Birdman just won Best Picture, and it’s well deserved. And believe me when I say, the film is a startling original that is meant to ruffle its feathers and screech out into the night its defiant admiration for self-adulation. Plus, it has Michael Keaton in a Birdman costume being filmed in an illusionary uncut tracking shot. It’s a wild ride and worth your time, not to mention its Oscars.
But before you check it out (again), you should also know some things about Alejandro González Iñárritu’s movie that had the director and his cast receive a standing ovation at the end of the New York Film Festival press conference back in October, and a host of Oscars last night.
It stars Michael Keaton as Riggan Thomson, a washed up movie star who may or may not be having a mental breakdown as he mounts a Raymond Carver adaptation in Broadway’s St. James Theatre…all while his most famous role, the Birdman, whispers in his ear.
Birdman Took Alejandro González Iñárritu 50 Years to Make
When recollecting how he first came up with the idea of Birdman, and its star character who deals with the pride of a defiant superhero hanging over head, Alejandro González Iñárritu thought back to the film’s genesis, beginning when he turned 50-years-old.
“I just turned 50 years last year,” he said at NYFF. “And basically, it’s just that when you realize, and when you make a revision of the priorities that you have given to your life, and some things are missing, and some things are great, and some things are not so great. And I’ve just been going through a retrospection about how the mechanics of my own perception have been, and I just thought it was incredibly interesting how I’ve been learning how the ego can work… Sometimes [it] can be very misleading.
Sometimes, I said, ‘Ah, this is great, this is fantastic; you’re a genius!’ And then 20 minutes later, I feel like a dead jellyfish. I said, ‘You’re a stupid asshole. What do you think? This is a piece of shit and nobody will care about it!’ So, it’s a constant bipolar relation of my process. And I thought the ego is a tyrant, and I thought that would be a cool thing to portray in a film.”
Making the Film Felt Like Being in a Theatre Company for the Cast
Birdman is a very self-aware creation, even beyond seeing Keaton play a superhero actor. Set around the St. James Theatre, the film is about the cast of characters adapting Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, which in itself is informative about Riggan’s current mental state at the start of the film. All but estranged from his adult daughter, played by Emma Stone, and his ex-wife (Amy Ryan), Riggan is barely keeping the reigns in on his theatrical production, which is captured with a visual fluidity by the cinematography that creates the illusion that it was all filmed in one shot. To accomplish this wizardry, every scene is meticulously and painfully rehearsed for months, giving a new sense of camaraderie amongst its mostly film actors.
Naomi Watts broke down the exhilaration of doing the production by comparing it to her time as a theatre student.
Says Watts, “Just from back in the days when we were studying and doing plays then, a lot of my nightmares revolve around being on a stage and forgetting my lines, or having the wrong clothes on, or no clothes at all. It’s that classic recurring nightmare. A lot of the way that this film was shot with the speed and high-stakes, and the technicalities, and the dependency on each other, and also the effects, the prop things, the cameras, the lighting, and the removing of tables, and putting them back—all of those things sort of created this high level of intensity and pressure that sort of felt emblematic of what it’s like being on the stage, at least from my long-time memories from long ago.”
Upon hearing these sincere thoughts, Keaton chimed in, “I had the same dream that Naomi has of seeing Naomi on stage naked. It’s not a nightmare, believe me.”
Emma Stone Used Birdman as Preparation for Her Broadway Debut
But all this talk about theatre doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing as crossing the boards, especially with New York’s high society critics waiting in the wings. Considering her movie-father in Birdman is a Hollywood actor who goes into the lion’s den that is the Great White Way, it would be understandable if co-star Emma Stone felt any similarities between this film and her own first Broadway bow in Cabaret, where she played the singing, dancing, and boozing Sarah Bowles in the Broadway revival of Fosse’s ‘salute’ to Weimar Germany.
“Of course, this movie brings up a lot of horrible fears of coming into the Broadway community,” Stone said. But she continued, “It feels very different. I will say making this movie and having to contend with what we have to as actors…I think is incredibly helpful now going into theatre in that way and realizing [that] you’re operating as a unit. We all operated as a unit, and on a lot of films, it’s not that way at all. It’s a very separate experience. So, yes, I’m nervous as hell. I’m shitting myself!”
The Movie’s Antagonistic New York Times Critic Reminds Edward Norton of Somebody…
However, during the aforementioned thoughts that Ms. Stone had about going to Broadway, she also spoke with trepidation about meeting the press that covers Broadway like the pit and the pendulum observes the condemned. And as Stone reflected on Lindsay Duncan’s Birdman character, an acidic theatre critic for The New York Times named Tabitha, co-star Edward Norton couldn’t resist jumping in on the subject matter.
“Of course, this movie brings up a lot of horrible fears of coming into the Broadway community and having Tabitha be your reviewer—” Stone began.
“Manohla,” Norton interjected with a sheepish grin. Obviously referring to The New York Times’ Chief Film Critic Manohla Dargis, the pressroom in Walter Reade Theater, filled with film journalists and critics, erupted in amusement. Norton then added ominously again, “Manohla.”
