Monday, February 23, 2015

BIRDMAN - The Moral Premise and Arcs

ALEGANDRO GONZÁLEX IÑÁRRITU (Director/Co-writer)
EMMANUEL LUBEZKI (Cinematography)
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MICHAEL KEATON (Riggan/Nick)
EMMA STONE (Sam, Riggan's daughter)
EDWARD NORTON (Mike Shiner, Riggan's method acting antagonist/Mel, Nick's friend and Terri's husband )
NAOMI WATTS (Lesley, Riggan's protégée/Terri, Mel's wife)
ANDREA RISEBOROUGH (Laura, Riggan's girlfriend/Laura, Nick's wife)
ZACH GALIFIANAKIS (Jake, Riggan's co-producer)
LINDSAY DUNCAN (Tabitha, the critic that is going to "kill" Riggan's play)
AMY RYAN (Sylvia, Riggan's wife)

Rated R for language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence

4 Oscars (Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Picture) Plus 157 other wins out of 158 nominations.

GREATEST DESIRE vs. GREATEST FEAR

BIRDMAN explores this classic conflict: Achieving our greatest desires often requires that we overcome our greatest fears.

An actor standing before a crowd, an announcer sitting before a live radio microphone, an entrepreneur pitching an idea to investors, or a writer facing the blank page…all carry the excitement of opportunity and achievement…if we can access a confidence that is greater than our fear of failure.

That is the struggle between Freud's ID and EGO. Here the ego is not to be confused with narcissistic egotism. It is the ID that drives our dreams and passions, often unbridled and without constraint. It is the EGO that struggles to conform the ID's dreams and bring them to some form of reality. Wanting something badly enough requires that we face the reality and the difficulties that stand in the way of our dreams.

THE STORY QUESTION

In BIRDMAN, our protagonist, Riggan, wants to prove to the world that he's not just a celebrity "actor" hiding behind a mask in a birdman suit through the magic of Hollywood's special effects and elaborate editing, which is what he is known for through a series of movies about the superhero Birdman. Riggan wants to get out from behind that mask of his former identity and prove that he's a real actor. That is, he wants to achieve acceptance by appearing on stage, in the raw, without the protection of costume, special effects, or the editor's cutting that maneuvers around bad performances. The movie questions are, therefore: Can Riggan's dream of being a respected New York actor (not just a Hollywood celebrity) be realized? Can his ego find a way for his id's passion to be realized? Can he produce, direct, star in and finance a Broadway show and achieve critical and financial acclaim?

Critical to all successful stories is a clear physical goal with elements of underdog irony. The answer to these movie questions, according to nearly everyone around him, is "No, he cannot. It's too big of a challenge for anyone."

At the same time this is the same answer that Alegandro Gonzálex Iñárritu received from many in the industry when he approached actors and financiers to make BIRDMAN. So, in many ways the emotional and moral obstacles Iñárritu confronted in the making of BIRDMAN, Riggan faces in making his play. The movie becomes, therefore, a metaphor for both the play, and the filmmaker's lives.

The story is universal because the question it proposes is one we all face multiple times during the day. BIRDMAN suggests that the juxtaposition of our wishes and fears is epitomized and metaphored in the life of an actor… someone like Riggan. (In a backdoor sort of way, BIRDMAN argues for compassion on actors and live performance creators.)

VERTICAL METAPHORS

BIRDMAN takes those story questions, and applies ithem to the various subplots, which are not just interwoven horizontally like subplots normally are in a story, but vertically in overlapping realities. There are(1) the filmmakers (Iñárritu as director, Lubezki as cinematographer, Keaton, Norton et al as actors), (2) making a movie about a play's production (Riggan as director, and Riggan, Mike et al as actors), who (3) are staging a play adapted from a book (written by Carver, but starring Riggan as Nick, Mike as Mel, et al).

