EXCLUSIVE: When Birdman director Alejandro González Iñárritu stumbles into a suite in the Park Hyatt with his co-writers Alexander Dinelaris Jr, Nicolas Giacobone and Armando Bo, each feels the influence of last night’s party after their film closed the New York Film Festival. A little hung over and more than a little giddy at the rousing response given their frenzied film that was backed by New Regency and will be released Friday by Fox Searchlight, they swap stories of a wild night that included card tricks by street magician David Blaine that left them dumbstruck. Mostly, they are relieved to have pulled off a major parlor trick with Birdman, a satire that in equal measure skewers Hollywood’s superhero fixation, artistic insecurity, and even holier-than-thou critics who kill Broadway shows.
They did it with a movie that plays more like Black Swan than any recent Oscar buzzworthy black comedy to come along since. Michael Keaton plays an actor once famous for his turn as the ornithological movie hero that gives the film its title. By the time Keaton first appears, in his underwear and levitating four feet off the ground, you can see that feathers are everywhere and he has squandered his superhero currency with a decadence-filled life that ended his marriage and left his daughter (she’s his assistant) in rehab. He makes one desperate lunge for honest redemption by financing and starring in a stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, a bruising short story that González Iñárritu chose because it is next to impossible to translate to the stage, particularly for a first timer who is trailed by a superhero alter ego that voices the actor’s insecurities in a most foul-mouthed and funny manner and would rather be suiting up for Birdman 4.
DEADLINE: Three of the four of you wrote Biutiful, a moving film that was the most unfunny picture made in a long time. This black comedy Birdman gave Michael Keaton a chance to play off his superhero past; just how much were three of you trying to convince the world you are not the most depressing people ever?
GONZALEZ INARRITU: [Laughs] I turned 50 last year and I have learned a lot going through my personal process. I learned there are ways to approach life. You can never change the events, but you can change the way you approach them. The only thing that is important to me is to be honest to my circumstance and context. What this film talks about, I have been through. I have seen and experienced all of it; it’s what I have been living through the last years of my life. Instead of approaching it tragically, I wanted to try another mode. Not to reconcile past events, but actually to survive them. Doing this, I personally experienced a kind of reconciliation with life itself and faced things I don’t like about myself, things which used to make me bitter.
DINELARIS: When Alejandro first called with the idea for Birdman, it had whimsy in it, intrinsically. It went through many iterations before it morphed into what you saw, but from the start the idea was never self-important. It was a laughing look at oneself. If he says that’s because he is 50, then that’s what it was, but it had to be humorous otherwise it would have been the most unbelievably self-absorbed look at the subject. He knew right off you could not do it that way.
GIACOBONE: The first phone call from Alejandro was just the strangest thing ever. “I want to do a film about the theater, in one shot.”
GONZALEZ INARRITU: It was worse than that, because the first image I described was the one you saw, a guy levitating and meditating. From there, you cannot go back. That image was the seed and the fun part, our attitude was reflected in that first shot.
GIACOBONE: We were like, what the hell?
BO: We were laughing when we wrote, we were laughing when the movie started shooting, and we are still laughing now. That is not usually how it is for us.
DEADLINE: The insecurity of the actor fuels Birdman, as the alter ego follows the actor and spews every insecure thought as Keaton’s character tries to hold together this play he had no business bringing to Broadway. What kind of insecurities voice themselves in your mind?
GONZALEZ INARRITU: My personal creative process is full of doubt, all the time, so there are a lot of them. To question your own process is a necessity. If you don’t question yourself, it’s impossible to improve. It’s a torturous process for me, and this voice that I have in my head is a fucking dictator, a horrible tyrant. I call it The Inquisitor. No matter how well you present the idea, that voice makes you feel like you will go to hell. I have been meditating for the last five years. That has helped me to identify this voice that really tortured me all my life. Now that I have identified it, I find it is incredibly interesting. That in a way, is the seed of what this film is about. Everybody has their own version of The Inquisitor.
DEADLINE: There is a scene where Michael Keaton confronts this Broadway critic after he buys her a drink in a bar before opening night and she sneers that she will kill his show, even before she has seen it, just because she hates everything he represents. Keaton responds with his own angry attack, voicing probably every insult a critic could ever hear. So who here was getting revenge for a past pan?
[All four laugh very hard, and all eyes go to Dinelaris, the playwright.]
GONZALEZ INARRITU: [Looking at Alexander]. Why don’t you take this one?
DINELARIS: I can’t. I can’t. Let’s just assume I am a working New York playwright, and I can’t go beyond that. But the reason that scene works well is, both those characters have good arguments. In this movie, everybody takes their beating and nobody is safe. The critic makes a really good argument about the movie business being a place where they are handing each other awards for cartoons and pornography, where they take themselves too seriously and think they can do everything. On the other hand, Michael says to that critic, you sit there behind your wall, where you are safe and you risk nothing. Everybody’s got an argument, everybody takes their lumps. So I’d like to think that it’s not just a vendetta there.
GONZALEZ INARRITU: I think what the critic said is right, and what Michael said is right. In the theater scene, it’s true those critics are dictators. One or two guys really have the power to finish a play. It’s an extreme case of criticism where the critic is so empowered.
DEADLINE: Like a judge deciding one’s fate…
GONZALEZ INARRITU: And the panic of this poor guy, Riggin Thomson! She became the teacher, the priest, the symbol for the fear of being judged. And then she finally says, I hate you, and what you represent. I have been doing interviews for this film and everybody brings it up. One guy said, the way this critic is represented isn’t right. Then, someone else said, I know somebody like that, and I am like, of course you do.
DINELARIS: We watched these critics talking about how they loved the movie, but said the one thing they couldn’t believe was that the critic prejudging the play, that could never happen. I’m thinking, so this film starts with a man, floating in the air in his underwear, and that’s the one thing you couldn’t believe? Everybody gets hung up on that part, with the critic.
GIACOBONE: He couldn’t read the joke.
DEADLINE: Raymond Carver’s short story is the subject of the play Keaton’s character is staging, but how else did his story inform this movie, from tone to events?
GONZALEZ INARRITU: Carver is one of my favorite writers. I thought that an attempt to do a play based on Raymond Carver’s story would be stupid. That an ignorant guy that doesn’t belong to theater chooses to do this, is a bad great idea that Carver would like. The theme flows into what Carver wrote about. What is love? The elements of that story allow us to project and reflect itself through Michael’s character’s own quest. He became the same guy they talk about in that story, so desperate to be loved. It was terrifying with Carver, though. I knew that Tess Gallagher, the poet and widow of Carver, she was very tough with Robert Altman, and it took two years to get the rights for Short Cuts. I sent her the script, with a letter, and we knew that if she said no, we would be fucked. We could have another play, but it wouldn’t have been the same. She loved it, and now she has become a great friend of mine. She’s this beautiful 70-year-old woman, and at the premiere in L.A., she gave me the last shirt that Raymond Carver wore. I treasure it. She said that Raymond Carver would be laughing about this. So it was very important that Carver story be the subject of the play.
DEADLINE: Birdman has a subtitle. What is the unexpected virtue of innocence?
GONZALEZ INARRITU: Nico?
GIACABONE: It’s a good question. For me, I would say it’s that ego usually wins in that situation where you think you know what you’re doing. You create this mountain that you are climbing and you feel you are in control until you get to this point of desperation where you just realize that you have no control at all. Everything is bigger than you and you turn into this weak, ignorant thing. That moment of ignorance is beautiful.
DEADLINE: So ignorance is not necessarily a bad quality?
DINELARIS: When Alejandro came to us with this idea in his head, you could consider him to be ignorant at that point because the first reaction was, this movie can’t work. We tell him that and he says, I know, but it’s in my head and it’s bothering me. Had we really stopped and considered the idea, we might have said, this is insane, don’t do this. But there is innocence there that compels you to try to climb mountains that you could never climb. There’s something nice about that.
GONZALEZ INARRITU: That subtitle came later. What happens to this character is, he is an actor and to be most successful, he has to be not himself. That is the most incredible set of contradictions, the idea that you have to be not yourself in order to be good. In the moment that Riggin Thompson tries pretentiously and ignorantly to prove he is something that he is not, when he surrenders to that, when the critic says I will kill you, when his daughter rejects him and he realizes he has lost everything, in that moment right before that climactic act onstage, he is not acting. He is real and that is why the critic responded to his performance. He broke the rules of the game. And by surrendering to his reality, he gets to the unexpected virtue of ignorance. There was beauty in it.
DEADLINE: You see four writers on a script, it means one wrote it and got replaced by a succession of rewriters. Rarely do four writers actually collaborate on a movie script, and you guys are scattered from New York to Argentina. How do you make it work?
GIACOBONE: We usually get in a room, and hit each other with sticks. The one left conscious crawls to the computer and types in his line.
BO: It’s why it took almost two years, trying to get together but mostly meeting on Skype and emailing during flights.
