There has been much said and written about the use of the long take in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman (2014), and how its filmmakers stitched together numerous long shots in an attempt to make the majority of the film feel like a continuous scene. The film follows (literally) its protagonist, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), an actor past his prime, as he plans his career comeback with a stage production.
Emmanuel Lubezki seems the ideal collaborator for the director’s vision. The cinematographer, known for his extended takes in films such as Y Tu Mamá También (2001), Children of Men (2006) and Gravity (2013), has made use of the technique as a way of bringing audiences closer to the action. Birdman is the culmination of his experimentation with the form, bringing together these ideas and creating an immersive experience with a sense of urgency.
The film, of course, uses digital effects and editing as a way of creating its illusion. Birdman’s cuts are hidden between instances of darkness, made possible through the work of production designer Kevin Thompson, who started his work by mapping out the entire film on a floor plan of the sets
The setting of Birdman is the St. James Theatre, which is located on 246 West 44th Street in New York. The St. James Theatre opened in 1927 during the birth of sound cinema and was designed by the architectural firm Warren & Westmore of New York, the same team responsible for the Grand Central Station. The theatre’s technical specifications were criticized, while its backstage was considered small by industry standards; as a result, the theatre was considered “inadequate” during these early years.
The filmmakers filmed at the St. James Theatre over a span of thirty days in April and May 2013 between a gap of time in between productions at the theatre, but the majority of the action in the film takes place backstage. These scenes were filmed at the Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens. The filmmakers first started work on a soundstage in Los Angeles, where scenes were carefully blocked, choreographed and rehearsed with cast and crew, providing the production team with a thorough understanding of the specific dimensions of each of the rooms and hallways. This work was then transferred over into the constructed sets at the Kaufman Astoria Studios. Birdman is a film that attempts to reflect reality via artificial means -- a soundstage stands in for the actual location and numerous extended scenes are stitched together in an attempt to provide this illusion.
There is a sense that the world is closing in on Riggan Thomson, as his overwhelming stress cripples him as he readies for the opening night of his production. This feeling is expertly reflected in the film’s production design. The production crew made adjustments to the rooms and hallways, making them tighter over the course of the film, which results in the feeling that the surrounding space is literally closing in on the protagonist.
The film, despite its structure, is still broken down into scenes. In our floor plan, we examined the scene in which Riggan finds out about the cover story in the newspaper, in which Mike (Edward Norton) seemingly takes credit for the production (00:53:37 - 01:04:53). The scene begins outside Riggan’s dressing room with an impossible shot that moves through steel bars and into the interior space. In addition to the two characters in this scene, Riggan and Laura (Andrea Riseborough), we also hear the voice of Birdman mocking Riggan.
Riggan confronts Mike and their conversation spills into the kitchen, where both men wrestle near the water cooler. Riggan heads back into his dressing room, where Birdman continues mocking him. Riggan then starts destroying his room with his mind; without touching anything, he completely wrecks it. It’s interesting to note that once Jake (Zach Galifianakis), his friend and lawyer, interrupts this private moment, Riggan is no longer destroying his room with his mind; rather, he is physically causing the damage himself, which speaks to the subjectivity/objectivity of Riggan/Birdman.
The scene continues its careful use of mise-en-scène when Lesley (Naomi Watts) arrives. In their conversation, the loss of a “shot reverse shot” caused by the continuous filming technique is made up for by the blocking of the actors. The camera focuses on Lesley, while Riggan’s reflection is seen through the mirror. In many other instances, the film makes use of two shots of its characters as a way of making up for the lack of editing within the scenes. Birdman is a film that keeps its audience engaged within its singular location, despite all of its technical limitations. The film instead uses them to its advantage, coming up with inventive ways of exploring cinematic space.
This piece originally appeared on Archdaily.
© 2015 Interiors (Mehruss Jon Ahi and Armen Karaoghlanian)