Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), more simply known as Birdman for short, is a 2014 black-comedy drama film co-written, co-produced, and directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. It won the Academy Award for Best Picture at the 87th Academy Awards. It stars Michael Keaton, with a supporting cast of Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Emma Stone, and Naomi Watts. The story follows protagonist Riggan Thomson, a faded Hollywood actor famous for his role as superhero Birdman, as he struggles to mount a Broadway adaptation of a short story by Raymond Carver.
Aside from a few shots near the beginning and end, Birdman appears to be filmed in a single shot, an idea the director had since the film's conception. This required an atypical production approach, with many elements of post-production needing to be considered before principal photography. As a result the script took two years to write, the cast went through several weeks of meticulous rehearsals, and during shooting takes were cut for the slightest mishaps. It was filmed in New York City during the spring of 2013 with a budget of $16.5 million, jointly financed by New Regency and Fox Searchlight Pictures. The film premiered the following year in August where it opened the 71st Venice International Film Festival.
Birdman was given a limited theatrical release in the United States on October 17, 2014, followed by a wide release on November 14, and has grossed more than $76 million worldwide. It garnered critical acclaim, with praise particularly directed to the cast's performance and Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography. It is widely considered to be one of the best films of 2014, and has received multiple awards and nominations. These include winning Best Screenplay and Best Actor at the 72nd Golden Globe Awards, Outstanding Cast in a Motion Picture at the 21st Screen Actors Guild Awards, and nine nominations at the 87th Academy Awards, the joint most for the ceremony with The Grand Budapest Hotel. The film won four Academy Awards: for Best Picture, Best Directing (for Alejandro G. Iñárritu), Best Original Screenplay, and Best Cinematography.
Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is a washed-up Hollywood actor famous for playing the superhero Birdman in blockbuster movies decades earlier. Riggan is tormented by the voice of Birdman, who mercilessly criticizes him, and he sees himself performing feats of levitation and telekinesis. Riggan hopes to reinvent his career by writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver's short story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love". The play is produced by Riggan's best friend and lawyer Jake (Zach Galifianakis), and also stars Riggan's girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough) and first-time Broadway actress Lesley (Naomi Watts). Riggan's daughter Sam (Emma Stone), a recovering addict, serves as his assistant.
During rehearsals, a light fixture falls onto Ralph, an actor Riggan and Jake agree is terrible; Riggan tells Jake he caused the light to fall so he could replace Ralph. Through a connection with Lesley, Riggan replaces Ralph with the brilliant but volatile method actor Mike (Edward Norton), refinancing his house to fund his contract. The first previews go disastrously: Mike breaks character over the replacement of his gin with water, and attempts to rape Lesley during a sex scene. Riggan reads early press coverage and is incensed that Mike has stolen the attention, but Jake encourages him to continue. When Riggan catches Sam using marijuana, she tells him he does not matter and his play is a vanity project.
Backstage during the final preview, Riggan sees Sam and Mike flirting. He accidentally locks himself out of the theater and has to walk in his underwear through Times Square to get back inside; his popularity explodes online. Afterwards, he runs into influential critic Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan), who tells him she hates Hollywood celebrities who "pretend" to be actors, and promises to "kill" his play with a negative review. Riggan gets drunk and passes out in the street. The next day, he hallucinates a conversation with Birdman, who tries to convince him to make another Birdman film, and sees himself flying through New York City back to the theater.
On opening night, Riggan uses a real gun for the final scene in which his character kills himself, and shoots his nose off onstage. He earns a standing ovation from all but Tabitha, who leaves during the applause. In the hospital, Jake tells Riggan that Tabitha gave the play a rave review, dubbing his suicide attempt as the creation of a new form of method acting she calls "Super-Realism". After Sam visits Riggan, he dismisses Birdman and sees birds climbing onto the window ledge. When Sam returns, Riggan is gone. She looks down at the street, then up at the sky and smiles.
- Michael Keaton as Riggan Thomson, a washed-up actor who played the superhero Birdman.
- Edward Norton as Mike Shiner, an acclaimed Broadway actor
- Emma Stone as Sam Thomson, Riggan's daughter and assistant
- Naomi Watts as Lesley, an actress and Mike's former girlfriend
- Zach Galifianakis as Jake, Riggan's lawyer and friend
- Andrea Riseborough as Laura, an actress and Riggan's girlfriend
- Amy Ryan as Sylvia Thomson, Riggan's ex-wife, Sam's mother
- Lindsay Duncan as Tabitha Dickinson, a top theatre critic
- Merritt Wever as Annie, the stage manager
- Jeremy Shamos as Ralph
- Frank Ridley as Mr. Roth
- Katherine O'Sullivan as Costume Assistant
- Damian Young as Gabriel
Conception and writing
The idea of a comedy set in the theatre appearing to be filmed in one shot was conceived by González Iñárritu in a single thought. This said, there were influences behind its components. The comedic aspect came from González Iñárritu wanting a change; all his previous films were dramas, and after directing Biutiful, he did not want to approach a subject tragically again. The choice to make the film appear as a single shot, on the other hand, resulted from his realization that "we live our lives with no editing". By presenting the film like this he could "submerge the protagonist in an 'inescapable reality' and take the audience with him." Sharing his idea for a film, González Iñárritu phoned Argentine writers/filmmakers Armando Bó and Nicolás Giacobone, as well as playwright Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., who had all worked with him on his previous film.
The screenwriters were concerned about the one-shot nature of the film, however, and their first reaction was to tell him the movie couldn't work. They weren't the only people he faced resistance from though; "huge" and "important" people told him to not even try the project, and he himself described it as "almost suicidal", not knowing whether the technique would be successful, and worrying that it would become a distraction. Dinelaris later said that had they truly paused and considered the idea, they may have convinced González Iñárritu out of it. The project began nonetheless. With González Iñárritu in Los Angeles, Giacobone and Bo in Buenos Aires, and Dinelaris in New York, work on the script was done mainly through Skype calls and emails. This wasn't necessarily bad however: Dinelaris said he believed the best ideas in Birdman came from Skype sessions at two in the morning where he and Giacobone were "cracking each other up." Incorporating the one-shot feature into the script also made the writing process more involved than usual. Bo said "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." A consequence of the one-shot approach was the inability to take out scenes or change their order, so they needed to be "very, very sure about what was on the page." These factors meant it took about a year and a half before the final draft was written.
While some aspects of the film – the first frame with Riggan, for instance – went unchanged from Birdman's conception to release, others went through several iterations. One of these was the sequence in which Riggan's thoughts are completely taken over by Birdman. The writers knew it would occur at Riggan's lowest point, so at one stage planned for it to happen after Riggan hears the initial negative press coverage and starts throwing and breaking everything around his dressing room. Another version of the moment saw Riggan trying to drown himself in Central Park and flying out to save himself. The film's ending was also changed halfway through filming. González Iñárritu strongly disliked the original ending, and rewrote it with Dinelaris and Giacobone after it came to him in a dream. When questioned about the original ending however, he explained he would never describe it because it was "so embarrassing". Dinelaris later leaked the ending though, noting it was set in the theatre instead of the hospital, and involved Johnny Depp sitting in Riggan's dressing room. They would not have been able to shoot this version anyway, since Depp wasn't available.
The personal experiences of the writers informed aspects of the script. Dinelaris' exposure to Broadway shaped the depictions of rehearsals and events backstage, though he admitted to exaggerating these. He also felt his background writing long scenes of dialog helped since scenes in the film "were really more like play scenes." González Iñárritu influenced many of the film's themes, saying, "What this film talks about, I have been through. I have seen and experienced all of it; it's what I have been living through the last years of my life." Dinelaris described this aspect as "a laughing look at oneself", although noted it had to be done in a comedic way otherwise "it would have been the most unbelievably self-absorbed look at the subject." Themes from Carver's short story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" also influenced the script. During writing González Iñárritu wanted to find the connection between the themes in Riggan's story and those of Carver's. For this reason it was important to González Iñárritu that Carver's story be the subject of the play, so found using his work terrifying in case the rights to it were rejected, but no issues arose. Carver's widow, the writer Tess Gallagher, loved the script and gave the all-clear, saying that Carver would be laughing about the film.
González Iñárritu cast several of the leading roles before the film was financed. Among these was the lead role. Early in script development, González Iñárritu didn't have Keaton in mind, but he had changed his mind by the end: "When I finished the script, I knew that Michael was not the choice or option, he was the guy". González Iñárritu cast Keaton for his depth in a variety of acting styles: he could handle the demands of the stage, up-close work, and comedy and empathy "with a profound depth to both."
Keaton knew about Birdman before González Iñárritu contacted him. He was in the middle of production of another project when he learned that González Iñárritu was making another film. Keaton, a fan of his work, flew home to find out more. González Iñárritu sent him the script and they discussed it over dinner. The first thing Keaton asked the director was whether he was making fun of him (regarding his role in Tim Burton's Batman films), but after González Iñárritu explained the role, its technicalities and the film's production, Keaton agreed to play Riggan.
Casting the actor to play Lesley was easier. Naomi Watts had already worked with González Iñárritu before on 21 Grams and quickly accepted his offer. She was able to work on the movie since she was living in New York at the time.
González Iñárritu called his decision behind casting Galifianakis as Jake "a bet". Galifianakis met the director's criteria of being lovable and funny, but González Iñárritu also considered him sensitive, which scored him the role. Emma Stone already knew she wanted to work with González Iñárritu before she was offered the role of Sam. The script that González Iñárritu gave her and the rest of the cast came with the photo Man on Wire, which featured Philippe Petit crossing the Twin Towers on a tightrope. González Iñárritu told the cast, "We are doing that".
Once these actors were committed, González Iñárritu sought funding. He first invited Fox Searchlight Pictures to finance the project, but they turned his offer down because they felt his asking budget was too high. At one stage Megan Ellison of Annapurna Pictures wanted to be involved in the project, but decided against it because, unlike her other films, she had not been involved since the beginning. González Iñárritu approached Brad Weston, president of New Regency, who accepted the offer. When executive Claudia Lewis of Searchlight heard about the deal, she reconsidered and asked to be included in the deal. Searchlight and New Regency had previously worked together to finance 12 Years a Slave, and they decided to join together for Birdman, financing a budget of $16.5 million.
Weston and Lewis developed a close relationship with González Iñárritu, editing the script with him and switching some of the actors. When they joined production, Josh Brolin was set to play the role of Mike Shiner, but the financiers decided to switch him for Norton because of scheduling conflicts. González Iñárritu found casting Mike Shiner difficult because he wanted his actors to give "a quality of reality in each of them that really projects to the film."
He said Norton's experience as a theatre actor combined with his self-confidence meant that "in a way there was some kind of mental reality to Edward", but Norton believes he was the one who convinced González Iñárritu to take him on. Norton was a fan of the director's work and impressed with his ability to push outside film-making boundaries. Norton heard about González Iñárritu's project from a friend. Once he got the script, he read it straight through until 3:00 am. Norton said, "I laughed so hard I woke people up." Norton wanted to meet González Iñárritu the next day, and once they met, Norton told him González Iñárritu he couldn't cast someone who was the "embodiment" of what the script was taking aim at. Instead, González Iñárritu's needed to cast someone "who has at least a little bit of authentic depth of experience, in this world." González Iñárritu agreed. Norton was not the only member of the cast who had acted on stage.
Ryan, one of the last actors to be cast, was invited because González Iñárritu had seen her in the play Detroit. Lindsay Duncan had vast experience in the theatre world too, and decided to accept the offer to play the critic because of the quality of the script. "It's delicious because of the writing." But like Shiner's character, González Iñárritu found casting Laura difficult. Riseborough met him on a street corner for a cup of tea, and recalling the event, said "I told him that I would crawl across hot coals to work with him". González Iñárritu described Laura as "a very wacky, quirky role," but said "when [Andrea Riseborough] did it I knew that it was her, because she did it right in the tone, and she understood who she was – she was not judging."
The film earned $424,397 during its limited North America opening in four theatres in New York and Los Angeles on the weekend of October 17, 2014, a per-theater average of $106,099, making it the 18th all-time earner (eighth among live-action movies) and ranking #20. In the second weekend of October 24, 2014, Birdman expanded to 50 theaters and earned $1.38 million, which translates to a $27,593 per-theater average. The film expanded nationwide to 857 theaters in the weekend of November 14, 2014, grossing $2,471,471 with a per theatre average of $2,884 and ranking #10. In the same weekend, Birdman grossed $11.6 million.
The film opened in Mexico in November 13, 2014, grossing $628,915 in its opening weekend, and opened in United Kingdom on January 2, 2015, grossing $2,337,407 over the weekend. In the United Kingdom, Australia and Italy, the film grossed $7.6 million, $3.97 million, $1.97 million respectively.
As of 22 February 2015, Birdman has grossed $76,533,000 worldwide including $37,733,000 in North America and $38,800,000 in other territories against a production budget of $16.5 million.
Birdman received universal acclaim, particularly for Keaton, Norton, and Stone's performances. At Rotten Tomatoes, it has a rating of 93% "Certified Fresh" based on 254 reviews, with rating average of 8.5/10. The site's critical consensus states: "A thrilling leap forward for director Alejandro González Iñárritu, Birdman is an ambitious technical showcase powered by a layered story and outstanding performances from Michael Keaton and Edward Norton." Metacritic gave the film a score of 88 out of 100, based on reviews from 49 critics, indicating "universal acclaim." Caillou Pettis of the YouTube channel TwistedFalcon said about Birdman, "what an experience".
Top ten lists
Birdman appeared on over 100 critics' top ten lists of the best films of 2014, with over a few dozen publications ranking the film first in their lists.
- 1st - James Verniere - Boston Herald
- 1st - Clint O'Connor - Cleveland Plain Dealer
- 1st - Brad Brevet - Rope of Silicon
- 1st - Chris Stuckmann - Chris Stuckmann Movie Reviews