Alejandro González Iñárritu
We are all Birdman
Starring Michael Keaton, the new film from Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu uses black comedy to explore a truth that dawns on all of us sooner or later: the ego is a tyrant.
Text: Gabriel Lerman, from Nueva York
The Venice Film Festival, August 2014 – Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a former superhero movie star who has fallen on hard times, tries to give new meaning to his life by putting on a Broadway play. One hundred and nineteen minutes later, the lights go up and the audience roars with applause. The praise hasn’t stopped since. This is Birdman, the latest film from Alejandro González Iñárritu.
Complex characters, dark comedy, terrific casting, elaborately sequenced camerawork and a script packed with wit, Birdman is sure to win awards this year in the wake of its smash premiere and a Golden Globe nomination.
What inspired Birdman?
“When I turned 50, I started to look at my priorities in life, and I realized that some things were great, others not so great, and there were elements that were lacking. Then, I reflected on the mechanics of my own perception. It was very interesting to take account not only of what that I’ve learned, but also of how the ego works. In my case, in the creative process, my own ego has always been a grand inquisitor, a tyrant that constantly tests me. Sometimes, when I’m working on something, I’ll tell myself that it’s wonderful, that I’m a genius. Then, 20 minutes later, I feel like an idiot, and I tell myself I’m stupid and what I’m doing is worthless, that nobody will like it. My process is pretty bipolar, and so, I came to the conclusion that the ego is a tyrant.”
Why is the play depicted in the film based on Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”?
“Carver is one of my favorite writers. He’s really able to describe how the heart works. And I think the failings and limitations of the human heart are part of love. Even when Carver’s characters are pathetic, they’re also adorable, complex and human. In that story, Carver is trying to decipher what love is. And I wanted a play that would somehow reflect what was going on with my characters. My original intention was to have Riggan Thomson (Keaton) be someone whose life was completely boring and have the play take over, with him ultimately becoming one of the characters.
That’s why I decided to start the film with that Carver poem (“A New Path to the Waterfall”). He asks himself if he got what he wanted, and the answer is yes because what he wanted was to love and to feel loved. That’s what everyone is looking for. It’s what Riggan Thomson is looking for, too: love, affection. Luckily, I was able to contact Carver’s widow, Tess Gallagher, who gave me permission to use his work. That’s the film’s genetic code.”
How did you manage to turn the camera into another character?
“Everything was done in an exacting precise way, in keeping with the original idea of filming everything in long, uninterrupted takes. Movies are usually made by cutting time and space. Without edits, everything has to happen as you film it. The tough part was mapping the point of view that would allow the camera to tell the story in an appropriate way. Filming a comedy with just one camera in one single take is almost suicide. It was complicated, because we filmed without special lights, only the ones that appeared in the scene, and we would often have to make 360-degree turns in really narrow hallways. Every line, every joke, every door that opened had to be perfect. It was like playing in a live band. I was trembling behind the monitor, but it all fell on the shoulders of the director of photography, Chivo Lubezki (The Tree of Life, Gravity, Children of Men), and that’s why it worked perfectly.”
“I think that we all identify with the story. I see myself in Riggan Thomson, because for me, the creative process has always been torture.”
Michael Keaton and Edward Norton have said that all the film’s characters are different versions of Alejandro González Iñarritu. What do you think?
“Michael and Edward have been saying that for a while. I think that we all identify with the story. I see myself in Riggan Thomson, because for me, the creative process has always been torture. I’m very much a perfectionist. And when you demand perfection, it’s really difficult to live up to your own standards. My inner voice is always telling me that I could have done it better. Luckily, I’m now much more conscious of the mechanism, and I don’t take myself as seriously.”
Last year belonged to Cuarón, thanks to Gravity; this seems to be your year. And Guillermo del Toro couldn’t be doing much better. How do you explain the success of Mexican talent in Hollywood?
“I think it has to do with a group of friends who are more or less the same age, belonging to the same generation. We’ve known each another for a very long time. I think we’ve all been trying to do what we set out to do, and we’ve had the luck and confidence to see it through. There are many other Mexican directors also doing great work, like Carlos Reygadas, Fernando Eimbcke, Gerardo Naranjo and Amat Escalante. I think it’s a great time for Mexican film. Not just for those of us who are making movies abroad, but those who stayed in Mexico. There’s a group of young people who are better than we are. The second wave is about to hit Hollywood…”
These days, the Mexico City native is directing Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy in a very different film called The Revenant, set in the American frontier in the 1820s. It should prove whether or not Iñarritu can make an adventure film, which is definitely something to look forward to.
The Luck of Being Birdman
Like his character, Michael Keaton has enjoyed considerable glory over the course of an extensive career that not only includes Tim Burton’s Batman but also another of the director’s classics, Beetlejuice. Thanks to his starring role from González Iñárritu, at 63 Keaton is once again hot property, as well as one of the favorites to win the Oscar for Best Actor.
Has Batman cast a shadow over your life like Birdman does
to your character?
“No, I’d be institutionalized if it had. I was extremely fortunate to get to play Batman and possibly even more fortunate to play Birdman because this is far away from anything that anyone has made before. It’s certainly unlike anything I’ve been involved in and quite possibly anything I will ever be involved in. This is really special. I like the challenges, and I strive for something artful.”
Do you feel you like you’re starting a new phase in your career with this film?
“Yes and no. I’m fairly consistent about things. I’ve just been blessed that something came up that’s so good. If an audience member or a critic said this is the worst thing I’ve ever seen, I’d absolutely say, ‘Well, it might be to you, but I enjoy watching it so much I can’t tell you.’ I’ve seen it three times now. After a while, most actors don’t watch their movies, and I don’t think I’m alone in that. You’ve done them, you know what they are, and you move on to the next thing. When I watch Birdman, I get so caught up in it that I forget I’m in it.” in