Birdman: “Completely one shot? Don’t even try it”
Three screenwriters simultaneously writing a single-shot film, working with “madman” Alejandro González Iñárritu.
By Christopher McKittrick.
Sure, the critically-acclaimed film Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) and its much talked about presentation seem like artistic triumphs now. However, the three screenwriters who collaborated with acclaimed filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu on the script for Birdman admit that there was more than enough room for disaster to derail the project. From the very beginning, Iñárritu initiated the project by approaching three screenwriters – Argentinians Nicolás Giacobone and Armando Bo and American Alexander Dinelaris – with an idea that might cause other writers to give up before they write a single line: most of the film would be simulated as a single, uninterrupted shot. Eventually the group ended up penning a screenplay about an aging Hollywood actor, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), best known for playing a superhero named Birdman in blockbusters now attempting to win the love that he believes he deserves from audiences with a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” This is despite the fact that the production is facing seemingly unsurmountable problems at the same time when Riggan’s personal life is in shambles… all while Birdman is subconsciously taking control of Riggan’s crumbling psyche.
Giacobone and Bo had previously worked with Iñárritu before on the script for Biutiful, which was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. For both it was their first credit feature film script. Before undertaking Birdman, the pair also collaborated on the script for The Last Elvis, which was also Bo’s directorial debut and premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Veteran playwright Dinelaris was a new addition to the partnership for Birdman, though he did contribute some early uncredited work on Biutiful. In addition to his plays that have been produced off-Broadway, Dinelaris wrote the books for the musical adaptation of the 1992 film The Bodyguard, which recently ran at the Adelphi Theatre in London’s West End, and On Your Feet!, a musical based on the lives of Emilio Estefan and Gloria Estefan that will begin a Broadway run in November 2015. His knowledge of the theater industry was instrumental in depicting the behind-the-scenes chaos of a Broadway production in Birdman. The four will continue their collaboration with the television series The One Percent, which they are now scripting.
Creative Screenwriting interviewed Giacobone and Dinelaris together and Bo separately about the challenges of writing a film without any narrative cuts, why they were told by others not to even attempt the project, and the metaphor of flying depicted in the now critically-acclaimed dark comedy.
Normally when you see four writing credits on a movie, it rarely means that all four writers worked together on a script, as you three and Alejandro did on Birdman. Can you describe your collaboration process?
Nicolás Giacobone: What we usually do is at the beginning of the process we will meet. We met in New York a couple of times, Mexico, and L.A., and just start with an idea. The first notes that Alejandro gave us were insane. It was just “one shot narration, a comedy about the theater,” so we were excited and confused. For a while we thought about it, and we thought about the main character and his journeys and obsessions. The interesting thing is that of the four us we’re two directors – Armando and Alejandro – and Alex and I are writers, so we can approach the scene from different aspects.
Alexander Dinelaris: I think especially in the case of a movie like Birdman, our collaboration is uniquely suited. There are two very visual storytellers in Alejandro and Armando, and two writers in Nico and I. When you have a movie that’s visually important to telling the story as this one is – the one camera is as important as any aspect – we had visual minds discussing how that would help augment or push the story forward. A movie like this is also dialogue-heavy, so you have the two writers on that end. It was a fortunate accident.
Armando Bo: It’s tough because we are four, but in the same way it’s nice because these are four minds behind everything and the script then has many layers of ideas. It took two years of work. We went to Mexico and Los Angeles, and we Skyped a lot. It was tough, but at the same time now I see why it was great. I see myself more as a director than a writer, but I think with us all working on the script the balance was very good.
What do you do when disagreements between you come up during the writing process?
Dinelaris: We argue them out. We’re in the “no offense, none taken” field. Especially with this, you come in with a loony idea there’s a shot it’s not going to be any good [Laughs]. Generally the person who is most passionate and feels the strongest about it wins the day, and the rest of us get behind that person and do our best to make it work.
Bo: Of course we can be fragmented, but also we were working for Alejandro. It’s Alejandro’s movie and is his point of a view. We can argue, but he brings a lot because he is a madman. We are all really on it between the four of us, and it comes down to common sense. We are working with characters and a story, and the characters and the story should always set what should make sense or not. It may take longer to write the script, but it works.
One of the most talked about aspects of Birdman is its simulated single-shot presentation. Since that concept was part of Alejandro’s original idea for the film, how did it affect the way you wrote the script?
Giacobone: It affected it completely. We were so, so afraid at the beginning of this because for the first time we knew that whatever we wrote on the page of each scene is going to be there on the screen. Everything in the movie was out of our comfort zone because we had to learn how to do this movie while we were doing it. Then Alejandro did something that was very important to us once we had the final draft, he did three weeks of rehearsals of every scene with the camera crew, which allowed us to see the last polishes of what needed to be done.
Dinelaris: This was incredibly daunting from the start because you imagine as a writer when you set out to write a scene you’re always saying to yourself, “When we get to editing we’ll edit together the best scene that there is.” Because of the long shots we weren’t going to be able to get in there and say, “We can cut that out when the time comes.” We had to be very, very sure about what was on the page, and any writer who lives knows that you’re never really sure about anything even in its final form. So for us it was very, very, frightening up front. I think that pressure that we had on us in the beginning was immediately translated to the actors when we were in production because then the actors would say, “Oh, hell, this is an eight-minute take. If I screw up my last lines we go to position one.” So the pressure was always on all of us to be as perfect as we could be up front, and that’s just dangerous and exhilarating at the same time.
Bo: This film works as one shot because it was written for that. It was one of the first ideas Alejandro had, even before the character. We wrote everything thinking of this one shot, and a lot of decisions that would mostly be taken in the editing room were taken before shooting. Because it required a huge amount of choreography, we had to make sure all the dialogue was working and where it should be. It was a huge challenge, but also already in the script we were thinking of how to correct certain situations and how they should go from one to the next one.
Do you see any similarities between writing a script for a play and writing a script for a superhero blockbuster?
Dinelaris: Out of all of us I’m the one who works in the theater, and no, they’re very, very different animals. But in this case I think Alejandro found one of these moments that were perfectly suited, because the one shot method, or theory, loans itself to the idea of theater where there are no cuts. It’s not about a reaction shot. It was like performing a play on camera because there was no way to change the angle or influence the audience with shots other than being inside the actors’ head, especially Michael Keaton’s head. In this particular film there was a similarity. I think generally there is not, but there was in this one with the fluidity of it and the long takes. The fact that we were running through these long scenes with a lot of dialogue was a similarity between the two forms that usually isn’t there.
Alex, how did you background in writing for theater inform the script?
Dinelaris: A lot of people are saying that what they learned from Birdman that they didn’t know that backstage at Broadway theaters is like that. People thought it was more luxurious than that. That’s a very accurate depiction of what backstage at a Broadway play is when you’re in rehearsals, you’re in the trenches and all the madness that goes on just before you head on stage. We exaggerated it – I’m amused by the theater people in New York who tweet, “Hey, you can’t walk out of the St. James Theatre onto Times Square!” and I’m thinking, “It’s a movie, it’s a movie.” [Laughs] It was not unlike having a consultant on a boxing film who says, “No, in a gym this is what happens. It smells like this.” It’s not that stereotypical image because there are certain details you don’t know. Also, in a film when you’re writing dialogue you’re usually writing two or three-page scenes, so I think that my background of being able to write eight page-scenes of dialogue helped because they were really more like play scenes.
The play within the film is based on the Raymond Carver short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Why was that story chosen, and what is its thematic relevance to the script?
Giacobone: In this case, it was Alejandro’s idea. He said from the beginning that he had this concept with the story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” and he wanted to find the connection between the themes in that story and the theme in Riggan’s journey. Basically what Riggan wants is to be loved and to be loved for what he believes he should be loved for. That story is little bit about that, it’s a little bit about people seeing love everywhere else and trying to understand it so maybe they could translate it to their own lives.
Nico and Armando, you both collaborated with Alejandro previously on Biutiful. What was the difference between working with him on Biutiful versus Birdman, which are very different movies?
Giacabone: Well, they’re both comedies so I don’t know what you’re saying. [Laughs] No, they’re so different and are in such different worlds. The relationship with Alejandro is the same. It’s great, and we’re friends. Following his need of reinventing himself and at the same time reinventing ourselves, we can grow. He likes challenges and trying to discover himself in different forms, so that’s very exciting. But it was so different I cannot compare anything except that there was a screenplay and a camera and actors. [Laughs] What made Birdman different was Alex coming into the mix. We developed an amazing relationship from the beginning of our collaboration, and think that truly took it one step forward.
Bo: In a way Alejandro was in two very different moments of what he wanted to do. It was a really different moment in his career and his life. But it’s all storytelling and Biutiful was one kind of story that needed to be told and written in that way because of the tone and the story of the character. Birdman is another type of story, another type of monster, and a lot of decisions and risks that Alejandro felt meant he was ready for a big change. I think the most interesting thing about Biutiful is from the perspective of the director. He was a dramatic guy, and now he went to dark comedy. He used to cut a lot, and now he didn’t cut. He used to use a lot of music, and now all the music is drums. You can see that a lot of these decisions made Birdman a risky movie, especially with making fun of movies that are huge box office successes.
Alex, what was it like jumping into this insanity?
