Birdman: Writing Without Irony
Alejandro González Iñárritu discusses fine-tuning the Birdman’s literal and figurative voice, and creating the interpretative ending that almost never was.
By Andrew Bloomenthal.
In light of the Oscar buzz surrounding his latest film Birdman, Andrew Bloomenthal revists writer/director Alejandro G. Iñárritu with follow up questions to Christopher McKittrick’s amazing article for Creative Screenwriting: Birdman: Completely One Shot? Don’t Even Try It.
With a slew of awards already in his clutches, Alejandro González Iñárritu may want to expand his trophy case, as his much ballyhooed film Birdman marches towards potential Oscar glory. Iñárritu’s tale of middling, middle-aged ex-action star Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), who struggles to achieve Broadway thespian cred, gave Iñárritu the chance to double down on Keaton’s narrative, as not-so-stable Riggan battles inner voices of insecurity–courtesy of his former winged superhero alter-ego. Then again, even when he’s not raging against internal demons, Riggan’s arrogant co-star (Edward Norton), surly daughter (Emma Stone), needy girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough) and worrywart lawyer (Zach Galifianakis), are more than happy to pick up the confrontational slack.
Iñárritu penned for Keaton the schizophrenic ramblings actors dream of—especially actors playing actors. Iñárritu sat with Creative Screenwriting to discuss fine-tuning the Birdman’s literal and figurative voice, writing without irony, and creating the interpretative ending that almost never was.
When writing Riggan’s dueling internal dialogue between the serious stage actor he longed to be, and the superhero persona he longed to shed, did you develop a bias towards one voice, over the other? Or did you strive to maintain objectivity?
I think that the definition of intelligence is literally to have two absolutely different and contradictory ideas, and still be able to operate in reality. That’s who we are; that’s how the ego operates. But this is not only my screenplay. It’s the work of a team of my lovely, incredible partners [Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo], where our deal was always to try to be honest and faithful, you know? Like, never prejudice anything only to make people laugh. And we were always really really aware and deliberate to get away from cynicism or irony. Irony has been spreading through pop culture, so we were trying to be honest with whatever these characters were feeling–not use them to make fun of them or to be above them.
When filming, was someone just out of the camera’s frame, delivering the Birdman’s lines, to give Michael Keaton something to react to? And what were your influences for the distinctive guttural rumbling quality of the Birdman’s voice?
Michael and I discussed this in advance, and I told him I wanted his voice to sound very similar to what he did in Batman, when he was in his bat suit, (lowers his voice) and he we was talking like that. Michael told me a story about proposing to Tim Burton the idea of his character’s voice changing, where the civilian [Bruce Wayne’s] voice was different from the superhero voice, and I remember at that time it was cool. Primitive. I wanted the Birdman’s voice to resonate to that Batman kind of thing. And as you said, on the set I hired a young guy who has a good voice and a good pace to be reading while Michael was performing, and this guy has naturally an incredible low voice. Like incredible. I got used to that incredibly rumbly kind of thing, so when Michael came in [to do the Birdman’s voice-over in post-production], and he started to do the Batman kind of voice, it sounded a little bit pedestrian compared to what I had been poisoned by, which was super low. So then I pushed Michael to do that. It was somewhere between Batman and the reality of the sound on set. The job was to over-equalize the voice to make reference to the new way the voice sounds.
Was it hard strike precisely the right tone?
Yeah, because I think when you get into the rumbly thing, you get this bass taking over and sometimes it’s difficult to understand. So you can have the effect, but you have to measure yourself, because if you cross the line, than nobody understands what he’s saying.
There’s been a great deal of speculation about the film’s final scene, when Riggan wakes up in the hospital bed after his failed suicide attempt on stage. Some people hypothesize that Riggan actually succeed in killing himself and that the hospital room scene was actually his personal afterlife fantasy, where he finally achieves everything he ever wanted. His play gets a rave review, his producer is ecstatic and he reconnects with his daughter. So I’ll ask you to your face: was this Riggan’s personal afterlife fantasy?
(Laughs) Honestly, that is the most beautiful interpretation I ever heard! I have to say, that I rewrote the ending of the film in the middle of the production, and that was not the real ending. It was [originally] a terrible ending!
What was the original ending?
I will never say. It was embarrassing. It was bad. And in the middle of the shooting, I said, “This is unfair for the character, this is unfair for the story and this is unfair for the audiences.
Please tell me that original ending.
No, no, no. But when I rewrote it in the middle of production, it was like changing a tire at 100 kilometers per hour. The financiers were freaking out, because it was a very ambiguous kind of thing, and I said, “There has to be as many interpretations as seats in the theatre.” That’s the films that I like, where everybody brings a personal perspective. And this theory that you bring is the first time I have heard it. It’s wonderful, and it’s as valid as any other one. I love it.
So you won’t officially say if that theory is correct?
(Laughs) It’s a beautiful theory.
If you enjoyed this article, don’t forget to check out Birdman: Completely One Shot? Don’t Even Try It.
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