In the spring of 2013, an unexpected group of movie stars took over Broadway’s St. James theater for several weeks, acting in a play as part of a movie that was shot like a play.
On one day, a number of those stars — Michael Keaton, Edward Norton and Naomi Watts — were on a stage decorated like a bedroom, the latter two under the covers as Keaton stood in front of them with a gun.
Seated in the theater were hundreds of extras and, in the less visible back rows, a few dozen inflatable heads and torsos (hey, extras cost money).
Giving direction on the stage a few feet from Keaton was the acclaimed filmmaker of “Babel” and “Biutiful,” Alejandro G. Iñárritu — “wait a second and then play with the back and forth,” he said to the actors — while constellating around them with a camera was the decorated cinematographer who goes by the nickname “Chivo” (real name: Emmanuel Lubezki).
“We don’t exist,” Keaton said in the scene. “None of this even matters.”
That might not be true for long. The group was making a movie titled “Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” an existential dark comedy about a former A-list actor known for playing a superhero (Keaton) who in a bid to regain his relevance mounts a Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story. When “Birdman” plays for the first time in North America on Saturday night at the Telluride Film Festival (the movie arrives in theaters Oct. 17), it looks to shake the entertainment world by the lapel in more ways than one.
Though its fallen box-office hero may lie outside most of our experience, the film tackles more relatable subjects that include ambition, happiness, art, love and family. “Birdman” offers a scope of character and theme that’s rare in Hollywood’s superhero era — while, improbably, also riffing on that era.
The film does so, it should be said, with a visual style and real-time urgency that puts moviegoers uncommonly close to the action.
And thanks to its star, it offers the tantalizing (if head-spinning) prospect of what might be called a meta-comeback narrative. As Batman in the original Tim Burton films, Keaton of course helped pioneered cinema’s modern superhero but, much like his titular character, has been pushed aside for new flavors.
“If it would have been most other directors, I might have thought longer about it. I mean, this could really go wrong,” Keaton said in an interview. "But when Alejandro first started explaining this to me, I had an about 11-second delay, and then I said, ‘I’m in.’”
Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a former opening-weekend draw now prone to delusions he’s in conversation with an imaginary hectoring voice, and indulging in vivid fantasies that he can use superpowers to crush his problems. When the movie opens, we find him and a stage producer played by Zach Galifianakis dealing with a host of challenges ahead of the first previews of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” the show Riggan has written and both will direct and star in.
Chief among those challenges is casting, which is solved — possibly — by the arrival of theater great Michael Shiner (Norton), a swaggering bundle of pretension who’s in a relationship with the show’s other star (Watts). Not far behind is family, primarily in the form of Riggan’s disaffected daughter and assistant, Sam (Emma Stone).
As the chaos grows in the days leading up to opening night, so does Riggan’s identity crisis. “I’m the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question,” he growls to his imagined voice, while Sam angrily tells him, “You don’t exist, you’re not important, get used to it,” in one of the movie’s many scenes of emotional fireworks.
“The main story is about an actor trying to impose himself on society, but we always thought of him as a universal character,” said Nicolás Giacobone, an Iñárritu collaborator who along with the filmmaker was one of the film’s four screenwriters. “Every one of us in our daily lives deals with the struggle between who we think we are and who we really are, and how every time a mirror gives us a truer picture of ourselves, it can be hard to deal with.”
As it explores the hard work and repetition that have long underlaid the creative process, the film doesn’t shy from a kind of philosophical lyricism; lines like “Popular is the slutty little cousin of prestige” are regularly tossed off.
But “Birdman” is also firmly situated in the world of modern entertainment. Studio figures are derided for measuring their “worth in weekends,” a critic is portrayed as an unethical crank and Norton’s theater actor is so consumed by ego and self-arousal that he can maintain an erection only when he’s on stage in front of 800 people.
“Birdman” makes particular sport of modern celebrity. Upon learning they need a new actor, an interaction between Galifianakis’ producer and Keaton’s director goes like this.
“He’s doing the next ‘Hunger Games.’”
“He's doing the prequel to the ‘X-Men’ prequel.”
The film has such an art-imitating-life quality that, for a scene in which Riggan is forced to walk through Times Square in his underwear, inadvertently causing a viral-video sensation in the movie, Keaton himself performed the scene walking through Times Square in his underwear, inadvertently causing a viral-video sensation in real life.
(Outside the St. James, tourists puzzled over a marquee that had been dressed for the film; after all, it featured a title from an author highly unlikely ever to be adapted for Broadway, and had a picture of Michael Keaton but called him Riggan Thomson.)
Iñárritu and his writing partners penned the script with the character generally in mind; when Keaton was cast, they refined it slightly to reflect his experience. In one scene, Riggan ruminates on his fear during a turbulent plane ride years before with George Clooney saying that if the airliner crashed, he feared Clooney would nab the front page. Clooney, of course, also played Batman. Any similarity to persons living or dead is purely intentional.
Keaton said the real-life parallels mattered to him — to a point.
“Lets face it, I’m Batman,” he said. “I can at least understand this more than if some guy who worked at Radio Shack came in and took this role.” But, he added, “It kind of applied and didn’t apply. There are only a couple of characters I’ve played to whom I related less. I don’t have the same personality. It’s not me. So in a weird way, it was a lot harder. In a way, I had to jump over the obstacle.”
Iñárritu, who has had his own unexpected career beginning with his jolting debut “Amores Perros” 14 years ago, decided to make “Birdman” while waiting for the Leonardo DiCaprio revenge thriller “Revenant” to come together (he is shooting that movie this fall). The filmmaker had been struggling with his own questions of identity and creativity say those around him, and he wanted to channel those experiences on film.
He would do so, however, with an unconventional approach. There are comparatively very few edits in “Birdman” — much of the film, which was shot over the course of 30 days and cost about $18 million to produce, happens over extremely long takes that have viewers following just behind or next to an actor, the way we might in a live performance. “The whole concept of the movie is that it feels you’re continually with these characters,” said one of the film’s producers, Hollywood veteran John Lesher.
The Broadway of it all is also framed differently. Rather than seeing the proscenium from the audience, viewers are mostly stage with the actors, looking out, as Lubezki’s camera swings around the theater a full 360 degrees.
That all made for some unusual challenges. The long takes, for instance, required actors’ steps to be measured in number of words. And since the camera was capturing the entire environment, things like lights for the movie had to be disguised as lights in the theater.
“It’s kind of a mind-bender,” Lesher said. “The form and function had to be perfectly aligned.”
When it opened the Venice Film Festival on Wednesday, “Birdman” played to gushing reviews. For all its visual flair and comedic jibes, Birdman is ultimately about a kind of Catch-22 of ambition: Sometimes to get what you want, you have to really not want it.
As filmmakers tried to achieve their own wishes on set last year, there was an intense, quality-through-perseverance vibe somewhat different from the antic “My Favorite Year"-like vibe of the backstage scenes in the film itself.
A production assistant yelled out a warning that a gun was about to go off, Iñárritu called action, and the actors sprang into motion. The take finished, and there was a pause as Keaton and Iñárritu looked at each other. “That kind of stunk,” Keaton said. “Let’s do it again.”