Oscar Directors: Inarritu’s Long Road to Oscar Gold–Birdman

Alejandro G. Inarritu was frank backstage at Sunday night’s Oscars as his movie “Birdman,” about a washed-up superhero-movie actor attempting to reinvent himself on Broadway, swept the most important awards.

It was that raw, unconventional nature of “Birdman”— the magical realism of star Michael Keaton moving objects with his mind, floating three feet off his dressing-room floor in a lotus position and flying through New York City — that helped Inarritu’s movie nab four Oscars for best director, picture, original screenplay and cinematography.

Less than 15 hours since talking the stage to accept his honors, and still in his tuxedo from the night before, the 51-year-old filmmaker looks surprisingly well rested despite having gotten only five hours sleep. And there won’t be time for much more rest; he has to be back on a plane to make a 6 a.m. call time on the Calgary set of his upcoming film “The Revenant,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

In an exclusive interview with Variety at the Fairmont Miramar in Santa Monica, Inarritu recalls that hearing his name called three times and seeing his labor of love soar to great heights at Hollywood’s biggest night of the year was “an out-of-body experience.” But, one of his favorite moments of the evening unfolded hours later at Madonna’s Oscar party, the last stop on a whirlwind jaunt that included the Governors Ball and celebratory bashes hosted by Fox Searchlight and Vanity Fair.

“Jay-Z came up to me and said, ‘I have to meet you, man,” recounts Inarritu. He then asked the rapper if he could introduce his 17-year-old son, Eliseo, and 20-year-old daughter, Maria, who “were standing there with their mouths hanging open.” Turning to the pair, Jay-Z said, “You have to be proud of your father.” Inarritu finishes the story with a laugh. “I got my son’s respect for the first time in my life, thanks to Jay-Z,” he says.

The filmmaker has traveled the Oscar road before — every one of his previous four movies (“Amores perros,” “21 Grams,” “Babel,” “Biutiful”) has been nominated in at least one category. But he never imagined when he set out to make “Birdman” that it would touch so many people. So in his mind, even before the envelopes were opened, he’d already won.

“Honestly, when I arrived yesterday, I expected nothing,” he says, adding he’s always had an odd relationship with nerves. “As a kid, my mom would take me and my brothers to the dentist. They would be so nervous all day, all week, and I was absolutely cool. But five minutes before walking in, I would be freaking out.”

Which is exactly what happened at the Oscars. On the red carpet, he says he was perfectly fine. He brought along his wife, Maria Eladia Hagerman, their two children, his brother and two friends — a group he calls “my inner Oscars.” He was having fun and feeling fairly relaxed … until a few minutes before his first category was to be announced. “Suddenly, the thought of going up onstage in front of so many people was terrifying,” he says. “That’s when I got nervous.”

Inarritu remembers being filled with mixed emotions. “It’s conflicting because you’re so excited, but also embarrassed and scared you’ll make a fool of yourself,” he notes. “It’s also sheer disbelief. One of my friends described my reactions perfectly. The first win was, ‘Thank you.’ The second was, ‘Oh my God.’ The third was just, ‘What the f***!’”

It occurs to Inarritu that he wasn’t prepared how to handle victory. “The truth is, I’m a better loser than a winner,” he says. “Because I’ve been through it before, and I’m comfortable with it.”

While he is sincerely appreciative for all the recognition, he wants to make clear that he finds awards competitions a bit absurd. “How do you compare so many beautiful movies to one another? How do you put a ‘Foxcatcher’ against a ‘Grand Budapest’?” he asks. “I hear about people spouting statistics or journalists who obsessively measure the worth of a film in its opening box office weekend. Is that really what these films should be, who has the bigger d**k? In that case, the best restaurant in the world is McDonald’s.”

He sings the praises of his fellow filmmakers, those nominated and those not. He reveals that when he first saw “Boyhood” last summer, he immediately sent an email to Richard Linklater. “I didn’t know him, but I had to reach out,” he says. “I told him I had just seen it with my son and said, ‘Thank you for giving us this incredible gift.’ ”

That’s why another one of his favorite moments at the Oscars — one he says he will never forget — involved Linklater. Inarritu was aware that there was a perception the two films were in competition, that “the environment was supposed to be ‘Boyhood’ vs. ‘Birdman.’ Which is ridiculous.,” he adds. “We were sitting there before best director was announced, and I said, ‘Richard, it would be a f***ing honor to lose to you.’ And he said he felt the same.”

When Inarritu’s name was called, both Linklater and fellow director nominee Bennett Miller (“Foxcatcher”) embraced the winner. “It was true friendship, true understanding,” Inarritu says. “We’re all lucky guys making what we want and sharing this together. And that is what I will remember most.”

As admired as “Birdman” was, it wasn’t a typical Oscar picture. For months, critics and press had anointed “Boyhood” the frontrunner.  At the Golden Globe Awards in January, “Birdman” was placed in the comedy category, where it didn’t have to compete with “Boyhood” — and it still lost, to “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”

Then came the night of the Producer Guild of America Awards, and everything changed. A strong precursor for the best picture winner, the PGAs surprised everyone, even Inarritu, by naming “Birdman” as its top choice.

Inarritu, who had been working long days on the set of “The Revenant” since September, frequently in freezing temperatures, didn’t want to come into town for the PGA ceremony. “I was so tired and I was actually really sick,” he reveals. “I didn’t expect us to win, and when you’re that exhausted, you just want to sleep. Honestly, when I heard our name called, the feeling was one of panic. As in, ‘How am I going to get from this table up to the stage?’”

The following night, “Birdman” took best ensemble at the SAG Awards (he was too sick to attend), and two weeks later, he was named best director by the DGA. The little indie movie he had shot in 29 days on a budget of less than $20 million had suddenly become the frontrunner.

Ever since “Birdman” premiered at the Venice Film Festival in August 2014, critics had been praising the funny, furious tale of actor Riggan Thomson (Keaton), who wrestles with his fictitious filmic alter ego as his play descends into crisis. Filmed in long, continuous takes, the movie was heralded not only for its technical expertise, but for its humor and humanity.

Inarritu initially didn’t even want to discuss the way the film was shot, afraid it would detract from the experience. “My dream was that nobody would know,” he says. “That it would be something you felt, but didn’t notice.” In fact, several people advised him against this method of shooting, including Oscar-winning director Mike Nichols. “I was shi**ing myself after that,” he confesses. It’s Keaton who provides the appropriate kicker to his director ignoring such a warning in order to deliver the film in the boldest way possible. “He did it anyway,” the actor points out. “How can you not love that?”