Two actors who played superheroes on the big screen came together at New York Comic Con to discuss the new comic-influenced character in their lives: Birdman. Michael Keaton and Edward Norton joined moderator Chris Hardwick for a conversation about the black comedy from 21 Grams director Alejandro González Iñárritu.
Before the stars took the stage, the packed house watched the first 10 minutes of the film, in which Keaton plays an actor named Riggan, who’s working through some issues. Although he’s trying to adapt a Raymond Carver short story for the stage, Riggan is known for playing the title character in a series of superhero films. He goes through a breakdown as Birdman progresses, partly because of the arrival of Norton’s character Mike, a new actor in the play. Emma Stone stars as Riggan’s daughter, while Zach Galifianakis is his friend and producer.
The lengthy clip was edited to appear as if it were filmed all in one shot, with the camera maneuvering around Keaton and his fellow actors as they move through the theater and his current crisis.
With the clip over, Hardwick returned to the stage, bringing the actors with him, to enormous applause. Hardwick started off the conversation by asking how each actor became involved with the film.
“I got a call saying Alejandro was making a movie,” Keaton said. He flew home from another film to talk to the director about the project. “They couldn’t tell me what it was about.” He joked that he didn’t fully understand it, even after shooting, adding that it “took me about 27 seconds to decide I wanted to do this.”
“I read this script at like three in the morning, and laughed so hard I woke people up,” Norton said, praising the script as being “extraordinary.” At that point, he met with Iñárritu and basically insisted on being in the film.
The subject then turned to the film’s shooting style, which is consistent throughout, although the actors differed on how much they wanted to say about it.
“There’s so much unbelievably wonderful vision and creativity and cleverness in the way they achieve that, that it does it a disservice to unpack that before people even see the film,” Norton said.
He went on to explain that the process involved a lot more rehearsal for the actors, cinematographers and camera operators than the typical production. “It was a level of planning that you rarely see on a film,” Norton added.
“I’ve been giving lectures on exactly how the movie was shot,” Keaton joked.
They did agree that the film is difficult to explain without giving too much away or taking away from the actual viewing experience.
“It’s not like anything you’ve ever seen before,” Keaton said. “Literally, it’s not like anything you’ve ever seen before.”
He added that it’s been about 10 years since he watched one of his own movies, but that’s not the case with “Birdman.” “I’ve seen this movie all the way through … and will watch it many, many times.”
Norton’s first viewing of Birdman reminded him of seeing Fight Club, with David Fincher and Brad Pitt, partly because he saw the films in the same screening room on the Fox lot, but also because he walked away from both thinking, “What did I just watch?”
“It’s really bold,” Keaton said. “When you’re in something or around something that’s uncompromisingly bold … then I think people see something, or sense it or smell it. People aren’t stupid.” He compared the freshness to when punk rock first hit. “People smell something here, I think. It’s bold.”
The boldness comes from Iñárritu and his personality, both Keaton and Norton agreed. “I think everyone in this movie is Alejandro,” Norton said.
The conversation then moved to the relationship between Norton and Keaton’s characters. Norton described it as “Love/hate, but with more emphasis on the hate.”
“When he shows up as this great actor, my character is weirdly healthy about it,” Keaton said. “I’m threatened about 13 seconds after that.”
Norton compared the characters to two roosters, being thrown into a fighting ring, leading to another clip from the movie with Norton and Keaton getting into it, both emotionally and physically.
Of his own character, Keaton said that he’s basically a good guy and that Birdman speaks the truth that you might not want to hear.
Norton explained that, to him, the film is about ego and how it can lead you to do great things, but also draw you into some battles.
Hardwick noted that, when he watched the film, he realized that his opinions of the characters were constantly changing.
Keaton was very impressed with one of his fellow thespians, Emma Stone, who plays his daughter Sam. “I love her, I think she’s great,” he said. “She could be my daughter, I’d be okay with that.” He went on to describe a scene where they have an argument. “She rips into me. That scene is very funny and really difficult to watch at the same time.”
Hardwick then asked if Keaton thought his character had been enlightened by the end of the film.
“Wow, he had to go that crazy, to get that sane; to find that little sweet spot,” he said. “I think I personally kind of did. A little bit.”
Because of the style of the film, Keaton noted that the rehearsal process and the repetition helped him understand the script even more.
“It was a lot like Dancing With the Stars, I imagine,” Norton added.
Norton also noted that Iñárritu was open to suggestions from the actors throughout the process.”It was a nice blend of us needing to mold what we were doing into the dance that he was needing to create with the camera,” he said.
The subject then turned to one the crowd was excited about, superhero films in general. “The superhero genre is at the heart of the debate in the movie,” Norton said.
Asked if the former Hulk and Batman would ever do another superhero film, both seemed open to the idea.
“I grew up on all those graphic novels,” Norton said. “I think it’s this rich pool of stuff that’s become a modern day canon of mythic stories. We all kind of sit around hoping that someone’s going to make a film out of that type of material that captures how serious it felt for us at that time in our life,” he added. “Nobody read 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.
“I think we all know that some are a swing and a miss and some sort of really connect and some weren’t even actual [graphic] novels like The Matrix. For me that completely captured the sensation that I used to get reading those,” Norton continued. “So whether it’s something original and new or [existing material], when things like that comes along, I don’t ever discount the idea of doing it. It’s always the same thing. It depends on with who and is it well written and is there a vision. That’s really the criteria. It shouldn’t be any different than any other movie.”
Keaton agreed, saying that he wasn’t a comic fan when he started talking to Tim Burton about Batman, but he loved the script. When the two met to discuss it, they found that they were on the same page and went forward with the project.
The panel ended with one last clip, this one of Keaton walking down the street with Birdman talking to him. Birdman encourages him to return to the superhero franchise before flying off. Seconds later, a huge battle scene erupts right next to Riggan.
Birdman opens Friday in select theaters.
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