Back to IndieWire

How ‘Birdman’ Got Made: Fox Searchlight and New Regency Partners Tell All (Keaton, Norton, Stone VIDEOS)

How 'Birdman' Got Made: Fox Searchlight and New Regency Partners Tell All (Keaton, Norton, Stone VIDEOS)

Anne Thompson: How did your two companies end up collaborating on this film?
Claudia Lewis: Searchlight got the script first, and loved it, thought about it. It was a little out of our reach, budgetarily.
Because you have a budget cap.
Lewis: We tend to have a cap for the movies that we make. But, about two weeks after my initial meeting with Alejandro, I heard that Brad had gotten it as well, and that they were interested. So it was a loving partnership right from the start.
Brad Weston: We had worked together on a film that hadn’t been released yet, but we were just in previews on, “12 Years a Slave.” So we had just started our relationship, and it was going nicely. Regency was trying to make another movie with Alejandro, which he’s actually in his third week of shooting in Canada right now,  “The Revenant,” that had to shoot on a specific schedule of seasons and start on a specific date, in the last week of September. We had missed the window and wanted to find another picture to do with him so that we could protect the backend of when we started on “The Revenant.” So Claudia had read the script, and then Alejandro gave it to me when we knew “The Revenant” wasn’t happening, and we just decided to partner up as we were on “12 Years a Slave.”
Lewis: Also, that sense of pace, being able to put it together so quickly in order to make room for “Revenant,” was part of the exciting quality of the film. I think it shows a little bit in the film. There was a freneticism in getting it together, in the same way that the play that he’s putting together has that sort of frantic quality.

How did the script read? How did Alejandro explain his concept? Because it’s a risky thing, what he did.
Lewis: It read beautifully. The script was terrific. It went through some changes in the development process. He described it, in an Alejandro-esque way, as being the high-wire act that it turned out to be. But he knew he wanted the one-take style. He had it all in his head; the guy has everything in his head.
Weston: And most of it was cast when we got involved. We switched out a couple of actors. Originally it was Josh Brolin who was playing the Edward Norton part, and we switched that out for scheduling conflicts. But Michael was cast, Emma was cast, we added Edward, and Naomi & Zach Galifianakis were cast. What was really interesting about this script process, though, is, because of the one-shot style of the movie, we couldn’t edit the picture — it was just assembling the picture. So the editing of this film took place in the screenplay. And I think the first draft of the script was, what, 125 pages?
Lewis: It was very long.
Weston: And we shot something like 103 pages. So we went through a pretty extensive script development, cutting, because we knew that was the only time we could actually edit the picture.
Lewis: Which thrilled Alejandro, by the way. [Laughs] “We can’t touch it once it’s shot, sorry!”
So did they talk you through where it would cut, and so on? Because, on the set, he had to time it out, right?
Weston: He didn’t know it yet. The other thing that came with this is that we jumped right into the rehearsal phase. We did about a six-week rehearsal, where we literally taped-out the belly of the theater.
Where was the set, exactly?
Weston: In New York. We taped it out in the production offices, in a warehouse, as we were building it. And he and [cinematographer] Emmanuel Lubezki had to figure out the timing of the shots, because everything about it — from the lights, to when the actors move, to when they would cross — all of it had to be choreographed to the footstep. So the camera work, this technique — and they had never done this before — had to be discovered in the pre-production process. So he couldn’t talk to us with specificity about the length of the shots; they had to find where it was going to take place.

So what gave you the confidence that he could pull this off?

Lewis: His previous work. I mean, I’ve known Alejandro since the very first Critic’s Week screening in Cannes of “Amores Perros” and have loved him and followed him ever since. He’s very, very smart, very eloquent. He had such a strong idea for the movie. It was risky. One can’t deny that there was a question about, “God, is this one-shot thing really going to work?” But, thankfully, it really did.

