Birdman: Inarritu’s Striking Visual Style

Long before Birdman was shot, the film was conceived, written and meant to be a continuous life experience.

“Since the first page of the script, I knew I wanted it to be live and make the audience experience a real point of view from the main character in a radical way. This represented a completely new approach for me and all the people involved so the challenge started from the script to the last frames of post-production,” says Iñárritu.

The extended, intuitive, unbroken nature of these shots, accomplished via Steadicam and hand-held cameras meant that the lighting was not done with traditional film equipment. The blocking and dialogue were precisely timed with the camera movement. As such, it was less like a movie set and more like the theater in which much of the film takes place.

“We first blocked, rehearsed and designed the shots in an empty set with stand-ins. In comedy, rhythm is king. So through this process, I not only found the internal rhythm of the scenes but the sets and spaces were designed with enormous precision after we all learned from it,” explains Iñárritu.

“Chivo (aka Emmanual Lubezki) was the best partner I could have had. Not only is he a master of light but I think few DPs would have been able to handle the technical requirements of this film. We were not able to light the actors in the traditional way – when you do conventional coverage, you light each angle and have the time to do it. That he was able to accomplish the lighting in this way without compromising the look of the film took incredible skill and craft and I think only Chivo could have done it,” Iñárritu says.

Because the camera work was so specific, Iñárritu insisted on comprehensive rehearsals with all the actors. “They really had to understand what I was doing – every movement, every step, every turn of the face was pre-decided and meticulously choreographed. Nothing was improvised, it was a study in timing, with the precision of a clock,” Iñárritu explains.

“It was shot every day as one scene. You shot in continuity. Usually you get five takes here, get 12 takes here, get close-ups, lot of choices to stitch together a performance. There is none of that here. You have no safety net. You have one shot at it. And it all had to come together, and every actor had to be right on it,” says Keaton.

“I had a Philippe Petit picture in my office and I sent a copy of it to every actor. I wanted them to remember that we would all be walking on a high wire – dependent upon precision, confidence and a trust in each other. We could fall very easily,” says Iñárritu.

Although the technical aspects of these run-throughs were obviously important, equally vital was the time spent delving into the characters. “We went through a very deep and interesting process to really observe all the scenes, the meaning and objective of the material, the macro and micro of all the characters, the objectives and motivations as well as the repercussions of their emotions and actions,” Iñárritu explains.

Norton relished the tracking shot approach to filming BIRDMAN and notes that it not only underscores the sometimes weird, twisted and loving bonds between the characters, it is the logical next step in Iñárritu’s film canon. Fittingly, in a movie about a play, Norton also notes that it lent a theatricality to the production as well.

“Alejandro was trying to do something incredibly exciting which was to create literal interconnectedness through the shot. The notion of essentially filming in one take was to me a variation of on a theme that Alejandro has been pursuing which is how do create a wild experience of interconnected moments. For instance, with BABEL you’ve got different worlds interconnected ultimately by threads. In this one you’ve got relationships and events interrelated by this visually seamless transfer from one moment to the next, to the next, to the next, to the next and I loved it. It puts the baton in an actor’s hand in a way you really only get to do in theater. And there is something really potent about that. I think is also does something unconsciously to the energy of the performance. Alejandro likened it to being on a tightrope without a net. It sharpens you up in a way that is different from typical movie shoots,” Norton says.

Iñárritu’s uninterrupted takes were a nerve-wracking experience for Stone as well. “We did this scene where I had just one or two lines but it was very important because it was part of a very long scene between Michael and Edward. My job was to come in and say something like ‘Larry’s ready for a fitting now’ and then take Edward around a corner. That was all I had to do, but Alejandro told me I had to slow down by about 30% or he wouldn’t be able to make the scene work. I was like, oh my God. I can’t mess up. By take 25, I was just sitting backstage and couldn’t even deliver my line. The pressure was immense. It was just like theater, every take is on you. It was like going to an acting gym. Everything is extremely technical but you also need to be present and alive because every moment that you are on camera will be in the film there is no cutting away. There’s no, ‘oh, I screwed that up but they can use a different take,’” Stone says.

Galifianakis calls Iñárritu’s visual style a “seamless narrative” and also sees it as a fittingly bracing acting test in a movie about actors. “I think it is such an interesting way of telling a story, the camera moving in real time. There is real geography and timing, in terms of hitting your marks, delivering your lines. I didn’t think I was capable of it but Alejandro was so easy-going and nice. I found the whole thing to be intriguing – a movie about an actor ends up being a real actor piece for all of us,” Galifianakis observes.