The director of Amores Perros, Babel, and 21 Grams, Alejandro González Iñárritu, is finally back with a new film after 2010’s Biutiful. Starring Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, and Zach Galifianakis, Birdman is a technical marvel. Since it is meant to look like one long take, the camera dances down hallways and does ballerina turns around corners in meticulously choreographed movements. (Film nerds like myself will, of course, spend most of the movie trying to figure out where the edit points actually are.) Add to that, Michael Keaton’s character, Riggan, who moves things with his mind and talks out loud to the voice inside his head. Plus, there’s a guy dressed in a bird costume following Riggan around. Yeah, it’s weird.
At a recent press conference with the movie’s director and main cast during the New York Film Festival, Alejandro talked about the genesis of the story, the difficulties of shooting it, and reading reviews. Here’s some of the best moments.
Alejandro on how his fragile ego was the inspiration for Birdman
“My ego has been always a huge inquisitor, a tyrant.”
In my case, in the creative process my ego has been always a huge inquisitor, a tyrant. A kind of dictator that is self-loathing. It’s very rude and sometimes can be very misleading. Sometimes when I am doing something I say, “Oh this is great. It’s fantastic, you’re a genius.” Then twenty minutes later, I feel like a dead jellyfish and I say, “You are a stupid asshole. This is a piece of shit. Nobody will care about it.” It’s a constant bipolar relation of my process and I thought, “Well, the ego is a tyrant.” I thought it would be a cool thing to portray in a film. So, that is the origin [of Birdman.]
Alejandro on who has the biggest ego
Actors are supposed to be the ones with the biggest ego but that’s not true. I think politicians and even my dentist has a bigger ego than actors. He’s an asshole, he makes me suffer, he feels great, and then I pay him.
Edward Norton on preparing to play a volatile theater actor
People always ask me what actors I am referencing and I always say that I’m basically always looking four feet to my left at Alejandro because I am wearing his scarf in the movie, I’m wearing his jacket. Everything I say in the movie I’ve heard him say or he wants to say. My entire performance constituted dropping the Mexican accent and that was it. In rehearsals, I was even saying, “eh-sack-lee” and “cabrón.”
Alejandro on making such a technically complicated film
All the camera work, all the blocking, all the lighting was pre-designed months in advance. There was no improvisation. Everything was precise, meticulous. Because in the script it was so that it could be perceived as one long shot. Without editing, there was not a lot of possibilities. To shoot a comedy, in one shot with one camera, is almost a suicidal attempt.
“To shoot a comedy, in one shot with one camera, is almost a suicidal attempt.”
Everything could have been so wrong, but thankfully with extreme rehearsals and the technical abilities of Chivo [the cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki] and obviously the incredible performance of these guys sitting in front of you, everything hopefully turns out fine. But the challenge of that is there was no movie lights, everything was practical light, and sometimes you had to turn 360 degrees in tiny corridors and there were guys with microphones. There were things moving, then you had to be behind him, and under the legs of somebody, and then crawl and go to the other side, and the camera going around..
Every beat, every line, every joke, every opened door has to be performed exactly the same. We were like a band playing live without the possibility to go to a studio and edit and move things. There was no net. The camera too, as these guys were really performing and giving their most honest performance, I was shitting my pants behind the monitor. Chivo has to be basically doing that, the focus puller has to be in focus in the moment he looks over there, then two steps, then a guy comes, and it has to be in focus again — any hesitation would ruin that take.
Edward Norton on how Alejandro responds to reviews
My favorite response that I’ve seen in a long time to a critic was: we were sitting at the Venice festival and the reviews were coming in. One of our producers was looking at them and he was like, “Fantastic, fantastic, good” and Alejandro says, “Who said good?” Then he reads it and it was a very nice review but of course, he had to take a moment to maintain his own credibility and say he had not liked Alejandro’s other films and said it was a relief to see him get away from the, “turgid, semi-religious, pretentiousness to encompass all the emotion of the world” and Alejandro goes [Norton imitates Alejandro’s accent], “turgid, semi-religious, pretentiousness to encompass all the emotion of the world! That sounds fantastic!”
Birdman opened in NY and LA on October 17 and expands to more cities on October 23.