TELLURIDE – “Birdman” has arrived stateside and made as significant an impact as it did at the Venice Film Festival last week. You won't run into too many people who have managed to catch it at one of its packed screenings who weren't completely blown away by the accomplishment, and for director Alejandro González Iñárritu, it was clearly a much-needed exercise in self-reflection away from the somber fray of his filmography to date.
From “Amores Perros” to “21 Grams,” “Babel” to “Biutiful,” González Iñárritu has marinated in heavy drama. And it's not that “Birdman” is without its own profound gravity – quite the opposite, in fact – but it gave him an opportunity to finally have fun and get outside his own head a bit, albeit through a film that very much exists as an exploration of his own midlife considerations.
That made sitting down with him all the more enjoyable. Jet-lagged from Venice and a touch hungover from a Fox Searchlight party the night before, he was in tremendous spirits and seemed so happy to engage every nuance of the project. Read through our back and forth below as we talk about meta commentary, jazz influence and the “disease” of superheroes.
“Birdman” opens in theaters Oct. 17.
HitFix: I'm sure by now, after Venice and here, you've been barraged with the question of making this film appear like a single take. I've talked to Alfonso [Cuarón] and Chivo [Lubezki] about this a number of times, capturing a full breadth of behavior in a single take. Here it becomes sort of obvious, I think, why you made the choice, because it puts you right there with the character. And it's not distracting. It's really quite immersive in many ways. Was that the thought process?
Alejandro González Iñárritu: Absolutely. I knew that that was the best way to serve the character's experience and the audience's experience through him. To put the audience in an extreme, radical mode and point-of-view experience, to feel trapped in that reality. We live that way. I had a discussion with Walter Murch about it, we talked about handheld – we wake up and that's the way we experience life. So I thought it would be great if we could experience the story with Riggan. And I didn't want to distract. I didn't want it to be flashy camera moves and be the director of bullshit. I wanted it to flow and for the emotional flow to be more pure.
What's jaw-dropping about it is, you know, the camera movement is one thing but the lighting must have just been ridiculous throughout.
Yeah. That was crazy. We designed all the sets, all the bowels of the theaters are on a stage, and there's no single film light. There was only practical light. The blessing was it was meticulously planned, every actor's step, every word was measured with distance and every corridor was predesigned. But I did it in LA in a storage space with tape, like Sidney Lumet-style, to really start to discover the whole thing. Every department was able to nail it very specifically to that service, so everything is like a mechanical clock, and Chivo designed the lighting in a way that the mode of it, the way he mixed all those practical lights, was serving it dramatically
And even with practical lighting, so many of the shots are gorgeous. Specifically that last scene with Emma Stone and Michael Keaton, there's a sun-kissed quality to it. Just, what can I say? Hat's off. But what lights the fuse of an idea like this for you? Where did it come from?
It started, honestly, as my own curiosity and battles with my own ego, that when you turn 50 you suddenly realize – you revise what you have prioritized in your life and what's meaningful and what's useless and which decisions will come from what you really want and what you expect from people and the validation you need. So I was developing, a long time ago, a character that was projecting in the mirror his own image and it was the ego. Basically that's the seed of it. I had a concept to make a film about ego, but it was very difficult because there are a lot of philosophical notions and abstracts, but that's the foundation of it.
Talk about the meta elements of the film, this commentary on the industry and the direction of popular filmmaking. I particularly delighted in your skewering of critics because it didn't feel cheap at all. It felt brutally honest.
Honestly, all the comments, we were very, very aware of – and I was particularly interested in – two things. One, never be ironic or cynical. I'm so fucking tired of the irony and cynicism that rules the fucking culture and world now. Everything has to be cool. Everything has to be detached emotionally. Everything has to be a little bit too smart. Nothing is really truthful or honest or emotional. There's always this ironic take on everything. And I didn't really want to be a smartass laughing about these characters or pointing or preaching at the industry, because everyone knows where we are. I was always careful that everything would come from the point of view of Riggan, not me commenting on it. Because there were a lot of comments I could have done, but we had to be restrained, because that would have been the “smartass writer.” So everything comes from the truth of Michael.
With the theater critic, we didn't want to portray bad or good. From the point of view of the critic, she's absolutely right. From the point of view of Riggan, he's absolutely right. Those words come from the truthful character reality. That's one thing. Then, when I decided the character would be an actor, they are known for dealing with the ego so it was serving the purposes of the concept. Then obviously everything around, as an artist, I have a responsibility to talk about my context and circumstances, so all that is there, in a way. I have experience in one way or the other. I feel I have the right and have lived through that, and so it came naturally.
When Emma Stone holds up the viral YouTube video and says “this is power now,” that just gave me chills. Because we're in an age when stardom is not only embossed but sometimes created by viral sensation.
And for the wrong reasons.
Exactly. And it's all a result of this Thomas Friedman/flattened world of access. Anyone can become a star.
I have a 17-year-old kid, and I took a lot from him in the film, and from my daughter. Sam is basically what I see. Suddenly all these kinds of social media things have taken over so much and misled so many things and created that [snaps fingers] stardom in two days. It's very hard to know the truth about anything now.
