Recently taking stock of his career, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu began to wonder if he might have gotten stuck in a creative rut of his own making.
“It was like I was on a ladder, and I was getting a little too comfortable,” says the 51-year-old filmmaker as he holds out two clenched fists, miming the grip on that ladder. “I was just doing my work. It was a habit. I was stuck, half out of fear and half out of safety. And I said to myself, ‘I’m going to let go of the ladder.’ ”
For Inarritu, letting go meant taking a stab at his first full-fledged comedy, albeit one with a strong undercurrent of existential despair. In the director’s self-reflexive “Birdman,” Michael Keaton stars as an actor once famous for playing a superhero, now trying to save his career — and maybe his soul — with a comeback on Broadway. He does this by mounting a play whose thematic concerns (love, loss, suicidal tendencies) come to so closely mirror reality that a life in the theater becomes all but indistinguishable from the theater of life. (The New Regency production opens in limited release Oct. 17 via Fox Searchlight, following opening and closing night berths at the Venice and New York film festivals, respectively.)
“Birdman” is Inarritu’s fifth film in the 14 years since the former Mexico City radio DJ burst on the scene with “Amores Perros,” an intricately cross-stitched triptych of stories that introduced the world to a young actor named Gael Garcia Bernal, and established the director as the latest emissary of a bold new wave of Mexican filmmakers that included Alfonso Cuaron and Guillermo del Toro.
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The Oscar-nominated “21 Grams” (2003) and “Babel” (2006) followed, completing a loose “death trilogy” in which multiple nonlinear story threads converged around a tragic accident. But the end of the trilogy also marked an acrimonious finale to Inarritu’s creative partnership with screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, after which the director and two new collaborators — Argentinian cousins Nicolas Giacobone and Armando Bo — made 2010’s human-trafficking drama “Biutiful,” which earned another two Oscar noms, including actor for star Javier Bardem.
But for all the prizes and acclaim, and with his 50th birthday looming, Inarritu felt something was off. He worried that his sense of humor might be slipping away. “On ‘Biutiful,’ I lost it absolutely,” he says over a recent breakfast in Calgary, where he already is prepping his next film, 1820s frontier drama “The Revenant,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy. “I’m overwhelmed by the pain in the world; I’m affected by the news very much, and adding that to my work was becoming a little bit too much. I needed fresh air.”
The result is a dazzling leap into the void — a work that can hold its own with “Sunset Blvd.,” “All That Jazz,” “The Stunt Man” and “The Player” among the great, mordant Hollywood movies about the messy entanglement of reality and fantasy, art and commerce. The characters may suffer in “Birdman,” but they do so in buoyant comic fashion, propelled by Keaton’s highwire performance, already being talked about as an Oscar contender.
For the two hours “Birdman” holds the screen, Keaton’s Riggan Thomson is an object in constant, whirling motion, putting his play through its final rehearsals, all the while trying to contain the private chaos erupting just offstage. That includes messy relationships with an ex-wife (Amy Ryan), a daughter (Emma Stone) fresh from rehab, and a pompous Method actor (Edward Norton) keen on stealing Riggan’s thunder. But Riggan’s most formidable adversary tuns out to be his own comicbook alter ego, Birdman (also played by Keaton), who appears before him in full plumage and wingspan, demanding to be heard.
Inarritu, who co-wrote the script with Giacobone, Bo and a new collaborator, Armenian-American playwright Alexander Dinelaris, had been toying for a few years with an idea for a contemporary silent film in which one of the characters was wrestling with his psyche, which would physically manifest itself, like a doppelganger. Beyond that, Inarritu says “Birdman” arrived all of a piece. “The substance and the form came together,” he recalls. “It was a monolithic kind of thought.”
That means both the story of “Birdman” and the unconventional way in which Inarritu chose to tell it — in long, constantly moving Steadicam shots later blended together digitally to create the illusion of a single uninterrupted take. Where his previous films unfolded as elaborate jigsaws, this one would push the very notion of linearity to the brink of the absurd. “I realized — and I am probably the last person in the world to realize this — that we live our lives with no editing,” he says. “From the time we open our eyes, we live in a Steadicam form, and the only editing is when we talk about our lives or remember things. So I wanted this character to be submerged in that inescapable reality, and the audience has to live these desperate three days alongside him.”
To make the idea work, however, he needed an actor capable of playing Riggan in all of his elastic manifestations. He thought of Keaton early on. “He was the right man for all the reasons: He can do comedy, he can do drama, and he has worn a cape,” Inarritu says, referring to Keaton’s iconic turn as Bruce Wayne in Tim Burton’s “Batman” (1989) and “Batman Returns” (1992). But he had never met the actor, and given Keaton’s lack of high-profile movie roles over the past decade, he wondered if he was up to the challenge.
“I sent him the script. He read it. We went to dinner — I was afraid — and he said, ‘Alejandro, are you making fun of me?’ I said, ‘Not at all. This is a very difficult film to play, because it has to be played with such honesty, and I’m going to do it, technically, in a way that’s going to demand a lot of shit from you.’ ” Inarritu told his prospective star that the part would require him to appear spiritually and physically naked onscreen — including a frantic sprint through Times Square in his tighty whiteys when Riggan finds himself locked out of his own play in the middle of a preview. As they were getting into their cars after dinner, Keaton said to count him in.
Still, once they were on “Birdman’s” New York set — the movie was largely shot inside Broadway’s St. James Theatre — Keaton and the rest of the cast had to adapt to Inarritu’s rigorous shooting style, which required them to perform up to 15 pages of dialogue at a time while hitting precisely choreographed marks. “It was as if he was maybe a little rusty at first,” Inarritu says. “But the rusty knife is more dangerous than a new one. Once he got it, he really fucking went for it. It was unbelievable. I think he’s the most amazing actor I have worked with.”
Keaton is duly impressed with Inarritu. “The thing about Alejandro is he’s got guts; huge, big, big balls; intelligence; unrivaled passion; and he’s enormously creative,” says Keaton, who also praises his director for not basing his casting decisions on recent box office track record. “He gave me a tremendous opportunity to do the very type of thing that is really what I got into this profession for in the first place,” Keaton adds. “You don’t often get a chance to work with someone who has all those qualities. And he’s nuts! He’s totally fucking nuts! But he’s my kind of nut.”
“Birdman” is hardly the first movie to attempt the illusion of cinematic perpetual motion. In 1948 Hitchcock shot “Rope” in similar long-take fashion, disguising his cuts (in the pre-CG era) in those moments when the camera passed behind a wall or other screen-filling obstruction. But, Inarritu notes, if “Birdman” comes across as a mere technical stunt, it will have been a failure. “Who cares about a long shot?” he says. “That’s not difficult. If the audience, in minute 50, is thinking about the way a movie is shot, there’s a problem. I want it to permeate emotionally.”
The director compares the experiment to a writer eschewing punctuation — which, in his case, meant making a film without access to the usual tricks of the post-production trade. “You can see from my other films that I made them in the editing room,” he says. “The tone, the rhythm, even the genre can be changed in there. When you do a film like this, you know that anything that doesn’t happen in the moment can never happen. And comedy is all about timing and beats; it’s about reactions. So the awareness that it demanded was incredible.”
Above all, the movie vibrates with Inarritu’s love of actors, and respect for the fraught, emotionally fragile terrain performers must mine to give everything they have to a role. “Actors are exposed in a way that nobody else can understand,” he says. “They are subject to the likes and dislikes of people their entire life, no matter how successful they are. At the same time, in order to be liked, you have to not be yourself. So it’s a very complicated human exercise — an alchemy that I have never understood. Three minutes before, you’re talking to them and making jokes. Then it’s ‘Lights! Camera! Action!’ and suddenly they go into a zone, as if you are seeing another person, or someone possessed.”
Today, Inarritu, who lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Maria, and their two teenage children, says he’s never been at a better place creatively. He speaks warmly of his collaboration with his new writing partners, who recently reteamed with him to create the forthcoming Starz TV series “One Percent,” starring Hilary Swank and Ed Harris. And with his comedy now behind him, he’s eager to move on to his Western, or “pre-Western” as he calls “The Revenant,” the true story of a trapper for the Rocky Mountain Fur Co. left for dead by his colleagues after a near-fatal bear mauling. It will, Inarritu says, be one more venture into the unknown.
“This is another extreme challenge, and I don’t know how I’m going to do it,” he says. “I’m scared of horses, and I don’t know how to shoot them, but that’s what excites me. After 40 years old, if you don’t do some things that really terrify you, I don’t think they’re worth doing. I didn’t know even how to start pre-producing ‘Birdman,’ and it was such a terrifying, beautiful, vital thing that I don’t want to do anything that is not like that. So I am on that journey again.”