Michael Keaton’s character in raved-about Venice Film Festival opener and Competition entry Birdman and the actor himself share a common thread — they both gained enormous fame playing superheroes in the ’90s. In the film, Keaton’s Riggan Thompson is unable to escape his winged, spandex-clad alter ego who haunts, taunts and goads him incessantly. Keaton and director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu both feel everybody has their own sort of Birdman, but for Keaton it’s not the caped crusader he played in Tim Burton’s Batman movies. They had a “giant effect” on his career especially as his international profile skyrocketed, but the character isn’t a sort of negative presence. A first question about Batman came up early in a press conference for Birdman in Venice today and Keaton said, “I just came back from Africa and I fucking love elephants, so I’m OK with the elephant in the room… I totally embrace it.”
Gonzalez Inarritu told the assembled that he deliberately chose Keaton because of his superhero experience. “I thought that few people in the world have the authority to talk about being that… Michael was a pioneer.” Because he knew the tone of the film would be “extra difficult to get,” there was a need for an actor “who has the very rare ability to navigate between drama and comedy simultaneously. So the talent and experience of Michael was crucial to allow me to make this film.” The scorching satire on celebrity mixed with existential musings follows Keaton’s character as he attempts to mount a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love in a bid to gain back some credibility and confirm that he indeed exists.” A cast of his work colleagues and family members weave in and out of the story — literally.
The New Regency/Fox Searchlight movie was shot by Gravity Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki in elaborate and lengthy tracking shots that create the illusion of being just one take. The camera follows Keaton down hallways and from the wings to the stage to the street while other actors appear from around a corner or in an edge of the scene. Gonzalez Inarritu says he wanted the audience to “experience the film in the shoes of the character, from his point of view… in order to feel the claustrophobic struggle that he was going through.” One of the problems with filmmaking is the issue of time and space fragmentation. “When you shoot, you cover yourself by different angles and different takes, and then in the editing room, for months and months you hide your mistakes and take the best and manipulate the tone… In this case, not me and none of these guys had the opportunity to hide or transform or manipulate… Everything you see is completely true. There was a huge amount of rehearsal and preparation.” Gonzalez Inarritu co-wrote with Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo. The actual cuts were scripted out meticulously from early on.
Still, the actors noted there was an element of fear on set — Emma Stone said she developed an eye twitch; and yet, “when it ended I just wanted to go back and do it again.” Edward Norton talked about the mutual reliance among cast and crew that built up over the experience. “Everybody has to be in it together in every single take all the way through. That creates a collaborative intimacy that was kind of fun… Everyone was working for the same thing which was to hear (Gonzalez Inarritu) scream ‘Yes!’” meaning they got the take. “It was sort of like a party at the end of every day.” Gonzalez Inarritu called nabbing the shots “sort of like a miracle.”
Fox Searchlight will give Birdman a limited release October 17. It heads to Telluride next.