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Telluride: Alejandro González Iñárritu on why Michael Keaton's performance is 'almost a miracle' in ‘Birdman’

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The Frame sat down with Iñárritu in Telluride to talk about casting Keaton, the personal inspiration for the film and the challenges that went into "Birdman."

In our latest dispatch from the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado, The Frame host John Horn sits down with filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu about his new film, "Birdman."

A black comedy — a rather uncharacteristic genre for Iñárritu — "Birdman" is one of the most talked-about films of this year’s festival.

The film stars Michael Keaton as Riggan Thomson, an actor whose greatest success is far behind him. Thomson once played a superhero called Birdman in a series of action films. Now, years later, he’s trying to find recognition on Broadway, which has sparked an existential crisis.


The film also stars Emma Stone as Thomson's daughter and personal assistant, and Edward Norton as an arrogant actor named Mike Shiner. In addition to the talented cast, "Birdman" was shot by “Gravity"'s Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki in what is presented as one continuous take — there are no visible edits in the film.  

The Frame host John Horn sat down with Iñárritu in Telluride to talk about casting Keaton, the personal inspiration for the film and the challenges that went into "Birdman."

Interview Highlights:

In the film, Michael Keaton is having an existential crisis and measuring his own success. Is some of that "midlife crisis" theme from personal experience?

"Absolutely. I turned 50 last year...I remember when I turned 40 I didn't notice, even when people always warned me about the [midlife] crisis. When I was about to turn 50, I went into a kind of personal revision and observed my own priorities and what led those priorities in my life. And many things that, in a way, were profound. I even defined, very clearly, how my own ego has been playing with me and how that voice can be really dangerous. Three or four years ago I started playing with the idea of having a film about ego, but it was a very tough, abstract notion and then once I [turned]  50 I [understood] it better."

What changed for you when you turned 50?:

"I think when you start facing the inevitable ending, that [always] is getting closer, I think you begin to really go through the meaning of things and [one's] decisions. Sometimes, filmmaking really gives us a lot, but it has taken and demanded of me almost everything. In a way that line that the wife of Riggan says, 'You confuse love with admiration,' I think that's a very easy thing that suddenly misleads everybody's life — not only the artist's life, but everybody's life. That validation that all of us need and have is different— the need for validation of affection. For me, I feel that the ego is such an incredible presence in the life of everybody. Everybody has a Birdman, no matter how small is your bird or vulture that you have inside. But it's a very [dictatorial] figure and I thought that it's tragic, but it's funny at the same time."

Michael Keaton, as an actor himself, shot to great stardom when he made the first "Batman" movie. His career did not quite follow the trajectory that might have been expected. What were your first conversations with Keaton about this character and were you thinking of him for the role from the beginning?

"During the writing process, I had Michael Keaton as one of the highest possibilities, but then when I finished I knew that he was the best. Not only because he will bring the authority to really talk about what we talk about when we talk about superheroes. That would be Michael, because he, in a way, is the pioneer of that. That will bring the authority, a kind of a meta-dialogue to the film.

"At the same time, I always have considered Michael Keaton to be a phenomenal actor because he navigates drama and comedy. He has been the bad guy, the funny guy, and I needed somebody who can really navigate those two genres and I think few actors can do that. What he did is extraordinarily difficult, honestly. I think I have worked with great actors, but what he did it was almost a miracle, I have to say. 

How does shooting in a continuous, seamless manner affect the way the audience views this story?

"I knew very early the first time that I had the idea, I knew that I wanted to shoot in that way because I wanted the people to really be in the shoes of Michael Keaton. I wanted them to radically live through his point of view and feel trapped in this labyrinth. The film was conceived, was written, was prepared meticulously to get that result. But only to serve the purpose of the empathy and narrative and dramatic tension that I wanted. I didn't want to distract, honestly. I wanted the people to feel emotionally connected that way. 

People don't usually equate you with comedy. What happened in your filmmaking career or personal life that made you want to do a comedy?

"I guess I was a little bit tired of so [much] chili hot sauce intensity. I was a bit overwhelmed about it and I wanted to lighten it up a little bit — to speak of things that really I care about, but in the upside-down side of it, and to approach them differently and be able to laugh. I want to have that luxury once in my life."

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