“Oh God!” Stone cried at the thought with nervous laughter.
Birdman Reflects Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Thoughts on Superhero Cinema
Early in Birdman, there is a fanged and not entirely unfounded critique of the “roundtable” interview process wherein a half-dozen journalists take turns throwing unrelated questions at the interview subject and talent. In the film, this leads to an amusing scene where Keaton’s Riggan is battling internet celebrity gossip on one side and high-minded intellectual babble on the other—about how his character of “Birdman” is really a modern day parable about the Icarus myth.
During our press conference, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s addressed this critique head-on.
“Now most of the superhero movies pretend to be very profound about some Greek mythology. And at the end, there’s nothing wrong to just be a kick-ass, nine guys in suits just kicking ass and action. It was funny that he was trying to make this Icarus thing as in this film….But you can interpret [Birdman] as Icarus. The ego wants to make us fly and that’s when it turns really dangerous.”
Edward Norton Thinks the Comic-Con Crowd Might Be in for a Shock
During the press conference at the New York Film Festival, Mr. Norton brought up the curious juxtaposition of also having presented several clips of the film during a panel at New York Comic-Con the day before (which I and Den of Geek’s Chris Longo also attended). And a realization apparently came to Norton during the events.
“Michael and I went over to New York Comic-Con yesterday to a little panel there,” Norton said. “And in the dark right before we went on, I looked at Michael and said, ‘Do you think this is the ultimate bait and switch that’s ever been pulled on a Comic-Con audience?’ [Laughs] Can you imagine actually going to this thinking it’s a superhero movie?”
The absurdity of the thought caused Keaton to recollect a similar experience when he attended a screening of John Huston’s final film, the period piece The Dead (1987).
Keaton recalled, “John Huston directed one of his last movies, [a James Joyce adaptation], The Dead. So, I showed up, and I thought, ‘Oh this will be curious, John Huston, I’ve got to go see this.’ And there were these guys that you could tell that they totally thought it was a horror movie. They showed up waiting, waiting, waiting, and all of a sudden you hear mumbling. ‘Ah, fuck!’ And I’m just clocking them, and at about 14 minutes, they go, ‘Fuck this!’”
Birdman Plays with Celebrity Image, Something Zach Galifianakis Disdains
One aspect that is unavoidable in a movie like Birdman is how the lead character, a Hollywood actor famous for being a superhero, is played by an actor that is arguably best known for playing Batman. When the “blurred lines” of celebrity and performer were suggested, Galifianakis was quick to discourage this perspective on actors.
“I like to be an actor and that’s it. I think the blurred lines is manmade, I think celebrity is a manmade thing. It’s not innate in us. We have people telling us, ‘Oh we should pay attention to these people,’ for the wrong reasons—their personal lives and that stuff. I think everybody here from just working with them, they’re very regular, normal and good people, and I think that’s what they’re interested in, just being actors. And the celebrity part that comes with it is just difficult to manage, I’m not interested in it whatsoever.”
Edward Norton Feels Like He’s Playing Iñárritu, Michael Keaton Thinks They All Are
When asked to name names about which actors inspired his primadonna character actor in Birdman, Norton breezily turned it around.
“People ask me what actors I was referencing, and I always say that I basically looked four feet to my left at Alejandro,” Norton said. “I’m wearing his scarf in the movie; I’m wearing his jacket. Everything I’ve said in the movie, I’ve heard him say or I know he wants to say!”
Similarly, at the panel the day before at New York Comic-Con, Keaton had stated that he was far more likely playing a version of Alejandro González Iñárritu than he was himself. He went so far to say that every person in the movie was some variation on Iñárritu. “Even the lesbian women kissing in the mirror,” Keaton patiently explained.
Alejandro González Iñárritu Views Birdman as His Dessert
Personally, Birdman has easily become my favorite Iñárritu film. However, it is undeniably lighter than some of his earlier work, including 21 Grams, Babel, and Biutiful. When asked about why Birdman is so much funnier and less severe than that previous work, Iñárritu had a curious answer.
“I think in a way, funnily, I think the film is the same,” Iñárritu said. “I think the characters are as strong as any film that I have done. I just think the approach is different. I think that in my point of view…instead of being about what the meaning life is about, I decided that I want to make, after so much spicy food I have had, that I want some dessert. And I want to start resting my tongue.
“I think the way to survive those events, you take an approach that is lighter and the humor—not irony or cynicism that has overwhelmed our pop culture so much, and I’m tired and bored, and mad about. But in the way that it’s the same events of life that all of us will fail in our solemn attempts to succeed and transcend, and our stupid ideas of art or moneymaking, or whatever importance we think we are. Life will tell us no. I found it incredibly trying but at the same time beautifully funny. And I think I decided to approach those traumatic events a little bit differently, upside down. So, I think this film is a little twisted, because I think if you don’t do that, at 50-years-old, if you don’t take life with humor…you can’t survive and you’ll become a bitter guy. I think that’s the only way we as human beings can survive, laughing at ourselves.”
This article first ran on October 15, 2014.