," it didn’t work because geographically speaking, it was impossible to have something that really had a discipline. We have to think about our personal lives and our families and all of that besides our personal projects.
Was there any competitiveness with Alfonso as to who could make the longest-looking shot?
[laughs] Not at all! Alfonso is a master and I am just exploring and learning. The friendship works so well because we are never competitive. Between the three of us, our approach to cinema is so different that we have just supported each other and been very, very honest with each other. It’d be stupid.
What comments did they have for "Birdman"?
In the script stage, they gave some notes that make you think about it. That’s it. When you have a fresh point of view that comes from the right side of the heart, it’s just so valuable. You can take it or not take it, but just that perspective can give you a lot of strength or make you reflect on a lot of things. So our participation comes from the script or even from cuts. In this case, they saw "Birdman" as it was, because there was really no cut, but when I showed it to them a long time ago, they were really fucking blown away. Guillermo never drinks but after he saw it he said, "I need a fucking drink." And he got so drunk because he was so shocked and so moved by the film. I had never seen him like that. They were the first that I showed the film to, and it was very early and green and were very supportive. Sometimes I would show them a cut and they’d say "this doesn’t work because of that," or "this is a piece of shit because of that." Sometimes they are right. Sometimes not.
What was the writing process like for the final scene? Did it have a different ending?
No, it had a different ending but in the middle of shooting, I knew it was a piece of shit. I felt it and the film began to breathe by itself, and the characters began to grow. I went in and wrote it with Alexander [Dinelaris] and Nico [Giacobone], and I am so happy that I changed it. Now I feel very good about the ending. It feels very fair.
Can you say what the original ending was?
I will never tell you. It would be so embarrassing. It was bad.