I'm sure you have been and will continue to be asked about Keaton and the “Batman” parallel, but beyond that, he's such a great actor and it's so pleasing to see him experience this sort of comeback. Why did you cast him and what was the experience of working with him like for you?
I have worked with great actors but I have never seen somebody in that window of time nail not only the marks and the physicality and the demanding precision that he required, but to navigate through drama and comedy so easily and so imperceptibly, to be a little cuckoo and then play a little funny and then be intense and then nuts and then emotional and then cuckoo again and then funny, all those things – it was absolutely incredible. And on a human level, he's just a very self-assured man. The reason he played this with such integrity is he's above that, so once you are above that, you can laugh at yourself. He was so trusting of the process that I'm just thankful about it.
It was absolutely a showcase of his range. He's shown throughout his career that he can do drama and comedy with equal aplomb. He can do genre. He can play villains expertly. This is the first time I feel like a single movie has captured his entire arsenal.
Yeah, he's just great. I think it was my best experience ever, honestly.
But for you, then, the meta element of his superhero past was there but not overtly?
I think there's a meta dialogue in the whole film, and it projects itself. And I think that's why the woman said, “Are you shooting a film? You people are full of shit.” Or the drummer appears at the end. I like labyrinthine or mirroring reality. At the same time, it was important to define what was reality and what was still the character. Because if you play it too close, it doesn't work. If you don't play it at all, you know. I hope we nailed the line between reality and fiction.
And Edward Norton is a force in this thing. He blows into it and is so magnetic that when he's gone, you really miss him.
[Laughs.] We had fun. He had been doing a lot of theater in New York, so he understood that character so well. All of us were projecting, so it was liberating to be laughing about ourselves.
The St. James Theater location was a real coup.
It was just a window that opened. Those houses are booked for years and we went for two weeks and that was it.
It's a great location specifically because you have the “Phantom of the Opera” iconography across 44th St. there.
Exactly. And then Tom Hanks' “Lucky Guy” was in the front. So it was kind of the meta thing. And when he flies, there's a Superman billboard on the rooftops. So we were shooting when Superman was coming out and Spider-Man was shooting in New York at the same time. We were surrounded by superheroes.
Yeah, the superhero thing is fascinating and obviously at play in the film. I imagine you've been offered comic book projects before.
Yeah, like four or five years ago. It would have been terrible. I would have killed the superhero. I hate superheroes. I hate the sanitization of superheroes. Well, not the superheroes, but the take of superheroes. They are like dictators. They are a little bit like right wing guys, and there's always this power they apply – guns and power and whatever they don't think is right they will destroy and they are the “good guys” and there's this sanitization that kills me. There are a lot of things about not all, but some of the superhero thing that is a disease. I don't want to talk bad about others. Everyone has a right to do whatever. But personally I think they are overdone with special effects and everything. They have lost a little bit of the human quality. The superheroes should be the super-humans. The more human you are – I have never met, in my 50 years, a superhero. There's something I don't like about the word “hero.”
It's presumptuous to you? Uninteresting for being infallible? Unrealistic?
Absolutely. A lie. You take out the human quality and it makes it a lie. Maybe that's stupid of me, I don't know.
Circling back to the way you shot the film, I'm reminded now that it sort of reminded me of freestyle jazz. And you obviously have the jazz drummer score throughout. Are you a big jazz fan and did that play into your conceptualization of the project at all?
I love jazz. I met Antonio Sanchez, the drummer, at a concert and yes, that was the trick. How to make something that was absolutely meticulously planned with no improvisation at all in any centimeter of the film look natural and real and honest. In a way it was about the technical stuff, but the actors brought that reality and all of us were shitting our pants. The performances of these guys were really truthful. I would never have been able to help them or polish a scene that was not a good one; we'd have been fucked. Whatever was not there, it would never be. So the actors were in such a state of awareness and fear, and me too, to be present in the moment. You couldn't say, “Well, this is take 17, I'm sure the editor will help me.”
Where was the first cut in the film?
I mean, the first one I noticed was like 40 minutes in, when Norton walks into the bar. But there had to have been a digital cut in there somewhere that I missed.
Of course, you don't have to tell me.
In a way, I prefer to have the rabbit in the hat. I don't want people to be distracted. It's experienced as one shot but I don't want people to think about that. I don't think that should be the point. Who cares? I just want people at the end to feel, “There's something weird about this. It's a little trippy.”
And now you're off to shoot “The Revenant” in Calgary with Leonardo DiCaprio.
Leo, Tom Hardy, it's going to be a little cold up there.
I always find that when someone has a film in the thick of awards season, they're a little bit saner if they're able to work throughout that time. So good luck.
I'm happy that I'm doing it. It's a privilege.
And congratulations on “Birdman.” It's truly a masterpiece.
And it was the one thing that wasn't a mystery to me about the Telluride program this year. You come here all the time, whether you have a film in play or not, so I just knew you'd be here.
[Laughs.] I love this festival.