TELLURIDE — "Birdman" has arrived stateside and made as significant an impact as it did at the Venice Film Festival last week. You won't run into too many people who have managed to catch it at one of its packed screenings who weren't completely blown away by the accomplishment, and for director Alejandro González Iñárritu, it was clearly a much-needed exercise in self-reflection away from the somber fray of his filmography to date.
From "Amores Perros" to "21 Grams," "Babel" to "Biutiful," González Iñárritu has marinated in heavy drama. And it's not that "Birdman" is without its own profound gravity — quite the opposite, in fact — but it gave him an opportunity to finally have fun and get outside his own head a bit, albeit through a film that very much exists as an exploration of his own midlife considerations.
That made sitting down with him all the more enjoyable. Jet-lagged from Venice and a touch hungover from a Fox Searchlight party the night before, he was in tremendous spirits and seemed so happy to engage every nuance of the project. Read through our back and forth below as we talk about meta commentary, jazz influence and the "disease" of superheroes.
"Birdman" opens in theaters Oct. 17.
HitFix: I'm sure by now, after Venice and here, you've been barraged with the question of making this film appear like a single take. I've talked to Alfonso [Cuarón] and Chivo [Lubezki] about this a number of times, capturing a full breadth of behavior in a single take. Here it becomes sort of obvious, I think, why you made the choice, because it puts you right there with the character. And it's not distracting. It's really quite immersive in many ways. Was that the thought process?
Alejandro González Iñárritu: Absolutely. I knew that that was the best way to serve the character's experience and the audience's experience through him. To put the audience in an extreme, radical mode and point-of-view experience, to feel trapped in that reality. We live that way. I had a discussion with Walter Murch about it, we talked about handheld — we wake up and that's the way we experience life. So I thought it would be great if we could experience the story with Riggan. And I didn't want to distract. I didn't want it to be flashy camera moves and be the director of bullshit. I wanted it to flow and for the emotional flow to be more pure.
What's jaw-dropping about it is, you know, the camera movement is one thing but the lighting must have just been ridiculous throughout.
Yeah. That was crazy. We designed all the sets, all the bowels of the theaters are on a stage, and there's no single film light. There was only practical light. The blessing was it was meticulously planned, every actor's step, every word was measured with distance and every corridor was predesigned. But I did it in LA in a storage space with tape, like Sidney Lumet-style, to really start to discover the whole thing. Every department was able to nail it very specifically to that service, so everything is like a mechanical clock, and Chivo designed the lighting in a way that the mode of it, the way he mixed all those practical lights, was serving it dramatically
And even with practical lighting, so many of the shots are gorgeous. Specifically that last scene with Emma Stone and Michael Keaton, there's a sun-kissed quality to it. Just, what can I say? Hat's off. But what lights the fuse of an idea like this for you? Where did it come from?
It started, honestly, as my own curiosity and battles with my own ego, that when you turn 50 you suddenly realize — you revise what you have prioritized in your life and what's meaningful and what's useless and which decisions will come from what you really want and what you expect from people and the validation you need. So I was developing, a long time ago, a character that was projecting in the mirror his own image and it was the ego. Basically that's the seed of it. I had a concept to make a film about ego, but it was very difficult because there are a lot of philosophical notions and abstracts, but that's the foundation of it.
Talk about the meta elements of the film, this commentary on the industry and the direction of popular filmmaking. I particularly delighted in your skewering of critics because it didn't feel cheap at all. It felt brutally honest.
Honestly, all the comments, we were very, very aware of — and I was particularly interested in — two things. One, never be ironic or cynical. I'm so fucking tired of the irony and cynicism that rules the fucking culture and world now. Everything has to be cool. Everything has to be detached emotionally. Everything has to be a little bit too smart. Nothing is really truthful or honest or emotional. There's always this ironic take on everything. And I didn't really want to be a smartass laughing about these characters or pointing or preaching at the industry, because everyone knows where we are. I was always careful that everything would come from the point of view of Riggan, not me commenting on it. Because there were a lot of comments I could have done, but we had to be restrained, because that would have been the "smartass writer." So everything comes from the truth of Michael.
With the theater critic, we didn't want to portray bad or good. From the point of view of the critic, she's absolutely right. From the point of view of Riggan, he's absolutely right. Those words come from the truthful character reality. That's one thing. Then, when I decided the character would be an actor, they are known for dealing with the ego so it was serving the purposes of the concept. Then obviously everything around, as an artist, I have a responsibility to talk about my context and circumstances, so all that is there, in a way. I have experience in one way or the other. I feel I have the right and have lived through that, and so it came naturally.