GIACOBONE: Collaboration is the most incredible thing. You learn about yourself because you have to put your own ego in a very special place, where you can be your best but at the same time accept all the ideas of the other guys. It’s tough to be able to throw all the mediocrity you have at others, and deal with the worst things they will say about it. That has been the hardest thing in my life.
DEADLINE: Are you bracingly honest with each other?
DINELARIS: We are very honest with each other.
GIACOBONE: If you can get past the awkwardness of that stage, you get to something much better than you could have gotten alone.
DINELARIS: We were responsible to Alejandro, and the wacky vision of this that he had. How do we make that work on a page? We felt scared, considered everything 1000 times. He was very open. He would stand his ground sometimes, but would say, OK, show me another viewpoint. And we would go back and forth that way. We are very honest.
GONZALEZ INARRITU: It was a process of honest questioning. With no shame. So I’d go, I’m going to say something that is the worst idea, but, what about this? Then it would be, haha…but, and someone would salvage something and improve it. We opened ourselves to putting out ideas, without shame, and questioning even good ideas. This guy Alexander is a fucking nightmare. You have a great idea and he’ll say, ah…and you will be like, fuck you. But that questioning, all the time, got us to the best version of this. I was telling them, very drunkenly last night, that I was very moved by this experience because it was one of a kind. This kind of collaboration just doesn’t happen, outside of the neorealism with the old Italians like Fellini. It’s rare in cinema, where a bunch of guys get together and for me it has been maybe the best experience.
GIACOBONE: It’s difficult to collaborate like this, to find people where you can be really honest. I don’t know how it worked.
DINELARIS: I think it was because the collaborative process became about finding rather than creating something. Alejandro has this idea and it’s like this fossil in the sand and you brush it off and say, OK, that’s the tail. Alejandro had already set down the blueprint of what this was going to be, and what we’re all doing is trying to find the next part of the fossil. We know where our voices are, like me maybe with that critic, so it was about synthesizing those voices together. To find as opposed to create something.
DEADLINE: How much of a coincidence is it that this movie sends up the superhero genre and your cast is led by Michael Keaton who played Batman, Edward Norton who played the Hulk, and Emma Stone who was in the last two Spider-Man films?
GONZALEZ INARRITU: It got stranger than that. While we were shooting, there were Superman billboards all around us. When we were filming that rooftop scene, atop the theater with Emma and Edward, we look down and there’s the premiere of Lucky Guy with Tom Hanks. And Edward texts him and he looks up and is like, what is going on? Is the girl from Spider-Man going to jump? Don’t jump, Emma! It was hilarious. There was Tom Hanks, basically doing what Michael Keaton’s character is trying to do, which is to go from Hollywood to Broadway. There’s a scene where the first co-star leaves and Keaton says, bring me a good actor. He names names, like Fassbender, and they’re all off making superhero movies. It invited parody because it’s become like, a bunch of whores. We are all that way.
GIACOBONE: We are all going to start writing Spider-Man 4.
GONZALEZ INARRITU: Honestly, I said to Michael, if you want to cash out and we both can retire in Montana, let’s do fucking Birdman 4, or Birdman 2, with no shame about it.
DEADLINE: Would you have to call it a remake, even though the actual film never existed?
GONZALEZ INARRITU: It would have to be a pre-sequel.
DEADLINE: Alejandro, you must have been offered a superhero movie sometime or other.
GONZALEZ INARRITU: Yes.
DEADLINE: How does this lampooning of Hollywood’s fixation with superheroes affect your chance of ever getting a crack at one?
GONZALEZ INARRITU: I would be terrible. I think there’s nothing wrong with being fixated on superheroes when you are 7 years old, but I think there’s a disease in not growing up. The corporation and the hedge funds have a hold on Hollywood and they all want to make money on anything that signifies cinema. When you put $100 million and you get $800 million or $1 billion, it is very hard to convince people. You tell them, you will put in $20 million and you will get $80 million. Now, that is a fucking amazing business, but they say, “$80 million? I want $800 million.” Basically, the room to exhibit good nice films is over. These are taking the place of all those things.
DEADLINE: Is there anything you enjoy about these superhero films?
GONZALEZ INARRITU: I sometimes enjoy them because they are basic and simple and go well with popcorn. The problem is that sometimes they purport to be profound, based on some Greek mythological kind of thing. And they are honestly very right wing. I always see them as killing people because they do not believe in what you believe, or they are not being who you want them to be. I hate that, and don’t respond to those characters. They have been poison, this cultural genocide, because the audience is so overexposed to plot and explosions and shit that doesn’t mean nothing about the experience of being human.
