Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Birdman – or, going by its full title, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – took the moviegoing world by storm when it was first released. It’s rare that an arthouse-type movie makes it to the mainstream, but Birdman has a Best Picture Oscar under its belt and more than $100 million in the bank.
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It stars Michael Keaton and Edward Norton as parodies of themselves: Keaton, as a washed-up actor known for playing a superhero, and Norton, as a pretentious artist who’s impossible to work with. Unsurprisingly, this fascinating film had an equally (well, not quite equally) fascinating production. So, here are 10 existential behind-the-scenes facts about Birdman.
Birdman was so meticulously planned that it only took two weeks to edit
Because all of the shots were long takes, Birdman had to go through careful rehearsals to make sure that the actors knew every single line and all of their blocking. Shooting took a total of two months, including rehearsals.
Then, editing only took two weeks, since the crew shot Birdman in sequence (a rarity for major Hollywood productions), there were only 16 cuts in the whole movie, and it was shot entirely digitally. In fact, it was the first Best Picture winner in Academy Awards history to be shot digitally. Before Birdman won the award, all of its winners were shot either fully or partly on film.
The Times Square scene had to be shot after midnight to limit the amount of real bystanders
One of Birdman’s funniest and most iconic scenes sees Riggan getting stuck in an alley behind the theater in his underwear. He has to run through a crowded Times Square to get back inside the theater, while people film him on their phones. Those viral videos end up getting him more recognition than the Broadway play he’s been working tirelessly on.
The crew waited until after midnight to shoot the Times Square sequence so that the crowds would be thinning (although not gone completely – itis Times Square, after all) and most of the people featured in the frame would be hired extras.
Margot Robbie turned down the role of Sam
Margot Robbie was offered the role of Sam (Riggan’s daughter) in Birdman, but she turned it down in favor of the chance to star alongside Will Smith in the romantic caper Focus (which performed better at the box office than Birdman, but also had a much bigger budget, and was nowhere near as widely praised as Iñárritu’s masterpiece).
Before Emma Stone was cast as Sam, Blake Lively, Emilia Clarke, and Lily James all auditioned for the part. Stone managed to squeeze in the Birdman shoot during a break from filming The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which was also shooting in New York City.
Like Riggan, all the main actors in Birdman are ex-comic book movie stars
Whether this is a coincidence or not, all of the main actors in Birdman face the same predicament as its protagonist, Riggan Thomson: they’ve all appeared in comic book movies. The most obvious example is Michael Keaton, who played Batman in two movies directed by Tim Burton, leading some viewers to note that he’s almost playing a self-parody (despite the fact that Keaton has said Riggan’s personality is,out of all the characters he’s played, the furthest from his own).
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Edward Norton played Bruce Banner in The Incredible Hulk, Emma Stone played Gwen Stacy in The Amazing Spider-Man movies, and Naomi Watts played Jet Girl in the little-seen Tank Girl.
The Wolf of Wall Street paved the way for Birdman
Alejandro G. Iñárritu was originally planning to direct The Revenant before Birdman. However, The Revenant was delayed when its star Leonardo DiCaprio signed on to play Jordan Belfort in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street.
Iñárritu and his team didn’t want to make The Revenant without DiCaprio, but similarly, they didn’t want to just sit around and wait for The Wolf of Wall Street to get made. So, they moved forward Birdman on the schedule and got to work on it. By the time DiCaprio was ready to return to The Revenant, Birdman was complete and production went ahead.
Michael Keaton and Edward Norton kept a running tally of actors’ mistakes in the long takes
Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s decision to edit Birdman to look like one take meant that the actors had to do up to 15 pages of dialogue in a single take. And while they were performing this dialogue, they had to hit all of their blocking, too (as did the camera operators), at just the right time. Camera operator Chris Haarhoff called this “a type of dance where everyone would hopefully try to peak all at the same moment.”
Messing up a take was a pretty big deal. So, Michael Keaton and Edward Norton started a tally of how many mistakes each actor made. Emma Stone made the most mistakes, while Zach Galifianakis made the fewest – and even when he did make a mistake, most of the time, he played it off so well that the take was still used.
The Graduate director Mike Nichols thought Birdman would be a disaster
Two weeks before he began shooting Birdman, with everything mapped out, director Alejandro G. Iñárritu had dinner with Mike Nichols, the late, great director of such classics as The Graduate and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. He told Nichols about how he planned to shoot Birdman and Nichols expected it to be a disaster, figuring that removing cuts would limit the possibilities for comedy.
Iñárritu didn’t let Nichols’ doubts get to him, but the conversation did alert him to the fact that the film’s comedy would have to rely on how the actors delivered it to sell it. Fortunately, he had a great cast.
The Macbeth scene was initially much less crazy
Following Riggan’s altercation with Tabitha in the Rum House in the final film, he steps outside and hears a madman screaming the Act V monologue from William Shakespeare’sMacbeth. After the monologue, the man asks Riggan for acting advice, fearing his delivery was too over-the-top. In the original script, this scene was much tamer.
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Originally, Tabitha was going to tell Riggan that he was “a celebrity, not an actor,” before casuallyasking a waiter to perform some Shakespeare. The waiter would then impulsively deliver a beautiful performance of the Macbeth monologue. The final version is much crazier, but the original version sounds delightfully spontaneous.
Antonio Sánchez improvised Birdman’s iconic jazz drum score
One of the most memorable elements of Birdman is its Grammy-winning jazz drum score, one of the greatest original film scores in recent memory. The entire score was improvised by Antonio Sánchez, who has a master’s degree in Jazz Improvisation from Boston’s New England Conservatory music school. Sánchez wanted the score to be “very loose and organic and from the gut, very visceral and jazzy.”
He explained how the score was written: “[Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu] would be sitting in front of me with his eyes closed and all of a sudden, he would raise his hand. And I would think, okay, that means Riggan opened a door, so I would switch or do an accent or do something with the texture. We would try the scene again and then try a different kind of intensity and color.”
The ending came to Alejandro G. Iñárritu in a dream
In the final moments of Birdman, Riggan jumps out the window, his daughter (Emma Stone) rushes over in shock and dismay, and then her eyes drift up towards the skies. She smiles with a glint of hope in her eye, suggesting that Riggan actually turned into Birdman and flew away.
This ambiguous ending has been heavily debated and is even a little controversial because it could either be brilliant and meaningful or just plain bizarre. According to director Alejandro G. Iñárritu, the ending of Birdman “came in a dream.” Frankly, the ending doesn’t need to be explained; just sit back and enjoy the beauty.
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