Backstage at the St. James – Riggan’s dressing room…
Lesley [Naomi Watts] thanks Riggan [Michael Keaton] for giving her the opportunity to star in a play on Broadway. Note that even with the limited lighting, all the elements reflected in the makeup mirror inform the story…
In Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s dark comedy BIRDMAN, Riggan Thomson [Michael Keaton] hopes that by spearheading an ambitious new Broadway play he will, among other things, revive his moribund career. In many ways, it is a deeply foolhardy move, but the former cinema superhero has high hopes that this creative gambit will legitimize him as an artist and prove to everyone...and himself…that he is not just a Hollywood has-been.
Iñárritu notes that elements of Riggan’s story resonated with him, particularly the ephemeral nature of success and the question of relevance.
“I always said that after you turn 40, anything that doesn’t really scare you isn’t worth doing. And this scared me in a good way. It was new territory and I was definitely out of my comfort zone.”
BIRDMAN shot for 30 days entirely in New York City, Iñárritu’s first movie in Gotham. There were never any other stand-in cities the filmmakers considered. “The city and Broadway are characters themselves in the film. To make the film feel as authentic as it possibly could, what better place than New York. The great thing is that there is such a talented pool of artists and technicians and actors in New York,” says producer John Lesher, such as Production Designer Kevin Thompson and Set Decorator George DeTitta, Jr, who with their crews, brought about sets that allowed for Iñárritu’s and DP “Chivo” Lubezki’s innovative filming.*
The production shot much of the film in the real Broadway theater, the St. James on 44th Street in the heart of Times Square. The St. James has a storied history. Built on the site of the original Sardi’s Restaurant, it opened in 1927 and many notable productions have played there.
“My first conversation with Alejandro was about the physical world of the theater on stage and behind it. He was very interested in the two emerging and overlapping. I thought it would be incredibly challenging to have these two worlds meet. And the idea of filming in a real Broadway theater, designing sets for that and for the play plus the backstage dressing rooms and labyrinth of corridors was really intriguing,” Thompson reveals.
“We had the St. James Theater for a window of maybe six weeks,” says DeTitta. “We got in there after Barry Manilow's stint on Broadway. In fact, my first walk through was while that show was still going on. The sets were obviously designed and planned in advance, as we had little time to set up because the shooting schedule was so fast-paced and tight.”
“We basically used the stage itself and the wings. We dressed the lobby and created the typical show souvenirs for the scene where Riggan is forced to enter through the front door after getting locked out. The period of the play they are presenting provided us an opportunity to introduce another look with the on-stage sets we created for it. Because of the Raymond Carver factor, we had decided early on to have our stage set evoke a 1950s-60s design. I basically stayed with elements of that period for the décor, painting appliances from that era and adding the other traditional kitchen dressing.”
When asked about the logistics of filming right in the heart of Times Square, the veteran of many films and television productions laughs, “Times Square is always a challenge and you never know what to expect. We built a few set pieces for that Times Square shot, but for the most part, you live dangerously. I remember when we were filming a key shot for the movie ENCHANTED, the crowd got a little out of hand and we never really got the shot we wanted. BIRDMAN was a different story. Pretty much of a triumph!”
Filming actually began with the entire backstage area built at Kaufman Astoria Studios. “The set was basically a large square with corridors and staircases leading up to different levels. All the dressing rooms, green room, wardrobe room, scenic area and hallways were created on stage,” DeTitta explains.
“I always find the research portion of the job to be the most interesting, particularly when you get a first-hand view into someone else's world that you then need to create, so I managed to get into a few real Broadway theaters to get the true flavor of the backstage world,” he notes. “I found the detail to be quite elaborate, and I think it comes through in our sets.”
“The ideas for specific elements, like the first night congratulations, were inspired by things I saw in the Broadway theaters. The mismatched carpets, use of leftover theater set dressing—the whole non-glamorous world—is on display in those backrooms. I felt we captured that world pretty strongly, especially with the way the camera moved in one continuous move...I like to describe the look of the film as "in your face”… I found that certainly was a factor in showing the detail we put into each set.”
Thompson points out, “The corridor to Riggan's dressing room would shrink as the movie went on…to make it more about the state of mind that he was in.” DeTitta adds, “That corridor underwent a transformation about halfway through the stage shoot. We made it narrower by pulling the walls in and dropping the ceiling to give that more claustrophobic feel Kevin was describing. The construction team, along with the set dressers, pulled that off at the end of a day’s filming to be back up and running that next morning. Did I mention the fast pace?”
“The corridors were well thought out with various carpet samples paired with wall colors. Since we were aware that the camera would be so confined, we knew that all those elements would be seen. The carpet we eventually settled on for outside Riggan's dressing room was chosen for the pattern: it had a bit of the feel of the setting from THE SHINING,” he says with a chuckle.
“We particularly enjoyed bringing in the detail for the individual dressing rooms. It seems that sometimes in these dressing rooms the actors real lives do show through, which worked great as a base for set decoration. Of course the other thing we had to be concerned with were the duplicates we would need for the scene where Riggan goes on a bit of a rampage, destroying his dressing room. The Birdman poster was duplicated several times, and in various states. And, of course I love the line, ‘Hey don't mess with them, they're union!’"
“But my favorite part of our backstage stage set was the Wardrobe Room,” he adds. “The detail was fabulous right down to the thimbles, spools of threads and the bolts of fabric stored overhead. And of course, my favorite Alejandro request was when we were shooting in that set for Ed Norton's scene as Mike Shiner where he steps out of his clothes, and I was asked to provide set dressing to act as blocking of certain reflections in the mirror in which he was standing in front of…thus, the wardrobe rack on wheels!”
With the new ways of filming, the set decorator and production designer are becoming more and more responsible for lighting. Practicals play a much bigger role. For BIRDMAN, Thompson says, “We used practical fixtures throughout because we had to be able to move the camera freely without movie lighting getting into or in the way of the shot…So we’d get a lot of different color temperatures of light, from cool tungsten to a warmer incandescent. It was lit for film, not theater – Broadway productions have a more heightened version of blue and red lights but ours were more like cool and warm colors crashing into each other and layering on top of each other.”
DeTitta adds, “It seemed like every other day, I would get a request for more practicals in one area or another for the stage set. Chivo loves lighting with practicals. This was the first time I had ever had a request from the DP and the PD to visit in advance my lighting source. I hadn’t even started the show yet when Kevin called me saying that Chivo wanted to start looking at practicals for ideas! My friend Scott Liroff at City Knickerbocker has a vast amount of every kind of lighting—the choices are endless, so I sent them there. Scott was his usual accommodating self, and they set out to roam the place and see the array of choices available.”
“Speaking of practical lighting, the Liquor Store was one of the last sets we did, and probably the most fun. Kevin had brought Alejandro to a small restaurant downtown for lunch, which served to inspire the set. We incorporated many, many lights to create this colorful world that Riggan navigates his way through. The whole environment was fun to create—it just seemed to sparkle and was quite magical!”
The film was a combination of realities, some of which reflected both the simplicity and profundity of being human and the magic of the spirit, of love.
“I love characters that are flawed, uncertain, driven by doubts and contradictions...which means everybody I know,” Iñárritu proffers. “Riggan’s choices have been poor and this one has affected the people around him. Throughout his life, Riggan has confused love for admiration. And it’s until he realized the irrelevance of the second one that he has to painfully start learning how to love himself and the others.’
“He is profoundly human. I saw him as a kind of Don Quixote, where the humor comes from the disparity and permanent dislocation of his solemn ambitions and the ignoble reality that surrounds him. Basically, it’s the story of all of us.”
*Editor’s note: DeTitta and Thompson just won the ADG Award for Contemporary Film!
DeTitta’s response: "I love working with Kevin. He's creative, innovative, talented and a true gentleman. Special thanks to those who I could not have done it without…my assistants: Dan DeTitta, Judy Gurr [SDSA Associate member] and Karen Kates, my great crew: Jerry DeTitta and his fine group of set dressers, and my office staff: Gay Howard, Emmet Lundberg and Bob Beisher."