Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest film Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) poses several perplexing challenges for the performers onscreen, the crew working feverishly behind the scenes and, most importantly, for audiences attempting to find some semblance of sanity and stability in the narrative, which seemingly takes place in the creatively chaotic mind of Riggan (Michael Keaton). He’s an actor known for years as the guy who played a comic book hero in a wildly successful franchise but now longs to reinvent himself as a real performer onstage.
The action begins in and is rooted around the theater where Riggan — as writer, director and star — is calling all the creative shots on a production of an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Days away from opening, the set has the jittery feel of sweat and anxiety. Everything and everyone moves as if sparked to life but with no unifying directive or instinct, so there is just this disordered explosion and ricocheting within the claustrophobic confines of the theater. In reality, though, it is not the theater at all that defines the landscape; instead, Iñárritu locks us inside Riggan’s head.
And he does so in the most ingenious way: by framing the story as one single, uncut take that hustles and bustles both backstage and on, out of doors onto the streets of New York, even up onto the rooftop of the theater. It is a conceptual head-trip, to be sure, that might start to remind the viewer of the process of working onstage in a live theater where there is no safety net, no opportunity to re-shoot a scene if a line or mark is missed. Birdman captures that sense, despite the fact that we know the film was not shot this way.
To maintain the delusionary trick requires technical magicians, like actress Andrea Riseborough as Laura, a movie actress who follows Riggan to New York to help him fulfill his crazy dream quest.
She comes with none of the artistic illusions compelling Riggan. She has hitched herself to him, professionally and personally, but even as a mere game piece on the twisted chessboard of his psyche, she proves to be more than a pawn to be pushed around before being sacrificially taken off the board.
Riseborough has shown a willingness to embrace such complexity in previous productions, having worked with Madonna on W.E. (as Wallis Simpson, the lover of a would-be king in a pivotal historic moment) and recently on the science fiction thriller Oblivion from Joseph Kosinski (TRON: Legacy), where she co-starred alongside Tom Cruise as part of a team sent back to Earth to extract resources before uncovering the truth about their mission.
During a phone interview, Riseborough confirmed that the process of shooting Birdman was indeed similar to live theater.
“There was a certain amount of choreography involved,” she says, “because of what we were trying to achieve technically, but for me, I spent a lot of time growing up in the theater. I started theater when I was about nine, so it felt like a homecoming, as part of an ensemble, in that situation. We very much relied on each other as a team.
“None of us wanted to drop the ball. When you’re shooting in long sections, no one wants to be the fucker at the end who forgets a line or just doesn’t hit the tone or emotion correctly and then Alejandro has to cut. So we had to bring an incredible amount of focus, the same as you would before hundreds of people a night.”
Her assessment should remind us that film is certainly a collaborative creative process, with every member of the crew assuming a degree of authorship over their contribution, which, while more obvious on a production like Birdman, is still valued on larger-scale movies like Oblivion.
“What Claudio [Miranda, the director of photography of Oblivion] was trying to achieve on that one was technically very different,” she says. “For example, there was very little blue screen. All of the sky-scapes, they projected on the walls around us. When you look at the sky tower, when my character is in the sky tower, what you see outside is what I was seeing, even though it was inside a studio. It was just a way of making something as real as can be.”
It is those details, those seemingly tiny pieces of reality passed along from each of these magicians, that convince audiences of the authenticity of the world before them. For Riseborough, the process is less about sleight of hand and much more about adding her creative spark to the larger visionary light. (R) Grade: A (tt stern-enzi)