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Oscar Winner Emmanuel Lubezki on Filming ‘Birdman,’ What’s Next for Iñárritu

Oscar Winner Emmanuel Lubezki on Filming 'Birdman,' What's Next for Iñárritu

The funny thing about  “Birdman” is that Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki initially resisted shooting the one-shot wonder proposed by director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu. The Oscar winner for “Gravity,” of course, is known for tackling long takes, but this movie — and a comedy, no less — seemed like a stunt and an uncomfortably difficult one at that.

But as a result of his remarkable achievement, Lubezki has become the frontrunner for his second Oscar in a row after taking awards from the LA Film Critics, New York Film Critics online, an Indie Spirit award, among others.

“I didn’t want to make a gimmicky film for no reason or just to do it in one take to show off,” explains Lubezki. “But Alejandro’s script had the seed of the idea in it and was perfectly written, it reads like one continuous take, where you go into the madness of Riggan Thomson [Michael Keaton] and the collapse of his life.So it did make sense. I think it works.

“And there is something interesting about Alejandro and other great directors and that’s the struggle of being an artist making movies. And to make a movie you need a lot of money, you need a distributor and you have to work within the industry. And obviously at the same time you want to be an author. You wish you didn’t need all of this. You wish you could break free. And that is also beautiful about the movie. It describes how Alejandro feels about himself and how a lot of us feel about ourselves.”
But what does the protagonist’s descent into madness mean? “It’s not that important to explain the real narrative. There’s something I love of this ambiguity and people, especially in the States, are very afraid of it. And some people don’t react well to it. They want an explanation. They want clarity. And these two shots [the opening levitation and the smile on Emma Stone’s face as she looks up] are what I love about the movie. I  think it’s more about an emotion. What do you feel when she looks up and what do you feel when he’s outside? There’s nothing wrong with having questions.”

But we have questions about how they pulled it off.  How many cuts are there and how long are they? The cinematographer doesn’t recall, only that they lasted between 10 and 20 minutes. However, whenever we’re in the theater and the surrounding hallways, that’s one take; whenever we’re in Thomson’s dressing room and the surrounding hallways, that’s another; and whenever we’re outside the theater in Times Square, that’s usually a single take except, obviously, the imaginary action sequence with lots of VFX or when he’s flying, according to Lubezki.

“The making of it, as you can imagine, was incredibly complicated. Part of the movie was made in a different way from all the other movies I’ve done and from most of the movies I know that are being made right now. That is, it has a lot to do with theater in the sense that we had to build a proxy stage and learn how to do the movie and do a lot of rehearsing.”

This is where the score came into play. “We could use the music of jazz drummer Antonio Sanchez as the beat of the shots that we were about to do,” Lubezki says.

“And we had to a lot of editing before and that, as a cinematographer, is incredibly rewarding and interesting that you’re working in pre-production with the editor and very closely with the art department. Everything we built—for example, Michael’s makeup mirror and desk—had to be a precise height and precise size so we could see his image in certain moments. It was created like you were doing a play and then when you arrive to do the shooting you are prepared and the use of blue and red lights give the feeling of a real play all based on reality,” Lubezki continues.

WATCH: Iñárritu Took Risks on ‘Birdman’ (Video Interview)

“And just the proposition of doing a comedy in one shot or what feels like one shot with very long takes, most of the editing is in the way the camera moves and the way the actor moves. All that rhythm has to be determined in pre-production and as we are shooting the movie. And that’s very scary because most comedy directors will tell you that editing is the most important tool to create rhythm and to make jokes work.”

But Lubezki’s thrilled that Iñárritu was bold enough to attempt “Birdman,” since they  had no idea if it was going to work. “You cannot shoot that many takes because they are so complicated and you’re never 100% satisfied until you put the whole thing together.”

Even the late Mike Nichols tried to talk the director out of making “Birdman” because he thought he was doomed to fail.

“Almost at the end of the movie we decided to cut because we wanted to be sure that nobody thought we were doing a one-shot just to do a one-shot, which we could have done. But there is a moment when you think that he has died, you go into whatever… his dream, his imagination, or his memory, and that sequence has a lot of cuts. We come back into the hospital and it’s back to one shot, the implosion of Riggan’s last hours of life,” Lubezki says.

“When we created that proxy stage in Los Angeles, taping the floor and canvas instead of walls and only a few pieces of furniture, and started blocking the movie, I brought in lighting fixtures to imagine how the movie was going to look, and to also try and figure out what problems I was going to have. When the camera moves in 360 degrees, suddenly what you thought was manageable becomes problematic.” 

Lubezki says you need a crew that acts like ballerinas to make everything that happens behind the camera seem natural and because the slightest change alters the look and calls attention to itself. And also color-timing a shot that is an hour-and-a-half long doesn’t allow for normal rendering time because that would take six years. So the whole post team at Technicolor had to come up with brilliant solutions. And the technology for stitching—hiding cuts with pans and wipes and choreographed with the movement of the actors—is tremendous.

“The glass of the lens is probably two inches from Michael’s face and that was one of the highlights for me to be that close, almost dancing with him and able to see what he’s doing at a microscopic level. Because he was acting with all these super closeups and then you go off and do a more objective view of what is happening, his physicality was absolutely like watching Glenn Gould up close.”

Lubezki is currently making his second movie with Iñárritu, “The Revenant,” a western thriller starring Leonardo DiCaprio as a 19th-century fur trapper who goes on a killing spree against his accomplices (Tom Hardy, Will Poulter, Domhnall Gleeson) who robbed him and left him for dead after a bear mauling. It’s another twist on the survival story for Lubezki, shooting in Calgary in freezing conditions on an 80-day schedule.

They’re shooting in sequence and Lubezki can go back to doing a series of long takes rather than trying to simulate one continuous take.

“It’s not like ‘Birdman’ or anything else I’ve done. It’s great working with Alejandro back to back, so there’s a central framework that comes from our experiences together that is very useful in making this movie.”

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