Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman is about to glide into new American classic territory, with chances of sweeping more than one Oscar midflight. (Our quick guess? Best Picture, Best Director, or Best Actor.) At first glance, the film is about burned-out Hollywood actor Riggan Thompson’s (Michael Keaton) struggle to get revalidation as a Broadway actor-director after spending years of being second to Birdman, the comic strip character that brought him fame. What it’s really about, though, is one’s never-ending struggle with his ego, and the ever-present questions of relevance and existence. Faced with such serious subject matter, we asked Iñárritu five questions to insure we got everything right.
Birdman takes place around a Broadway show. How did you prepare to understand a Broadway actor’s feelings?
I had studied theater for three years with one of the best theater directors in Mexico City—a Polish guy called Ludwik Margules. I was a terrible actor (laughs), my well of knowledge on theater comes from that. I know that when you present your work live every night, there’s a tremendous amount of stress on the actors, the director, and the writer. If something goes wrong, something as simple as an actor forgetting a line—that’s enough for the whole thing to collapse. With all that in mind, I wanted to make a film about getting caught in your mediocrity.
Birdman is this dark, alluring doppelgänger that offers Riggan Thompson what he is looking for: validation, power. What’s your commentary on Hollywood's cookie-cutter superhero actors?
What is considered success now is very different from it was 50 years ago. A lot of people measure a film’s worth on the weekends, and that takes art away from human expression, and closer to a hedge fund mentality. The immediate satisfaction or the immediate success have created a very poisoned view of what is right and wrong, and I think in a way, that is a theme which is explored in the film.
What did you have in mind when you shot the scene where Thompson gets stuck in Times Square in his underwear?
Times Square is like an open mall where big brands and corporations get promoted—and we’re exposed to that in a really gross way. What is also interesting there is how you can find anyone from the most interesting philosopher to the most naked cowboy, or one of those pop icons of comic books. That scene was an opportunity to mirror the contradictions of this man on his soul-searching journey, where he is naked physically, spiritually and emotionally—and ends up getting exposed to the vulgarity of mass consumption and society.
You also touch upon themes such as online presence and what defines fame.
Pessoa once said, “Literature is the most agreeable way of ignoring life.” Well, now it’s the iPhone! Social media is great for democratization of opinions, but it has also made people empower other people to validate them on a daily basis.
You weren't afraid to use references to Robert Downey Jr., Ryan Gosling, Justin Bieber, and Oprah, which makes me think that Birdman will become a film that will remind future audiences what pop culture was like in the year 2014, in addition to being very open and sincere in a way that no one expects from a studio film. How did you decide to be as bold and honest as you are with the narrative?
First of all I decided to have fun myself and with the film that I was doing. Me, Michael, and all the actors were deliberately moving away from irony and our own selfishness. Honestly it’s a great liberation. And once you do that, you can laugh about everything in a good way, and whatever you say will connect to the real story. I feel that the only responsibility of an artist is to be honest with his context and circumstances.
Birdman hits theaters nationwide tomorrow.