Dinelaris: It’s funny, because it felt perfectly natural. It took Nico and I all of one meeting to realize that we believed in the same things and that we were extraordinarily compatible together as writers. Even when Alejandro was throwing curveball after curveball, we were ready, excited, and thrilled that we could bounce ideas off each other. I really believe to this day that the best moments in Birdman were from when Nico and I were on Skype together at two in the morning and we were cracking each other up. We’re very different, but when we both felt the same thing or laughed at the same thing, we knew it was going to work. Even when we watch the film with audiences, we smile at each other because they’re laughing exactly the same way or crying the same way as we did when we filmed this scene. Joining this insanity was made much, much easier and was a thrill because of the language that Nico and I developed in putting the ideas on paper.
In that sense, it has to be very helpful for you as a writer to have that immediate audience response as you’re collaborating.
Dinelaris: Yes, for sure, especially with collaborations of people with different sensibilities. There’s a fine line because you want someone different from yourself, otherwise you get caught in your own trap. On the other hand, you want someone who appreciates the fringes of what you do and in this case what he does. I think we’re running into the same thing in our writer’s room right now. We have three very talented playwrights in the room right now writing that series with us and we all have different viewpoints. But you can see that we all believe in the same things in a way, and I think I’ve been incredibly lucky to have met Nico, Armando, and of course Alejandro – that goes without saying, because that guy is a genius. It’s great to have an instant audience, but it’s important to have someone who is different but has the same thrust to come up with something that appears cohesive in the end.
Right now you are collaborating again with Alejandro on a television series for Starz, The One Percent. So far, what are you discovering about the differences of writing TV and film scripts?
Giacobone: Maybe you should ask that question one year from now! [Laughs] Like with Birdman, we’re learning how to do this while we’re already doing it. Maybe we have to do it with the virtue of ignorance, like the punishment of coming into a new form and trying to find our way. We have to write about six hundred pages in a few months, but the truth is we don’t know how to do it yet and we don’t know what’s going to happen in the near future! [Laughs]
Dinelaris: If we feel any sort of courage at all, and we don’t have a lot of it right now, it’s that what the TV show has in common with Birdman and Biutiful is that it’s very character-orientated and we have three tremendous actors in Hillary Swank, Ed Harris, and Ed Helms to model what we’re doing on. Like Birdman, this show is going to rely heavily on character behavior more than plot or a linear approach.
Speaking of the subtitle of Birdman, what does the phrase “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance” mean to you in regard to writing this challenging script?
Dinelaris: To me, it means that Alejandro, Nico, Armando and myself set out to write a movie as batshit crazy as Birdman. You have to be an idiot to do it all in one shot. You have to be an idiot to attempt it. It takes a great, great deal of ignorance to not pay attention to the difficulties and to think you’re going to do this. Birdman looks like a good idea now, but a year and a half ago we did not know how we would land.
Giacobone: Many people objected to it. Important people who we will not name.
Dinelaris: Huge people said “Don’t even try it.”
Giacobone: “Completely one shot? Don’t do this.”
There are two key special-effects sequences in the film: first when Birdman appears and “takes over” Riggan, and second when Riggan takes flight. Was it always intended in the script to limit the sequences to these specific moments?
Dinelaris: We knew at the moment where he was at his lowest point was when Birdman took over. Nico wrote that moment in different forms. There was one version where Riggan is in Central Park trying to drown himself and he had to fly out of that, but I think Nico at the time put together the notion that that’s where his superpowers would come full bore, so it was always going to be one setpiece and not dispersed through the film. We happened to think that after the audience finds out he doesn’t have superpowers, which is when Zach [Galifianakis, who plays Riggan’s best friend and manager] comes into the room and sees him throwing things, the audience realizes he’s throwing things and not launching them with his hands. They get the first notion that he doesn’t have the powers he thinks he does. That’s when we thought that is where we’ll have Birdman completely take over and show immense superpowers. It was really about where it came in the script and not how much of it there was.
So you saw Birdman’s superpowers as both metaphoric and thematic?
Bo: The movie is called Birdman, so of course there’s a huge metaphor there because it’s a very poetic moment. You can think about it in your mind that when you can fly you are more free. In a way, when he is flying he is making a decision. Also, he is Birdman, and why should Birdman not fly in this moment when he is feeling so upset? It’s a fantastic moment that the movie needed because it’s almost always inside the theater. One of the ideas for the movie was to go outside of the theater, and when he starts flying it’s like opening his heart. Of course there are a lot of metaphors, but also it is a visual side of the film that provides a lot of feelings.
Dinelaris: The only reason Birdman became Birdman was because of the metaphor of flying. I think you’ll notice in the movie that whenever there is an emotional danger, we put the characters in high positions, whether that’s Michael on roof, Emma [Stone] and Ed [Norton] on the balcony and she’s laying over the edge, and when they first make love they’re on the top of the theater over the stage. That’s where Birdman the superhero element ties into what he was, but we didn’t think of a superhero. We just thought thematically it’s that feeling when you attempt to be an artist, which is a ridiculous endeavor. It’s the equivalent of throwing yourself with faith off a high point.
If you enjoyed this article, don’t forget to check out our follow-up piece: Birdman: Writing Without Irony.