Michael Keaton doesn’t mince words when asked, point blank, what it’s like to have a career resurgence in “Birdman”: “It feels good.” It should feel at least weird: In the film — made as a single (albeit fake) shot by “Babel” and “Biutiful” director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu — the former “Batman” star plays the uncatchily-named Riggan Thomson, the former star of a winged superhero franchise. Keaton’s character is staging a comeback with an out-of-control Broadway take on Raymond Carver; in real life, Keaton is staging a comeback with a tightly controlled piece of cinematic chaos.
“Birdman” has already earned Keaton raves, though he was already feeling good about himself. When Inarritu, at a presser for the film’s New York Film Festival closing night appearance, talks about how he tends to feel good about what he’s doing before turning to self-doubt, Keaton replies that he feels the same way. “The difference,” he adds, “is 20 minutes later I think, ‘No, you’re actually more than that, Michael.”
Still, the production was atypically demanding, with Keaton having to stay “on” as Inarritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki — an old pro at long takes, with “Children of Men” and “Gravity” under his belt — kept the cameras running. “When you watch them work together, you have to come up to that [level],” Keaton says. “Otherwise you’re a punk. You’re just dead weight.”
On top of hitting his marks and not knocking over Lubezki’s ever-moving camera, Keaton also had to juggle his character’s various stresses, including the looming first preview performance as well as the often abrasive interpersonal relationships with a hot dog costar (Edward Norton), his angry girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough) and his just-out-of-rehab daughter (Emma Stone). “Within 30 seconds or 49 seconds, you have to surf a lot of different emotions, while being part of this giant picture. Because the picture is always shifting and changing, you’ve got so many levels. That was really, really difficult. But I like that. I like difficult — most of the time.”
One of the criticisms of “Birdman” has been, appropriately, its critic character (Lindsay Duncan), who is open about writing a vindictive pan of Thomson’s play, even before she’s seen it. Keaton doesn’t share the film’s withering take on the critical community. “The first play I ever did back in Pittsburgh, someone went up and said, ‘Hey, I read the thing in the paper. They said you were real good.’ I hadn’t even though of that part,” Keaton recalls. “Originally I thought I should be courageous and read everything. I did that a couple times and thought, ‘Wow, I’m not going to do that anymore. That’s just miserable.’ But if someone says, ‘Hey, you got a really nice review,’ I’ll read it.”
Keaton and Norton actually attended the New York Comic-Con for “Birdman,” even as they laughed about how what they’re not shilling for is not a comic book movie — though there’s always a chance viewers who didn’t do their research may buy a ticket to “Birdman” thinking it’s one. Keaton remembers seeing “The Dead,” the last film of director John Huston, back in 1987. Perhaps inevitably a couple young horror fans showed up — and were nonplussed to discover a film called “The Dead” was a lyrical and chatty film of the short story by James Joyce. “You could tell they totally thought it was a horror movie,” he remembers. “All of a sudden you could hear mumbling in the back. I kept clocking them. At about minute 14 they were like, ‘F— this.’”
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