Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki details the 'dance' of filming 'Birdman'
When producer John Lesher first told me way back in June that "Birdman" was a bit of a "magic trick" designed to look like a single take, my jaw dropped. How had I not heard about this? "We're not really talking about it too much," he said at the time, a few months ahead of the film's Venice film festival debut. Which is fair enough. You don't want the technique to overshadow the experience of the film.
But then again, the technique of "Birdman" is the experience. It's the thematic soul of its very existence. So naturally, I was dying to talk to cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki ("Chivo") once the season got underway. Only problem: he was stuck in Calgary shooting Alejandro González Iñárritu's follow-up, "The Revenant," a production that runs through April. What???
Suffice it to say I've never been so desperate to get someone on the phone. But I also understand why one might want to stay away from all of this for a moment. As Iñárritu and I discussed the morning of the Golden Globe nominations (when he was driving to a location with Chivo in tow), it's best to stay busy when the insanity of awards season takes hold. And for Chivo's part, he just came off a whirlwind with "Gravity" that ended with an Academy Award for Best Cinematography. The prospect of diving back into the circuit's press demands had to be an unattractive one.
Nevertheless, 'tis the season for miracles! We finally connected Saturday morning and I talked his ear off about this masterpiece I consider to be the best film of the year, the difficulty in filming it with a series of extended takes through the constructed bowels of a Broadway theater (the production design in this film really is an unsung hero), the challenges in staging those scenes, let alone lighting them, and what it took to pull off that outrageous Times Square sequence.
So Christmas came early for me. I was a kid in a candy story. Read through my euphoria below.
HitFix: Hey Chivo!
Emmanuel Lubezki: Mr. Kris. How are you?
I'm doing cartwheels.
I finally have you on the phone! You have no idea. I was going to drive to Calgary.
You should have! To see what we were, you know — it was rough. It was nasty. It was cold.
After I saw your photo of the guy with the icicles on his mustache I figured I would stay put.
[Laughs.] Yes. Yeah, we got in trouble. We created a hell and we were living in it.
Well that movie, "The Revenant," I can't wait to see it. But we have other business here. And listen — you can't shoot a movie like "Birdman" and then go away!
OK, sorry. [Laughs.] It was just so insane. Our locations are far from the hotel. We have to travel, sometimes, an hour and a half and there's no connection. And sometimes you get a connection for one second.
Are you in LA now?
I am in LA, for the holidays.
Well, welcome home. Now I can't imagine how many times you've been asked or will be asked about the manner in which this film was shot. But I'll just start by asking what your immediate reaction was when Alejandro told you what he wanted to do.
First he told me about the story. He said, "Oh, I have an idea for a film. It's a comedy and I want to do it in one long shot." And the moment he said that I thought, "I hope he doesn't offer me this. I hope he gets someone else to do it because it just sounds awful." And then he said, "Would you like to read the script?" I said yes but I truly did not want to have anything to do with this movie. I was just going to read it as a friend. And as soon as I read the script I started to understand the idea of the one shot. The seed of this idea was there in the script. I sat down and we talked about the script and changes he was going to do and what he thought about his life and Riggan's life and our life. Alejandro is a great storyteller, so there was probably four and a half hours of talking about the movie. And at that point I was hoping he would offer me the movie. That's how good he is at selling stuff.
Of course I was very concerned about — I didn't know who the cast was. I was also concerned about [the fact that] there was nothing really shot before like that, where we could go and do some research. So my first idea, and Alejandro's, was the only way to learn how to do it is if we start doing it. We decided to build a little proxy stage in Los Angeles, in Sony studios, and started trying to figure out how to do the movie with a little camera and a few stand-ins and go scene-by-scene, just to figure out if it was possible, you know? Once we felt that it was possible, we started blocking the scenes. Then we brought a few props and Alejandro hired a production designer and some crew started to join in, the editors started coming and we started trying to figure out how to link some of the scenes together. Because we knew we weren't going to find a theater that had all the back[stage areas] in the same place. So the idea of doing the whole thing in one shot was going to be, probably, impossible.