“I may very well have lucked into a masterpiece,” Michael Keaton told a sold-out audience Sunday night at the New York premiere of “Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” the genre-defying film directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu that closed the New York Film Festival.
The former “Batman” star has the best role of his career as Riggan Thomson, a washed-up movie star who hangs up his vigilante superhero costume to attain career legitimacy and purpose by directing a Broadway play which he adapted from a Raymond Carver story collection entitled, “What we Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Riggan also co-stars and directs in the ambitious production.
His co-star is an egotistical New York actor played in a hilarious turn by Edward Norton. Some of the film’s wackier moments occur between Keaton and Norton as they perform scenes together on stage from the Raymond Carver play within the film. (Naomi Watt is also onstage in these scenes as a neurotic actress and Shiner’s ex-girlfriend.)
On the red carpet, poet Tess Gallagher, and the late author’s wife, told me, “those are my favorite scenes in the movie, the scenes of Ray’s work enacted and the way they keep coming back. Of course I had my eye on that.” She said Carver would have loved the film. “He’d find it so amazing because it is off the terra firma. It’s up there floating and it’s flying. It does the things that film can do, and it does the things that theater can do.”
Most of the film takes place in and around a New York Broadway theater with characters appearing and disappearing on stage, running around corridors and flying in near acrobatic feats that are a combination of Cirque du Soleil and French farce. The cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki (Oscar winner for “Gravity”) is magical; Riggan floats, flies and flings objects around seemingly by telekinesis. But my favorite scene is when Keaton’s character is accidentally locked out of the theater and he races around Times Square in his underpants while tourists snap away on their iPhones.
Part of the movie’s fun is the intersection of fact and fiction, especially Birdman-Batman comparisons, although Keaton pointed out at the press conference that Batman doesn’t follow him around the way his character’s alter-ego, an enormous feathered creature, does in the film.
Andrea Riseborough has a scene-stealing role as Laura, an actress who has been sleeping with Riggan and who may or may not be pregnant. On the red carpet, I asked about her first scene with Keaton, where she hurls herself at him and places his hand on a very private part.
“It was highly choreographed because we had so many camera movies going on in that moment that we rehearsed over and over again. We had three weeks of rehearsal for the whole film, and that was one of the parts that we had to keep rehearsing again because there were just so many elements. Pretty much all of the cast is in that long shot and it does end up with me placing Michael’s hand on my vagina,” she laughed. “There’s no nice way of saying that. There wasn’t much room to play with. We were in a small corridor.”
Amy Ryan plays Riggan’s estranged wife (Emma Stone plays their daughter), and their scenes together are among the most poignant in the film. She told me she met Keaton several years ago when they did an HBO movie together. At the end of the shoot he joked, “’I hope I see you again and I hope you play my wife.’ And so we showed up on this together with a little glint in our eye, like ‘Oh, how did that happens?’”
“Michael is one of those actors whose thoughts move at such a rapid pace but he’s so present. He just breaks my heart,” Ryan told me. “That scene I had to do with him over and over. I would exit after my portion. I would go into this closet where I hid from the camera and I would just cry. He just broke my heart. I just think he’s an extraordinary actor. I’m so happy for him to be in this movie. Audiences are about to be reminded how good he is.”
Ryan added of “Birdman,” “I knew it was special when we were making it because there was this group scene effort, inhale of breath to get it done. I was knocked out, just the use of music and the way New York City is filmed. It pulls you along in his world and it doesn’t let up.”
Also rounding out the cast is Zach Galifianakis as a stressed-out stage manager. I hardly recognized the newly slimmed-down actor who’s lost 50 to 60 pounds.
“Birdman” opens in theaters Oct. 17, 2014.