In Riggan's stage paly (with Nick, Mel, Terri and Laura), as well as in Riggan's life (with Sylvia, Mike, Sam, Laura, Lesley and Jake), and in the movie (with Keaton, Norton, Watts et al,) no one can hide behind cutaways and special effects…it’s pure acting. And this is probably the biggest reason the filmmakers won BEST PICTURE. (next paragraph, please)

To bring this fear and the reality of stage performances to the forefront of the movie's production, Iñárritu and Lubezki use long takes, 10-20 minutes in length with dozens of actors, props and locations in each. All of the traditional movie making pillars that actors and filmmakers hide behind to assuage their fear and give them a "faux" confidence, are gone. BIRDMAN, the movie, is like Riggan's life and Riggan's play. It's raw, it's exposed, it's like running down Broadway Ave. in your underwear to make a cue on stage. No one should criticize the scene of Keaton trying through the public in his underpants.  It is the ultimate metaphor for what actors must do every night on the stage...well, actually what actors do might be better metaphored if Keaton was naked.

In each of these dramatic vertical layers, the battle is between their id's passion to achieve at any cost and their ego's efforts to bring it off within the confines of their world's reality. Stated another way they are all battling their fear of failure vs. their confidence to succeed.

THE MORAL PREMISE

The greatest fear of an actor is that his character will be perceived as pretending. The greatest wish of an actor is that his character will be perceived as real. That is a paradox on the roof's ledge of contradiction, which we also have in a few scenes. 

Therefore, the long version of BIRDMAN's moral premise could be stated this way:

Hiding behind a mask of other's expectations, and avoiding vulnerability leads to fear (of self, of others, and of life) and if fate is favorable you'll become a celebrity with no talent. But, removing the mask of other's expectations, and embracing a raw vulnerability leads to a love (of self, of others and of life), and and if you work real hard you'll become a real actor with talent. 

or this shorter form:


Self-fear leads to fake performances and fake bananas, but
Self-confidence leads to real performances and bloody verisimilitude. 

or


Leading with Id lifts the lid (exposing you as fake) and puts you on page 12, but
Leading with Ego reveals the glow (establishing you as real) and puts you on page 1. 

or,  coming at this from a method acting  perspective, which is what Ed Norton's antagonist character demonstrates:

Pretending leads to rejection; but
Actualizing leads to acceptance. 

ANTAGONISTS

Riggan's protagonist has two antagonists that come from opposite directions and force him to transform from wishing to doing, from fearing to taking charge as if he is god of his play. The first antagonist is the fear of his alter ego (the Young Birdman) who tells Riggan he's washed up and amounts to nothing in his present endeavor. The Young Birdman wants to maintain Riggan's status quo and remain a masked celebrity. This, however, is what Riggan is trying to shake off; although it's easy to fall back into such motivations.

The second antagonist is the absence of fear of Mike Shiner, who is the epitome of the method actor's demand that everything should come from within, everything should be real, not fake. Mike doesn't need the script because he believes that a correctly written script will be in tune with his natural, inner soul and the next line will naturally come to him. (And mostly it does.)

The Young Birdman initially teases and harasses Riggan to stick with the status quo of celebrity ambiguity, but it’s Mike Shinner that forces Riggan to really change. Riggan has a great deal of fear at the beginning of the story. Mike has no fear. Mike strips naked for his fitting in front of Riggan’s daughter and others. Mike (as Mel) tries to actually make love to Lindsey (as Terri) on stage in front of a full house. Mike also Riggan to essentially use a real gun without the red stopper in the barrel... to make it believable. In exposition dialogue we learn that Mike has no fear of being fired nor does he fear ruining his reputation by quitting projects.  He's guilty of both. When he joins Riggan's project, Riggan is thrilled and nearly worships Mike’s availability. Why? Because Mike is a real actor, which Riggan is attempting to be. And indeed, Mike’s fearlessness ("I own this town") is what makes him a great actor and consequently he get’s front page cover in the NYT Arts section, which may be the Moment of Grace for Riggan (Riggan's story is pushed to page 12.) This occurs on page 65 of the 118 page script.

There's also a Moment of Grace for Mike, when he tells Riggan in a bar that he owns the town and suddenly a fan approaches Riggan for his autograph and ignores Mike. That also signals a change that the antagonist's pressure is changing the protagonist. (this occurs on page 44 of the 118 page script)

THE STORY'S ESSENCE

The essence of the story, then, is that being an actor, especially on stage, requires a confidence that is greater than the fear being an actor creates. Riggan must acquire a confidence that he is the omnipotent god of his play and of NY. He can make things happen. He imagines that he has telekinesis powers just as an actor choses action verbs to telegraph his inner motivation to bring physical change to a scene and the other characters on stage he opposes.

This god-like, inner confidence and belief in oneself is equal to jumping out of a window and flying, yet WITHOUT the Birdman suit, which represents the fake and special effect side of acting.

Riggan learns that pretending to levitate in his underwear in his private dressing room where no one can see him, isn't enough. To have the confidence for his ego to acquire his id's dream he has to gain enough confidence to "literally" fly above 5th avenue fully dressed in public…or run through a crowd outside a theater in his underwear…a metaphor for his need to be totally vulnerable on stage. Successful acting requires extreme, emotional and physical vulnerability. You can have no fear of exposing yourself to ridicule and public criticism. The movie says that a Hollywood celebrity dresses behind a costume and externally becomes the character, but a real actor can go naked and internally becomes the actor. Only when Riggan acquires that inner motivation can he become the ACTOR he intends.

When Riggan confronts Tabitha (the critic) in the bar he tells her that she has no idea what it’s like to be an actor-director-producer-financier of a play, which is equivalent to being a god…you can kill actors with a sand bag, you can create a war on the streets of Manhattan, you can stare down fire breathing dragons, you can fly, and you can shoot yourself in the head and live again to do it again the next night. A critic (like Tabitha) can only use external labels which cost them nothing. Actors, o the other hand, risk everything to become their creation.

He says to Tabitha in reference to her use of labels to criticize his play:

None of this cost you fuckin’ anything? The Fuck! You risk nothing! Nothing! Nothing! Nothing! I’m a fucking actor! This play cost me everything.

That scene occurs on pages 92-93 which is a far cry and arc from what and where Sam says the same thing to Riggan on page 50.

ARCS


Riggan’s arc is his transformation from being the young Birdman who can “fly" (with the help of a mask and special effects —not real acting…it’s all make believe) to his resurgence as a real actor running down Broadway in his underwear, drawing real blood on stage, and, telling the young Birdman to “Bye-bye. And fuck you." (Our last glimpse of the Young Birdman is that he's no longer hovering over Riggan, but sitting silently on a crapper having been finally put in his place.)  Riggan has learned to turn the characters on stage into real, life—the epitome of verisimilitude.

Riggan's need to arc is emphasized during a public preview (of the play), when Mike rants about how nothing on stage is real "It's all fake. The milk is fake, the butter if fake…Your performance is fake…" and he tears the set up (page 34). Mike is an example of the method actor, where the internal emotions drive the physical action and because the actor actually senses his environment as real. Mike is fearless on stage, where as Riggan (in his past) hid behind a mask and special effects.

The question is, can Riggan be like Mike. Can he top Mike. (Indeed can Michael Keaton get out from behind the Batman mask and be a real actor without special effects and cutaways?) Can he move from page 12 to page 1 in the NYT Arts section. We ask ourselves once again, can Riggan become the character... a real actor?  Blowing off his nose with a real gun is his own proof…he can now fly.

At the end of Act 2 (Near Death), Tabitha accuses Riggan of being a Hollywood celebrity and that she's going to kill his play. But once Riggan pulls out the stops, at the very end, when he's recovering from blowing off his nose, Jake reads Tabitha's glowing review of Riggan's "super realism" and praises the play.

Moments later, when he's alone in his hospital room's bathroom, Riggan removes the mask of bandages is a reprise of what he has done earlier internally, at the beginning of Act 3 (removing the mask and willing to become a martyr for the cause.) That the bandages looks like the bird man costume assures us that Riggan in fact has come out from behind his mask of being a “celebrity” to being an “actor”

In this same scene we also see the culmination of Sam's arc. Where earlier Sam despises her father's attempts to make the play succeed, they have this exchange:

RIGGAN: Listen to me. I'm trying to do something important. 
SAM: This is not important. 
RIGGAN: 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. 
SAM: ….Well, there's a whole world out there where people fight to be relevant every day. And you act like it doesn't even exist! Things are happening in a place that you willfully ignore, a place that has already forgotten you. I mean who are you? You hate bloggers. You make fun of twitter. You don't even have a Facebook page. You're the one who doesn't exist. You're doing this because you're scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don't matter. And you know what? You're right. You don't. It's not important. You're not important. Get used to it.

But at the end of the movie, Sam has come around and we're shown it this way. After Riggan removes his bandages, he goes to the hospital window, looks down at the media frenzy that has gathered, looks up at the sky and birds "dancing" in the sky. Then he steps up and out the window wearing only his hospital gown, open in the back.

The camera moves from the window to the hospital room's door.

Sam returns from getting a flower vase, which she now does lovingly as opposed to the angry errand she ran for her Dad in the first scene. She looks for her dad who's nowhere in the room. The last paragraph in the script says this:

She spots the opened window and registers the sounds from outside. Tentatively she walks toward the window. She gets there, summons her courage and looks down. Nothing. Slowly, confused, she tilts her head up and looks up into the sky. A smile, filled with pride, begin to wash over her face.


Log Lines, Tags, & Hooks

I recently received the following question from a reader.

Hey Dr. Stan, 
Can I get your reaction to my tagline for the script I'm currently working on (and constantly re-working).  It is: 
After defying incredible odds to become the first African-American female rescue swimmer for the U.S. Coast Guard, Susan Carville is asked to embark on a mission that will require her to choose who will live and who will die.
Any feedback from you would be greatly appreciated. 
Thank you,   
Lady Writer

Lt. j.g. Lashanda Holmes, the first female
African-American helicopter pilot in the Coast Guard.
Dear Lady Writer,

Well, that’s not a tag line, but it’s a pretty good log line. A tag line suggests the emotional arc. For your story a “tag” might be: “Hope that Transcends Desperation.” or “Called to Save, Forced to Let Die.”

But as a story and a log line... you have several layers of outer conflict or potential story hooks:

  • Becoming a person who saves lives in desperate situations
  • Becoming a rescue swimmer
  • Being a female
  • Being African-American

Any ONE of those engenders social conflict and potential difficulties. Any ONE of them can become the basis of a movie's hook, because each has a perceived disadvantage.

A person that wants to become a rescue swimmer is prejudice against by her friends for being an a physical fitness junkie and courageous. That bias is not very different from how society’s patriarchal majority at times dismiss women, and white racism marginalizes blacks.

Putting all four together creates greater interest (and greater jeopardy) but also creates a bigger problem for the story. Significantly dealing with ONE of those issues, or perhaps TWO is enough for a screenplay. Dealing with all four suggests to me a novel. Dealing with all four in a screenplay will be difficult, and that difficulty is evident in what you have to do with the log line. (see below)

MULTIPLE HOOKS SOLUTION

But there is a solution. PICK ONE to be the spine of the story, and dramatically reduce the importance of the others to subplots. My recommendation is to pick the spine that has the broadcast audience appeal, and let the others tag along—their very presence will reinforce their validity. For instance, of those four story sub-plots, which do you think will appear to the most people? That then becomes the focus of your story, and the focus of your log line.

