Birdman is the story of a dried up actor, Riggan Thomson who played a superhero (Bird Man) in films, hoping to making a comeback by starring in his own Broadway production. This attempt to breath life into his career is faced with every possible obstacle including a daughter just out of rehab, an ex-wife, an injured cast mate, and the fact that he had to bring another actor in just to sell tickets. This story is a character study that anyone who has ever had a dream can appreciate, especially those in theatre, film or other creative arts. His fear is quite blatantly put out there while talking to himself (or Birdman), “I’m fucking disappearing! I’m the answer to a fucking trivial pursuit question.” and that is exactly his problem.
From a visual perspective (Action) within the first couple pages, it is quickly revealed that there are no “scenes” per say. There are scene slugs, but the screenplay seems to continuously flow from location to location with time almost continuous. Though the time of day changes, the characters literally walk into a new time of day scenes feeling like a continuation of each other. There are no jump cuts written into the screenplay, just seamless transitions. The only time the camera seems to not seamlessly move between scenes is on page one-hundred-six. Having seen the film as well, this was very cleverly done with walls becoming opportunities to transition from one shot to the next, or give the director the opportunity to cut between scenes.
I learned a lot about how to visually represent and take chances from this screenplay. Who would have thought that a 112 page film could be shot as one continuous shot from page 1 to 106? Inarritu, Giacobone, Dinelaris, and Bo use short descriptive sentences within the action to keep the reader moving through the pages, fast. This is the way the film plays out as well.
This leads me to the dialogue, which is fast, sparse and loaded with subtext. When one of the characters goes into a monologue it’s because it’s needed, it’s asking you to understand the character (or the protagonist) a bit more. Each word and scene plays an integral role in Riggan’s discovery, and failure. Early in the film on page 12, a theatre journalist starts asking Riggan about Barthes, the french philosopher, a philosopher who questioned and struggled to find meaning in much art; just as Riggan is trying to find the meaning of his life, and ultimate death.
The screenwriters also cleverly use VoiceOvers for a character which does not exist, except in Riggan’s mind: Birdman. Birdman is Riggan’s evil stepsister, his inner turmoil, always putting him down. For example (p71), as a voiceover Birdman says “What are you trying to prove? Huh? That you’re an artist? You’re not.” Riggan replies, “Fuck You.” In the action, “Riggan points his fingers at a chair and sends it flying.” This whole scene is in his head, his inner turmoil, but gives us a look into the mind of Riggan without it being Riggan doing the speaking. It’s cleaver.
This film is a perfect example of great screenwriting. The dialogue flows like poetry with not a single extra word on the page, and the action is vivid and rich putting you both in a real world and a world only exists in Riggan’s mind.
Kevin Michael Reed is a theatre maker from New York City living in Dublin and London. His production credits have included producer, director, playwright, dramaturg and designer. He is Artistic Director of Squire Lane Theatrical UK, a theatre production company specialising in developing new works for the stage. He holds a BFA in Photography from the Fashion Institute of Technology (SUNY), a MA in Playwriting from City, University of London, and a MFA in Theatre Directing from The Lir, National Academy of Dramatic Art, Trinity College Dublin.