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How They Sustained the Times Square Momentum in ‘Birdman’ VIDEO

How They Sustained the Times Square Momentum in 'Birdman' VIDEO

The inertia of the brilliant Times Square scene in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Birdman” is deceptive. What seems like a roller coaster ride that stops actually picks up again when Michael Keaton re-enters the theater to continue his manic performance. We get the lowdown on the Best Picture contender from cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki (favored to win his second consecutive Oscar), supervising sound editor Aaron Glascock and re-recording mixer Jon Taylor (who is also nominated for “Unbroken” with fellow “Birdman” mixer Frank A. Montaño).

“It was a fun scene that releases all the tension and anxiety and insanity from the previous Times Square scene,” Lubezki admits. “He’s not wearing his wardrobe — he’s almost naked — and the ticket lady doesn’t recognize him, and then he encounters a lawyer and the actor that’s trying to sue him. The entrance was lit minimalistically but then the lobby area where they have the bar is lit with golden light and is rich and large and has chandeliers and you feel the weight of the theater on top of him. He’s like this little insect being crushed by the old theater establishment.”

Keaton enters the darkness of the theater and in the distance we see the play in progress and it’s the exact cue for his entrance in the scene. “And it’s exactly the same lighting every time that we use for that moment in the play where we use the lightning outside the motel room where Naomi [Watts] and Ed [Norton] are having sex. Usually, he breaks through the door but this time he screams from the other side of the theater. And in a couple of lightning strikes, we reveal his anxiety and his fear. Also his determination. He has to get it right or the play is going to collapse.

“He starts walking and members of the audience laugh because they don’t know what’s going on. The camera goes from him feeling this anguish to panning and revealing what he’s seeing: Ed Norton looking at him and waiting, because now the rhythm of the play has been broken by the distance of Michael. He enters the scene and the lighting goes into that cyan mood of the motel and when the camera pans, we reveal the producer of the play, Zach [Galifianakis], in complete stress and he gets a phone call that’s about to give him a heart attack. The sound design is very interesting too, because you hear the people whispering and you hear the play behind you. You hear the ring of the phone. You can almost hear the heartbeat of Keaton.”

“On stage, Keaton hits Norton, the audience reacts, reminding us of the theater’s great dimension,” adds Glascock. The thunder, rain and dialogue performance shifts to the side as the foreground ringing of Zach’s cell phone becomes the main focus, immediately chased by its comedic fumbling.

“As Zach retreats from the stage, the thunder and dialogue diminish in perspective. The layers and layers of detail, the stage tech hums, tones, light buzzes, and background detail, all move past like an unwinding of the behind-the-scenes clockwork, and then the manic and musical score of the drums are heard. This score, not just underscoring but carrying the manic essence of the story, chases Zach up into Keaton’s hallway.

“This is a trajectory of layers, steps. It does linearly get from one location to another, but the elements used needed to have distinct variation in order to keep the grain visible to the listener. We really had to go out of our way to find those parts, as we did also have to use sound that was continuous, which if used alone could have diminished the effort. ”

Lubezki says abandoning Keaton every now and then was a difficult part of the design process and even more so in this sequence when we abandon everyone to take a breather in an empty corridor. “How long can we do these moments without Michael before we lose the audience but long enough to be believable that Michael is away? And what does the shot mean to see an empty corridor and distant sounds? It’s as if you’re inviting people into the next piece of the labyrinth.”

Taylor suggests the sound called for complete immersion; this particular scene required a lot of detailed, seamless, work. “The camera was constantly moving and the sound moved accordingly. As the camera holds, we see and hear a vent blowing warm air into the corridor. 

“Meanwhile, we hear a very distant gunshot, gasp and applause on the left surround side. After a few moments, Keaton appears screen left and walks down the hall closer to the vent. As we get closer, the sound of the vent gets louder and we enter his dressing room on the right side as the sound of the vent goes left and fades out. It may seem easy, but sometimes you really have to fudge things to get them to sound natural to the moviegoer.”

All of this was brutally difficult for Lubezki because of the different lighting styles and on stage cues, as well as an acting ensemble that had to keep precise marks. And moments such as the empty corridor make the design even harder.

“You want it to mean something but you don’t want it to be boring,” Lubezki says. “There’s a lot of stuff in the movie where we want to make you feel one way or another and they can mean different things to many different people. But we want these things to be open. And for all those reasons, that kind of decision making is really rough and very scary. And there [are] not a lot of editing possibilities once you make the decision on set. There is no book to tell you how to do it. It’s just your instinct.”

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