Put it another way, I have no problem with seeing all four in a story as your log line suggests, but if you focus principally on Susan's blackness as your main plot, you’ll make the film for only 18% of the American audience that identifies with being black, and you’ll be telling the rest of your potential audience that their lives matters less. If you focus the spine on the fact that Susan is a woman, you’ll marginalize 49% of your potential audience and tell them (the men) they don’t matter. If you focus the spine of your story or being a rescue swimmer, then you have marginalized 99.9% of your audience. But I think everyone in your potential audience would identify with the human need to help others and the moral dilemma of helping others in situations where you are useless to do so.

UNDERDOGS

At the same time, the most successful stories are “underdog” stories, or as Disney labels them, “fish out of water” stories. These are stories where the protagonist can easily be identified as one with the audience. They are just like everybody else, filled with fears and anxieties, and a lost sense of “What can I do?” When you put such a character into a situation that seems impossible you have the biggest interest, the deepest hook.

So my story and log line recommendation would be to focus the story on someone who wants to help others in desperate situations but has to overcome their insecurities of doing so. Keep their motivations high and noble that all your diverse international audience can identify with. Second I would focus on the technicalities of the difficultly of becoming a rescue swimmer. This will intrigue everyone. That Susan happens to be female and black will raise the noble pursue of her in an otherwise male and white world. And while you can make some minor points about her being female and black, you don't want to become so politically correct that you miss the point and open your story up to mockery.

The regular audience goer will believe (coming into the theater) that Susan should become a rescue swimmer ONLY if she can be a good one. Her sex and the color of her skin should not enter into her success of failure, although you can show her struggling with her black-female identity. Just keep it a subplot. This is where Martin Luther King's call for judgment to be made on character not on skin color comes in. If you make gender or race an issue then you suggest that Susan should become a rescue swimmer BECAUSE she is female and black. If you make Susan female and black but don't make a big deal about it, then you reinforce the idea that gender and race are not the issue—character qualities counts. This was part of the success of THE KARATE KID I worked on with Will and Jaden Smith. While Jaden is black, the story was not about his blackness, but about the cultural issues between American and Chinese. Overbrook did the same thing with last year's ANNIE. Both were successful and appealed to broad audiences because race was not an explicit issue in the promotion or the plot...yet it was there.  A gender example would be KILL BILL where Uma Thurman's sex is an implicit not an explicitly issue, and it attracted a male audience.

Now, since Susan's story is a true story, and being female and black WERE issues for her, you will want to still deal with them. Just remember the more you bring them to the forefront of your story, the more you limit your audience to just black females, which would be about 9% of your potential audience.  If you don't made a big deal about then you garner a larger audience who will see black females as fully capable and you'll win their respect from a faithful portrayal of a rescue swimmer's difficulty of rising to that level.

LOG LINE DIFFICULTIES & SOLUTIONS

If you want to make all four elements a significant part of your story then you'll have a log line that reads like this:
After defying incredible odds to become the first African-American, female, rescue swimmer for the U.S. Coast Guard, Susan Carville is asked to embark on a mission that will require her to choose who will live and who will die among the crew of a sinking ship who are a mix of men and women, whites and blacks. 
This log line is fraught with racial, class, and gender overtones and what becomes lost in such political messages is the remarkable universal nature of anyone becoming a rescue swimmer in order to save another's life. The audience is narrowed and the message debatable.

But if the log line is:
After defying incredible odds to become a rescue swimmer for the U.S. Coast Guard, the newly certified swimmer is sent on a death-defying mission where the swimmer must decide who will live and who will die.
Then the log line has universal appeal. And when the trailers and poster comes out and we discover the swimmer is a black woman, the appeal for the story will skyrocket. People don't like to be preached at about any political issue, but they subliminally understand the gender and racial undertones.

Also notice this minor point. Proper nouns are never used in a log line. Use generic descriptions to (again) keep the appeal broad.