Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki details the ‘dance’ of filming ‘Birdman’

12.20.14 2 years ago 10 Comments

When producer John Lesher first told me way back in June that “Birdman” was a bit of a “magic trick” designed to look like a single take, my jaw dropped. How had I not heard about this? “We're not really talking about it too much,” he said at the time, a few months ahead of the film's Venice film festival debut. Which is fair enough. You don't want the technique to overshadow the experience of the film.

But then again, the technique of “Birdman” is the experience. It's the thematic soul of its very existence. So naturally, I was dying to talk to cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (“Chivo”) once the season got underway. Only problem: he was stuck in Calgary shooting Alejandro González Iñárritu's follow-up, “The Revenant,” a production that runs through April. What???

Suffice it to say I've never been so desperate to get someone on the phone. But I also understand why one might want to stay away from all of this for a moment. As Iñárritu and I discussed the morning of the Golden Globe nominations (when he was driving to a location with Chivo in tow), it's best to stay busy when the insanity of awards season takes hold. And for Chivo's part, he just came off a whirlwind with “Gravity” that ended with an Academy Award for Best Cinematography. The prospect of diving back into the circuit's press demands had to be an unattractive one.

Nevertheless, 'tis the season for miracles! We finally connected Saturday morning and I talked his ear off about this masterpiece I consider to be the best film of the year, the difficulty in filming it with a series of extended takes through the constructed bowels of a Broadway theater (the production design in this film really is an unsung hero), the challenges in staging those scenes, let alone lighting them, and what it took to pull off that outrageous Times Square sequence.

So Christmas came early for me. I was a kid in a candy story. Read through my euphoria below.

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HitFix: Hey Chivo!

Emmanuel Lubezki: Mr. Kris. How are you?

I'm doing cartwheels.

Cartwheels!

I finally have you on the phone! You have no idea. I was going to drive to Calgary.

You should have! To see what we were, you know – it was rough. It was nasty. It was cold.

After I saw your photo of the guy with the icicles on his mustache I figured I would stay put.

[Laughs.] Yes. Yeah, we got in trouble. We created a hell and we were living in it.

Well that movie, “The Revenant,” I can't wait to see it. But we have other business here. And listen – you can't shoot a movie like “Birdman” and then go away!

OK, sorry. [Laughs.] It was just so insane. Our locations are far from the hotel. We have to travel, sometimes, an hour and a half and there's no connection. And sometimes you get a connection for one second.

Are you in LA now?

I am in LA, for the holidays.

Well, welcome home. Now I can't imagine how many times you've been asked or will be asked about the manner in which this film was shot. But I'll just start by asking what your immediate reaction was when Alejandro told you what he wanted to do.

First he told me about the story. He said, “Oh, I have an idea for a film. It's a comedy and I want to do it in one long shot.” And the moment he said that I thought, “I hope he doesn't offer me this. I hope he gets someone else to do it because it just sounds awful.” And then he said, “Would you like to read the script?” I said yes but I truly did not want to have anything to do with this movie. I was just going to read it as a friend. And as soon as I read the script I started to understand the idea of the one shot. The seed of this idea was there in the script. I sat down and we talked about the script and changes he was going to do and what he thought about his life and Riggan's life and our life. Alejandro is a great storyteller, so there was probably four and a half hours of talking about the movie. And at that point I was hoping he would offer me the movie. That's how good he is at selling stuff.

Of course I was very concerned about – I didn't know who the cast was. I was also concerned about [the fact that] there was nothing really shot before like that, where we could go and do some research. So my first idea, and Alejandro's, was the only way to learn how to do it is if we start doing it. We decided to build a little proxy stage in Los Angeles, in Sony studios, and started trying to figure out how to do the movie with a little camera and a few stand-ins and go scene-by-scene, just to figure out if it was possible, you know? Once we felt that it was possible, we started blocking the scenes. Then we brought a few props and Alejandro hired a production designer and some crew started to join in, the editors started coming and we started trying to figure out how to link some of the scenes together. Because we knew we weren't going to find a theater that had all the back[stage areas] in the same place. So the idea of doing the whole thing in one shot was going to be, probably, impossible.

