In cold, final weeks of 1988, there was plenty of hard labor on the London set of Tim Burton’s “Batman,” but actor Michael Keaton had it easy, at least as far as inspiration — the star was in a solitary mode, roaming the streets before dawn just like the haunted masked man of Gotham City.
“It was a lonely time for me, which was great for the character, I suppose,” said Keaton, now 59, reflecting on the film that paved the way for the crowds of superheroes in cinemas today. “I would run at night in London just trying to get tired enough so I could sleep. I didn’t talk to people much. My little boy was a toddler, and the woman I was married to at the time, we were not together but we were trying to figure it out and get back together.
“It was me in London, alone, and my sleep during that whole movie was never right,” he added. “As often as I could, I was getting on the Concorde and trying to get back to spend some time with my kid.”
With Burton’s boneyard cabaret visions and psychological tints, the June 1989 release co-starring Jack Nicholson as the Joker became a box-office sensation, taking in $411 million worldwide. The movie also created a new template for Hollywood studios and filmmakers, who never looked at comic books quite the same way. But for Keaton, who is being celebrated this weekend an American Cinematheque career retrospective, it was hardly clear during production that everything would work out so momentously.
“It was an extremely difficult undertaking and Tim is a shy guy, especially back then, and there was so much pressure. We were in England for a long time shooting at Pinewood and it was long, difficult nights in that dank, dark, cold place, and we never knew if it was really working,” Keaton said. “There was no guarantee that any of this was going to play correctly when it was all said and done. There had never been a movie like it before. There was a lot of risk, too, with Jack looking the way he did and me stepping out in this new way. The pressure was on everybody. You could feel it.”
Keaton, sitting in his beachside office in Santa Monica, chuckled thinking about Nicholson, who gave the world a truly bizarre, homicidal trickster in a purple suit. “We’re standing there at one point, I’m in my bat suit, Jack is in Joker get-up and I just looked at him and said, ‘We’re grown men, right?’”
“Batman” will screen Saturday as part of a six-film Keaton retrospective at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica. On Friday, Keaton will be on hand for “Beetlejuice” and “Multiplicity” and take questions on stage from Cinematheque programmer Grant Moninger, a fellow Pennsylvania native and Steel City sports nut.
On that Rust Belt topic, Keaton had to smile when he heard that “The Dark Knight Rises,” the latest Batman adventure from director Christopher Nolan, will film in Pittsburgh, not far from Robinson Township, where Keaton grew up as the youngest of seven children. It was there that he learned lessons that would carry him forward in Hollywood, putting together a three-decade career working opposite the likes of Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer (“Batman Returns”), Robert Duvall (“The Paper”) and Tom Hanks (“Toy Story 3”).
“I played a lot of sports when I was a kid so I get in that ballgame mindset of being really, really respectful, but at same time saying to yourself, ‘Don’t back down a single inch, hang with these guys if you can.’ If they throw it high and tight you have to stand in there, you can’t take yourself out of that moment.”
During two years at Kent State University, the restless Keaton found himself toying with the idea of a journalism career — he still remains “a news junkie,” as his followers on Twitter know — but in the final analysis the allure of it was asking questions. He held on to that mindset in Hollywood and, in fact, describes it as the defining mechanism of his craft.
“It’s all about asking certain basic questions, but they’re not always obvious questions,” Keaton said. “I have to ask everybody and then listen to the answers. Sometimes it takes me 10 minutes; sometimes I have to go back three or four times over the course of days. It’s not indulgent, it’s just that maybe I’m not smart enough to know how to do it otherwise. Then you do the work and sometimes it doesn’t seem like much work, and other times it seems like an awful lot of work. It depends on the role.”
Keaton is reluctant to spend too much time in a dark theater watching himself, so this weekend’s look-back theme is somewhat unsettling. “I can’t remember the last time I watched one of my movies. When you hear yourself doing that thing or using this trick, you really start to dislike yourself. I always felt like if I made a movie every year or something that people would get bored to death with me. I assumed people are like me, and I get bored with me.”
Even with that, I managed to persuade Keaton to reflect on some titles from his Hollywood highlight reel:
“Night Shift” (1982) As Billy “Blaze” Blazejowski, Keaton was the breakout performer in this comedy with the unlikely premise of a prostitution ring run out of the New York City morgue. After its release, his phone kept ringing with offers of con-man roles and eccentric fast-talkers. “The character I invented was a combination of some people I knew and some things I made up, and afterward there [were other projects and offers] that would have meant trying to repeat that over and over, to be the ‘glib young man,’ whatever that is, but that held no interest for me. I literally thought the idea of all this, when you do it for a living, is to play a lot of different things. If you do the same thing over and over, that will eventually start to close in on you.”
“Beetlejuice” (1988): As a scabby, croaky and shady ghost, Keaton was the wild man in this Burton hit that also starred Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis. “From an art perspective, I don’t know how you get better than ‘Beetlejuice.’ In terms of originality and a look, it’s 100% unique. If you consider the process of taking something from someone’s mind — meaning Tim — and putting it on the screen, I think that movie is incomparable.” How did Keaton find the tombstone lunacy of the character? He had the wardrobe department at the studio send over a large rack of clothes representing different centuries and he pieced his screwball apparition together in front of the mirror. “I wanted him to be pure electricity, that’s why the hair just sticks out,” Keaton said. “At my house I started creating a walk and a voice. I got some teeth. I wanted to be scary in the look and then use the voice to add a dash of goofiness that, in a way, would make it even scarier. I wanted something kind of moldy to it, too. Tim had the striped-suit idea and we added the big eyes. I think that movie will go forever because it’s 100% original.”
