Alejandro G. Inarritu’s concept of shooting “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” as if it were a single, continuous camera take was not exactly met with encouragement by his peers. The late Mike Nichols, for one, told his fellow director last year that he was “running toward disaster” and should stop.
Even Inarritu’s d.p., Emmanuel Lubezki, fresh off his Oscar-winning logistical triumph on “Gravity,” initially begged off. “I was just finishing ‘Gravity’ and we had a lot of very long shots that were incredibly difficult in that movie,” he says. “But I agreed to read the script, because he is my friend. I liked it very much, but I still didn’t want to do it.”
The technique, after all, had been attempted rarely in dramatic films — Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope” (1948) is the most conspicuous example — and both Inarritu and Lubezki knew it raised all kinds of complications.
“We have seen long takes, long shots that are 20 minutes, but in dramas,” Inarritu tells Variety. “But doing it in a comedy, I was playing with fire.”
It quickly became clear that a single-take movie wasn’t practical for various reasons, and would have to be created as an illusion. That meant shooting a series of extremely long takes, some up to 20 minutes, primarily on a specially designed set inside the St. James Theater in New York — an environment Inarritu calls the “labyrinth.” It would be done in such a way that his editors could “do stitching,” while hiding any trace of transitions.
Every camera move, lighting set-up, prop placement, blocking, rigging and much more was exhaustively rehearsed and choreographed. This incubation process took place on a stage in Los Angeles where director, d.p. and production designer Kevin Thompson created what Lubezki calls “a proxy set where, little by little, we started adding all the layers we needed to figure out this movie” long before moving to New York.
Lubezki used Arri Alexa XT and M cameras, outfitted with Leica Summilux-C and Zeiss Master Primes for wide shots. A primary consideration was the lightweight nature of the Leica lenses, given the extended time operators would be lugging cameras around. “Honestly, this kind of technology made the movie possible,” Lubezki says. “I don’t think we could have done it two or three years earlier.”
Lubezki says dramatic sequences that change locations inside the theater were the hardest to wrangle, particularly because of the need for “complex lighting schemes” as characters travel the labyrinth while relying on theatrical lighting instruments, rather than motion-picture lighting tools.
“For dramatic scenes, especially when we are going from (one place to another) and the camera is panning, and suddenly you are in the theater — those things were very hard to light,” he says. “We had an incredible crew of grips moving behind us with diffusions and flags and things so that I would not cast my shadow on the actors. It was really a ballet.”
Lubezki particularly credits Steadicam operator Chris Haarhoff for moving at high rates of speed in cramped quarters. “(Michael Keaton) asked us not to slow down the rhythm of the scenes for the camera,” he says. “So we (had crew) bring platforms in and out or up and down stairs really fast while the Steadicam moves backwards.”
It all made the seemingly impossible possible, and Inarritu says Lubezki is a key reason.
“He’s an incredible artist,” not only with the technical knowledge, but he also understands how the visual qualities impact the narrative,” Inarritu says. “The kind of lighting he created, and mostly operating the camera himself, gave the film a powerful feeling.”