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This story first appeared in the Jan. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Fade in: a hotel room in New York City in early October. Acclaimed Mexican filmmaker Alejandro G. Inarritu is lying on the floor, with his legs straight up against a wall, trying to find his “yoga knowledge” and keep calm before his latest film, Birdman, makes its North American premiere at the New York Film Festival. Which will be — he checks his watch — in less than two hours. There’s just enough time before his red-carpet call to do a relaxed phone interview with THR.
As calm and serene as he seems at the moment, you’d never suspect that the 51-year-old filmmaker (whose credits include the 2006 Oscar-nominated Babel) had just completed one of the most harrowing projects of his career. Sure, Birdman is a comedy, Inarritu’s first, telling the story of Riggan Thomson, a washed-up former superhero actor trying to reclaim his prestige with a stage production based on a Raymond Carver short story (Michael Keaton, in a brilliant bit of meta-casting, alongside Edward Norton as a high-strung, hard-to-handle Broadway star and Emma Stone as Riggan’s just-out-of-rehab daughter). But it’s also the first feature film Inarritu has made that looks like it was shot in one long, continuous take, much as Alfred Hitchcock did in Rope. In fact, the movie is made up of a series of long, one-take scenes that have been seamlessly stitched together, but never mind. It was creative choice that made Birdman, from Fox Searchlight and New Regency, a total nightmare to film and edit.
“Normally, I can count on six months of a luxurious, rational process in the editing room, manipulating, polishing or hiding my shit,” says Inarritu. “But I couldn’t do that here.” And if shooting the film’s scenes in continuous shots (sometimes as long as 20 minutes) made editing in postproduction twice as hard, it made acting in them a terrifying tightrope walk for the movie’s stars. “If you flubbed a line, it was the worst,” says Stone. “You would have to start all over again from the very top. If someone had given the performance of his or her life, it was just gone forever.”
“We told the actors, ‘You are going to walk on this high wire, and you have to make it seem like a walk in the park,’ ” says Inarritu. “We told them, ‘If you fall, you will fall to your death.’ “
Flashback: to Times Square in spring 2013. Inarritu is trying to figure out how to shoot a nighttime scene — in which Keaton strides through one of the busiest intersections in New York in his underwear and socks — without getting mobbed by onlookers. It’d be tough enough under normal circumstances, when Inarritu might have been able to cheat the scene by breaking it up with several different cuts. But doing it in one take, without a real-life tourist sneaking into the frame, seemed all but impossible. Shutting down the street wasn’t an option; with Birdman‘s shoestring budget of $18 million, they barely could afford 40 or so extras. As with so many obstacles in the making of this movie, Inarritu would have to find some other solution, something completely outside the box of normal filmmaking.
Keaton, for one, was well aware of how difficult Birdman was going to be even before he signed on — and not just because the onetime Batman star later would have to spend countless hours trying to convince journalists he wasn’t typecast (“If that’s the route you want to go, fine, but I find it lazy,” the 63-year-old tells this reporter). Flying to L.A. in 2012 for a dinner with Inarritu, it took him all of “about 11 seconds” to see that Inarritu’s one-take plan “could go south.” But he wanted in, badly. “I like hard,” he says. “I like original. It keeps me interested.”
Norton, too, found the challenges exhilarating (even if he did have to “pitch a tent” in one memorable bedroom scene. It’s a mystery whether it was a prosthetic or not). “Inarritu kept just a terrific tone,” he says. “He’s funny, which is ironic if you look at his other work. He’s not the James Brooks of Mexico, let’s put it that way.” But Stone concedes that at times the pressure of shooting in one take was “nuts.” Even the scenes shot away from public streets, inside the historic St. James Theatre on West 44th Street, where the cast congregated for the 30-day shoot, sometimes were brutally problematic. “There was a scene where Edward comes onto the stage for the first time — it was like six minutes long,” Stone recalls. “And I come in to take him to his dressing room. But I would walk either too fast or too slow. Alejandro was like, ‘You’re ruining the movie!’ He was being tongue in cheek but probably meant it to some degree. It really put a fire under your ass.”
That wasn’t exactly the director’s intent. Inspired by cinema greats like Max Ophuls, he employed the technique to give an intimate feel. “It was absolutely unconventional and the process was inverse,” Inarritu says.
Another flashback: to West Hollywood in fall 2012. Inarritu and New Regency president Brad Weston settle into a table at Ago. They badly want to work with each other after putting The Revenant on hold because Leonardo DiCaprio signed up to do Martin Scorsese‘s The Wolf of Wall Street instead (Inarritu currently is shooting the Western with DiCaprio with plans to release it later in 2015). As the two men fork into their lunch, Inarritu brings up a script he’s been working on forever. “It was Birdman, and it was awesome,” recalls Weston, who said the film’s reasonable budget made it easy to say yes. “Alejandro is a brilliant filmmaker and wanted to go in a completely different direction.”
Although that direction was full of unexpected roadblocks, ultimately Inarritu found solutions to all the snafus that popped up during production — even a simple, elegant one to his Times Square dilemma. During a stroll through Union Square with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (who won an Oscar last year for Gravity), he happened to cross paths with a high school band from the Bronx — the Marching Cobras of New York — rehearsing in the park. A light bulb went on over his head. What if they hired the band to be a sort of human shield during the underwear scene, to distract onlookers from the near-naked movie star on the street? Veteran producer John Lesher sent his team to negotiate with the school and was undeterred when told that labor laws prohibited the band from working at night. Instead, they simply tracked down grown-up alumni from the Cobras willing to do the gig. “Every day was a series of exhilarating highs and lows because of the way we were shooting. When things worked, everyone would break out in applause. It was like a ballet,” says Lesher.
“It was guerrilla style,” adds Inarritu, who says Birdman has changed him forever. “I learned that from now on, I don’t want to do anything that doesn’t scare me. It pushes you to the edge of your safety net, and it made you feel more alive. It’s like a live concert. You can’t fix it, so if you f— it up, everything goes nuts. Everything you see in the film is real, and everyone is treading water.”
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