DEADLINE: That message of not allowing opposing points of view in Hollywood isn’t just in these movies. After your Biutiful star Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz and Pedro Almodover signed a petition against violence in Gaza and mentioned genocide, stories cropped up speculating whether they would be able to work again in Hollywood. Whether it’s not accepting opposing viewpoints, or being preoccupied with superheroes to the point there is little room for complex adult films, or that right wing message you mentioned, does it all seem to be flowing into a river of sameness?
GONZALEZ INARRITU: That’s what I am saying. Superheroes…just the word hero bothers me. What the fuck does that mean? It’s a false, misleading conception, the superhero. Then, the way they apply violence to it, it’s absolutely right wing. If you observe the mentality of most of those films, it’s really about people who are rich, who have power, who will do the good, who will kill the bad. Philosophically, I just don’t like them.
DINELARIS: Those movies are so black and white. Whatever side of it you are on, Gaza is grey. Abortion is grey, and so is the death penalty. You can have a side and think that side is right, but the problem is when, whatever side you take, you’re either right or wrong. These movies tend to be myopic in their view of, this is right, this is wrong, the hero does this and the bad guys…it all comes down the manufacturing line and you know what is going to happen.
GONZALEZ INARRITU: Ultimately, it’s about nothing. It’s a package, and you open the box, and there’s another box, and another, and it doesn’t lead you to the truth.
DEADLINE: Have you talked to those guys about that Gaza petition? I’m sure they didn’t expect the reaction they received…
GONZALEZ INARRITU: Of course. It’s a reaction based on these values we have established. You can’t talk bad about oil, about the military…if you question the military it’s like you are betraying. If you criticize…not the Jewish aspect, but the political way of how Israel is moving, there are things you just can’t speak about. That is the philosophical terrain of the superhero movies.
DEADLINE: All four of you are working on adult-themed stuff with complex themes. What does this preoccupation with simple superhero stories do to your kind of movies?
GONZALEZ INARRITU: What do you mean?
DEADLINE: You said why go for $80 million on an adult movie when you might get $800 million on a superhero movie?
GONZALEZ INARRITU: Believe me, I wouldn’t know what a number like that feels like, I will never see that number.
DEADLINE: Where does that leave you when you are more interested in fiscally modest but intellectually ambitious films, and Hollywood wants the opposite?
GONZALEZ INARRITU: Me, personally? We, and the actors also, essentially worked for free and you have to do that on a movie like this. This was an act of love and passion and belief. Honestly, the film cost me money, considering the two years I put in, and same for the actors getting minimum. There were a lot of favors here. We all worked because we liked the film, so it wasn’t a stupid financial decision. I could not conceive doing a film just for the money. For me, it would be hell. Thank God, I have a little bit of savings to live a decent, simple life. I don’t need a lot, honestly, just to pay my rent and the college of my daughter. How can I give up two years of my life mainly for money? I couldn’t do it.
DEADLINE: The rest of you have other jobs, from directing commercials to writing plays; do you save up so when Alejandro calls, you say, OK, I’m ready to work free the next two years?
DINELARIS: That’s just the way it was with the movies I grew up loving, those late ’70s films like The Great Santini, And Justice For All, Norma Rae, Kramer Vs. Kramer, Breaking Away, Network. These are now indie films. Those used to be the staple movies studios were doing.
GIACOBONE: It is such a huge amount of work, writing something that is good. If you’re going to do it, put yourself into it, it becomes impossible to do that for a price tag. But we are doing that TV series together.
GONZALEZ INARRITU: I remember a director, in an interview, being depressed his third film hadn’t done $100 million. The first ones did a lot, but the third did $98 million. I thought, the moment you think like that, you are fucked. I will probably never see those numbers because I don’t make those kinds of films. Some directors, they haven’t put gas in their own car for 25 years, or haven’t flown commercial in all that time. When you begin to lose touch with life, you are fucked. You have this bag filled with emotional possibilities, and you understand them by living in the world. When you became one of those guys who cannot be criticized because they buy into the idea they are icons, when you believe that, it is the worst trap and you are fucked. To become a celebrity, a name — and I’ve actually met some that speak of themselves in the third person — it’s scary. They become an object, not a human complex, questioning thing where the cells are always changing.
DEADLINE: So what did you carry away after making a movie about the worst insecurities of artists?
GONZALEZ INARRITU: For me, this film has been a good dose of therapy. I recognize that I can be a tortured self-absorbed stupid guy, who sometimes gets it right. Hopefully, when people see this film and think about it a little bit, I hope they can see themselves. There’s nobody who doesn’t tear themselves down like that character does.