Do you know how many takes there are?
Weston: You know, there were some scenes that were ten-minute takes, and there were some that were three-minute takes. It depended on the days. 
It creates this extraordinary energy.
Weston: He just wants that backstage energy. He wanted the losing of the mind combined with the backstage energy of what takes place in the theater, and that was how he decided to use this technique of the one continuos shot.
And what do you know about his own mindset, in terms of why he wanted to explore this whole issue of ego, id, and what constitutes validation for an artist?
Lewis: Riggan is very much part of Alejandro, and he is searching within himself. He was probably looking at his body of work, wondering if he was maybe reveling a bit too excessively in miserablist drama — and I think he wanted to just feel freer. Maybe just lighten up and play with himself a little more. Laugh a little bit. He said it’s the first time he’s ever laughed or smiled on a set. I think he really wanted to try his hand at comedy.
Weston: And, by his own admission, he was turning fifty, and he was dealing with a lot of issues in this picture in his own life, and he says this in his own interviews: he started meditating, which is how he came up with the opening shot of the movie. He was dealing with issues with his older daughter. Not the same, drug-related issues, but issues.  Wanting to change his body of work — as Riggan was. It was very personal to him. It was a two-year script-writing process with his partners, and it took them a long time to get into a place where he was able to share it — and, when he did, it was ready.
Talk about the music. What was your reaction when he told you how he wanted the soundtrack to go, and when did he tell you that?
Lewis: He told us pretty early on, but I don’t think we fully comprehended exactly how intense the drumming would be. And it is pure drum. [Laughs] Except for the classical stuff that he put in.
Weston: It was a little bit of a classic bait-and-switch, where he presented it to us as, “Let me go record this.”
Lewis: “It’s my friend! It’s Antonio!”
Weston: Then he did it over two days and he fell in love, and it was over.
Antonio Sanchez is the drummer. He listened to Alejandro’s radio show in Mexico City back in the day, and they became friends here. He overlaps the drumming, and there’s a lot of layering. But you liked it?
Lewis: I ended up really liking it. I have to say, the first time Brad and I saw it in the editing room, pre-mix, it was exceedingly loud, and that was somewhat startling. But we grew to love it, and when they mixed it, it became a beautiful sort of energetic score.
Weston: It took a second to calibrate the mix. We did three mixes on this film, and it took a second to find the right tone. But it took a second to find the balances, and he had to play with it and get all the background and foreground sounds of the drumming, and that took time and experimentation.

Can you define what the “rules” of the movie are, in terms of how the camera moves and what is inside the head of Michael Keaton’s character, so he thinks he’s able to do things that, in real life, he can’t do? There’s a magic realism. [SPOILER ALERT]
Lewis: I think Alejandro wanted there to be a genuine sense of wonder throughout as to whether or not he’s completely batshit out of his mind — or maybe some of this could really happen in some odd part of the universe. And I think that speaks to the ambitious ending of the film, which one could look at as, “Oh, God, the guy just jumped out the window,” or one can look at it as a wonderful — this is how Alejandro and I like to look at it — possibility that he’s finally achieved a dream: a kind of one-ness with his imagination and his abilities, and he’s able to share that with his daughter. She looks up, actually sees him, and smiles. That’s the one time, in a sense, that someone else shares his madness.
Is Lubezki doing “The Revenant”? Talk about that movie.
Weston: Chivo is, yes. It’s an 1823 Western movie. It’s a very simple revenge story, but nothing’s simple in Alejandro and Chivo’s hands. It’s about a fur-trapping party that gets attacked by Indians. They have to then cut their journey home short. Leo is a scout for the fur-trapping party. He goes to find a path back before Winter is going to fall, and he gets attacked by a bear — he gets gutted from throat to groin — and, on death’s doorstep, the party leaves, and they leave three people behind to give him proper burial when he dies. 
But the journey is important to Alejandro. It’s not just a simple “we start here, then we go there.” We had to start on September 29, because we have to start in the Fall and go through the physicality of the challenges of the Winter season. We’re shooting all over Canada, all the way up to almost the Yukon, and then into the Spring, with the regeneration and rebirth of our character. The locations are a character in our film. We are taking some of the techniques from this movie and applying them to some of the big action scenes in this film, which I think have never been seen before.
Lots of long takes, first-person POV, and we’ll see, later, if we turn it into a 3D movie. That’s something we’re talking about. So they’re applying their skill set to a really big movie. Chivo has made a big film — he made “Gravity” last year — but Alejandro hasn’t had this kind of toolbox to play with previously.
Brad is in a good mood because he’s also behind “Gone Girl.” It’s doing very well at the box office. Tell me about your relationship with Ben Affleck and how you got him involved in the movie.
Weston: We were in post-production on another film we made that wasn’t successful, called “Runner Runner,” and we were on a soundstage. We were getting into a really tight window of when we could make “Gone Girl” with David [Fincher]. I said, “I’m going to see Ben today. What do you think about him for the movie?” Because we didn’t know who it was going to be. We were trying to get another actress; it was down to Rosamund and one other actress, and the other actress wasn’t available and Rosamund was his choice. We were talking about Ben, and I said, “I’m going to see him.” The original thesis that David presented on that picture was, “It’s the lies you tell someone to get the truth when you close the bedroom door.” That was just how he described the movie.
So I said, “Ben do you want to come outside for a second?” We were on a mix stage, and the producer of that film was also supposed to produce his next picture, that he was set to direct, and he was two weeks into pre-production on. So I had to privately call him outside to say, “Hey, we’re doing this movie. It’s called ‘Gone Girl.’” He had heard of it, but hadn’t read it. I said Fincher’s thesis on the movie, and he literally grabbed me by the shirt and said, “You have to get me the fucking movie.” And he met David that night, and David hired him the next day.
So how smart is Ben Affleck?
Weston: I think it spoke to him, and he really wanted to study under David. As a filmmaker, David was on that shortlist of people that Ben just wanted to learn and study from. He wanted to so much that he pushed the [Dennis Lehane’s “Live By Night”] movie he was going to direct to go spend six months on-set with David.

