Fifteen years ago, Edward Norton saw the finished version of Fight Club for the first time. It was at the theater on the Fox Studios lot in Hollywood, and after the credits rolled, he thought, "What did I just watch?"
Earlier this year, he watched the final cut of Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) in the same theater, and was left with the same sense of awe and bewilderment.
"It's kind of one of those things that bends your mind through this maze of experience," said Norton, one of the stars of the film, during a panel at New York Comic Con last week. Birdman is the latest project from Alejandro González Iñárritu, the acclaimed director behind Amores Perros, 21 Grams and other films. It's his first comedy, and Norton, who first read the screenplay at 3 a.m., said, "I laughed so hard I woke people up."
Norton (above left) appeared with co-star Michael Keaton (right) on the panel, which was hosted by Chris Hardwick, to discuss the experience of working on this unique project. Keaton stars as Riggan Thomson, a washed-up actor who made his name starring as the winged superhero Birdman in a trilogy of films early in his career. Now a middle-aged man, he's looking to mount a comeback on Broadway in a stage adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story, when he has a breakdown. Norton plays a younger, confident actor who's more successful than Thomson.
The panel began with a 10-minute clip from Birdman. Riggan is floating above the floor in his dressing room, meditating in his tighty whities, when he gets a Skype call from his daughter Sam (Emma Stone), who's angrily asking what kind of flowers he wanted her to buy. Then Riggan gets called to a table read on stage, during which a lamp falls and hits another actor in the head. In the midst of the commotion, Riggan heads back to his dressing room, where a voice in his head claims responsibility for the apparent accident.
In addition to the weird, perhaps-coincidental-perhaps-not parallels between the careers of Riggan and Keaton — who played Batman in Tim Burton's Batman and Batman Returns more than two decades ago — Birdman appears to have a surreal quality to it that's reminiscent of films like Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York. The dreamlike nature of Birdman is enhanced by the way it was shot and cut, and the panelists spent much of the session discussing what Norton called the "technical wizardry" behind the production.
"I think what he pulled off in this film is as technically phenomenal, while also being married, arguably, to something that's so artistically poetic — it's amazing what he pulled off as a cinematographer," said Norton of Birdman cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who won an Oscar this year for his work on Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity. Lubezki made use of lengthy tracking shots, which meant that all the action had to be finely choreographed; that required "a level of planning that you rarely see on a film," according to Norton.
Neither Keaton nor Norton gave many details about the events of Birdman, with both actors expressing a desire to allow audiences to experience it for themselves. But Norton said viewers will find plenty to unpack, especially on a technical level.
"For people who really like movies, and really geek out on cinema, it's a wonderful, wonderful experience," said Norton. "I'm sure film schools will be deconstructing a lot of how it was done."
"It's really bold. When you're in something or around something that's uncompromisingly bold [...] then I think people see something or sense it or smell it in the trailer," said Keaton. "I love this movie — and then I realize, 'Wait a minute, I'm in this movie.'"
Birdman opens Oct. 17.