“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance)” (directed and co-written by Alejandro González Iñárritu) is a dark comedy that tells the story of actor Riggan Thomson (played by Michael Keaton) — famous for portraying an iconic superhero — as he struggles to mount a Broadway play. In the days leading up to opening night, he battles his ego and attempts to recover his family, his career and himself.
While doing the play, Riggan must also deal with his neurotic co-stars who include difficult and demanding Mike (played by Edward Norton); insecure Lesley (played by Noami Watts); and Riggan’s on-again/off-again girlfriend Laura (played by Andrea Riseborough). Other members of the “Birdman” cast are Zach Galifianakis as Riggan’s close friend and manager Jake, as well as Emma Stone as Riggan’s daughter/personal assistant and Amy Ryan as Riggan’s ex-wife Sylvia. At 2014 New York Comic-Con in New York City, “Birdman” co-stars Keaton and Norton showed footage from the movie and were on a panel discussion. Here is what they said.
How did you get involved with “Birdman”?
Keaton: I got a call that Alejandro [González Iñárritu] was making this movie. When I asked what it was about, I was already working on a movie. And they said, “Unfortunately, you can’t fly home because you’re in the middle of this movie.” And when his name was mentioned, I thought, “Well, maybe I should find a way to fly home.” I was a big, big fan of his movies. So, I flew home.
They couldn’t tell me what it was about, and now that I’ve done the movie I understand why they couldn’t explain it, because I’m not sure what happened. So that was it. I went and had dinner with him. It was very pleasant and really interesting. [Alejandro González Iñárritu] is just a really interesting, extremely passionate guy, which is contagious. At the end of the meeting, he said, “Here, read this.” It took me about 27 seconds to decide, “Yeah, I probably want to do this.”
Norton: I read the script at 3 in the morning, and I laughed so hard I woke people up. I had coffee with Alejandro and I said, “You’re not leaving this breakfast alive until you agree I’m doing this with you.” It was just an extraordinary script, and he’s a director that a long time I put in the category of he’d do something, I wanted to do it sight unseen.
Do you think “Birdman” is a movie about a man going through a crisis/breakdown, or do you think he’s kind of becoming enlightened?
Keaton: Not “kind of.” There’s no “kind of” about it. It’s kind of tricky. I don’t want to be coy by saying, “I don’t want to give away too much.” I really don’t, because it would be unfair, frankly. But yeah, that’s the thing that you get. And I’m in the movie and I read the script, and I did all the discussions, and I did all the rehearsals. And yet when I saw I saw it, I go, “Wow, he had to go that crazy to get that sane. He had to go that crazy to find that little sweet spot.
There’s been a lot said about the way “Birdman” was filmed, because it looks like one, long continuous take. Can you talk about that filmmaking achievement?
Norton: There’s so much unbelievably wonderful vision and creativity in the way that they achieved that, that it really does a disservice if we unpack it too much before people even get to see the film. I think it’s important just to experience I’m sure film schools will be deconstructing how a lot of it was done for a long time to come, because it is really remarkable.
Suffice to say, it was a level of planning you rarely see on a film. I thought it was wonderful because you rarely get that kind of rehearsal period on a film or get to work that intimately with the entire camera crew. It was all great. It has its challenges, but it’s a lot more fun, actually, than the grind of repeating things over and over again.
Keaton: [He says jokingly] I’ve been giving lectures on all the ways the movie was shot.
How would you describe “Birdman” to people who haven’t seen it?
Keaton: When people ask me, I always tend to say, “It’s not like anything you’ve ever seen before.” And then I say, “No, literally, it’s not like anything you’ve seen before.” It’s not just a glib expression. I don’t know that I’ve seen any of my movies outside of looping and little bits and pieces in 10 years, but I’ve seen this movie two-and-a-half times …. I’m going to watch it all the way through tomorrow. And I’ll watch it many, many times after.
I was watching it the other day, and I kept looking at the screen. You notice things that I didn’t really get. And you think, “Man, I could love this movie.” And then you realize, “Wait a minute. I’m in this movie.”
What were “Birdman” rehearsals like?
Keaton: In this, we had the luxury of — as hard as it was, and as grueling as it could be — saying the words over and over again. And as you start to hear them, being in a play, you go, “Oh, I never heard that line coming out of my mouth.” You find another level to it — without sounding totally pretentious and obnoxious. That was a great luxury to have. It was hard though.
Norton: Rehearsals are great because it’s a low-stakes, low-cost way to figure out what often gets done while you’re making the movie while you’re under a lot of pressure. I get to stand around with a coffee and wonder, “When is Keaton going to learn his lines?”
Keaton: Which was the first day, by the way.
Fight, fight, fight!
Keaton: We get in our Speedos and fight.
There’s a lot of underwear in “Birdman” …
Keaton: That’s Alejandro.
You have both starred in superhero movies (“Batman” and “Batman Returns” for Keaton, “The Incredible Hulk” for Norton), so what did you think of how superhero movies are portrayed in “Birdman”?
Norton: The superhero genre is part of the debate of the movie.
Do either of you have plans to star in another superhero movie in the future?
Norton: I grew up on all those graphic novels, Frank Miller, I was obsessed with that stuff. I think that it’s this rich pool of stuff that’s become almost a modern-day canon of mythic stories for a lot of us. We all sit around hoping that some is going to make films out of that material that captures how serious it felt for us at that time in our life. No one reads comic books because they’re cartoonish, they read them because they’re dark and serious and long.
That’s what was great about the best ones. Some are a swing and a miss, some really connect, and some weren’t actually novels. Movies like “The Matrix” completely capture the sensation I used to get reading those. When things like that come along, I don’t ever discount the idea of doing it. It always depends on with who or what’s the vision. It shouldn’t be different than any other movie.
Keaton: Exactly. Who’s directing? What’s the cast? Is the script good? What’s it about? When Tim [Burton] called and I took the original “Batman” script home, I was mostly unfamiliar with the superhero books and wasn’t that big of a comic book reader. I thought, “I can’t imagine anyone making this movie the way I see the character, but I’m sure glad to read it.”
I told Tim what I thought, and Tim was just nodding, his long hair going up and down. He was smiling and looking excited. I said, “OK, they’re not going to make that are they?” He said, “I don’t know, let’s find out!”