Iñárritu's World: Crashing the Final 'Birdman' Show at the St. James
by Alex Billington
June 25, 2014
"You're Birdman... Let's go back and show them what we're capable of." Last May, I got a call from Fox Searchlight inviting me to come down to the St. James Theatre on Broadway to visit the set of the new Alejandro González Iñárritu film. Setup like an actual play, complete with an audience and a set on the stage, I watched a few takes of a scene being filmed inside the famous Broadway theatre on 44th St. in New York City. Now over a year later the first teaser trailer for Birdman, the new Iñárritu film, has debuted and it looks incredible. Way better than even I was expecting, and I already have very high hopes for this film. But the set visit was a very fun experience, and the best part about it was watching the cameraman at work.
So who or what is Birdman? It's the fifth feature film directed by Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu, and it stars Michael Keaton as washed out actor Riggan Thomson, once famous for portraying the iconic superhero "Birdman", now about to open a Broadway play. Originally titled in full "Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance", the New Regency Pictures / Fox Searchlight co-production is a black comedy that tells the story of an actor (Keaton) – famous for portraying an iconic superhero – as he struggles to mount a Broadway play. In the days leading up to opening night, he battles his ego and attempts to recover his family, his career, and himself. The first teaser trailer can be seen here and it looks amazing.
I was invited to come down to the St. James in early May of 2013, just a few months after I had been living in New York City, and a few days before leaving for the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. While there was a buzz of activity around the theater, the signs had been shut off, it looked like the venue had gone dark in-between shows. But it was actually built up, temporarily, for a few weeks of filming Iñárritu's Birdman, which takes place mostly in/around this theater. It was an exclusive visit, with only one other writer from a Broadway site, but as an Iñárritu fan I couldn't pass up the chance to watch him working—directing a film—in person.
Upon arriving and receiving my fancy "Cast & Crew" sticker (seen above), we were ushered in to the back of the auditorium, where the audience was filled with a mix of both real and fake people. As is always the case with set visits, no introduction or explanation was given, we had no idea what scene we were about to see or how it fit into the story, we just knew we were inside the St. James where an actual show was taking place, being filmed for a movie. The set on stage was lit with lush oranges and blues and contained a bed centered in what looked like an apartment. Where audience members weren't real extras in seats, creepy full-sized half-dressed mannequins were placed to provide the illusion of a full house. We snuck in the back to watch.
It didn't take that long to figure out that what we were watching seemed like, perhaps, the final scene of the movie. I won't go so far as to spoil it and say what was happening that made us think this, but putting all the pieces together about the character and story, I'm fairly sure it was the ending or one of the last moments. The scene would start with Keaton back in his dressing room and the camera would follow him all the way out on stage where he delivered lines in the play, interacting with Edward Norton and Naomi Watts. After watching a few setups, rehearsals and actual takes of the scene, my focus began to drift primarily towards the cameraman. I was mesmerized by watching him work. Who was it exactly that I was watching? Emmanuel Lubezki, but of course.
Emmanuel Lubezki, the cinemtographer on Children of Men and Gravity, who just won the Oscar earlier this year. "Chivo", as he is known by his close friends, was working on his first Iñárritu film, and had already finished Gravity but hadn't won any awards for it just yet. Not every cinematographer is also the cameraman on a movie shoot, but when I asked, another crew member confirmed that it was Lubezki himself holding the camera, carrying it on his shoulder following Keaton through the halls and right onto the stage. I stopped caring about anything else and just wanted to sit and watch a genius at work. His movements were so fluid, every step intuitive, every tiny shift delicate. I could've just sat there for hours staring in awe, watching, learning, being immersed in the art of "Chivo", the visual mastermind. (Have you seen his Instagram?)
Later, I was moved to the "video village" staging area and ended up chatting for a while with producer John Lesher (who used to run Paramount and is now producing movies for his own company, Le Grisbi) and Edward Norton's agent about, of all things, Gravity, as well as the upcoming (2013) Cannes Film Festival. Thinking back to it now, that was a long time ago, but I'm glad I got to check this out when it was actually happening, when it was being filmed, before all the craziness with Gravity. We talked about working with Lubezki and how he was filming - handheld with numerous, continuous long takes mostly following Keaton.
I watched a few more takes of the shot through the monitors, this time getting to actually view the entire scene from start to finish as he walked out. As far as I can recall, it's the same shot (or a similar one) from the trailer where he walks from the dressing room, all the way onto the stage (catch the sneaky cut?), then thinks to himself before hammering on the door. He eventually goes right on stage to start a scene in the play. As a movie geek, it's kind of thrilling to watch a cinematographer actually work on set, then sit behind the monitors and see what he's capturing, it's like seeing the film being created and this time I was in awe.
Now that the trailer has debuted, and thanks to early test screening reports, The Film Stage wrote recently that Birdman would play as one, long continuous take - similar to Alfred Hitchcock's Rope (1948). Or at least, a number of long continuous takes strung together with creative editing tricks (as seen in the trailer). They state the film is made up of "no more than a dozen single shots in one long, continuous sequence... Our sources say the feature seems finished, and it's difficult to imagine cutting down the carefully constructed film." There wasn't any mention of this while I was on set, but it certainly makes sense, and they could easily put this together in the editing room. And it might just work wonders. We already got a taste in the teaser.
