Alejandro González Iñárritu had hopes of “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” soaring through one long continuous shot. Yet famed director Mike Nichols talked Iñárritu out of flying too high with his lofty ambitions.
Ahead of the filming 2014 dark comedy, which went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Cinematography, writer-director Iñárritu sought advice from “The Graduate” helmer Nichols. The film follows an aging actor (Michael Keaton) who seeks to revamp his career on Broadway. Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, and Edward Norton also star.
“Two weeks before we start shooting, I want to have the advice of Mike Nichols, king of comedy,” Iñárritu told The Hollywood Reporter. “It was my first comedy. I went to have a lunch with Mike Nichols in between rehearsals. I start to say, ‘Mike, I’m doing this film in one shot with these actors, in the theater.’ When I finished he said, ‘Alejandro, you should stop now. You are running to disaster.’”
The “Gravity” director continued, “My legs were shaking. ‘What do you mean?’ He starts saying, ‘A comedy is made on cutting. You cut from one place to the other. These actors are not comedy actors. They know nothing about theater.’ He starts giving me all the points of a genre that he knows very well. And he was absolutely right.”
Iñárritu admitted, “I was terrified. We give a hug, I said, ‘Thank you very much for your advice.’ I arrived to the rehearsal and Edward Norton, he was so excited, ‘How was it with Mike Nichols?!’ ‘It was great.’ I appreciated what he said because he put me in a red alert. I needed to put in much more effort. I appreciate that he was so honest with me and it was great, but it was terrifying.”
Nichols died in November 2014, almost one month exactly after “Birdman” was released.
Fellow THR roundtable guest, “TÁR” writer-director Todd Field, noted that he even heard of Nichols warning Iñárritu.
“I read somewhere that when you were doing Birdman, you met with Mike Nichols and he said, ‘Don’t do a oner [a long, continuous shot],’” Field chimed in.
As it turns out, the longest shot in “Birdman” is approximately 15 minutes, while most sequences are around 10 minutes. However, the film still has the effect of being a continuous, tension-filled take as Keaton’s character descends into madness. Iñárritu collaborated with cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki to mirror the feeling of one shot, with Lubezki previously telling THR that the actors even rehearsed with camera movement transitions in mind.
“We had to time all of the lighting changes, making sure you don’t see shadows,” Lubezki said. “We were moving lights; we were moving diffusions. There were grips moving with me. Every time you see a shot, there were eight people moving with me. It was like a ballet — that’s what made it truly exciting.”
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