In a film filled with surreal sequences and dreamy hallucinations, one of Birdman’s wildest moments was very, very real — and there are thousands of witnesses to prove it.
In a pivotal moment late in the Alejandro González Iñárritu-directed showbiz satire that’s opening in limited release on Friday, Michael Keaton’s washed up former superhero actor Riggan Thompson finds himself locked out of a Broadway theater while taking a smoke break mid-performance. He’s forced to hustle through Times Square in just his tighty whities. (A YouTube user captured the filming of the scene in the clip above.)
The sequence was filmed on location and was one of the most difficult to capture. ”It had to be done late,” Kevin Thompson, Birdman’s production designer, tells Yahoo Movies. The shoot took place well past midnight, when Times Square is still buzzing but empty enough to parade around a movie star in his underwear without the scene descending into pure insanity.
“Even though it does look like chaos, we did have to control the crowd and extras,” Thompson says. “For the most part we just had a ton of film crew dressed as pedestrians that we’d guide, and then all these extras taking pictures. It was very complicated… but we could use the lights of Times Square, which helped.”
Also helpful: The marching band that can be seen in several amateur videos (like the one below) that popped up on YouTube after the shoot.
“Having the drummers there really assisted in gathering and holding the crowd, and then also holding space along one side of them,” Thompson said. “It created an energy that helped, I think.”
One of Birdman’s great technical accomplishments is that it was shot and edited to make it appear as if it was filmed in one continuous shot. Though post-production digital tricks aided with that illusion, Iñárritu and his Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki also used hand-held cameras to capture very long takes. That created an even higher degree of difficulty for the Times Square scene, given the limited amount of time they had to shoot.
“There were so many things on our plate, we weren’t gonna go back,” Thompson recalls. “At 2 a.m., we said, ‘Let’s just do this now, lock it up.”
As it turns out, they were lucky to get Keaton to cooperate with the scene. As he told David Letterman this week of his (mostly) naked romp, “You don’t ever think you’re actually going to do this…. And then you get to the day and you think, ‘What happened to the part where I said, ‘Well I’m not going to do that!’”
Watch a bit of the finished scene in the teaser for Birdman below: