“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” (directed and co-written by Alejandro González Iñárritu) is a dark comedy that tells the story of actor Riggan Thomson (played by Michael Keaton) — famous for portraying an iconic superhero — as he struggles to mount a Broadway play. In the days leading up to opening night, he battles his ego and attempts to recover his family, his career and himself.
While doing the play, Riggan must also deal with his neurotic co-stars who include difficult and demanding Mike (played by Edward Norton); insecure Lesley (played by Noami Watts); and Riggan’s on-again/off-again girlfriend Laura (played by Andrea Riseborough). Other members of the “Birdman” cast are Zach Galifianakis as Riggan’s close friend and manager Jake, as well as Emma Stone as Riggan’s daughter/personal assistant and Amy Ryan as Riggan’s ex-wife Sylvia. “Birdman” had its New York City premiere at the 2014 New York Film Festival. Before the premiere, González Iñárritu and the stars of the film gathered for a press conference. Here is what they said.
Where did you get the inspiration for “Birdman”?
González Iñárritu: The idea came from this struggle and battle that we all have with our ego. In this case, a personal battle. I just turned 50 years [old] last year. And basically, when you realize and you make a revision of the priorities that you have been given in your life, some things are missing and some things are great and some things are not-so-great. And then I go into the retrospection of how the mechanics of my own perception has been. I thought it was incredibly interesting, but I have been learning to be aware of how the ego can work.
In my case, in the creative process, my ego has always been a huge tyrant … a dictator and kind of rude and very misleading, because sometimes when I’m doing something, I say, “This is great! This is fantastic! Very genius!” And 20 minutes later, I feel like a dead jellyfish. “You are a stupid a**hole. This is a piece of sh*t. Nobody will care about it.”
It’s a constant bipolar relation of my process. I thought, “The ego is a tyrant.” I thought it would be a cool thing to portray in a film. So that’s the origin.
Can you talk about your incredible “Birdman” cast?
González Iñárritu: I think honestly, without all these great actors and actresses, this film couldn’t have been made. I think not only because actors are supposedly the ones who portray bigger egos. That’s not true. I always think politicians and even my dentist have more egos than actors.
Keaton: I must say though your dentist is quite good.
González Iñárritu: He [my dentist] is an a**hole. He makes me suffer, and he feels great, and I pay him. What I am saying is that, honestly, all of us laugh about ourselves, but I think the job that Michael and all of them made, it was extremely difficult and demanding, and we were laughing at all of ourselves because we have sterling or boisterous egos, but we were all reflected in that.
More than laughing at anybody, we were laughing at ourselves. So it was it was stealth therapy, but I think craft and humanity and what they bring to the film is basically what made the film. It is their film, I have to say.
These guys made you suffer?
Keaton: Tried. I go through what Alejandro goes through. I go through the same thing. I think, “You’re the greatest. You’re wonderful.” And like Alejandro, 20 minutes later, the difference is I go, “No, you’re actually more than that, Michael.” [He says jokingly.] It keeps getting bigger.
Michael, what has your amazing career resurgence felt like for you? What do you think of the Riggan Thomson character? Is he crazy? Is he depressed? And did you get to keep your “Birdman” costume?
Keaton: The first answer. How does it feel? It feels good. The second question. What do I think about the character? The character is Alejandro, so you should ask him. No, the character is really one of the most difficult things I’ve done, not in terms of the character necessarily, but in terms of how the film was made ….
Within sometimes 30 or 49 seconds you have to surf a lot of different emotions and be part of this giant picture, fit into this giant picture, and because this picture is always shifting and moving, it’s got so many levels, so therefore, it was really, really difficult, but I like that. I like difficult most of time …
And no, to the third question. Did I keep an outfit and what a great idea! How stupid am I not to keep one of those? Now I’m thinking of a way to get one.
In “Birdman,” Riggan Thomson clashes with an influential Broadway critic. Michael, you were also in a movie called “Game 6” which also dealt with how a critics can affect Broadway show. What are your thoughts on how critics can affect careers?
Keaton: This is where I’m a dope. I make it really simple. The first play I ever did in Pittsburgh, someone walked up and said, “Hey, I read the thing in the paper. Someone said you were real good” or something like that. I hadn’t even thought of that part. And I still often don’t think of that part.
What I thought originally was, “You should be courageous and read everything.” And I did that a couple of times. And then I thought, “I don’t want to do that anymore.” That’s just miserable, so I don’t really bother. I just don’t do it.
Admittedly, when someone says, “Hey, you got a really nice review,” I’ll read it. I’m willing to make myself feel better. I ain’t going to fight that.
It’s real simple for me. I think, unless I’m really stupid here — and there’s a strong possibility that’s true — I’ve been treated basically fairly, but I’m the wrong person to ask. There’s probably a lot of you out there going, “Oh no, you haven’t.”
But I think it’s been basically pretty fair. I don’t know. I’m the wrong guy to ask. I really liked “Game 6,” by the way. That was a Don DeLillo story, by the way.
Do any of the actors have anything to add about critics?
Riseborough: I love that there’s a critical presence in the film. I don’t read reviews, because I find them debilitating, not because I don’t respect them. The relationship that I have, especially in theater, with critics is that though it may from actors come across as sort of a hostile thing, I think what it is is fear.
Michael was talking earlier about the thick fog that you see in Los Angeles when you come in being a thick layer of fear lying over the city. And so the reverence I feel in response to the critics is really what it is. They saw Gambon do his bit back in the day, and now they’re going to come and see me. It makes me want to sh*t myself.
Norton: We don’t want that.
Riseborough: Exactly. It’s just inappropriate. That’s all I’ve got to say.
Galifianakis: I’ve never had a bad review so I’m not quite sure what you’re talking about. It sounds familiar. I’ve heard people talk about it, but I’ve never had [a bad review]. It’s great.
How did any of your real-life theater experiences influence your performances in “Birdman”?
Watts: I haven’t done a huge amount of theater. Just from back in the day when we were studying and doing plays, a lot of my nightmares revolved around being on the stage and forgetting my lines or having the wrong clothes on or no clothes at all. It is that classic recurring nightmare.
A lot in the way in this film was shot, with the speed and high stakes and the technicalities and the dependency on each other and the also the effects, the prop things, the cameras, the lighting and the removing of the tables and putting them back — all of those things created a high level of intensity and pressure that felt sort of emblematic of how it feels on the stage — at least my longtime from long ago.
I think the process of making this film was so thoroughly enjoyable and so disciplined that — I think I can speak for most of us — the actual making of it was as good as the result. And we were saying before that we had such a good experience doing that. There’s nothing better than being in a film that translates to audiences and makes people think and feel good and walk away with great revelations in their own life of some kind. But when the process and the experience and the fun of that matches, it’s a good feeling.
Norton: I spent a lot of my early career in the theater. And by that, I mean as usher, just down the street here at Second Stage, but nothing as serious for the stage as “Between Two Ferns,” so I’ll let Zach comment.
Galifianakis: [He says jokingly] We’re bringing it to Broadway, “Between Two Ferns.”
Keaton: I have that dream too, about seeing Naomi on stage naked. It’s not a nightmare, believe me.
Norton: Can you tell yet that this is a semi-serious film made by deeply un-serious people?
“Birdman” is about Riggan Thomson making his Broadway debut. Emma, you’re making your Broadway debut as Sally Bowles in “Cabaret.” How do you feel about that?
Stone: I did write the character of Sally Bowles, and I am directing the production. Of course this movie brings up a lot of horrible fears of coming into the Broadway community and Tabitha be our reviewer. It feels very different, it feels very different.
But I will say making this movie, what we had to contend with as actors in making something like this, all the pieces that Naomi was talking about and needing to rely on each other the way that a company does is incredibly helpful now going into theater in that way and realizing that you operate very much as a unit.
We all operated as a unit. And in a lot of films, it’s not that way at all; it’s very a very separate experience. I’m nervous as hell [to make my Broadway debut]. I’m terrified. I’m sh*tting myself, like Andrea said.
Michael, Edward and Emma: You have all starred in superhero movies. What was the fun in doing the usual superhero tropes in “Birdman,” which isn’t a superhero movie?
Keaton: There’s a great moment in the movie … with those special effects. It’s awesome. It just came out of nowhere. I totally dig it. I’m like, “Yeah, there’s a little treat, you know?” There’s a little dig at megaplex action superhero movie dose for you there. Other than that, it was just another gig that happened to be a really extraordinarily demanding gig.
Norton: Michael and I went over to New York Comic-Con to do a little panel. And in the dark, right before we went on, I looked at Michael and said, “Do you think this is the ultimate bait-and-switch that’s ever been pulled on Comic-Con?” Can you imagine going [“Birdman”] actually thinking it’s a superhero movie.?
Keaton: John Huston, one of the last movies he directed was “The Dead,” based on a James Joyce novel. I showed up … and there were these guys there, you could tell they totally thought it was a horror movie. I could hear them mumbling, “What the f*ck is this?” And about a minute, 14 seconds in, they were like, “F*ck this!”
For the actors, can you talk about the times you might have felt you were blurring the lines between being a celebrity and being an actor? How did you handle it?
Norton: Can you define your terms please?
Galifanakis: Can you use it in a sentence? Being a celebrity is sh*t. It’s dumb and I’m not interested in it. I like to be an actor and that’s that. I think celebrity is a man-made thing. It’s not innate in us. We have people telling us we should pay attention to these people for the wrong reasons, their personal lives and that stuff.
I think everyone here, they’re very normal, regular people. I think that’s what they’re interested in: just being actors. The celebrity part that comes with it is difficult to manage. To me, I’m not interested in it whatsoever — the picture-taking and all that stuff, to be honest. I just want to do my work and go home and watch Lifetime or something.
González Iñárritu: There’s a line that Riggan Thomson has: “Fame is what it is, not what we said about that thing.” That’s kind of the struggle. Even when we talk about the film, no matter what you said, it’s not what that thing is.
In a way, this question is implicit to his character. He’s trying to get away from the criticism of whatever he does. He basically wants to be attached to what he is, finding himself. It’s kind of a difficult task.
Keaton: I think everybody is a celebrity now. The dog who runs into the wall dreaming is a bigger celebrity than all of us.
Galifanakis: I worked with him!
Keaton: It’s true. Because of YouTube, I think most people are walking around in their own movie. This is not a big deal anymore. I don’t think people are really knocked out by celebrity.
While I think people are enamored of it in magazines, I don’t think it’s that big of a deal anymore. I think everybody is kind of their own celebrity in their own head — and they kind of are. We’re living in this weird world where people are everywhere.
Broadway has been casting a lot of film actors in plays in order to sell tickets. Why did you decide to tell your story through a play instead of something else?
González Iñárritu: I think that was an essential part of the development of the story. I think this short story of Raymond Carver was for me a very, very important part of the story. It could have been a play we made up, but [Carver] one of my favorite writers that has the capacity of really going to the human heart and flaws and the limitations of human beings with love. The characters, they are lovable and adorable and complex and human.
They question what love is about, and they are looking for love. I wanted it to be projected, and suddenly, the character Riggan Thomson, suddenly the play would take his life and suddenly, he would become one of the characters. It was meta. That particular Raymond Carver short story he wrote when he was 50 years old, the year that he died.
We want to be loved and respected. That what we as human beings are looking for, no matter who you are. And I think that’s what Riggan Thomson is looking for: validation, love and affection. That became the essential quest of the character in the film. We were lucky to have the estate of Raymond Carver allow us to use that. I think it’s essential, the DNA of the film.
Edward Norton, in playing the egotistical actor, did he get inspiration of any real-life actor for his character portrayal?
Norton: I basically just looked four feet to my left at Alejandro. I’m wearing his scarf in the movie. I’m wearing his jacket. Everything I say in the movie I’ve heard him say or I know he wants to say.
González Iñárritu: One of my favorite moments in the film, we were basically rehearsing that scene where [Mike] just wants to wind up [Riggan]. I was explaining to Edward the movement of the camera and everything. And he had to question me about it. So it was very meta. I thought it was like looking in a f*cking mirror. It was so funny!
Norton: My entire performance consisted of dropping the Mexican accent. And that was it. For a while in rehearsals, I was saying, “Exactly!” There might have been a single actor, when I was growing up, that I was a huge fan of who was notorious in the New York theater for his alcoholic anarchism, but he was a distant second to Alejandro.
Can you talk about the parallels between Birdman and Icarus?
González Iñárritu: Some superhero movies pretend to be very profound, like some Greek mythology. In the end, there’s nothing wrong with being a kick-ass movie with a guy in a suit … I think the ego wants to make us fly. And just like Icarus, no matter what, you will be burned because you will become attached to the person you are not. It was not my intention to [make “Birdman” an Icarus metaphor].
What can you say about the amazing camerawork in “Birdman?”
González Iñárritu: I’d like to say something about the guy behind the camera: [cinematographer] Emmanuel Lubezki. I think the work that he did was incredibly challenging. It was very, very different from anything I had done before.
