Could we have expected that Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman might match up to last year’s smash hit, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, which also opened the Venice Film Festival? After all, the two Mexican directors are friends and Birdman was shot by Gravity’s Oscar-winner Emmanuel Lubezki in a similarly elaborate unconventional style.
Michael Keaton is making a comeback of sorts, but whether it will be in the vein of Sandra Bullock, now Hollywood’s highest paid actress after Gravity, or like Bruce Dern, who experienced a renaissance after Nebraska, which was well received in Cannes though failed at the box office, remains to be seen.
Keaton is Riggan Thomson, an actor who was once a household name for playing Birdman in two superhero movies and attempts to make a comeback by staging and starring in a Broadway play. Nobody could have been better for the part than Keaton, who played Batman in two Tim Burton films that predated the superhero boom. He was probably the best Batman of all.
In Venice, Variety proclaimed in big headlines that “Michael Keaton bursts into the Oscar race with Birdman”. While the film itself may only suit certain tastes, it’s his performance that’s worth seeing. Naomi Watts, as a cast member in his play, is impressive as well. Be prepared for a lot of shouting and Watts delivers in that regard as she did in 21 Grams, which also world premiered in Venice.
Alejandro González Iñárritu
What prompted you to step out of your comfort zone after directing Amores Perros (2000), 21 Grams (2003), Babel (2006) and Biutiful (2010) and move into comedy?
In the way that my dramatic films have been a spicy Mexican chile, I wanted to have a little dessert and jump into something that I never knew could happen, which is to laugh on the set. I discovered that was a great relief, a great universe. I’m happy to have discovered another way to make a film with a new team and a new narrative style. I always thought Birdman was an experimental film and I was absolutely terrified. But I realised that after turning 40 years-old it was good to do something that terrifies you.
Why did you cast Michael Keaton?
Few people have experienced what Michael has experienced. He was a pioneer of playing a global superhero, and having some time and perspective I thought that his experience would bring something very powerful to the film and make a dialogue about it. But most importantly, I knew the tone of the film would be extremely difficult to achieve and I needed an actor who has a rare ability to navigate between drama and comedy simultaneously.
Do you share the cynical view that the film has of critics? (Lindsay Duncan gives a villainous turn as a tough critic threatening to shut down his play with a slamming review.)
I almost never read them, mostly because I’m kind of lazy. What I love about this movie is it’s so bold and courageous and crazy and every character gets their chance. Alejandro’s an equal opportunity offender. My character’s wonderfully pathetic and at the same time noble, and there’s a lot of truth to what the critic says.
Was Batman a kind of elephant in the room during filming?
Being the elephant in the room was really the easiest obstacle to overcome. The obstacle’s always the same. Who’s this person and am I telling the truth every time? In terms of my being the pioneer, Tim Burton was truly the pioneer. He changed everything in that world and in others, actually. (Burton was offered a berth for his new film, Big Eyes, in Venice and other festivals and has opted for no festival exposure, Venice artistic director Alberto Barbera notes.)
The Batman role was groundbreaking quite frankly. It was Tim and it was Frank Miller and it was a whole vision. Actually, it’s important to give credit to some of the producers as they had wonderful ideas. It’s been copied and sliced up more than cocaine from a cartel. I loved being Batman and knowing I’m part of that. Otherwise, I live like a normal human being. I tend to work on living in the present. I’m not always successful but I just go from one gig to the next and sometimes that gig has nothing to do with show business.
Is 60 the new 30 as is mentioned in the film? (Keaton turns 63 on September 5.)
I keep hearing things like 50’s the new 40 and 60’s the new 50, but you know what you never want to hear? You never want to hear “Hey, 80’s the new 76.” Big fuck’n deal. There is a point where that doesn’t work any more.
The film’s lengthy tracking shots create the illusion of being just one take and made the film a challenge for the director and cast.
I’ve never felt part of a filmmaking club because a club, that’s exclusionary, and it denotes you’re not rich enough or white enough or whatever. A thing I’ve loved since I was young and I love to this day is the idea of a team, and filmmaking is the ultimate team sport. Here this was heightened and amplified because every day you showed up fairly petrified so you wanted to hold up your end. One should never live in fear, however, if fear is visiting you, you might as well make it your pal and make it work for you.
Watch 'Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)'
Friday 23 July, 9:30pm on SBS World Movies (NOTE: No catch-up at SBS On Demand)
Genre: Drama, Comedy
Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Starring: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts