Alex Dinelaris is a man who sticks to his guns. Armed with little more than a dream and the courage to walk away from what doesn’t feel right, he turned down one of the most exciting opportunities of his life to that point. Tapped by Alejandro Iñarritu to write the screenplay for his 2010 drama Biutiful, Dinelaris felt compelled to walk away. “We had gone to Barcelona and done all the research, and he had a very clear vision of what he wanted,” Dinelaris said. “But I knew that I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t just dictate, and so I backed down. My agents basically stopped talking to me.”
It takes guts to walk away from a film run by a major Hollywood director, but that’s the marker of a man who spent his life hanging on by a thread. Where countless others would have given up, Dinelaris persisted — and following his instinct lead him down the red carpet. In 2015, Dinelaris won an Academy Award for Best Screenplay for Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), a film he co-wrote with Iñarritu, Armando Bo, and Nico Giacobone.
Miami threw him a lifeline
The path wasn’t always so clear for Dinelaris, who at 19 years old was barely scraping by in New York City. He had refused to follow his mother down to Florida, opting instead to rent an efficiency in Long Island and bus tables at a Manhattan restaurant, spending his spare time at the theater. A high school play had sparked his love of acting, and Dinelaris opted to stay in New York while sending out college applications. After one of his toughest years, Dinelaris finally caught a break. “I was drowning, and Barry University basically saved me,” the actor says, recounting how the Miami university offered him a full scholarship to attend their theater program in the fall of 1988. It was there that Dinelaris studied stage, and became infatuated with the idea of directing plays. But life got in the way again, and Dinelaris made his way back to New York after just two years at Barry. “One of my greatest regrets in life has been that I didn’t get to graduate,” he says.
Despite the roadblock, Dinelaris couldn’t be swayed. He spent his waking hours making a living in the restaurant business while trying to get a foot in the door directing plays. “I spent well over a decade in the restaurant business before I could start making a living off my art,” Dinelaris says. In 1999, Dinelaris was in his 30s and his career in theater wasn’t taking off. It was purely chance that a friend, while taking classes with the legendary acting coach Marjory Valentine, asked Dinelaris to find her a scene to read for her next class. “I wrote a scene for her because I couldn’t find one, and I made up a name because I was scared to put my name on it,” he recalls. His experiment wound up being a vital shred of encouragement for a down-and-out Dinelaris, who then realized he needed to focus his theater aspirations in a different direction. “Valentine came to me and she said, ‘You’re a writer, you’ve got to keep writing,’ and I really just wasn’t sure, because I wanted to direct,” Dinelaris said. “And she was just like, ‘Honey, you’re a writer.’”
But even writing couldn’t get Dinelaris the break that he needed. Fed up with the restaurant business, Dinelaris abruptly quit his job, moving into his mother’s house in Pembroke Pines and taking a job selling wine with a local distributor. He would spend a few months regrouping before a childhood friend became his next life raft. “[Chris McCarty] called me up and said, ‘Look, I’m buying a ticket, you’re coming back up to New York,” Dinelaris recalled. “He showed up at my door in Florida that Friday, and by Sunday my car was packed and we were driving north.” Sleeping on the floor of McCarty’s apartment, Dinelaris kept writing, and he finally started to gain some traction. Though his play Folding the Monster was never officially performed, it got the attention of actress Rosie O’Donnell, and Dinelaris finally began being recognized as a playwright.
‘The only thing I could write’
After his father’s death from pancreatic cancer in 2005, Dinelaris wrote the play that would ultimately change his life. “I wrote the only thing I could write, and it was really an expression of how lost I was after my father died,” he says. Centered on a very successful photographer who could no longer take photographs after her father’s death from pancreatic cancer, Still Life became a successful New York production. “I find very little freedom now writing scripts as I did with Still Life,” Dinelaris says. “I had absolutely nothing to lose, and I think that really resonated with people.” It was Still Life that attracted the attention of Iñarritu, who called on Dinelaris for help writing Biutiful. And though the two would inevitably part ways on that particular script, Iñarritu and Dinelaris would work together again. “Less than six months after Biutiful came out, and believe me I was kicking myself, Alejandro called me about Birdman, and we agreed that we had unfinished business,” Dinelaris recalls.
Dinelaris teamed up with Argentine director Armando Bo and screenwriter Nico Giacobone, the writer who replaced him on Biutiful, who had ultimately became “his brother and partner in everything” and the tag team behind TV series The One Percent, starring Ed Harris and Hillary Swank. They essentially wrote Birdman over Skype. “By the time we figured out that he would be a washed-up superhero, Nico and I holed ourselves up at my friend’s cabin in upstate New York and hammered out a draft,” Dinelaris says. “But I think that very few people grasp the highwire act that it was, because our final shooting draft was our only shot, since Birdman was filmed in one take,” Dinelaris says.
Completely raw and impossibly comfortable with its imperfections — much like the characters in the film — Birdman polarized audiences. “You either loved it or you hated it,” Dinelaris admits. “We were terrified that we were crazy, that everything could have been better, that people would think we were just fucking with them.” But the fear of failing is exactly what drove Iñarritu, Dinelaris, Giacobone, and Bo to produce one of the most critically acclaimed films of 2015. And according to Dinelaris, it’s fear that’s kept him on the right track throughout all of his ups and downs. “If it doesn’t scare you genuinely, if it doesn’t petrify you when you’re doing it, you’re not doing right,” he says. “People say that a lot, but it’s true.”
Now, it seems Dinelaris has come full circle. His connection to Miami was strengthened once again as he wrote the hit Broadway musical On Your Feet about the life and fame of Emilio and Gloria Estefan. And his connection to Barry University has come full circle as well. Barry will present the screenwriter with an honorary degree on Jan. 30, and in celebration, he’ll be directing a reading of Still Life, starring his friend and collaborator Gloria Estefan along with actor Matthew Rauch.
“I’ll be one of the first people in my family to get a degree, even though I had to wait until I was 48 and basically did it backwards,” Dinelaris says. A golden statue couldn’t bring him more joy.
*Disclaimer: Barry University is a sponsorship partner of The New Tropic, but was not involved in the production or planning of this story.