Birdman, from director Alejandro G. Iñárritu, stars Michael Keaton as Riggan Thomson, a movie star struggling to be appreciated as director and writer of a Broadway play and to escape the shadow of his former role as an iconic super hero. It’s a theme that is familiar both in real life and on the silver screen, but one of the things that makes this movie far more powerful than a typical Hollywood mid-life crisis tale is the way it looks. From the cinematography to the costume design, the psychotic, surreal world of Birdman was meticulously constructed.
With the help of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Birdman was filmed to appear as though it took place in a single dizzying take. This gives viewers a sensory thrill, but resulted in a few hurdles for the film’s designers to overcome.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
Because a major thrust of Birdman‘s plot revolves around Riggan’s play (an adaptation of the Raymond Carver short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love) the majority of the film takes place in the nooks and crannies of St. James Theater and its immediate surroundings. For production designer Kevin Thompson, this was a unique challenge. Working in such a confined space combined with shooting the film in long takes required that his team construct the whole backstage area from scratch to meet the needs of the film.
“The length of the corridors, the footprint of each dressing room and the layout of how you would get from Point A to Point B would evolve daily as we rehearsed,” said Thompson. It got even more complicated when the actors were talking. “For instance if an actor was filmed walking down a hallway speaking his lines, we needed the hallway to be exactly as long as necessary for him to get to the end of his dialogue before getting to the end of the hallway.”
Another challenge was how to differentiate the costumes the characters wore in the play from their contemporary clothes. One way that costume designer Albert Wolsky drew a distinction between the two was through dating the play: “I wanted to separate more distinctly between costume and regular clothes, so we did it from the ’50s.” Carver’s short story was written to take place in the ’70s.
Dressing Michael Keaton
As far as developing characters through design, Keaton’s character, Riggan Thomson required the most effort, especially when it came to the creation of his dressing room. Kevin Thompson explained that it “had to be big enough for all the different camera moves and still feel cramped. We kept lowering the ceiling as filming progressed to make it feel more claustrophobic.” Plus, he said, the dressing room mirrors made it difficult to film, “because you had to avoid any reflections of the camera and crew showing up in the shot. The less space you’re working in the harder that is to achieve.”
Many of Riggan’s outfits were simply written into the script, but Wolsky explained why some choices were key to his character development. The film opens with Riggan levitating in his underwear in his dressing room. While that simple description was written into the script, Wolsky said that it was clear that his character wasn’t going to wear boxer shorts, even if Keaton may have preferred that. Instead, Iñárritu insisted on “real” underwear. Although Keaton wasn’t wearing much, Wolksy explained that “every piece of clothing and what they wore on screen is a costume.”
That wasn’t the only scene that featured Riggan Thomson wearing his underwear. Later on in the film he marches through Time Square in only his socks and a pair of brandless tighty whities after locking himself out of the theater during a preview. Again, he wore that same regular pair of underwear, “so it’d be more embarrassing,” Wolsky said.
It wasn’t an easy scene to film. “It’s a very vulnerable moment for an actor. After he did it once, he felt that it could be done better, and Iñárritu didn’t want to push him that hard, and he suggested, ‘let me do it again,’ and he did,” said Wolsky. He added that despite the absurd sight of Michael Keaton wandering around in his underwear at 1:00 a.m. in Times Square, when they shot the scene, “half the people didn’t even notice him.”
Dressing Emma Stone
Riggan’s daughter, Sam, played by Emma Stone, was in “sexy-cynical ragamuffin mode” for her role, wrote the New York Times. Iñárritu wanted to give her an “East Village look” and Wolsky achieved it through outfits consisting of torn stockings, mismatching clothes, and a tattoo. “Emma went for it immediately, and it was great fun to dress her,” Wolsky said.
What’s the Story Behind the Birdman Costume?
Throughout the movie, Riggan Thomson is haunted by the deep voice of Birdman, who seems to represent his self-deprecating inner self, and at the end of the film, Birdman actually appears in full costume. Wolsky didn’t design the costume himself; it was already done before he was brought on board for the movie.
Given the opportunity to design the Birdman costume, Wolsky said it would have been “a little more feathery, and [have] more color and a little bit more ‘loving hands at home.’ But that’s a directorial decision, that’s what he felt he wanted and needed, and that’s what he got.”
Kevin Thompson said that overall he was asked of two things from Iñárritu: “To make things work technically and to reflect in the design the emotional elements of the story and themes of the movie. I wanted the look of the movie and the sets to reflect what I imagined to be going on inside the head of Keaton’s character. I wanted to create sets that Alejandro would connect with both with his gut and in his heart. He’s both an intellectual and visceral director and I wanted sets that appealed to both sides of him.”
As for Wolsky: “The job is to get inside the director’s head, it’s his movie or her movie and to figure out what’s there and what they want,” he said. “It was tricky because he [Iñárritu] himself was searching.”
All images courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.