So once [production designer] Kevin Thompson came and [editor Stephen] Mirrione and then we had Sanchez come, Antonio, the musician – it was very important to have sketches of the music because music was also informing a lot about the pace of the scenes and so on. It was like an upside down movie where you do post-production before the production. Different than “Gravity.” “Gravity,” we had a little bit of that, but this one was completely, like, start with the post-production, trying to edit the movie, and then bring the actors and do the scenes once we kind of knew what the rhythm of the scenes were.

I'm sorry I deviated, but to answer the question, when Alejandro asked me if I wanted to do the movie I thought, “I shouldn't get involved in this.” And then I fell in love with the idea and the project and the challenge. And when we knew who the actors were going to be, I was even more interested, because I adore Michael Keaton and Emma [Stone], all of them – Ed [Norton], I always wanted to work with Ed. So suddenly everything was even more interesting to me. It was an incredible, great, unique experience.

Your camera operator on this, Chris Haarhoff, is obviously a hero.

Absolutely.

But was there much operating from you on this as well?

I did operate a lot of the movie. I don't know what percentage. The movie was done with two basic methods. One was to use the Steadicam for the shots that require more steady-ness and objectivity. The Steadicam is a big machine, smaller than a crane, but it's still a big machine that makes the camera look very smooth, but it's a little bit objective. It feels slightly heavy. For some other scenes, we had a small digital camera, and I was really able to get inside the scenes that needed to feel more subjective or intimate. So we did it with those two methodologies. And some of the takes – I've been doing a lot of handheld, I don't know, 10 movies, but this one was very challenging because of the length of the takes. The length was just long enough that it was not humanly possible, or at least for me and not a sportsman. So I would almost collapse at the end of the take. And also, I am not trained like the actors in memorizing all of these long, long, complicated dialogue scenes and stuff. So I didn't want to be the one in minute 13 suddenly to make a mistake and have to ask Alejandro to redo the scene. So I had to create a lot of ways for me to have memory cues, to know when to pan and when to do this and that and be able to dance. Yeah, it was like a dance. To be able to be a part of this big dance and choreography without messing it up. That was very challenging.

Yeah, a couple of people I've talked to from this movie have said something similar, that they didn't want to be the one to drop the ball and have to start over on a take.

[Laughs.] Yeah, nobody wanted to be the one.

But I'm curious, how often did you have to reset because of something?

I think many times. I don't want to blame it on the actors, but mostly we repeated scenes because the rhythm of the scene didn't feel right to Alejandro or because he didn't feel something felt real, or sometimes because the framing in one part of the scene wasn't exactly what we thought we wanted. But yes, we had to repeat many times. Some of the scenes we did 20 takes. The shorter ones we did 20, 22 takes, which makes it even more difficult physically. Others we couldn't because, you know, we couldn't run through Times Square more than two times without being seen by all the tourists and stuff like that.

I'm glad you brought that up. Was that Times Square scene controlled at all, or was it just into the maelstrom?

When we walked the scene without cameras and stuff, just to figure out the movement, obviously very soon we realized the biggest problem was going to be the people. And we couldn't pay to close the place. I had heard of some movies that have closed Times Square, and that was our dream, but we couldn't do it. We couldn't close it down and then fill it up with extras. So we had to come up with another plan, and the plan happened by another coincidence. One weekend I was walking in New York with Alejandro and we saw this amazing band, like a high school band, playing in, I think it was Union Square. It was so powerful that there was no way for you to not want to approach and watch these kids playing music. It was incredible. So because it was drums, Alejandro said, “Yes, we have to put them in the movie! Somehow we have to put them in the movie!” We had all these scenes outside in the street, so we were trying to figure out how to incorporate this band in the film and incorporate watching them playing and stuff, and not just because it was going to add another layer to the drumming of Antonio. And when we were walking in Times Square, we said, “Wow, that's the answer!” I don't remember who had the idea, probably Alejandro: “If we bring these kids and we cue them to start playing just a second before Michael enters the big Times Square, people are going to want to watch them. And in that moment we cross behind all this mess and hopefully Michael will get a chance to do it.” And so we did.

