The Bookish World of ‘Birdman:’ A Q&A with Writer Alex Dinelaris

Michael Keaton in Birdman © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.
Michael Keaton in Birdman © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.

Last week, the much anticipated (at least by Michael Keaton groupies like myself) movie "Birdman" opened in New York City. In it, Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a down-and-out actor who used to carry the superhero tentpole "Birdman" series. (Actual-factual, no, but there is some verisimilitude there.) Thomson is looking to rebuild his career on Broadway by directing and starring in an adaptation of Raymond Carver's stark, gin-soaked short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. It's a last-ditch effort, and the dark nights of Thomson's soul are complicated both by a cast of insecure loons and the disembodied voice of his superhero alter ego. (Action figures available now!)

"Birdman" has received critical raves, particularly for its performances and unusual cinematic style. Thanks to some nifty camera tricks, it appears to be filmed in one long take à la the opening of the Orson Wells classic "Touch of Evil." As usual in the movie biz, those responsible for the script aren't exactly in the spotlight (aside from one of the four screenwriters, director Alejandro González Iñárritu), but the amazing storytelling started with words on a page or a screen somewhere.

Alexander Dinelaris Jr., one of the men who penned "Birdman," is also a successful playwright who could mine his own backstage experiences in service of the script. His varied works include a musical version of "The Bodyguard," the modern tearjerker "Still Life," and a harrowing look at the legacy of the 1915 Armenian genocide in "Red Dog Howls."

The release of "Birdman" comes at a time when audiences seem to be craving the story-behind-the-superhero-story, be it in comic books, movie screens, or nonfiction works like Jill Lepore's The Secret History of Wonder Woman and Larry Tye's Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero. Dinelaris took time out of the press junket rodeo to tell Signature about collaborating from all over the globe and the books that inspired him to help create "Birdman."

Signature: Tell us a bit about your writing background.

Alexander Dinelaris, Jr.: I actually studied to become a theater director. It wasn't until around 1999 that I began to write, when an acting teacher, actually my aunt Marjorie Ballentine, encouraged me. Eventually, a play of mine called "Folding the Monster" got some attention. There were staged readings with Danny Aiello and Rosie O'Donnell. At one point, we were set to open in a Broadway theater, but Rosie got "The View," and it came apart. But people had started to notice my work, so I was signed by my manager, Johnnie Planco, who's represented the likes of Aiello, Lauren Bacall, Peter O'Toole, and many more. My joke with Johnnie was that I was the only client on his list that I didn't know. Eventually, I wrote "Still Life," and that got me to my agent and dear friend Olivier Sultan over at Creative Artists Agency. From there the ball started rolling.

SIG: How did you get involved with the "Birdman" project?

AD: "Still Life" was produced at MCC Theater and was eventually read by Alejandro Iñárritu, who brought me on board to help write his film "Biutiful." I worked a few of the first drafts with him, and then a few years later, he called me to work on "Birdman."

SIG: IMDB credits four writers on the script. Is that accurate, and how does the process work with multiple people contributing to the screenplay?

AD: Yes, there are four of us. Alejandro had the initial idea, and he brought myself, Nico Giacobone, and Armando Bo into the process. Basically, we would all develop the ideas together on Skype or a conference call. Nico and Armando are in Buenos Aires, Alejandro is in Los Angeles, and I'm in New York City. Once we had an idea, Nico and I would get to putting the words onto the page. When we had scenes we were happy with, we would bring them back to Alejandro, he would give notes, we would all argue for a while, and then Nico and I would go back and start writing again. And that's pretty much how it was done.

SIG: What role does What We Talk About When We Talk About Love play in the movie? Carver wrote a lot of autobiographical stories. Is there a connection between Carver and his characters and Michael Keaton's character?

AD: Alejandro had a strong reaction to the story and the various ideas and themes revolving around love: love of another, love of self, love of ideas, et cetera. He thought it would be a good foundation for the play that Michael Keaton's character, Riggan Thomson, produces in the film. Riggan is searching for love in many ways. Once we had the main thrust, the desire of this character "to feel loved on this earth," to be remembered and respected, we knew that we could pit his alter ego Birdman in direct opposition to his quixotic quest. Riggan's journey in the film is basically an odyssey toward one end ... to silence the corruptive voice within his head. In the first frame of the film, Riggan is meditating in his underwear, albeit while floating three feet off the ground, and essentially what he is after, as is the point of meditation, is to achieve silence. In the last frame of the film, for better or worse, he achieves that silence. And that, for us, was the hero's journey.

SIG: Lastly, what are a few nonfiction books that inspire or influence your work?

AD: Three Uses of the Knife by David Mamet, The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell, A Sense of Direction  by William Ball, and Which Lie Did I Tell? by William Goldman.

I've read all these books many, many times. I think each of them is an exploration of the foundations of drama and of storytelling. I tend to be obsessive about structure, and with a story as sprawling and eccentric as "Birdman," structure is the only thing that keeps the wheels from falling off. As I said, the first frame is a man trying to silence a voice; the last scene is him doing exactly that. It's an example of Aristotle's theory of "surprising inevitability." Hopefully, it keeps this fever dream of a tale moving with momentum for the duration. All these books helped me, from a young age, understand the discipline of dramatic writing, and Goldman is just plain fun to read. For me, knowing and being able to understand and respect "the rules" of dramatic structure frees me to be more adventurous and take bigger risks, because I know I will always be able to find the way home.