Director's Chair: Alejandro González Iñárritu — 'Birdman'
Michael Goldman
Issue: February 1, 2015

Director's Chair: Alejandro González Iñárritu — 'Birdman'

When he sat down to speak with Post recently, director Alejandro González Iñárritu was just starting to wade into the thick of the building frenzy over his current film, Birdman (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), as the movie was capturing, as of presstime, a couple of Golden Globe wins, nine Academy Award nominations, 10 BAFTA nominations (Winner - Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki), and a slew of critics organization and craft and guild organization award nominations, including a DGA win to go along with Iñárritu’s Best Director Oscar nomination. When asked how he felt about these accolades, Iñárritu tried to balance how thankful he was to see the hard work get recognized with his view that awards season can be a little bit silly when you think about it.

“I am extremely thankful — I cannot think of any other word to describe what I feel,” he says. “To make this film was extremely difficult. It was very difficult to get the money, and I spent a lot of time struggling to get trust behind something that looked like a crazy thing. [Star Michael Keaton] had not been doing a lot of things at the time, and the ‘one-take’ [aesthetic] was scary as hell for conventional people with money, and they were right. It was scary as hell. So I feel the fact that it has already gone to cinemas, beyond the nominations, I am always thankful.

“But I feel these awards and things have to be taken with a lot of distance and silliness,” he continues. “In a way it is silly because you can go from nominated to ‘loser,’ and I’m an expert in that. So I always feel like already this film is amazing just because I feel the warmth and affection. I already feel like the film has already [accomplished] more than I [could have imagined], and I truly say that.”

When Iñárritu says the movie was difficult to make, that is, in fact, an understatement. His decision to take the screenplay he co-authored and shoot it almost like a stage play by creating the illusion of a seemingly continuous, single-take moving camera, devoid of discernable edits, was not only unconventional, it was particularly difficult to achieve. 

Considering that cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, ASC, also earned an Oscar nomination for the work, as did the movie’s sound team, and the movie’s success in general, Iñárritu obviously succeeded with the maneuver. But, when he decided to give it a shot, he knew it was risky — “Especially doing it in a comedy, I was playing with fire,” he says. 

Iñárritu explains the point of the movie is to explore the lead character’s (Riggan Thomas, played by Keaton) ego, his “very internal, intellectual notion of self. And I knew that inner voice could never be told in an exterior, objective way. It had to be a subjective experience. I thought, the only way to immerse audiences and engage them emotionally and narratively through what the character was going through was to get that one single take that would navigate [them through] the [character’s] mind through two different, parallel realities of the actual facts and those that he is imagining. I knew the long takes would allow us to get into how we normally lead our lives, which is, we wake up and we don’t edit our lives, so neither does Riggan Thomas. So, in a way, I liked putting people in his shoes. I knew it was extremely challenging, unprecedented even in a comedy, but I felt it was the only way possibly to do this.”

For his production team, the choice required excruciating attention to detail, and the need to rehearse and strategize all aspects of every scene — not just actors and blocking, but cameras, lights, audio crew, technicians, and basically, everybody on-set. Iñárritu suggests the reward for the extra work and layers of difficulty this placed on his team was the fact that the strategy kept his entire crew much more “awake,” meaning every cast and crew member’s role had potential to be crucial at every moment that cameras were rolling. Iñárritu therefore devised a specific methodology for rehearsing the entire company from the early days of prep through the last day of shooting that allowed them to “visually and geographically design the spaces” so that he could literally “measure words and steps and spaces” in order to “design the labyrinth,” as he called the set in New York where most of the movie was shot. He therefore could “coordinate” things in a way that would allow filmmakers to shoot the movie in a way that he says was “very meticulously precise.” 

To hear Iñárritu explain his philosophy regarding this method of rehearsing and shooting, click HERE.

The director elaborates that virtually every other area of the production was “unconventional,” both creatively and technically, compared to the way movies are typically shot. His editors, for example, participated in the rehearsal process and cut together rehearsal footage throughout prep to help design production choreography. Additionally, a slew of other post-production related challenges were presented by the strategy. Final color grading at Technicolor was more complex than typical because of the fact that there are almost no visible cuts in most of the movie, meaning the facility had to subtly insert dissolves into moving frames in order to create transition points where color could change from one environment to the next. 

And then, of course, “audio was particularly difficult,” Iñárritu adds, “because of all the panning, and all the subjectivity of the visual experience [had to be] applied in a way to the audio. I wanted the audio not to be objective, but subjective, and few people realize how difficult that was. Maybe [the audio work] was not as flashy as any big power movie with explosions, but in terms of subtleties, it was a very delicate thing that [Oscar-nominated sound designer] Martín Hernández did.”

When asked what advice he would give filmmakers trying something similar, or equally ambitious, Iñárritu suggests that one problem with Hollywood filmmaking these days is that “unfortunately, because of the cost of things, or the procedures or habits of the procedures, filmmakers have been pushed to really do basic coverage and conventional shooting which, in a way, puts the pieces of the puzzle in a very conservative way without being able to explore different possibilities. 

“So the only advice is to defend the right to fail, no matter what you attempt. It’s just not having the fear to fail, to defend that right. And then, if you do that, sometimes you can come up with something that is fresh, that is new for once, and that is important.” 

To hear Iñárritu’s complete conversation, click HERE