That's brilliant.

We surrounded Michael with, I don't know, probably 50 of our extras, and on a cue this band started playing and hundreds if not thousands of tourists turned to look at this band and Michael crosses and we crossed with the cameras. So the beautiful thing is that this allows the music to evolve from that drumming getting out of the theater to the big band in Times Square back to the drumming in the theater. It was not only a way to do the scene but it also adds layers to the audio and to the music and to the stress of Michael.

And then you bring the drummer from the band on stage there at the end for that kind of surreal moment.

Exactly.

So brilliant. Now the camera movement and the staging and everything is obviously a feat, but I can't imagine – I mean you were mostly using natural light, but still, the lighting of these environments had to be tremendously difficult.

You nailed it. You hit the spot. That was the hardest part for me, much more than the camera movements. The camera movements were gliding and following the actors, and of course the focus pulling is incredibly difficult, but to light the scenes was incredibly hard. Every cinematographer knows that if you light something in a straight line, a v-axis shot, it's very easy and you can do it beautifully. If you have to light a shot that is in a v-axis that suddenly the camera has to turn to the right or left, it starts to get hard. But if you have to light a 90 degree pan, you're starting to get into major trouble. And a 360 is something, as a cinematographer, if you're interested in lighting, you almost never want to get involved with that kind of movement. And we had, you know, dozens of those shots in the film. I wanted the movie to look as realistic, within the reality of the film, as possible, so all the light comes from the sources, the real practical lights in the theater and all of the mirrors, but the problem was how to control the light when the camera is turning 180 degrees that you don't see my shadow on Michael. Obviously a very simple solution would be just to top-light everything, but it would look like a Mexican soap opera and I didn't want to do that. So how to keep all these sources being the sources, sources that are at Michael's head height or even lower, and still be able to glide in those rooms without seeing our shadows or having to top-light the movie.

There was another thing: we wanted to see the ceilings. A lot of these locations, the real locations behind the theater and stuff are very, as Alejandro would say, very shitty. There's nothing glamorous about the backstage in the theaters. It's almost like a submarine or something like that, and we wanted to have that feeling of claustrophobia. It's like the labyrinth of Riggan's mind or something like that, and we wanted to keep that effect. So a lot of the ceilings are very low. The walls are very tight, so I couldn't hide any film equipment, and that was another reason to try to do everything with real practicals and real sources.

Last thing here, and we've touched on it throughout but I just want to get it distilled in your own words – thematically, as it pertains to what the film is about, why shoot it this way?

The main reason we shot it this way was it was written like that. Alejandro could have written the script in a different way but the seed of it was in the script, and it has to do with getting the audience immersed in the movie and having the audience somehow go through Riggan's emotional roller coaster, through the labyrinth of his mind as his life is collapsing, and have the audience feel what he's feeling as they walk behind his feet. I think in that sense it's beautiful, because this same story could have been told in many other ways. But this one, the form of the movie is really powerful because it makes the inner world of Riggan even more palpable. You feel it. You're right with him through this. And I think that made the movie very special.

Well look, this film is a masterpiece, I don't hesitate to say.

Wow. You're very kind.

I mean “Gravity” was my favorite movie last year and “Birdman” is my favorite movie this year, so…

Wow! That's so cool.

…no pressure on “Knight of Cups.” [Laughs]

[Laughs.] That is so kind. I'll tell Alejandro.

And I'm happy to finally talk to you about all this. Seriously, bravo, man. Thanks for taking the time.

No, thank you. You are very, very kind. And if you are in Canada, give us a call!

You got it! Take care.

Ciao. Bye.

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