It’s been four years since Alejandro González Iñárritu’s last film “Biutiful.” The Academy Award-nominated drama was arguably the bleakest of his career, which is saying a lot considering Iñárritu is the Mexican filmmaker responsible for the depressing and critically-lauded character studies “Amores Perros,” “21 Grams” and “Babel.” His latest, “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” once again boasts a huge cast, but that’s where the similarities to his other films end. “Birdman” marks the filmmaker’s first stab at dark comedy and the change of pace suits him remarkably well. Starring Michael Keaton as Riggan, a washed up former action star who’s staging a creative comeback on Broadway, “Birdman” is a freewheeling riot from start to finish, bolstered by committed performances from Keaton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough and Edward Norton, and mesmerizing cinematography by “Gravity” Oscar-winner Emmanuel Lubezki, who shot the film so that it plays like one long, continuous take.
A few days before “Birdman” had one of the best limited debuts ever, Indiewire sat down with Iñárritu in Manhattan to talk about the film.
Riggan mounts a play to revive his career. Did you make this film with the same intention? You’re coming off of “Biutiful,” which, granted, was Oscar nominated, but divided critics more than any of your previous films.
I think it’s about the creative process. I don’t know if I have a career or not, or where it ends or it begins. I have been working, doing what I do for a long time. But my creative process has always been so tortuous. I have been always demanding of myself a lot, maybe more than my capacities [allow]. That has been becoming a fucking chronic dissatisfaction. Anything that I have done, I consider a piece of shit.
I got tired of that voice inside my head — that fucking dictator. I started meditating five years ago and I’m now so much more aware of how those voices work. Once you begin to be aware of it, you are in a way safer spot because at least you identify. Most people don’t. Dictators and fucking politicians and selfish people — they’re people who do a lot of harm to other people, they don’t realize they are victims of their own fucking ego, which departs from fear or jealousy or whatever. So, I thought this could be an amazing thing for me to explore, but how am I going to explore something that is so self-conscious, so abstract. It’s more about the personal process of creating something that I feel everybody has in them.
Did making “Birdman” change the way you view your own work, or do you still consider everything you do to be “a piece of shit”?
“Birdman” came from a very beautiful side of me, from a part of honesty and surrender about things. It already has taught me to surrender to many things. I really struggled a lot with making this film because not many people wanted to invest money in it. I never took it personally. I never quit. I was never depressed or fought against it. I surrendered to the circumstances because I accepted circumstances. Slowly the elements came by themselves by surrendering, not by controlling or pushing. It happened and I learned that. I learned that the film was teaching me what the nature of the spirit of the film was about. It was something very beautiful.
You say “Birdman” came from a “beautiful side,” but Zach Galifianakis expressed to me that he came onboard because of his frustration with Hollywood. The film has a lot to say about the current state of celebrity worship, social media and Hollywood’s obsession with superheroes.
Well, I guess what I’m saying is my only response to have as a director and as an artist — and what people can demand from you — is honesty. Honesty with yourself and with the circumstances and context you are in. That’s your reality. So, I have to be honest with my reality. That’s the only thing that people really can demand from you. I tried to make this film very honest in the sense of things that have appealed to me, happened to me, I have experienced, or I have seen. That’s the context that I have been given and that’s what I am observing about the industry, about the nature of our job, our self-obsession, our media and social media, the critics, the different actors that I’ve worked with. All those things, I have experienced. I have lived it.
But, in all honesty, I never wanted to make this film from a bitter side, from a preachy side, or saying what is right and what is wrong, or fuck the blockbusters, or fuck the critics. To make a film to complain? I would not spend two years or three years of my life doing that. That’s what I’m saying. My big quest was not complaining about how the big blockbuster has infected the world and created a cultural genocide. [Laughs] That was not the main theme. This is basically the point of view of the theater actor, Mike Shiner, played by Edward Norton, who feels that way. He has a right to feel that way. It’s about the honesty of each of these characters. What they each say are not my opinions. Who cares about my opinions? They have to be truthful. In a way, I want to feel compassion for all these characters that are full of flaws and have limitations. And that’s what it was about for me. Not to preach or complain.
You give every character in “Birdman” a chance to show their true colors. Edward Norton’s character is a total dick, but he has that redeeming scene with Emma Stone where he gets to explain the reasons for his bad boy actions. How do you go about mapping out character archs when drafting a script?
I always feel that when the character is dreaming or is going to some place, it’s always important for me to find what they want, what are their flaws and what are their strengths? All of us want something in life, all of us have flaws, and all of us have strengths. So, I always try to discover those things in a character and then try to expose it in one way or another. When and how is a difficult thing. All human beings are like that. I have never met a superhero, but why are we so obsessed with superheroes? Who has met a fucking superhero? Only the word hero bothers me. I have never met a fucking hero, what does that mean? What does it mean to be a superhero? For me, it’s absolutely madness. Anyway, I think of the flaws and all that. I try.
Are you dying to then make a superhero movie to explore that riddle?
I would do the fucking worst superhero movie. So depressing.
Did you have any fun staging that one action sequence in “Birdman”? It’s pretty spectacular.
I love it. I love it for it two minutes, not more. [Laughs] If I made 90 minutes of that, I would kill myself probably. But, it was fun. My son helped me. The eagle. And the nonsense with it.
You draw out career best work from every actor you work with. But this film, more than any other you’ve made, required you to juggle so many other elements of production while staying invested in your cast. How did you do it?
I had the luxury to assign the scenes before [the shoot]. So basically when most of them arrived, it was already pre-designed blocking. So, I blocked the scene first with stand-ins and people. So, in a way, all that kind of point of view on blocking was already worked out in advance. Then once they began to achieve the technicality or the physicality of it, then it was just about emotions and being honest — the nuances. The luxury to be able to work with this level of actors, it’s like to be playing in the band with the best bass player, best guitar player, best piano player. I knew that all of them were capable of doing that, so in a way they make my life easier.
You were talking earlier about that voice inside your head — “that fucking dictator.” What is that voice telling you now?
You always have to be working. There is never a surrender. I think you catch it or you get pissed off… [Laughs] It’s funny that in a way I think the need of validation that we all have, it will never stop because we need affection. The wife of Riggin says to him “You confuse love for adoration.” When we are looking for validation, that will never satisfy us. When we are looking for affection, for love, a little bit of that will be enough to be complete. For me, I’m much more aware of that frame in a way that I can really recognize what is going on and I can detect. Once you are aware, that voice is diminished. Like opening a door in a dark room — you see light, you see more clearly. And when you see it, you are not afraid, you are not reacting. When you are in the dark, you are fucking trapped. I have learned that. In a way, I have turned on the light. I can feel it. When it comes and it’s telling me unhappy thoughts or unsatisfying things or self-loathing things — like I could have been better or that interview, I could have said that — now the volume has low light.