Directors & Their Troops: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu on His ‘Birdman’ Team

The Golden Globe-nominated filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu recently spoke with Variety about his craft collaborators, each of whom needed to throw out traditional methods for “Birdman.”

According to Inarritu, every person’s life is like a Steadicam shot: “You look here, then you look there.” And he wanted the film to simulate that. “It was intense, scary but enjoyable. I am happy with the results, but also the happiness was in the journey.” He detailed how the artisan team met some challenges, but wouldn’t reveal the length of each shot; asked if they were in the range of seven-to-10 minutes, he smiled. “Much longer than what you said,” he replied. As for the number of edits to make it all seamless, Inarritu said, “I would like to keep the rabbit inside the hat.”

Production design, Kevin Thompson
Kevin’s work is magical. I never used sets before. I told him, ‘I have always been terrified by sets because they look like sets!’ I told him, ‘I want to smell the reality.’ And he nailed it. I like the sweaty kind of reality. It’s functional, it’s practical, and it’s real. The whole film was (shot in) 30 days — it was crazy — half inside (New York’s St. James Theater) and half on sets: The bowels of the ‘theater’ we created at Astoria. The backstage, the corridors, dressing rooms were sets. The sets are very close to reality. Those theaters are very claustrophobic. We measured every inch backstage, to block every camera move; every corridor was the same. We were designing everything to measure the words and steps. The sets were designed as a labyrinthine reality, so that the character can never escape, like a rat.

Sound design, Martin Hernandez
Recording was a challenge. There was no room for a boom and there was no space for (the sound team) to be around while we were filming. They were almost like spiders, hiding in little spaces. And in Times Square, Michael could not wear a microphone. But there was almost no dubbing.

All the mixing, it really took a long time. There were two sounds: the actors onstage performing in a play and the actors in “reality”; and they sound different. Also (Michael Keaton’s character) hears drums in his head, and then he goes out in the street and you see the drummer and hear the drums, so it becomes meta-reality. That band was playing for real; it was real sound, then mixed and produced. To mix those bits and be truthful, to serve both realities, that was complex.

Editing, Douglas Crise, Stephen Mirrione
When you shoot in a conventional way, you do the classic master, then a two-shot, then the over-the-shoulder. You can become a little lazy, because even when things are not great, you know you have pieces and bits that you can put together. You know it will work, you have a net. Here, it had to be perfect. Everything was pre-designed; there was no room for improvisation. Editing was not — as is often the case — a polish, to hide, to manipulate, pasteurize. Nothing was traditional. It was more like a jazz session, where everybody is playing. (The takes were) really long. Really long. It was nerve-wracking. I planned it in a way to look absolutely natural and seamless, so that people get into the emotional core of the film without being distracted.

Cinematography, Emmanuel Lubezki
I think he’s a genius. I don’t say that lightly. There is something trippy, not only in the way the camera floats, but in the lighting. the quality of the lights. Chivo didn’t use any film lights, everything was practical lights.

There were few takes. Never were there a lot of takes to choose from. Everything was totally planned. We had decided everything before the shooting. In a way we were like a rock band playing live and then say, “OK, now we are ready to go into the studio.” So we were recording, but sometimes it didn’t work. There was always some new challenge, every day: hitting the marks, some stiffness, the rhythm, if it’s too fast or slow. It was like directing an orchestra live. And when everything worked, you were like “Wow!”

Michael naked in Times Square with a full crowd — that was scary. We didn’t have money for a thousand extras; we had a few. We didn’t know what could happen and I wanted that feeling “This is really happening.” (In the scripted scene, onlookers in the crowd take photos and post videos). And when we filmed, some guy shot it and posted it. There were YouTubes posted! So it became a meta-dialog, a meta-reality!

Music, Antonio Sanchez
Antonio Sanchez is from Mexico City. I met him at a Pat Metheny concert. He did a solo and I thought, “This is an octopus man!” I knew I would be having drums, because I didn’t have rhythms, from dots and commas, so I thought the drums would help people find the beats and rhythms. One week before we started shooting, I explained to Antonio what I needed. He immediately got it and he started improvising beats. We made several tracks, those were the guidelines for me to understand the beats and find the tempo to each scene. When the film was put together, he recorded some things.

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