Claudia, how many years have you been at Fox Searchlight now?
Lewis: September was my twenty-year anniversary. I was one of the very first people at Searchlight, working with Tom Rothman, and our first release was a movie called “The Brothers McMullen.” Our first big success was “The Fully Monty,” which has continued to do well and touch audiences. I’ve basically been there for every film since.
Sometimes Searchlight gets involved with a movie from the beginning, but there are other cases where you monitor things for a long time, advise people, and then wait until the movie gets made, even, before you pick it up. I’m fascinated that you’re still a touchstone for filmmakers, even if you’re not yet involved.
Lewis: We love filmmakers, and even if a project is something that we’re intrigued by but not certain that it quite fits the Searchlight mold, we still want to help filmmakers whenever we can — offer advice, offer help. Try to mold it into the kind of thing we think could, in fact, be welcomed by Searchlight so they can bring it into the world. Sometimes they don’t necessarily have the resources to do that. We don’t make or release teeny-tiny movies; we need to know there’s some commercial viability there, but there are a lot of films we initially read and went on to acquire after we saw them at festivals or screenings.
“Little Miss Sunshine,” for example.
Lewis: Right.

Brad, you’ve worked with Bob and Harvey Weinstein, been with Paramount through various management shifts, and now New Regency. What are the differences there, and how have those experiences served you?

Weston: They’ve all served to get to this point, which is the happiest part of my career. Because it’s a very specific agenda for our company: we’re working with Alejandro and Fincher and we made Darren Aronofsky’s film, “Noah,” this year, Steve McQueen’s “12 Years” — they’re all filmmaker-driven, challenging movies that have commercial aspirations. Being at a studio taught me about the commercial side of things. Being with Bob and Harvey taught me about the filmmaker side of things.
They’ve all coalesced to lead me to where I am today. It gave me the relationships with all these guys that we’re working with that are allowing us to make exciting films in a marketplace that, if you’re not big, then you have to be bold, I think, and if you’re going to be bold, then you have to cut through, and I think these filmmakers all give you the opportunity to cut through a crowded marketplace.
So what is the budget of this movie?
Weston: It’s $16.5 million.
How do you two work together?

