Birdman: Rhythm and Editing

Like the actors and really everyone on the crew, the thorough rehearsals became the basis of their edit. “Before cameras even rolled, we had an assembly made up of the rehearsal footage and some of the table read so together with Alejandro we could begin to gauge what the film would look and sound like, where a conversation was redundant, where the moves would be. So we were able to get started very early on,”Mirrione says.

The editors also found they had an able partner in the visual effects team, who organically contributed to the unique cuts in Birdman. Happy, creative additions happened as a result of this collaboration.

As with every film, the editors used their ears as much as their eyes but because of the precision of the shots, they had to be extremely vigilant in their aural choices. While the seamless nature of BIRDMAN may look and sound effortlessly fluid, the actual assembly, like everything else in the film, was painstakingly crafted. “The big difference with this film was that we didn’t have the conventional places where one scene started and another ended. Every scene walks into the next one. Alejandro described it as going down a hill and not stopping. There wasn’t really a transition, the characters just keep moving on,” Crise says.

“I think we really anticipated a lot of the potential pitfalls and really prepared, but what we didn’t plan on were all the speed changes,” Mirrione adds. “At certain points, when the scene was not popping for us, if the tempo was a little off, we could actually dial up the pace or slow it down as need be without it being perceptible to the audience and that made a big difference.”

As it turns out, Mirrione and Crise applied syncopation and pace in another way as well – they worked closely with Iñárritu and sound designer Martín Hernández on an insistent percussive refrain that, like Birdman, accompanied Riggan wherever he went. The process began during production when Crise huddled with Iñárritu to provide a first pass for the editors.

“By editing you can alter rhythm and pace. Not having that tool in a comedy can be extremely challenging. So I thought the drums as the main score would provide the film not only a good vibe but the possibility in helping me find the beat it needed. The Mexican drummer Antonio Sanchez, one of the best in the world, and I rented a studio one week before I started shooting and he recorded and improvised 60 tracks based on some objectives or emotions the film needed. That helped me enormously and sometimes I even used it on the stage for the actors to understand the rhythm of the scene. Rhythm is everything in cinema,” says Iñárritu.

“Alejandro had all these drum recordings and he told me to pick six of my favorites. We cut those together so that he could have a track that the drummer could mimic when they shot that scene. He had the idea for the soundtrack from the very beginning and we had those samples cut in from the start too,” Crise says.

“And then Martín took it to another level. Once there was an first pass at the movie, with a lot of those drum tracks laid in as an outline, he spent a lot of time working with Alejandro, to strip layers away, add some in, trying a lot of different beats. Obviously, in every movie, music will have an impact on point of view and mood and tone. But with this I think it was especially important because the rhythm is so tied to the camera and you can’t make those kinds of cadence adjustments with as much flexibility as you can with cuts. We had to lean on the music a little more than normal at times, to push back or pull forward,” Mirrione says.

The rhythm of the drums tied to the flow of the camera tethered to Riggan’s journey towards self-discovery and artistic reflection were not mere gimmicks but rather indicators of the movie’s heart.

“I think it’s a kind of magic, this narrative. By a continuous shot my hope was really to get audiences in the point of view of the character. To really live through Riggan and his mind, to walk in his shoes. A continuous flow of emotion and like Riggan, unable to escape it. To understand his desperation as he walks by those walls and through corridors. Because in the end, our life is just one continuous shot. We wake up in the morning and then we are all day with a Steadicam of sorts floating with us, we don’t escape, we don’t cut to another reality. We are trapped in our own reality. That’s the way we experience life so I wanted to experience Riggan’s world that way too. It’s not just a visual. I wanted to have an emotional narrative with dramatic tension and purpose. I hope it worked,” Iñárritu sums up.

“Now look, your grace,” said Sancho, “what you see over there aren’t giants, but windmills, and what seems to be arms are just their sails, that go around in the wind and turn the millstone.”

“Obviously,” replied Don Quixote, “you don’t know much about adventure.”

Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes