Follow That Bird
Emmanuel Lubezki’s Birdman
by Chris Wisniewski
“Sometimes I wish nobody would talk about how the movies are made. The idea would be that the audience goes to the theater and they don’t even notice how it’s shot.”
From the movie’s opening moments, it is clear the camera is thinking. It moves and drifts, finding its way into the narrative, circling and closing in on the protagonist while surveying the mise-en-scène and establishing setting and context. The effect is both disarming and reassuring. Though the sequence contains an aggressive artificiality, with special effects that fly in the face of naturalism, the cinematography denies the viewer the space to question what she sees. Rather, the viewer is thrust into the film in a manner that aligns her with the subjective perspective of the lead character. The reality onscreen is established with blunt cinematic force.
This subjectivity isn’t slavish, though. In fact, as soon as the camera begins to move, it also lingers on other people who come into its path, filling out and filling in the details of the hyper-real, yet also strangely unreal environment. The long-take, handheld- and steadicam-heavy aesthetic feels immediately purposeful, part of a larger strategy to sweep us up into the movie’s forward momentum and to align us with our hero while establishing a partially independent third-person perspective. The shooting strategy opens up the possibility of critical remove. We see with the eyes of the filmmaker—or the eyes of the cinematographer.
I’m talking, of course, about the beginning of Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu’s Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), which begins with Michael Keaton’s over-the-hill actor Riggan Thomson floating in his dressing room in his underwear, contemplating his Broadway debut and the arc of his career while his alter ego, the titular Batman-inspired superhero “Birdman,” expresses Riggan’s self-doubt in voiceover. Or I could be talking about the bravura action set piece that opens Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, where Sandra Bullock and George Clooney’s astronauts survive an accident while orbiting earth, and are left adrift and alone in space. Or perhaps I mean the café explosion experienced by Clive Owen’s Theo at the start of Children of Men, also directed by Cuarón. The description suits all three equally; all were shot by Emmanuel Lubezki.
It is impossible to assign credit (or blame) for the Oscar-winning backstage satire Birdman without acknowledging the many people who birthed it: the writers of its screenplay, who include not simply Iñarritu but also Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo; Michael Keaton, who brings a gruff world-weariness to a film that is structured around his screen-time-monopolizing lead performance and that leans heavily on the intertextual resonance of his aging former-Batman star persona; and even Raymond Carver, whose What We Talk About When We Talk About serves as source material for the play-within-the-movie around which Birdman centers. Each can be seen, in one way or another, as an authorial figure behind Birdman. But it was Lubezki who was responsible for the film’s most striking and defining trait: an aesthetic that suggests the entire movie unfolds as one continuous single take.
Considering this faux single take structure, it would be tempting to label Birdman a turning point in Iñarritu’s career. The movie hardly fits into a body of work exemplified more by fracture than linearity. With films like Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel, Iñarritu helped to pioneer an unfortunate trend in cinematic dramaturgy, the “we are all connected” social problem omnibus. These movies typically hinge on one dramatic incident that improbably connects a disparate group of otherwise strangers who occupy different social strata. Iñarritu’s middlebrow exercises in narrative convolution tend to employ multiple cameras, judicious coverage, and moderate to rapid cutting, and it’s difficult to imagine how the same filmmaker behind those efforts could be the director responsible for conceiving the long-take, subjective camerawork of Birdman. As if to hammer home the point, with Birdman Gonzalez Iñarritu changed the credit he invokes for himself, abbreviating the “Gonzalez” in his name to a simple “G.”
In another sense, however, Birdman is decidedly an Alejandro G. joint. His movies have long flirted with a vague mysticism that borders on what could charitably be described as magical realism. This was especially true for the film that immediately preceded Birdman, Biutiful. In that, Javier Bardem played a clairvoyant dying man who communed with the dead. Birdman replaces Biutiful’s lugubrious seriousness with an eccentric exuberance, but the essential narrative problem that unites both films establishes them as spiritual cousins: they share a preoccupying interest in damaged masculinity. The shift from Biutiful’s supernatural pretensions to Birdman’s surreal flourishes is tonal. Like Biutiful, Birdman can be described principally as a character study of a man struggling to make sense of his life, through his work, his role as a father, and his relationship to women.
On that basis, committed auteurists would have enough evidence to champion Birdman’s writer-director-producer as its primary author, and secondary sources tend to affirm Iñarritu’s creative responsibility. In interviews, Lubezki has insistently given Iñarritu credit for the movie’s Lubezki-ish approach. The decision to shoot the film to look like a single unbroken take came from Iñarritu. It was Iñarritu who had a vision for the movie, from its conception, as a portrait of a man stuck in his environment, and Iñarritu who felt that presenting this story as if it were a single take would best suit such material. Lubezki was initially reluctant to undertake such a showy and difficult effort, which he was afraid would come off as a gimmick, if it came off at all.
So what do we talk about when we talk about authorship? Is it about having the idea? Writing the words? Calling the shots? The answer is all of these and none exclusively. An exercise in analyzing Birdman’s authorship can result in only two rather obvious conclusions. First, that Birdman, like almost every movie, was made by many people who all helped to shape the final product. Second, that Lubezki, an uncommonly gifted director of photography who has established himself as one of the major figures of contemporary international cinema, was an essential influence on the film. Iñarritu’s legitimate claim to being the creative father of Birdman aside, and whatever Keaton or its screenwriters brought to the project, Birdman feels, from start to finish, like an Emmanuel Lubezki film.
Let’s return, then, to the sequence that opens Birdman. It starts with a medium shot of Keaton’s Riggan hovering in midair in his dressing room, wearing nothing but a pair of tighty whities, his legs crossed. In voiceover, he wonders, in a deep, raspy Birdman voice, “How did we end up here? This place is horrible...” The camera closes in on him. Then a computer begins to chirp. He walks over to it—no longer floating—and the frame moves towards the computer screen, introducing Riggan’s daughter, Sam (Emma Stone) through Skype. The visual strategy immediately recalls Cuarón’s in Children of Men, where background screens were also incorporated into long takes to provide important expository information. More immediately, though, the sequence establishes a palpable physical intimacy with Keaton’s body. Birdman is probably less tied to its lead’s physical presence than Children of Men or Gravity are to their heroes’ bodies. But the film, consistent with its general preoccupation with theater as an art form, has an obsessive attachment to authenticity, figured in physical terms. After Riggan attempts suicide onstage in the movie’s climax, he earns raves from a New York Times reviewer for the “real blood” he spills. Meanwhile, Edward Norton’s Mike, who is hired at the last minute to costar with Riggan in his Broadway production, is set up as a contrast to the inauthentic sell-out movie star. Mike drinks actual gin onstage, not water; he tries to have actual sex with his love interest (Naomi Watts), (with whom he has a romantic attachment in “real” life) rather than simulating it; he strips naked in front of Sam backstage because, well, he simply needs to change. Physical presence is everything in this movie. Though the long takes might in one sense draw attention to Birdman’s constructedness (by underscoring moment to moment how it was made, or indeed, that it was made), in another sense the proximity and intimacy of Lubezki’s camera have the effect of eliding the apparatus by foregrounding the actors—their bodies, their performances.
If there is a characteristic or quality that might define a “Lubezki film,” it probably has less to do with long takes or handheld shots than with the camera’s relationship to people and Lubezki’s ability, because of the mobility of his camera and the length of his takes, to capture moments that feel arrestingly real. This was evident as far back as the 2001 film Y tu mamá también, which features a climactic sequence where Maribel Verdú’s character selects a song from a jukebox and dances while staring directly into Lubezki’s handheld camera as it moves back and follows her. In its simultaneous acknowledgment of the apparatus and the way it cedes control of the film to Verdú’s character and to the actor herself—almost collapsing the difference between the two—the shot anticipates Birdman, Gravity, and Children of Men. Even Lubezki’s collaborations with Terrence Malick, ostensibly outliers in his filmography, demonstrate this quality. Though Malick and Lubezki tend to favor quick takes and jump cuts in The Tree of Life and To the Wonder, striking a direct contrast to Lubezki’s work with Cuarón and Iñarritu, they have honed a spontaneous shooting style that has an effect that is oddly similar to that of the long-take films. Malick’s actors, like Iñarritu’s and Cuarón’s, feel incredibly present, engaged in a constant dance with a cinematographer who sneaks up on them, weaves around them, studies them, and follows them.
On Birdman, Lubezki served as the camera operator for the handheld shots, so the camera’s presence becomes his, a constant reminder that what we’re witnessing has been made by the actors and Lubezki together. And though Birdman, as a movie, is frequently banal, confused, and maddeningly silly, it is also constantly dazzling, because of the sheer complexity of what Lubezki and his actors are trying to do. In the first scene between Riggan and Mike, the camera winds around them as they run their lines. Riggan notices that Mike, despite being recently hired, knows all of his character’s lines—and Riggan’s as well. He mentions this, calling attention not simply to Mike’s strange ability to master the script but, in a metatextual way, also to Keaton and Norton’s expert handling of an extended, dialogue-heavy scene in a single take. Then Norton seems to flub a line, mixing up the word “wife” with “life.” Such a moment should shatter the illusion, but instead it only heightens the sense of challenge and the impressiveness of the execution. Even in this scene where Riggan wonders at Mike’s preternatural ability to memorize lines, Norton appears to forget his, but it doesn’t matter. The sheer force of the filmmaking wins out. The camera keeps rolling.
In much of Birdman, Lubezki’s camera simply follows someone as they rush around the theater’s backstage hallways. Since Lubezki and his team largely avoided the use of movie lights for the shoot, the color of the light frequently changes depending on the bulbs that illuminate the set. It’s a small detail, but it underlines, like so much about the movie, its central stylistic conceit. Birdman features several visual effects–heavy sequences, but even more than its exploding buildings and flights over Manhattan, those following shots invite a “How’d they do that?” response precisely because the images, with their shifting lighting and swirling camera movements, announce—just like Norton’s presumably flubbed line—the high degree of difficulty involved in making what we are seeing. The single-take look may have been Iñarritu’s idea, but it’s hard to imagine someone other than Lubezki pulling it off. Though the excellent DP Rodrigo Prieto had shot Iñarritu’s other features, it is easy to understand why the director made a switch for this movie. Whatever we mean when we talk about authorship, having the competence and skill to actually execute a vision must matter, maybe as much as having the vision in the first place.
Lubezki’s cinematography isn’t just an aspect of the movie; it defines every moment and spills over onto every other creative contribution—not only the acting but also the visual effects, the score (incorporated in a series of visual gags into the diegesis), and the editing. The cuts that do happen in the film are normally hidden within Lubezki’s camera movements, embedded in a swish pan or concealed when the camera moves over to study something static. There’s a breathtaking moment, about halfway through, when Mike and Sam share a love scene in the wings above the stage. The camera pulls out and moves down to the stage, mid-performance, with Mike now in character in front of a packed theater audience. The hidden cut between the takes may be the movie’s showiest example of magical rupture—of drawing our attention to its making while asserting its unrelenting forward momentum. The filmmakers have made it possible for Edward Norton to be in two places at once. Iñarritu may be the director, but Lubezki is the superhero.