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Without the luxury of cutaways and postproduction edits, Alejandro G. Inarritu‘s Birdman functioned less like a film or stage play on set and more like a strategically planned dance performance.
“It had to be choreographed,” Michael Keaton told The Hollywood Reporter at the New York Film Festival’s closing-night premiere on Saturday night. The two-hour film appears to be lensed with one continuous shot. “What you had to do was stay in the moment of your scene and then slide away physically as the camera went through the hallway. But I liked that stuff — it keeps you on your toes.”
Birdman, with the subtitle Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, follows Keaton as Riggin Thompson, a has-been blockbuster superhero who is about to unveil a Broadway play in which he wrote, directed and stars, with hopes that the risk will bring him renewed acclaim and respectability.
Because the majority of the feature is set inside Broadway’s St. James Theatre — onstage, backstage, on its rooftop and outside along its tourist-covered block in Times Square — particular maneuvers were part of the role. “You definitely closed a door and suddenly hid in a tiny ball!” said Naomi Watts, who recalled stowing away after a scene with onscreen counterpart Edward Norton. “We had to stop ourselves from laughing — we were giggling and looking at each other.” She told reporters of the strategy that channeled live theater: “The process alone was a great experience for me.”
Inarritu noted earlier in the day that he and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki had to make all decisions on blocking and lighting months in advance, leaving very little room for improvisation. “When I had to leave one scene, I had to sneak out, go down a hallway and hide in a two-by-four closet, basically, so I wouldn’t be seen for the next shot. You just hold your stomach in!” recalled Amy Ryan, who suffered her own snafu. “There’s a section where Michael and Zach [Galifianakis] come up the hallway fighting, and it comes into the room and I’m there. We got to the last section of that scene, and I bumped into the camera! So we started all back at one.”
Andrea Riseborough noted that the continuous shot is “trying to create a 360-degree experience inside of Michael’s perception of the world. It did mean we did have to hide behind not only boxes and walls, but each other. It was strange because you’d have a deeply emotional moment, and then you’d hide behind a door! But the wonderful thing about that is you got a very private moment to have a bit of retrospection. That was really unique — normally, when you bookend a scene with ‘action’ and ‘cut,’ you almost hide your feelings afterward.”
For other filmmakers and cinematographers hoping to imitate or experiment with the one-shot, Inarritu noted on the Lincoln Center red carpet, “The technicality of it is not that difficult — but it can be — but more important for me was whose point of view are you talking about and what’s important? You have to sacrifice a lot of things and make the decisions right there, because the roller coaster is going on!” he said of tracking so many moving parts. “I think it works. It pushes you to be awake.”
Though the dramedy does highlight a handful of Hollywood’s oddities about being a celebrity — current and has-been — and repeatedly starring in superhero franchises or jumping to the stage to revitalize a quieted career, the director isn’t hesitant about his ideas going wide because they all root back to the creative process and the inner monologue of questioning that comes with it. “All of us, in a way, share that — we have a dictator in ourselves when we create, and there’s doubt that we go through. It’s not to be preaching or criticizing anyone ironically or cynically. I think all of us laugh because we are all involved in the same self-loathing process when we create,” he told THR. How does he personally silence the self-loathing? “Zen meditation — just to be aware. A quiet moment is enough.”
The film also asks actors to analyze why they’re picking the projects they do — a note Keaton has taken to heart. “You start to think: ‘Am I gonna be bored out of my mind after this?’ Because there’s no opportunity to be bored in this one,” he said of his on-set takeaways. “I’m already working on another movie, and I’m not bored at all, so I was relieved!”
Emma Stone agreed, since her next project is taking her straight to the stage as Sally Bowles in Cabaret, opposite Alan Cumming. Is she afraid of the Tabitha-like critics who may come her way after her own opening night? “Not after this,” she shouted. “This helped rally!”
Birdman opens in New York and Los Angeles on Oct. 17.
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