New York Film Festival Premiere of "Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance"
We’ll spare you the feather analogies just this once. Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s newest release, Birdman, or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, makes the claustrophic spaces of one small theater in New York City—and one actor’s mind—into a universal tale about celebrity, ego, ambition, and commercial success versus artistic legitimacy. The soaring—oops!—transcendent performance by Michael Keaton in the lead role of Riggan Thomson, a superstar superhero actor who wants to legitimize his career by putting on a Broadway play, is not to be missed. Neither is the thrilling cinematography composed of seemingly endless shots that build on Iñárritu’s script that takes—no, not flight—but meta-analysis to a new level in film much as Bertolt Brecht did for theater.
Luckily for us, the New York Film Festival chose Birdman for its prestigious Closing Night slot. Why so lucky? Because we spent the evening with director Iñárritu and three women of the film: Naomi Watts (Lesley), Amy Ryan (Sylvia), and Andrea Riseborough (Laura). Iñárritu makes clear in our interview, and during the press panel that took place earlier in that day, that his inspiration for Birdman came from introspection after turning 50—something we can certainly relate to! Ego has a tendency to lift us up one moment and tear us down the next, and the manifestations of Birdman that Thomson hallucinates display both qualities in force. But Keaton couldn’t resist getting a joke in during the press conference, saying his ego flatters him as “the greatest, you’re wonderful” but in contrast with Iñárritu’s self-defeat, the compliments only get grander after that.
Riseborough, a British theater star still relatively new to American film, gave us excellent insight into her character, Laura, who is Thomson’s much younger girlfriend. Most of the film’s characters are actors who participate in the Broadway play, which Thomson adapts from a Raymond Carver short story, to revive their careers or give legitimacy to their film successes. But Laura, in Riseborough’s opinion, takes part because she loves Thomson—or at least she’s in love with the idea of loving him, which makes them more alike than either thinks. Nor do they realize how much their actions mirror those of the play-within-a-film’s characters, an intentional parallelism that Iñárritu discusses in our interview and described at length during the press conference. As he put it, Carver’s story of people searching for love makes Birdman “a film about the play of the guy working the film making a film about the play. In a way, that particular Raymond Carver short story becomes the essential quest of the character in the film.”
Head spinning yet? Add in Edward Norton’s revelation from the press conference that he took his inspiration for method actor Mike from Iñárritu, and a whole new hall of mirrors opens up. As Norton described it, “My entire performance constituted of dropping the Mexican accent, and that was it.” He followed that up by giving a hilarious imitation of the director at the Venice Film Festival, where the film’s producer read them both reviews. All we can say is Iñárritu takes “turgid, semireligious pretentiousness to encompass all the emotion of the world” as the highest compliment.
It’s no surprise that with a director of photography as talented as Emmanuel Lubezki, who won last year’s cinematography Academy Award for Gravity, that the camera and its point of view plays an integral part in the telling of this particular story. Most of the filming took place within the St. James Theater, and the narrow confines of backstage passages and corridors are as much a part of a theater actor’s life as the wide, open stage. The continuous takes that Lubezki is famous for are edited together to create a mood that never lets up. For the actors and crew, that meant repeatedly performing whole sequences of action that depended on every cord, door, and person being in the right spot at the right time.
Does that remind anyone of remaining onstage for the entirety of a play performance? Watts talks with us about how those demands took her right back to her early days in theater. Riseborough shares how the biggest surprise for her was seeing how that pressure cooker of frenetic energy generated a majestic whole of a film that, well, soared to new heights. At least we avoided spread its wings?
Frankly, with all those real and fictional egos in the same room, we’re wondering how the cameras fit in at all! Should we make that last joke our cawing card? Go on. Watch those red carpet clips. They’re guaranteed to rub your memories clean of our attempts at humor.
On the red carpet, Iñárritu elaborates on how Birdman portrays his artistic struggles and internal voice. He also admits to having Michael Keaton in mind for the role but didn’t hold his breath…until Keaton signed on! Lastly, those continuous takes were the only way Iñárritu could imagine transforming the film into a subjective view of the human experience.
According to Watts, Birdman’s shooting style forced the cast and crew to become a cohesive unit. Though it’s been a decade since her first film with Iñárritu, Watts thinks he’s just as passionate and amazing of a leader as ever. Her character’s desire to fulfill a childhood dream may be extreme, but it’s also quite relatable.
While Riseborough’s character isn’t that concerned with artistic merit—she’s more concerned with Thomson’s affections—Riseborough herself, being a British theater pro, completely understands the push and pull between theater and film in an actor’s life. She thinks that Laura and Thomson both have the same yearning for love, which is what attracts them to each other, for better or worse.
As a theater to film transplant, Ryan credits theater with building up her acting tool set and offering film actors a great way to gain back their energy. Whether Ryan’s character Sylvia is the most likeable one in the film or simply the one with the most common sense, she thinks Sylvia has a positive influence on Thomson. If only her keen understanding of the difference between adoration and love extended to her understanding of his frame of mind…