or: The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance
But I wanted to focus on the clear winner of the awards, and a movie that exceeded my expectations and blew me away. Alejandro G. Iñárritu, John Lesher and James W. Skotchdopole’s “Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” won four of the seven nominations it was given: original screenplay, directing, cinematography, and the vaunted best picture.
“It’s important to me! Alright? Maybe not to you, or your cynical friends whose only ambition is to go viral. But to me… To me… this is – God. This is my career, this is my chance to do some work that actually means something.” – Riggan
I will admit that Birdman has a very poignant meaning to me. I grew up to Michael Keaton’s Batman, so while there might be a generation of viewers who know only Nolan’s and Bale’s Batman, or heaven forbid George Clooney’s nipple batman.
The Movie follows Michael Keaton as Riggins, a “has been” actor who once played the icon superhero, Birdman, which is a self aware parody of Batman. I won’t spoil the story (though really, you have to watch it to experience), but it weaves a powerful story of a broken man desperately searching, and fighting, for validation. This is his last chance, and he will face many obstacles, both internal and external, before he can succeed.
And then throw in a colorful cast and their subplots, and you have an intricate, poignant, heartbreaking, and messy story of damaged people playing artificial characters, all the while pretending to be normal, well adjusted human beings. Ah, it’s a plot extravaganza! Every character goes through a (tragic) 3 act character arc, and each is beautifully written. With a very minimal cast, each character’s arcs are impactful. No brainer for best original screenplay. Also, it pulls off the “play within a play” motif very expertly. Writers take notice!
“You’re no actor, you’re a celebrity. Let’s be clear on that. I’m gonna kill your play.” – Tabitha
I love characters. It’s the reason I write, because I enjoy discovering and exploring fabulous characters. Birdman is full of characters. I mentioned a lot of this in plot, so I will focus on the lynch pin of the characters: Michael Keaton’s Riggins. Who is really a parody of Michael Keaton himself. Riggins has many layers to investigate. There is the father who failed his daughter and is full of regret. The scared of commitment husband/boyfriend. There is the angry “I deserve more” celebrity. The blood and tears perfectionist actor. There is the afraid “I have lost my manhood” older man. Layers upon layers of acting involved, and Keaton hits every beat with perfection.
In terms of Competence and Sympathy, Riggins ranks low. He is not a good business man, he is a failed actor, and his play is literally on the verge of collapsing. He is not likable, his treatment of his girlfriend, daughter, and wife borders misogynistic, and he is basically a douche to his friends and coworkers. But, what he does have going for him is proactivity. He wants, with every fiber of his being, to make this play succeed, to prove to his detractors that he is more than a has-been. He wants to prove to his family and friends that he is not a failure and a wash-up. And he wants to prove to his ghost of a past self that he can surpass himself. You ache with Riggins as he struggles through these desires.
“I’m pathetic. You know, I’ve dreamt of being a Broadway actress since I was a little kid. And now I’m here. And I’m not a Broadway actress. I’m still just a little kid. And I keep waiting for someone to tell me I made it.” – Lesley
Setting is a very sore subject for me. As a reader and viewer, I know a good setting when I read or see one. As a writer, I am horrible at setting. Birdman gets setting right in many ways.
First, Birdman is shot in a simulated one shot. That means the camera follows a character through scene, and never cuts to a different perspective or shot. Instead the camera gets “passed on” to another character and follows them as a transition.
The setting is claustrophobic, with the majority of the scenes taking place in the theater where the play within a play is happening, and then an adjoining bar and some side streets. The sense of claustrophobia makes sure that the tension of every scene is palpable, and the continuous shot makes us extremely familiar with the theater; we literally memorize the path from Riggin’s room to the stage.
But in this case, seeing is really believing. It deserves the best cinematography award.
The Writing Process
“No! I’m not finished! There’s nothing here about technique! There’s nothing in here about structure! There’s nothing in here about intentions! It’s just a bunch of crappy opinions, backed up by even crappier comparisons… You write a couple of paragraphs and you know what? None of this cost you anything! You risk nothing! Nothing! Nothing! Nothing! I’m an actor! This play cost me everything!” -Riggins
I could just “watch Birdman and see how a pro turns a script into an amazing film with precise execution” but that would be cheap. I was quite literally floored when I first watched this film. I could not leave my couch because the tension was so palpable that the movie demanded my attention, and I gave it. But let me take a look at two things that I found exceptionally amazing.
1. Conservative cast size
The main cast of this story is conservative in size. A lot of authors get this idea that to tell a story of epic scope, you need an epic cast. Not so. In fact, having a smaller cast pulling double duty allows you to create more impact when a character interacts with another, or goes through an arc change. For example, Emma Stone’s character, Sam, as Riggin’s daughter, pulls triple duty as a reminder of Riggin’s previous marriage, a testament to his failures as a father, and also representing the social media’s perception of him as a person. And much more, if we cut the symbolism deeper and finer.
To write compactly, every scene, character, and setting must “do more than one thing”, pulling double, triple, even quadruple duty, so that simple interactions with any element of your story can resonate at several levels, more than just the superficial.
2. Claustrophobic setting
Same idea here, but with setting. I’ve said this before, but it stands to repeat: just because a fantasy author is not constrained by budget or logistics when choosing setting, that doesn’t mean you can willy-nilly choose any setting you desire. Setting should be thought out to be relevant to your story, as well as being significant to your characters, Unless you are making a mileu story (from the M.I.C.E quotient), where the story is about visiting awe inspiring locales, an author should always thing “does this location benefit the story”, and if it doesn’t, cut it out!