Saturday, November 14, 2015

Nothing But the Best: "Birdman" (2014)

Left to right: Edward Norton and Michael Keaton in Birdman
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Release Date: November 14, 2014
Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Written By: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu & Nicolas Giacobone & Alexander Dinelaris &Armando Bo (Written By), Raymond Carver (Play Based on Story)
Starring: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Running Time: 119 minutes

Oscar Wins: 4
-Best Picture
-Best Director
-Best Original Screenplay
-Best Cinematography

Oscar Nominations: 5
-Best Actor (Michael Keaton)
-Best Supporting Actor (Edward Norton)
-Best Supporting Actress (Emma Stone)
-Best Sound Mixing
-Best Sound Editing

Other Best Picture Nominees

-American Sniper
-The Grand Budapest Hotel
-The Imitation Game
-The Theory of Everything

And the winner is...

If there's one constant debate among movie fans, it's that The Academy is full of old people. There's no denying that by hard facts, or even that majority of the winners in the past decade have skewered to older voters. However, if director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Birdman suggests anything, the tide may be changing. The film is unlike recent trends of Best Picture winners, in that it feels like a timely attack on social ideals and meta commentary on franchise films. It's loud and abrasive in ways demanded to be recognized. Even if Birdman may have some faults, it's no denying that it at least feels edgy and fresh in ways that The Academy has been wishing that it recognized more often. It may not be the best winner, but it feels like the one that's closest to being indicative of the modern times.

The idea started after Biutiful; Inarritu's previous film. Having become known for dark dramas, he felt the need to make Birdman into a comedy. The only catch was that this wasn't to be his next film. He actually wanted The Revenant to be next, but had to back out when actor Leonardo DiCaprio became preoccupied with The Wolf of Wall Street. The Revenant is scheduled for a 2016 release. However, that film's director, Martin Scorsese, makes a cameo in Birdman in the scene where Michael Keaton runs into the theater in his underwear. In a strange sense, this is the meta commentary that the film would try to do in spades, especially since the story parallels Keaton's actual involvement with the Batman franchise. Likewise, many of the actors in the film have been in superhero films. In fact, Emma Stone was on break from The Amazing Spider-Man 2 when filming this.

Inarritu was wanting to make a bold statement with Birdman. He suggested that he wanted to have it all be one continuous take. He talked with his various collaborators, most of which attempted to dissuade him. He even talked to director Mike Nichols - who believed that it couldn't be done. As a result, Inarritu and the three writers spent over a year and a half to complete the final screenplay, often via Skype around 2 AM. The trouble with this format meant that the film couldn't be edited, so it was important that the script was perfected. The ending supposedly came to Inarritu in a dream. Likewise, Inarritu and cinematographer Emmanuelle Lubezki did various tests in a warehouse to see if it was actually plausible. Considering that it was the first film to try it, they had no template. 

Before starting production, Inarritu gave the cast scripts with a picture of Philippe Petit: the man who walked between the World Trade Center towers. His belief was that Birdman was the same, claiming that "If we fall, we fail." While the film isn't just long takes, it still often required a lot of its actors. In some cases, it required over a dozen of pages read and several marks met within a take. This became so tedious and challenging that the cast began to do a run of who would make the most mistakes. Taking the honor was Stone, who famously admitted to having to reshoot a six-minute scene only because she took a corner too quickly. The film incorporated "Magical Realism" to create a seamless look. This meant that scenes were often shot with fantastical elements in an otherwise realistic film to better enhance the story.

According to IMDb, there are only 16 visible edits in the entire film. While there was initial trouble financing the film due to its complicated nature, Searchlight and New Regency decided to finance (they also backed the previous year's winner 12 Years a Slave). The final report was that the film had a budget of $16.5 million and was shot in 23 days. The subsequent editing process only took two weeks thanks to the limited options. Because the continuous takes weren't always truthful to the script due to actor flubs, Inarritu had a lot of fun selecting which he liked best. However, the one belief is that the film was shot chronologically. It was not. This was partially due to the fact that Inarritu's rigorous preparation caused him to hold off on reserving the film's main location: St. James Theater. Even then, the cast did numerous practice runs before filming.

This was also the year in which The Academy received flack for nominating only white actors in all major categories. The campaign "Oscars So White" became popular on Twitter and even caused host Neil Patrick Harris to awkwardly talk about it during the show. While it is true that it wasn't the most diverse year in those four categories, the others were strongly diverse. Lubezki, who is Mexican, won Best Cinematography and became the fourth person to win back-to-back Best Cinematography awards. Meanwhile, Inarritu became the second Mexican to win Best Director, following the previous year's Alfonso Cuaron with Gravity. In fact, Inarritu won big that night, taking home Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay trophies. During the big category's announcement, presenter Sean Penn said "Who gave this son of a b***h his green card?" While the director took it as a playful joke (they had worked together on 21 Grams), the news considered it offensive. In the time since, Inarritu has gone on to make The Revenant.

The success of Birdman has been more divisive than in past years. Where many have accused other films of being dull prestige pictures, many label this as being self-indulgent. There hasn't been much time to determine what influence, if any, that Birdman has had on pop culture. Whether it's drummer Antonio Sanchez's score or the long take nature of the direction, it does feel more like an embodiment of what contemporary cinema is trying to achieve with stream of consciousness style. However, many believe that It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia paid homage to the film with a January 2015 episode called "Charlie Work." Both have similar style and musical approached. However, it isn't an homage since its creators have since claimed that they filmed it months before Birdman's release. Otherwise, there hasn't been much to say about the legacy of Birdman only a year later.

Whether or not it's any good, Birdman feels like one of the most timely Best Picture winners in years. This may just be because of it taking place in the modern era. However, it also covers a lot of the concerns of entertainment in 2014, whether it be superhero culture, social media, or just being self-referential. There's a lot to unpack from the film, and it is one that may continue to divide audiences as it ages. In fact, it may even be dated in ways that other winners have not been. But still, it embodies an ambition and hope for what cinema as a populous entertainment can be. It can be provoking and cutting edge in equal doses. The only thing to wait for now is to see if long takes and existentialist superhero stories actually take off.

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