Rob Feld

2 Stories


Birdman

Screenwriters Alex Dinelaris & Nicolás Giacobone

Film_ Birdman 22

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film, Birdman, is nominated for nine Oscars this year, including one for best original screenplay. While it’s common for big studio films to have four or even more successive screenwriters, frequently resulting in a hodgepodge of voices, it is quite uncommon for a more niche film like Birdman too. Nevertheless, Iñárritu shares writing credit with Alex Dinelaris, Nicolás Giacobone and Armando Bo to perhaps surprising results: the film may or may not work for you but it would be hard to argue it is not of a voice.

 

Part of what makes the filmmaking achievement so impressive is both the technical and the creative achievement of capturing extended choreographed scenes of comedy in uncommonly long takes, with no cuts, which were then digitally blended with others to create the dreamy appearance of an almost seamless experience. It’s not only a directing, camera, performance and FX challenge but also one of writing. I had the opportunity to speak with Dinelaris and Giacobone about the experience.

 

Rob Feld: Can you tell me how the four writers collaborated and how you think you maintained a singular voice?

 

Alex Dinelaris: We had each spent time separately with Alejandro. I worked on early stages of his last film, Biutiful, then left, and Nico and Armando came in. They did the script so when Alejandro had Birdman in his head, I think he thought of Nico and me because we might bring different aspects to it. Alejandro propelled the story through his idea of what it would be, we were interpreting it in our own way and very much worked as a unit. It wasn’t one of those things where four writers are credited as it was passed along to the next writer. We did it all together. If it has one voice it’s because I’m the one native English speaker, so it was easier for me to be the one getting the dialogue in shape. So it has an outer layer of unification because the dialogue for the most part has one voice.

 

RF: Can you tell me about how the form of the film affected the writing process? Crafting the extended shots and how they would be digitally blended together had to be meticulously planned out, with contingency options, as well.

 

Nicolás Giacobone: The concept of the one-shot affected it completely. We knew from day one that 99% of what we would write on the page was going to be on the screen at the end. That’s very different from what usually happens to screenplays in the editing. That was scary and fascinating for us.

 

AD: What we wrote was there and that’s it. Once the camera recorded a scene there were no fundamental changes that could be made to the screenplay because it was timed out to the minute. He literally said, “Write a screenplay, but it can’t be edited in post-production,” which is virtually unheard of.

 

NG: I mean, a comedy in one shot, knowing that comedy depends so much on rhythm? You cannot even have a reaction shots. It was very difficult to write because we didn’t know how the jokes were going to work, if we would see reactions are not, or where the camera would be when the jokes were said; thirty feet away or right next to the character? There were huge numbers of complications and, luckily for us, Alejandro did three weeks of rehearsal with the camera that helped to get the last polish of the script. Of course there was a brilliant cast, but the truth is, as we were writing it and imagining transitions from one scene to another without cutting, the first thought was, How the hell are they going to do this?

 

AD: So we had to just let it go, write it and let them worry about it afterwards. Alejandro would look at a draft and say, “That transition won’t work,” so we’d reimagine it. That was the tightrope for everybody. It starts with the writing and not being able to edit ourselves, so all the warts and ugliness that were in the script are still on the screen. In a way, people can criticize it, but in another, that’s part of the chaotic beauty of it. There are those moments that Nico and I cringe over and there’s nothing we can do about it, and we passed that terror onto the actors because once we passed on the script, they were in the same situation. They had to do everything in one take. If Emma Stone had to come in with a few lines at the end of the scene between Michael Keaton and Ed Norton, she would screw up their entire scene if she blew them. It was a constant passing of the baton on this tight rope we were all on, and everybody was terrorized down to the grips.

 

RF: These are such specific actors and roles; you said you were rewriting during rehearsal so did you find yourself tailoring to the cast you wound up with?

 

AD: I swear to God, no. We wrote this thing and just cast people who happened to be unbelievably perfect. Zach Galifianakis added a few funnies and Ed always has good ideas, so there may be slight variations on lines or a joke here and there, but for the most part the script they shot is 95% of our final shooting draft.

 

RF: The story feels like such a romp to me and it takes these dreamy flights, but it’s still firmly anchored. What was the one thing you had to strap yourselves to in order to pull it off?

 

AD: Structure. As insane as this film is, as much of a fever dream as it is, if you look at it in an Aristotelian manner, it’s structured within a breath of its existence and that allowed us the opportunity to fly. We knew for the flights of fancy that the structure was not only going to have to be there but had to be absolutely rock solid. I think that was the most important thing.

 

NG: When you’re working in collaboration, it’s good to compose it that way. If we can all agree on structure and know that is strong, then we can fly off and go in different places, still knowing the important bullet points are there.

 

 

Banksy Does New York

The Big Apple's Reaction to Britain's Most Infamous Street Artist

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The British street artist known as Banksy began what he called a month-long residency in New York City on October 1, 2013. Each day the graffiti artist, whose actual identity is unknown, would post hints on his website as to where the new work could be found, sparking a daily scavenger hunt through the streets of New York.

 

The event sparked controversy in the city: some viewed the work as desired decoration, while others considered it an illegal defiling of public and private property. When HBO asked filmmaker Chris Moukarbel make a documentary about the event, Banksy Does New York, he culled endless online footage shot of the event by fans, and conducted his own interviews, to piece together a vision of Banksy’s appeal.

 

Rob Feld: I wondered if going through all the fan-made internet footage crystallized for you anything about what makes Banksy a compelling figure?

 

Chris Moukarbel: He’s a populist artist. I think it’s always been part of his project to make his work as easily accessible and widely popular as possible. They’re like pop songs, structured to get the most attention and to be the most accessible, while contemporary art I don’t think is as interested in the wide audience. He’s coming from the background of street art so it’s not about the gallery or contemporary art world, it’s about the average person on the street and work that almost anyone can find some way to connect with.

 

RF: Was there a favorite piece of video that cracked open something for you?

 

CM: There is a couple, Julia and Kurt, who had the most comprehensive coverage because they really gave up the whole month and tracked Banksy every single day. They’re dog walkers by trade. Their YouTube videos only had a few views, so it was kind of an untapped archive that was essential for us in telling the story. We crowd-sourced a lot of footage, but because of the way they included themselves in their footage, and the way they were able to get to each piece, they became the most effective storytellers and the best characters for us to track. I enjoyed everything they were doing and their commentary is hilarious; they were really into it and you didn’t feel they were the least bit self-conscious about what they were doing.

 

RF: HBO approached you with the idea to do this, and at first Banksy’s people had nothing to do with it. At what point did you start to get some assistance?

 

CM: I’d say midway through the process. We already had a decent rough cut of the film and they had been asking to see it. They really just wanted to know what we were doing. I think they were a little bit suspicious that we were making some kind of exposé, or trying to unmask him. Once they saw a cut and realized that the focus was less on Banksy and more on New York, I think they were really into it. They were supportive and able to assist us in ways, like with video or clarifying certain points for the sake of accuracy.

“It’s not about the gallery or contemporary art world, it’s about the average person on the street and work that almost anyone can find some way to connect with.”

 

RF: There’s the story about his work, “The Banality of the Banality of Evil.” It seemed really useful to have their help there.

 

CM: The original painting that Banksy purchased for $50 at the Housing Works thrift store was a kitschy landscape. He painted a Nazi soldier sitting on a bench looking out into it, called it “The Banality of the Banality of Evil,” and then dropped it back at Housing Works. By adding his mark to it and signing it, the value skyrocketed and eventually it sold for over $600,000. It was interesting because it wasn’t just the gesture of changing the value of the work – “the banality of evil” is a reference to Hannah Arendt’s book about where evil actually resides, and how it doesn’t actually come from the top down. It is perpetuated by people just doing their jobs. Her conclusion was that in the example of Nazi Germany, so many people who had committed these horrendous crimes weren’t inherently evil or sociopathic people, they were people who were just taking orders and that’s actually the real crime: how people fail to think about their actions. That was the reference for Banksy – we’re all complicit in evil and there’s the potential for evil to happen everywhere, it wasn’t specific to that moment in German history. Its potential exists all over the world and can happen at any time. Banksy’s people gave us a photograph of the painting before he altered it, which we wouldn’t have had otherwise. By the time the work had any attention on it, it had already been altered.

 

RF: Do you have some sense of his reaction to the film?

 

CM: We were told that he really enjoyed it. Just the fact that he engaged in it at all sort of meant that he was giving us his blessing, to an extent. He wasn’t involved at all in making it but he seemed to be pleased with the outcome.

 

RF: For yourself, how do you parse out the issue of illegal graffiti versus public art?

 

CM: When the film premiered at the DOC NYS festival, people tittered as Mayor Bloomberg condemned the residency. But of course it is a real issue in that maybe some of us are okay with Banksy painting on walls because we think it’s clever, but if I were to go around painting on walls, I guarantee you it would be considered a nuisance.

 

RF: Where does street art begin and end?

 

CM: I think it’s interesting to look at the evolution of the aesthetic of graffiti. It did start out being something associated with crime and blight, and people were afraid of it. As urban space became more gentrified, that whole urban aesthetic also became gentrified and now you have luxury condos using street art to decorate their walls, paying street artists and graffiti artists to create that look so it feels “gritty” or “New York.” There’s the sanctioned side of it and there is still an unsanctioned, illegal graffiti culture that exists in New York. I’m personally grateful that it still does because, whether or not it’s legal, not all laws need to be respected all the time. There is something to be said for living in a world where people might bend the laws to create beautiful things or conversation. Maybe it’s illegal and frustrating to have your wall graffitied. At the same time, living in a city is frustrating and can also be hazardous, which is maybe one of the reasons why cities can still be fun and vital places.