On one hand, it's exciting that we get a brand new Alejandro González Iñárritu film this year, but I think it's even more exciting that we get to see Emmanuel Lubezki, who is now an Oscar winner, play around with more long takes. Now that we've all seen Gravity, the use of continuous shots/long takes has been debated endlessly, but it can be very effective when used in the right way. In this case, Birdman is supposed to be an intimate story told from the perspective of the main actor, all in the span of a few days, and this seems like a stylistic choice that will be powerful in this movie. From the few early glimpses, this looks very promising.
Before even arriving on set, I already knew what the film would be about according to early reports, and I found it oddly meta. Keaton, who once played Batman (his debut in Burton's comic book film just had its 25h anniversary), which is all too similar to "Birdman", is playing an actor who has gone downhill since his big superhero performance. I won't say Keaton has gone downhill, but his career has been a bit stagnant recently (though it is picking up with RoboCop and The Other Guys), however he hasn't been on stage but that doesn't matter, because he is too perfect. Iñárritu nabbed the ideal actor, and he knows they have something brilliant on their hands. Fox Searchlight is releasing in October, and didn't let it play at Cannes.
In all truth, I can't say the vibe on set was the same. It wasn't about awards or prestige, it was about work, getting the shots, finishing the production. Everyone was busy, working to keep the set active, and it seemed even the extras in the audience were tired from cheering and clapping so many times over and over. When I finally got a chance to say hi to Alejandro, it was a quick hand shake and not much more, as he immediately went back to work—as if he was a mad scientist completely and relentlessly caught up in his latest creation, a work of cinematic genius, perhaps. Stand back and let him work. And that's exactly what I did - watched them shoot a few more takes before taking off, but it was totally worth it just to see Iñárritu & Lubezki work.
Visiting the set was much less about getting scoops and learning about the film, as it was getting a once-in-a-lifetime experience of watching cinema being created. It's my favorite part of going on a set like Birdman - watching the director, and the cinematographer, and all the actors, and the producers, and all the crew and everyone there working. Movie sets are like big orchestras, with every piece working together to create one harmonious sound, the movie, which everyone is committed to making great. However, it was the most exhilarating to watch Chivo navigate through and capture this grand orchestra with a lens on his shoulder.
Now that the first teaser trailer has been unveiled, there's a lot of good buzz for Birdman, and it's all for good reason. The focus has been on Lubezki, discussing his long-takes and whether or not this will be one long-take for an entire movie or not. InContention's Kris Tapley recently wrote about the rumors, saying that he's heard the same: "the film is constructed to look like one long take." "It's a bit of a magic trick, the way he pulled it off," he quotes, which is another reference to something like Hitchcock's Rope. Tapley also reached out to Lubezki and received a comment about his work on the project overall. He tells him (via):
"I'm proud of it," [Lubezki] said. "It's such a different experience and approach from anything I have ever seen. I think that Iñárritu did a wonderful job and Michael [Keaton] is absolutely phenomenal. It was such a great experience to watch him working up close."
Up close indeed, as there are quite a few shots that go right up into the face of Riggan Thomson. From the sounds of it, these long-takes have been put together into one long movie, and Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance is what we'll be seeing in theaters this October. From Lubezki last year, he explains:
"From the time where we started doing 'Y Tu Mamá También,' we started experimenting with these long scenes that have no intercuts. And for some reason we felt very comfortable doing it. It's hard technically, but the payoff is enormous. It allows the audience to get immersed in the movie."
In the teaser trailer, there are shots of gigantic, metal Transformers-like birds, explosions, Keaton running through Times Square in his undies, a beach covered with dead jellyfish, trees, drummers on stage, and Keaton sitting cross-legged floating off the ground in his apartment. This all goes way beyond anything we got a glimpse of on the set, but it's all of this that makes me so much more excited to see what Iñárritu has been cooking up this whole time. With some of the story involving depression, there's a dream-like inside-the-mind feel to this, but there are other interesting quirks like Keaton having a few Birdman-esque powers, or something to that effect. We'll have to wait until this hits theaters in October to find out what it means.
Thank you to Fox Searchlight for the opportunity to visit the set. I caught up with Alejandro briefly at the 2013 Telluride Film Festival last year, chatting about working on the film and Gravity (again), and I expect him to be back there this year to present his finished work. I am an avid fan of all of his films, from Amores Perros to 21 Grams to Babel to Biutiful, and love that he continues to successfully present his original cinematic creations to the world. Collaborating with Emmanuel Lubezki can only mean amazing things, and I got a taste of that last May when I stopped by the St. James. At this point, I really can't wait to see the film.
Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance is directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, who co-wrote the script with Nicolás Giacobone & Armando Bo (Biutiful) and newcomer Alexander Dinelaris. The film tells the story of an actor (Michael Keaton), famous for portraying an iconic superhero, as he struggles to mount a Broadway play. In the days leading up to opening night, he battles his ego and attempts to recover his family, his career, and himself. Also starring Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Emma Stone, and Naomi Watts. Fox Searchlight releases the film on October 17th this fall.