There’s an unforgettable scene in “Birdman” where Michael Keaton is forced to walk through New York’s Times Square in his underwear after getting locked out of his dressing room mid-performance at a nearby Broadway theatre.
But what many don’t realise about the key scene is that Keaton really had to dodge unsuspecting, gawking fans in New York’s busiest area — all in one continuous shot with no cuts.
Here’s what the scene ended up looking like in the film:
But the shoot wasn’t easy.
The film’s director, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, explained the logistical nightmare to Variety:
There were four takes, starting at 8:30 p.m. If the shot was too early, the lighting wouldn’t work; too late, the crowd would thin. Crew was kept to a minimum, to draw as little attention as possible. Keaton’s movements were accompanied by only four people: Lubezki [cinematographer]; the focus puller; the boom operator; and the digital imaging technician. Eight production assistants worked on crowd control. Inarritu was close by; for two of the four takes, he shot Keaton with his smartphone for footage used in a subsequent scene in which Emma Stone watches the incident on YouTube…
Because production couldn’t afford to shut down Times Square or fill it with paid extras, real fans and onlookers became part of the shot.
“We worried about security,” Inarritu told Variety, adding that there was a fear someone would stare at the camera or walk into the scene. “There was no possibility to cut away if that happened” since it was one long take, the director notes. “If any scene in the film failed, I could not remove it or manipulate it. It had to be perfect.”
Here’s what the shoot looked like in reality as a passerby in Times Square:
In order to divert people’s attention from the camera, Variety reports that Inarritu hired a group of street drummers who danced and performed nearby. “All the tourists wanted to look at these drummers. A half-naked man in Times Square? They have seen that before,” said the director.
“Birdman” production designer, Kevin Thompson, explained further to Yahoo Movies:
“Having the drummers there really assisted in gathering and holding the crowd, and then also holding space along one side of them. It created an energy that helped, I think.”
Now watch the shoot from the drummers’ point of view:
“Even though it does look like chaos, we did have to control the crowd and extras,” added Thompson. “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.”
Another challenge that production faced was all of the prominent brand advertising in the background of the Times Square shoot.
The “Birdman” legal team had to get permission from each brand to be used onscreen, reports Variety.
But it wasn’t just the Times Square scene that was tough to shoot. The entire film was made to look like one continuous, two-hour shot.
In order to achieve the look, the cast underwent shots that took anywhere from seven to 10 minutes to film, according to Entertainment Weekly.
“Everybody showed up every morning frightened,” Keaton told EW. “The crew too. I think we were all thinking, I don’t want to be the guy who lets everybody down.”
The cast, crew, and camera team had to be in sync at all times on the very fast 30-day shoot.
Here’s how EW describes what one mistake would cost them on set:
“Anything — a misremembered line, an extra step taken, a camera operator stumbling on a stair or veering off course or out of focus — could blow a take, rendering the first several minutes unusable even if they had been perfect.”
“You had to be word-perfect, you had to be off script, and you literally had to count your paces down to the number of steps you needed to take before turning a corner,” Keaton told EW.
But the challenging shoot was worth it.
“Birdman” recently led the Oscar nominations with nine nods, including best picture, best actor for Michael Keaton, best director for Alejandro G. Iñárritu, and achievement in cinematography for Emmanuel Lubezki, the Oscar-winning cinematographer who worked on “Gravity.”
Check out the “Birdman” trailer below:
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.