Ten Things We Learned at the Keaton/Norton Birdman Panel at NYCC

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At New York Comic Con this year, we were treated to a sneak preview of Alejandro Innaritu’s Birdman, which turned out to be one of our very favortie movies of the year so far. Starring Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, and Zach Galifianakis, and shot by last year’s Oscar winner Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, it gives us a glimpse into the brain of a middle-aged actor most famous for playing a superhero, but now mounting his dream project on Broadway—a stage adaptation of a Raymond Chandler story. Keaton and Norton took the stage to praise Innaritu’s writing and direction, Lubezki’s cinematography, and Galifianakis’ utter hilariousness. Here are ten things we learned.

1. Confused? Michael Keaton is, too.
Michael Keaton: I got a call saying Alejandro was making a movie, and I was already working on a movie. They said, “Well unfortunately you probably can’t fly home because you’re in the middle of making this movie,” but when his name was mentioned I said, “Well, maybe I should find a way to fly home.” Because I’m a big, big fan of his movies. So I flew home and they didn’t tell me—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. (Laughter) Because I’m not sure what happened.

2. Edward Norton would not be denied.
Edward Norton: I read the script at three in the morning, and I laughed so hard I woke people up. And I had coffee with Alejandro and I said, “You’re not leaving this breakfast alive until you agree that I’m doing this with you.” It was just an extraordinary script. He’s a director that a long time ago, I’d put in this category where if he had something I was dying to do it, sight unseen. So it was not so much a process of him asking as it was me just insisting. (Laughter)

3. Keaton and Norton’s previous superhero experience didn’t help as much as you’d think.
Keaton: I kind of don’t think about it much anyway, in terms of having played Batman—but, by the way, I’m really proud of having done Batman. (Cheers) I mean, I never back off of that. It’s kind of cool and interesting and bold and intimidating. In fact, I didn’t really put that together until we were well into shooting… “Oh yeah! Edward did that, too!” But I didn’t really think about it. I just would go to work the way I normally go to work. I mean, there was the obvious stuff, but I thought “Wow, that could be distracting, why don’t I just do what I normally do when I approach a role?”

4. Inarritu isn’t in the movie, but he’s all over the movie.
Norton: I think Freud said if you have a dream, the one that shows up in the dream is really you. I think this film is Alejandro. I think my character is definitely Alejandro. I think Michael’s is Alejandro. I think the two girls making out in the mirror is Alejandro. I’m pretty sure! (Laughter) This movie’s like Dorothy Parker’s line ‘if you scratch an actor you’ll find an actress.’ (Laughter)

5. Having Zach Gailianakis on set is the best kind of mixed blessing.
Keaton: It’s hard not to laugh! I mean I’m looking at him and I’m watching the scene and Edward’s watching the scene and I know that…but then there’s one tiny part of you going, wow he’s really watching the scene! And I sit there thinking, oh I fucking hope he doesn’t laugh! I hope I don’t laugh! It’s so fucking gravy, but I’m not gonna laugh, you know? (Laughter) But the luxury, actually, in terms of that was Zach, because there was a time when the cameras weren’t on me and Zach comes in the room. So now I am the camera and I can just sit back for half the day and watch Zach and he does this thing every time, he makes me laugh. I’m essentially the audience. So I’m sitting there going, ok. It was my little moment where I could check out and enjoy it!

6. All of the characters are right. And wrong.
Keaton: What I think of Alejandro, is an equal opportunity offender. I think he gets everybody, he nails all of us and he nails himself. The Birdman character in my mind speaks the truth an awful lot of the time, you just don’t want to hear it. Well maybe not an awful lot of the time. And so Zach is screwed up and not screwed up, and it’s great. He’s selfish and he’s generous and he’s all those things. That’s Zach’s character. Zach himself is a big jerk, too. (Laughter)

7. It’s all about ego.
Norton: I actually really agree with Michael’s assessment. I think the movie has a lot to do with ego and the way ego propels you, but can also really hamstrings you, and I think that each and every character in the film is revealed to sort of be fighting a battle between their better instincts and their talents and their good nature, and the way their ego kind of ties them up in knots. It’s fun and funny that way. I think the thing I like most about the way these guys wrote this script is nobody in it is two-dimensional. You get these introductions to people and they come on a certain way, and then as you get to know these characters in the film they kind of reveal a lot.

8. Emmanuel ‘Chivo’ Lubeski equals his Oscar-winning work from last year.
Norton: If you look at Gravity, which Chivo shot also, it’s a really singular technical achievement. It really kind of pushed a certain kind of effects work and camera work to a new level. I have to say I think that—if it’s possible—I think that what he pulled off in this film is as technically phenomenal, while also being married arguably to something that’s so artistically poetic. It’s amazing what he pulled off as a cinematographer in this film. I think it’s every bit as amazing as what he did with Gravity, and yet in a totally different type of story and context. I really can’t think of a lot of things that you can point that’s an analogy to what he’s done in this movie as a photographer.

9. The fluid nature of the camerawork was key to the story, but was also a challenge.
Norton: I thought it was a very nice blend of us needing to mold what we were doing into the dance he was needing to create with the camera. There was a point where you sort of had to work within the practical realities of whatever the shot was gonna be. But then I think, anytime anyone had some inspiration and something happened they would adjust. It was very much back and forth. The rehearsal were great because it’s a low stakes, zero cost way to figure out a lot of what talking gets done while you’re making the movie under a lot of pressure. I found it was a lot of standing around with coffee and wondering when Keaton was going to learn his lines. (Laughter)

10. Norton is a big comic geek, and always looks at those parts carefully.
Norton: I’ve said it many times: I grew up on graphic novels. I think it’s this rich pool of stuff that’s become almost a whole modern day canon of realistic stories for a lot of us, and we kind of all sit around hoping that someone is going to make a film that comes out of that type of material, that captures how serious it felt for us at that time of our lives. Nobody read comic books because they’re cartoonish. They read them because they’re dark and serious. That’s what’s great about the best ones. Some are a swing and a miss and some sort of really connect and some—like The Matrix for me completely captured the sensation that I used to get reading them. So whether it’s something original and new or whether it’s old…when things like that come along I don’t ever discount the idea of doing it. It always is the same thing—it depends on with who and is it well written and what’s the vision. That’s really the criteria. It shouldn’t be any different than with any other movie.

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