With such films as Amores Perros, Babel, 21 Grams and Biutiful to his credit, Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu is no stranger to awards season. His films, often daring, certainly dramatic and innovative, clearly have caught the eye of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. But the dark, brooding nature of most of his work has been completely turned on its head with his latest entry into the Oscar game, Birdman. This is a rare comedy left-turn for the filmmaker, who used an innovative shooting style that has been as talked about as stars Michael Keaton, Emma Stone and Edward Norton. With a slew of nominations and awards from just about every critics group, plus a leading four nominations from the Screen Actors Guild, and seven from the Golden Globes, Iñárritu once again has captured voters’ imaginations.
I never thought I’d see the day when Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu has a movie nominated in the Golden Globes best movie, comedy or musical category.
Me neither. I would just say that I have to laugh about that. You know, I was a little bit tired of the intensity that is required to do a drama—it’s strong. And I think when I hit 50 years old last year, or before that, I really thought that I should lighten up a little bit. I have been doing some personal stuff that has gotten me to a very nice place, and I understand a lot of things that before I didn’t—my own ego, how it works, and how priorities in my life have been. I think when you turn 50 you get a little melancholic in a way.
The use of the drums is extraordinary, too. I’ve never seen that in a film, all the way through. It’s like a jazz riff.
When I got that idea, I really was very excited for two reasons. I thought, well I want the score to use drums, which I love, and I wanted people to really be flowing with those beats. At the same time, it was a way for me to get one of the few tools to help me find an internal rhythm of the film; I didn’t have any tool in the editing possibilities. So that really was like a tempo thing that helped me.
It works with the style of shooting, too.
I knew that it was almost suicidal to do a comedy in one shot, because it’s an attempt to do a narrative, ultimately about the nature of film, which is fragmented to time and space. In comedy, rhythm is God, so I knew that I needed something to help me find a rhythm.
I have to tell you, though, I forgot about the one-shot bit 10 minutes into the film.
That’s reassuring, because always my big worry was that it would become something more than it should be and people will be distracted with the ride. I always wanted to keep it in a way humble and in service of the narrative in order so the people should not notice.
This is a great director’s film, as well as a great actor’s film. It’s really both. I think directors are going to look at this and go, Whoa, this is different. This is so cool.
Well, I think we did something good. It’s always a team effort in the way that everybody has to be responsible for their own thing. And for me, I think the challenge as a director is, obviously, the blocking and the rhythm—to find all those kinds of things to make sense and to find that tone, a little drama, a little comedy. For the actors, the talent is to serve the demands that I ask of them, to do it with naturality and truth, and to be honest when we were terrified. We knew that we had to nail it or we would be f**ked. And that was a big accomplishment of everybody…
When I said “Cut,” that was final. Everything is really real. What is there, there’s no way for me to add anything. That was why it was very scary, because I do my films in the editing room. That’s where I shape and find them. I realized how lazy I’d become. To shoot a conventional film means that you are always covering yourself. You are putting nets, and in a way letting bad decisions take over. [Shooting the film as one take] put everybody in the mind to be truthful in that moment and not wait to find the truth later. You had to know exactly what you wanted. You really need to understand every single thing before you shoot. You have to be clear.
It’s a real exercise in trust between director and actor like I’ve never seen. I mean, they really are putting everything in your hands here.
And Michael, especially, honestly, he was a hero.
He’s great in so many things that I’ve seen him in. I liked him in Need for Speed earlier this year. I said, “Where’s he been? This guy is brilliant.” But this is a tour de force performance.
He has this ability that I have never seen—and I have worked with great actors—of jumping in and out from drama to comedy, from weird to crazy, to not-so-crazy again, a little bit funny, then heartbreaking. So all the palettes that he paints with, the very tiny details, and with the precision that was required—with the camera floating, 300-degree heat all the time—I don’t know how he did it. But it was beautiful to watch.
When you and your partners wrote the film, did you write with Keaton in mind?
No. He was in the top of the list. I knew that it was a bet. It was like, “OK, this can go wrong.” Now it’s funny; now that everything works, every decision seems to be like, “Oh, it’s the obviously right choice.” I knew that for many reasons he had the biggest chance to really nail the role because he has been a pioneer superhero.
Is that what drives you now, this challenge that you’re giving yourself on your films?
I learned with Birdman that it’s liberating when you just lose yourself and go after something that terrifies you. The experience was so good. Beyond the results, beyond whether it’s good or not, is the experience to be much more alive. That’s where I am now. Maybe later I will do cookie-cutter films and I will be comfortable.
Were you prepared for the response that this movie has received?
No. I’ve always considered this a very tiny experimental film. That’s how we did it, that’s how I got the money. We did it almost for free since there was no f**king way to make this film except as a favor. All the actors, everybody, nobody got nothing. And in a way I felt, well maybe it can be funny or play for some audiences. But I never expected that people, until now, would get it and enjoy it as much as it seems they are. And I feel absolutely surprised and blessed.