All the decisions we made were done before we started shooting. Basically, all the camerawork, all the blocking, all the lighting was pre-designed in advance — months in advance. There was no improvisation. Everything was precise and meticulous. Everything looks like it was all in one shot. That is the challenging thing.
As writers, when you write without commas or periods, it’s difficult to separate ideas. Film is a fragmentation experience. Without the editing, everything has to happen in the flow, so you really have to get everything together in the editing and the choices without manipulating the actors. The difficulty was to tell the story right, who has to be in frame, who does not …
Everything could have been so wrong. But thanks to extreme rehearsals and the technical abilities of [Lubezki] and the incredible performances, everything turned out fine. There were no film lights. Everything was practical lights, sometimes shooting 360 degrees in tiny corridors with guys with microphones …
We were doing a movie where it wasn’t possible to go into a computer to erase something. Everything we printed was forever. There was no net … Any hesitation would ruin the film. That was kind of the electricity we had.
Keaton: I think what Chivo, [the nickname for] Emmanuel Lubezki, did is really something to behold. They’re artists, not only [Lubezki and González Iñárritu], but the [“Birdman” cast]. When you watch [Lubezki and González Iñárritu] together, you have to come up to that. Otherwise, you’re a punk. You’re dead weight.
What Chivo did in this is arguably greater than what he achieved with “Gravity.” I don’t ever remember it being indulgent, in terms of “for the shot’s sake.” He had a way of doing the shots that always helped move the story … even if it was magical realism or whatever it’s called. When you do that and make it beautiful, you’re compounding the issue.
González Iñárritu: It was terrifying that it would be a visual distraction, like showy technical stuff. We were always conscious that this technique not take over the technique itself. It was about who has to be in front and what is the point of view of the characters, to make people feel the emotional madness they are going through. We tried to maintain the honest, dramatic tension of the film.
There’s something dictatorial about that. You have to have absolute control. There’s no improvisation, no freedom. But the way you are a slave to the system makes you free, because then you just have to practice so much, it’s liberating. You don’t have a lot of questions. You just have to be attached to the motion of the moment.
Riseborough: The inside of it felt strangely slick and claustrophobic. And that was really useful: the headiness and energy. I had Charles Mingus constantly going over in my head.
The score in the film beautifully reflects that pressure cooker. And then watching the film after the fact, objectively, what’s really wonderful is to see how tempting it is for Michael character’s Riggan to fly …
It’s a wonderful sense of panic. It fuels you, almost, because it was almost like a choreographed dance that we were doing. Chivo was like [Rudolph] Nureyev, skipping around. It became quite natural, all of that.
Ryan: There was a happy accident that happened in the rehearsal process in that scene with Michael when I come into the dressing room. There was no room for the camera crew, so Michael said, “Well, I’ll just lie down on the counter.”
That was the only place that worked best for every moving part. Now, I can’t think of a better place for that. That’s exactly where he should be: just lying down on the dressing table … There were so many surprises. It was amazing to be in it and of it and watch it and really get to experience it in all those different ways as an actor and an audience member.
Alejandro, “Birdman” is very different from any of your previous movies. Do you feel that it was a conscious decision to make something so different?
González Iñárritu: I think the film is the same, in terms of characters. It’s just that approach is different. I think that my point of view is that not only to provide the events this guy goes through and the meaning of life and what life is about … but if you take an approach that is lighter with humor — not irony or cynicism that has overwhelmed our pop culture. “I’m tired and bored and mad.”
It’s the same events of life: that fear that we will fail … I found it incredibly tragic but beautiful. I decided to approach those tragic events in a different way. I think this film is a little twisted, because if you don’t do that, if you don’t take life with that humor (not cynicism), you can’t survive.
Norton: In responding to critics, I think my favorite response I’ve seen in a long time, we were sitting at the Venice Film Festival, and some of our reviews were coming in. Our producer was looking at them, and he went, “Fantastic. Fantastic. Good.” And Alejandro said, “Who said, ‘Good’?”
It was a very nice review but, of course, the critic had to take a moment to maintain his credibility and say that he did not like Alejandro’s other films. He said it was a relief to see [González Iñárritu] get away from the turgid, semi-religious pretentiousness to encompass all the emotion of the world. And Alejandro said, “Turgid, semi-religious pretentiousness to encompass all the emotion of the world? That sounds fantastic!”
For more info: “Birdman” website