It was a very fluid process born out of the development process on “12 Years,” and we just flowed into the next one, and it was a real easy relationship.
Lewis: I felt like we were total partners in development and throughout. And Brad and I have very similar aesthetic tastes, too, so that’s helpful. There was never a disagreement on where we wanted to take the script or the cut, ever.
Weston: Yeah. And because we couldn’t edit the cut —
Lewis: [Laughs] Right. There were no arguments to be had!
Weston: We saw it and said, “Okay, that’s what it is!”

Audience member: I was curious about how you guys did movements such as going outside with explosions, special effects, and flying around, then going through the tiny space of the window all at once.

Weston: I think Alejandro doesn’t want the technique of the movie to overwhelm the experience of the film. He just wants it to be as it was, in the energy of the character. The camera work shouldn’t be the focal point of what he’s talking about. He wants the movie to speak for itself.

Audience member: Does the film quote “Wings of Desire”?

Lewis: Ahh. Beautiful film. That’s interesting. I hadn’t thought of that. 
Audience member: Can you talk a bit about Michael Keaton, and how much of that was ad-libbed on his part, how much was scripted?
Lewis: He’s really extraordinary. It was so fun, not only working with him and realizing all of the skills that he has and incredible technique he has, both comedically and emotionally, but also just realizing the tremendous goodwill that he has amongst people who have seen his work for all these years. It’s a beautiful thing, to see that kind of resurgence, reinvention, and to see him having this great time. And I, of course, just happened to be watching Letterman last night, with Michael Keaton. Just the normal Michael is so different from Riggan. I’ve seen Riggan so many times now that I started thinking, “Oh, yeah, that’s how he is and that’s how he talks,” and it’s a complete transformation. Everything: the tonality, the body language, the darting eyes. It’s a really beautiful thing to behold.
Weston: I’d say the bulk of it, if not all of it, was scripted, and, as we talked about, there was an extensive rehearsal process.
It had to be very precise.
Weston: Yes, it was precise, and therefore they couldn’t go off-script — because of the precision of how they were lighting and choreographing. It was all timed, and Alejandro and Michael worked really hard together. Michael hadn’t done a picture like this in a long time, and to, the best way I can say this, regain his acting chops, Alejandro pushed him really hard in the rehearsal phase of this, and Michael, today, says it’s the hardest he’s ever worked, but also the most gratifying experience he’s ever had. He obviously strips down, literally and emotionally, in this movie and just bares it all.
To see him go there after he actually lived so much of this in his real life is really brave. Because, clearly, people are going to make the comparisons between “Batman” and “Birdman,” and Michael disappearing, and this comeback, and all these obvious comparisons, so it was as brave a performance as an actor could give — to allow himself to go there and open himself up to these questions.
When I ran into Ed Norton, he suggested that it was just exhilarating to do it this way.
Lewis: For someone like Edward, it probably is exhilarating. Naomi said it was the most difficult thing she had ever done in her life, because, also, they care so much about each other, that they’re worried that, if they flub one line, it has to start all the way back in the beginning — sometimes ten minutes ago. So they were all really looking out for each other and wanting to hit it perfectly every single time. I think they loved it. It was a total, new experience for them.
Weston: Zach probably ad-libbed more than anybody, because of his stand-up capabilities. I would say he went off-script — within the confines of what he was allowed to — more than most other actors.

Audience member: What’s the relationship between you, the producers, and Alejandro, who’s a director? Who has what input? I always understood that the director ruled.

Weston: Well, we weren’t the producers; we were the financiers, so it was a little bit of a different function than the producer. We were hands-on financiers, because we had a very close relationship with him. I actually like to think we worked in partnership with him. But his vision, 100%, ultimately ruled the day, and we gave our input, and he welcomed our input, and Alejandro’s a challenging filmmaker, quite frankly. I would say Alejandro finds a movie as he makes a movie, and that’s not the easiest experience to work with a filmmaker.
He doesn’t go in with the movie set in his head; he finds it as he makes it. And that makes our jobs, as executives, really challenging. But, again, we have a very different role than producers have, and he welcomed our input. I think we added to the process, but ultimately it was his picture, and everything he wanted in the picture is the final process on the screen. Again, you can’t say that every time, but, in this particular case, Alejandro is an artist and an auteur, and we defer to his creativity on the film.

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Interviews and tagged , , , , , , ,

Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox