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.