“Clean and Sober” (1988): Keaton startled audiences and the industry by leaving comedy behind to portray Daryl Poynter, a man whose life is collapsing around him as his cocaine addiction replaces every other priority and pursuit. Reviewers championed the film – Roger Ebert praised Keaton’s “wild, tumultuous energy” and supporting actors Morgan Freeman and Kathy Bates — and Keaton considers it some of his finest work. “The subject matter was so difficult, but oddly everyone really had fun on the shoot,” Keaton said. “One great thing about being an actor, too, is that if you have a pulse you learn something. That’s one of the great joys and bonuses of it. You’re forced to ask certain questions.”
“Batman Returns” (1992): The return to Gotham City, although the massive franchise would move on without Keaton and Burton after this sequel. “We got to be back home [filming in Burbank] so that made me happy. It was quite the cast with Michelle Pfeiffer and Danny DeVito and everyone. It wasn’t as satisfying to me when I saw it, but maybe that’s because the bar was set so high on the first one. I think I only watched it one time. I knew we were in trouble in talks for the third one when certain people started the conversation with ‘Why does it have to be so dark?’ ‘Why does he have to be so depressed?’ ‘Shouldn’t there be more color in this thing?’ I knew I was headed for trouble and that it wasn’t a road I was going to go down.”
“Much Ado About Nothing” (1993): Kenneth Branagh’s acclaimed Shakespearean comedy put Keaton in the role of Dogberry, the odd, oafish night constable who steals scenes and, against all odds, saves the day. Keaton was sick and feverish during the Tuscan shoot and far from his comfort zone. “That’s a movie where I said, ‘I can’t do this’ and it ended up being probably one of my top five experiences ever. I had to find a way in; I didn’t really know what to do, quite frankly…. [In the end, Branagh] didn’t get scared off by my unorthodox approach, he embraced it and was really hands-on, thankfully. It was literally like acting in another language. I had taken maybe one two-day Shakespearean class in my life, so I had no knowledge.”
“The Paper” (1993): Keaton’s third film with director Ron Howard (following “Night Shift” and “Gung Ho“) put the actor in one of cinema’s most authentic newsrooms, the New York Sun, a scrappy tabloid tested by a racially charged shooting and the implacable approach of deadline. “It’s an awful lot of fun to be in an ensemble, especially when you’re talking about Glenn Close, Robert Duvall and that level of actor. It was also the first time I met Duvall. People were nervous on the set when he was coming in; he’s a presence, somebody to [reckon] with. I just loved it. I had a ball being there with him. It felt like the first time I acted with Jack Nicholson. These guys are in their very nature larger-than-life personalities, and then they’re great actors on top of that and then they’re iconic on top of that.”
“Jackie Brown” (1997) and “Out of Sight” (1998): In a quirky bit of career crossover, Keaton played the same federal agent, Ray Nicolette, as the on-screen link between two otherwise unconnected adaptations of Elmore Leonard’s crime fiction. “To work with these directors, Quentin Tarantino and Steven Soderbergh, just two of my all-time favorites, was awesome. They are totally different approaches and totally different people. [The second time] the hope was that you would feel this guy, Ray, was a real person walking around in the world. These were different studios, different worlds, different stories and tones, but here’s this guy. You start thinking you might run into him at Costco.”
“The Merry Gentleman” (2009): Keaton not only starred in it, he made his directorial debut with this wintry tale of a suicidal hitman and the battered wife of a police officer who find a heartfelt connection. Filmed in Chicago, the movie leaves some mysteries intact for the viewer, but the use of the windows, roofs, masonry, streets and sidewalks of Chicago shows Keaton’s affinity for visual composition with straight lines. “Nicholson and I become buddies through the years and he once said to me, ‘You’re very architectural,’ and that was part of my approach in the movie, I think.” Actors-turned-directors seem to have an instinctive approach that Keaton says he observed on the sets of Branagh, Howard and Harold Ramis. “If there is a commonality, it’s that they kind of watch you first to see what you’re doing and then, if they want to or need to, that’s when they start to shape it or tilt it,” Keaton said. “And that’s pretty much what I did, now that I think about it.”
Looking back, Keaton says, there was a period of his career when he turned down a list of projects that might be shocking to read now, but they were never really viable options. The ballpark kid grew up more intrigued by the art of hitting curveballs than by the need to rack up career home runs. He was also more interested in being a father and a citizen of the world than a creature of the red carpet.
“I never saw what I did for a living as who I am,” Keaton said. “But if there’s a job in the world where that can get blurry, this is the one. The line gets really blurry for a lot of people, and for understandable reasons just as you go through life and this business. You don’t have to be especially weak to become extremely self-involved in this business, and I just never wanted to go down that road…. Alan Arkin said to me once that he wanted to have a really big life and a really good career. And I think that’s really sane.”
– Geoff Boucher
Check out more from this interview: Keaton talks about a lost scene from “Batman”
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