Alejandro González Iñarritu knows a thing or two about being a slave to the tyranny of one’s ego. As his 50th birthday approached a few years ago, he became more aware of the dangers of listening to this incessant inner voice that tormented him and preyed on his fears, and it opened his eyes to how it made him perpetually anxious and unsatisfied. Not only did this realization shift his outlook on life, but it produced an inspired idea for a new film.
The resulting black comedy, “Birdman,” is centered on a washed-up superhero franchise star trying to revive his stagnant career by directing and acting in a Broadway vanity project. At the same time, he’s battling his naysaying super-ego, which physically manifests itself as a winged Birdman gruffly mocking his efforts at reinvention.
The blistering showbiz satire, which opens in the Boston area on Friday, is already being touted as a leading contender in this year’s Oscar race. And in a self-aware bit of meta-casting, it boasts a career-redefining comeback performance by comic book movie franchise pioneer Michael Keaton, more than 20 years after he starred in the first two “Batman” films.
“My personal creative process has always been very torturous, because I try to be a perfectionist. That’s the way the ego works — it’s extraordinarily demanding; it’s a dictator; and it can push you to bring out the best in yourself. But at the same time it’s relentless and never will be satisfied and always will find ways to crack you,” Iñarritu says in an interview during the recent New York Film Festival, where “Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” was the closing-night selection. “I think every human being can relate to seeking out validation.”
As Keaton’s Riggan Thomson preps for the play’s opening night, he’s confronting both his tyrannical ego and his stormy personal relationships, including with his recovering-addict daughter (Emma Stone), concerned ex-wife (Amy Ryan), and costar/current squeeze (Andrea Riseborough). He must also grapple with apparent telekinetic powers, falling stage lights, a flinty New York Times critic, and a loose cannon Method actor, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), who demands script rewrites and torpedoes the first preview performance after getting blotto on stage.
In making the film, Iñarritu explores the fleeting nature of success through Riggan’s efforts to prove he’s not a Hollywood has-been and to achieve what he sees as artistic legitimacy — by adapting and directing a play based on a short story by Raymond Carver, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” But his alter-ego, embodied by the nagging Birdman, becomes increasingly aggressive in urging a return to superhero action-star mode.
“Life takes care to remind us we will all fail in our solemn attempts to succeed and transcend with our stupid ideas of art or money-making or whatever important thing we think we’re doing. I find that incredibly trying but at the same time beautifully funny. So this film is a little twisted, because I decided to approach those tragic events in an upside-down way,” says Iñarritu, a magnetic, fast-talking, and gregarious personality.
This results in one of Iñarritu’s most fun, freewheeling, and comedic films, but one which still has an underbelly of existential anxiety — a development that he chalks up to getting older.
Indeed, with “Birdman” he rediscovered his sense of humor, which he says he lost a little bit doing his somber, spiritually-tinged 2010 film “Biutiful,” a human trafficking drama with hints of the supernatural that earned Javier Bardem an Oscar nomination.
“If you surrender a little bit, I think life can at least be lighter and more enjoyable. That’s the only way that we as human beings can survive — laughing at our ourselves. I think I have learned that with age,” says Iñarritu, who first emerged 14 years ago as part of a new wave of Mexican-born filmmakers that included his friends Alfonso Cuaron and Guillermo del Toro.
Iñarritu insists that the characters in “Birdman” are as tortured as in any of his previous films; he says it’s the approach that’s been altered. Indeed, “Birdman” marks both a stylistic and tonal departure for him. His first three films — “Amores Perros,” “21 Grams,” and “Babel” (which earned a Best Picture Oscar nod) — feature multiple intersecting story strands whose connections get filled in like a puzzle. They’re also known for their kinetic storytelling and shaky, handheld camerawork. Whereas in “Birdman” he and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezski (“Gravity”) filmed the action in what appears to be a single uninterrupted Steadicam shot (actually a series of extended takes blended together digitally) that follows Riggan down winding backstage hallways, through dressing rooms, out onto the stage, and even into bustling Times Square — with Keaton in nothing but his tighty-whiteys.
“Theoretically you can have a brilliant idea, but theory often collapses when you apply it in the concrete world,” Iñarritu says. “So we had to figure out how to execute it.”
To the director, the idea mirrored the way life is lived, where there is no editing or cutting away from anything.
“This is a story about a person who’s having a real spiritual, emotional crisis of the soul,” Norton says in a separate interview. “So there’s something really interesting in never leaving the bubble of that person’s anxiety, never getting a break, which creates a deeper sensation of a relationship between him and the audience.”
To create Shiner, Norton says, “I basically just looked four feet to my left at Alejandro. I think Alejandro took many things that he thinks and feels — some of which are somewhat paradoxical — and breathed them into life through these different characters.”
With “Biutiful,” Iñarritu knew it was time to start taking creative risks. That film was a first step, but “Birdman” pushed him even further out on the ledge.
“As I was doing this film, I have to say I felt like Riggan Thomson. I was attempting something that was a huge risk. It was very experimental. The process was new for me, and it could have all gone wrong,” he says. “When you are not in a safe place, there are always going to be fears. But sometimes fear is good creatively. It means it’s probably something that’s really worth doing.”
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at email@example.com.