For some, the event of having two former screen superheroes on stage is exciting enough, but as Michael Keaton and Edward Norton talked about it, it was hard to not get more excited for their upcoming film Birdman Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). With Keaton playing an actor who used to be associated with a popular comic book-based movie franchise and Norton playing an actor who has a reputation for being difficult, there is of course a layer of meta-textualness that those familiar with the actors can plug into. But the excitement that the pair exhibited during the Birdman panel at New York Comic Con yesterday would lead one to think that there may be something more going on with director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film even if there wasn’t an already building pre-release buzz surrounding it following its premier at the Telluride Film Festival in August.
The panel was opened by moderator Chris Hardwick introducing a sneak peek at the film’s first ten minutes, an introduction that even by Hardwick’s normal level of enthusiasm seemed effluvious. But that hype was well earned as the clip featured a long, uninterrupted shot backstage at a Broadway theater as Riggan Thomson (Keaton) is trying to pull together a production of a play which he feels will revitalize his career and hopefully make people stop asking him if he will ever return to his role as the cinematic superhero Birdman. It is a virtuoso sequence that helps to set the stage, no pun intended, for the drama of the rest of the movie. It also clued the audience in that this might not be your standard big screen comic book fare, and there were several con-goers who slipped out of the room over the panel’s length, apparently not finding such artier fare to their taste.
Once on stage Keaton and Norton talked about the project and the challenges in getting the film made. They were very careful to not give away any of the film’s plot details, with Keaton hinting that the film needs to be seen to be fully experienced.
“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, ’cause I’m not sure what happened,” he stated. “[Alejandro] is just a really interesting, extremely passionate guy, which is contagious. It took me about 27-seonds to decide I wanted to do this.”
Norton was also very quick to sign onto the project.
“I read the script at 3-in-the-morning and I laughed so hard I woke people up,” he said. “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 I put in the category of I’d do something with him sight-unseen.”
Birdman unfolds in what appears to be one long continuous shot, a la Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope. But as Keaton and Norton talk about the filming process, one gets the feeling that for Iñárritu, the technique was not just a gimmick.
“I’ve been giving lectures on all the ways the movie was shot,” Keaton said, half chuckling. “It’s not like anything you’ve ever seen before. Literally. It’s not just a glib expression. I don’t know if I’ve seen any of my movies outside of looping in ten years, but I’ve seen this movie two-and-a-half times. I’m gonna watch it all the way through tomorrow, and I’ll watch it many many times after.”
“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,” adds Norton. “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.”
Keaton also stated that he is very cognizant that his fame as having played Batman in director Tim Burton’s two films is informing how people will look at his performance, but he points out that the starting point for the film actually lies with Iñárritu, than with the fact that the director is commenting on either actors’ own past resume.
“Because I don’t really think about it anyway, in terms of having played Batman… and by the way, being really proud of having played Batman. I never really back off that. It was really bold and interesting when Tim made it, and after that… I didn’t even put that together until well into shooting the movie, ‘Oh yeah, Edward did that too.’ It’s arguably way more about Alejandro than it is about us.
Norton agreed. “I think Freud says, ‘If you have a dream then anyone who shows up in the dream is really you.’ I think everyone in this film is Alejandro. I think my character is Alejandro, I think Michael’s is Alejandro, the two girls making out in the mirror is Alejandro.”
Birdman opens in limited release this Friday.