Friday, February 6, 2015

The Story Behind "Birdman's" Original, Better Ending

Michael Keaton
With the Oscars less than 20 days away, everyone is catching up on seeing all of the nominees. Among the more prominent ones in discussion is director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Birdman, which is neck and neck with Boyhood to win Best Picture. For those that have seen it, there's plenty of discussion surrounding the film's ending. However, writer Alexander Dinelaris had a different ending in mind and one that would have played more into the film's meta commentary of an artist in peril. 

*Spoilers for Birdman to follow.

With many making acclaim of the film, there's been one moment that has struck audiences as perplexing. What does the ending mean? In the film, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) stages a comeback that ends up going horribly wrong. He decides to shoot himself on stage on opening night. He ends up in the hospital and is last seen walking out the window of a building many floors off of the ground. His daughter (Emma Stone) looks out and smiles. Many question if he died or what exactly happened. As a viewer, I personally take the preceding symbolism of birds flying to suggest he died and transformed into a bird.

However, Dinelaris had a different ending in mind. While everything up to the stage performance remains the same, he spoke recently to Jeff Goldsmith of the Q&A podcast of how the ending was actually planned. In fact, it was a lot more cheeky and interesting in ways that may have actually added a clarity to the film's conclusion.

Here is an excerpt from the audio interview:

"So we had one other ending that was satirical. The other ending was that he shoots himself on the stage. The camera comes around to the audience and their standing ovation — all the way around, like Chivo [Emmanuel Lubezki] and Alejandro did the whole time — and the segue was back on to the stage and on the stage was like James Lipton or Charlie Rose and Michael [Keaton] was sitting across from him and he’s sort of reading the review. He’s saying, ‘Oh my God, you got this tremendous review’ and Michael is like, ‘Yeah.’
Then the camera prowled like it did the whole film, went back stage through the halls we’ve seen the whole time and we’d get to the dressing room where literally Johnny Depp would be sitting looking in the mirror and putting on his Riggan Thomson wig and then the poster of Pirates of the Caribbean 5 would be in the back. In Jack Sparrow’s voice [it would say], ‘What the fuck are we doing here, mate?’ It was going to be the satire of the endless loop of that."
The ending itself has a brilliant poignancy to it that I feel like the actual ending didn't quite capture. My biggest issue with the film remains that it became too over the top and self-involved in the third act when it crossed into Keaton's overacting. The symbolism began to become too on the nose and suddenly the emphasis became a little much as the film returned to its understanding of reality. 

With this particular ending, it has a cyclical and more honest approach. For starters, the meta commentary may be a little damning given Johnny Depp's unfortunate string of failures, but it adds an emotional weight that feels more classical and perfect for the film's belief that acting is something more personal. It adds an impersonal touch that makes the idea of a comeback feel more inconsequential. The actual ending was fine, but it lacked any resonating poignancy. The new ending had the extra layer of being two different franchises that went on to define both the actors and the medium. It became ambiguous and focused on ego in a way that didn't feel so much cathartic as it was redundant to the remainder of the film.

The main issues lie in the fact that Depp wasn't on board. In fact, they couldn't get the art work approved either. While this raises questions on why they couldn't get a different cameo, the thought of Depp refusing to participate is an unfortunate loss to the film in ways that could have put it over the top in just the right ways. Still, Birdman ends up being a pretty good film and one that packs plenty of punches.

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