Birdman: Shooting in Broadway’s St. James Theater

Birdman shot for 30 days in New York City, Iñárritu’s first movie in Gotham. There were never any other stand-in cities the filmmakers considered.

“The city and Broadway are characters themselves in the film. To make the film feel as authentic as it possibly could, what better place than New York. The great thing is that there is such a talented pool of artists and technicians and actors in New York, just the right balance of stage and movie people that Alejandro wanted,” says producer John Lesher.

The filmmakers also elected to shoot the movie largely in the order that the story plays out, unusual for any production but especially ambitious for one photographed in such a specific way with such a short filming schedule. “Continuity was essential for Alejandro’s process as well as exploring Riggan’s internal path; it supported the film. Each day Michael did a yeoman’s job, setting the proper tone and pacing the transformation of his character – he was truly amazing,” says producer Jim Skotchdopole.

The production shot much of the film in the real Broadway theater, the St. James on 44th Street in the heart of Times Square. The St. James has a storied history. Built on the site of the original Sardi’s Restaurant, it opened in 1927 and many notable productions have opened there, including “Native Son,” “Oklahoma,” “The King and I,” “The Pajama Game,” “Beckett” and more recently, “Gypsy,” “American Idiot,” “Hair” and “Bullets Over Broadway.”

“It’s unprecedented for a show to come into a working Broadway house and shoot interior scenes for as long as we did. But the theater was the anchor of everything in the movie,” says location manager Joaquin Prange. “That was the biggest challenge, finding the right theater that could work with our schedule. We culled it down to about half a dozen and Alejandro – and everyone – responded to its history and look and feel. While it is majestic, it has a lot of character, it’s rough around the edges and I think that fits with what he is going for Riggan. He is in a house that is not quite the premiere stage on Broadway; it’s on a side street, not Broadway itself. And while there are successful shows all around him, this is a house that has had a lot of turnover and you feel that this is a place where the play could actually take place.”

“The Broadway world has a schedule, they rehearse every day from 8 am to midnight – whereas our call time depended on what we had to shoot and when we finished the day prior. So little things like that threw the theater guys for a loop but they rolled with it and were great. It was a real learning process for all of us” Prange says.

Birdman of course utilized the St. James’ stage where at one point, the actors performed the final scene of the play “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” in front of a live audience of extras. The theater lobby and exterior were also set pieces in the film.

“I know it was important for Alejandro to capture the spirit of Times Square and Broadway itself, the activity on the street, the people, the lights, the traffic, just the density of everything, and certainly 44th Street is great because it’s right on the precipice of Times Square. We felt that energy just a block away,” Prange explains.

Production designer Kevin Thompson was tasked with marrying the St. James with a recreated backstage and dressing room set that his team built at Kaufman Astoria Studios. “My first conversation with Alejandro was about the physical world of the theater on stage and behind it. He was very interested in the two emerging and overlapping. I thought it would be incredibly challenging to have these two worlds meet. And the idea of filming in a real Broadway theater, designing sets for that and for the play plus the backstage dressing rooms and labyrinth of corridors was really intriguing,” Thompson explains.

Those rehearsals became blueprints for the sets and ultimately morphed throughout production, not just to accommodate camera moves but also to reflect Riggan’s mental condition. “The notes that came out of those rehearsals defined the actual size and shape of the set. Like when we would go downstairs, when we go upstairs, when we would go on a long walk through a corridor, when we would stop, where they would stop, that had to be a special kind of transition period and the sets had to accommodate all of that. The rehearsals informed the length of the corridors between the dressing rooms, for instance, how far from Michael Keaton’s dressing room is to the stage entrance. It had to be a certain length and it had to turn a number of times so we would change the backstage configuration to adapt to the scenes so it would seem as though it was done without any cuts or edits. And then the corridor to Michael Keaton’s dressing room would shrink as the movie went on – we made it narrower and dropped the ceiling – to make it more about the state of mind that he was in. The set was also made so we could fly out a little section here or there to make the camerawork possible. Chivo could back into a wall all of a sudden or have a piece of it disappear, which you can’t do on location,” Thompson says.

Thompson also discusses the lighting and color palette for the film. “Alejandro likes introducing color in a curated and controlled way. The way it was accomplished in my department was through Chivo’s lighting. We used practical fixtures throughout because we had to be able to move the camera freely without movie lighting getting into or in the way of the shot. So we’d get a lot of different color temperatures of light, from cool tungsten to a warmer incandescent. It was lit for film, not theater – Broadway productions have a more heightened version of blue and red lights but ours were more like cool and warm colors crashing into each other and layering on top of each other. Chivo lit the stage in such a unique way, with a big LED in the ceiling and being able to change the color and move the light around as we shot,” Thompson says.