SANTA MONICA – Michael Keaton has been asked about a sequel to “Beetlejuice” enough times to surely be sick of it by now, because the thing has moved at such a glacial pace there just isn't much to be said. But his work in the original film came at a time when his career was really taking off, and playing in the expressionistic world of Tim Burton in both that film and the first two “Batman” movies was a wholly new and exciting experience for him. In one, he helped build a character from the ground up, while in the other, he found himself at the center of a raging pop culture tempest.
Both roles are iconic in their own ways, and looking back, Keaton can – as ever – find nothing but gratitude for getting to be a part of it. “Batman” in particular was a personal landmark, a movie that grabbed kids of my generation by the lapels and said, “Get your ass to the theater!” Of course I had to get into it with him.
So we talked about all that, immersing into a tactile, handcrafted world and making something that has a global impact. Check out the back and forth below.
“Birdman” was nominated for nine Academy Awards including Best Actor. The film hits DVD/Blu-ray Feb. 17.
HitFix: So I guess you and Tim Burton are talking about “Beetlejuice” a lot lately, because people keep asking you about the sequel.
Michael Keaton: Yeah. “Beetlejuice” is just so special because who knew what that was going to be? And boy, when you think about where Tim was right then, here was a guy who – thinking back, he said, “Hey I got this thing I want to do.” I mean he had only done, like, “Frankenweenie” I think, and “Pee-wee.” That's really just getting started. And this guy said, “Here's what it is,” and he would explain to me visually what was going on, and then you'd see the set. And then the thing that I love most about it, the single thing I love most about doing that movie, besides just being in it, was Tim would explain something and I'm going, “Oh, okay. I know what this picture looks like. I know what the painting – I know what these frames look like. So what's my job now within those frames? What's my job to do within that, given that Tim's starting to really make clear what he's building here,” because that's a hard thing to explain to someone.
That can't be a tone that's easy to talk about or verbalize.
No. Well, nothing had ever been done like this. And what I love about it, almost more than anything, is it's handmade. Everything is handmade.
Exactly. Which brings me to this. I often ask this of actors who might find themselves in period pieces or something design-heavy, makeup-heavy, a movie like this where the design is so overt. Does that kind of thing help you immerse yourself more into the character? Is that like mana for an actor?
Well, I mean, I have talked about this but it's worth talking about again. None of that was there. He showed me sketches of something that looked nothing like – he couldn't describe it. And in fact if anything – have you ever seen his Char Boy drawings?
If anything it was in that world, but he said, “It's that but it's not that.” I can't really remember but none of that was there. I said, “Let me go home and think about this,” because I really honestly didn't understand what he was trying to explain. I really didn't get it at all. And I didn't see the set. He had started shooting it and I called the studio and said, “Send me wardrobe from all time periods,” because of one thing Tim had said. And where the mold came from was he said, “I don't know. Maybe he exists in all kinds of place. There's not any one place. He could maybe live under rocks.” I went, “Under rocks?” So I was just picking up little bits and pieces. I said, “I want mold on my face.” And the great [makeup artist] Ve Neill and I sat down.
The striped suit, Tim had that in his head the whole time, I think. I had nothing to do with that. But the whole hat for the guide I chose because I thought the guide was really trippy, like guide to where? You know? So the eyes I think Ve came up with, but the hair, I said, “I need my hair like this.” [He mimics a mound of hair atop his head.] And I didn't see it as big as she saw it, but I liked it when she showed it to me. I said, “Give me hair that's just like I stuck my finger in a socket.” I was going to start there and to see if I could go all the way or keep it at that level in terms of manic intensity and drive and energy and craziness.
So you built that thing from the ground up.
Right. There was nothing to immerse myself in at the beginning. I had to basically build it and then I took it to Ve and she helped build it with me. And Tim really saw it the first day I showed up on the set, so I didn't know if that whole thing we were doing was going to work. I'm sure she was showing him stuff. I can't remember. He may have dropped in the makeup trailer, but it was so difficult, what he was trying to pull off, and everything was made by hand. We'd have to literally do things over and over again. And that's what was so cool about it. Like you know that scene where I come up like this and I got the carousel on my head? That's all wood. And when I roll up my arms – we had a guy standing on the set because you couldn't guarantee they were going to roll straight down. They fall like this. And the guy goes, “OK, cut,” and we'd go back and roll them up. Now you don't even have to build anything. You just CGI it all. And coming up I had to be in the right position because if it would catch, it would stop and we'd have to do it over again. Little things like that was like, we were all kids with a whole lot of money to build amazing sets.
I guess that's what I'm asking, is about that tactile nature of it. It's helpful to just be in the midst of all that craftsmanship as an actor, I imagine.
Yeah, man. For a thing like that.
And it seems like people have been asking about a sequel for a long time.
If there ever is one – and frankly, at this point, I'm so sick of saying it, I've been saying it for years – whoever is in control of it, whatever they want to do, [I'm in]. They've pushed it to the point where you want to go, “Dude, this is such a no-brainer for everyone in the world. Whatever your issues are with not deciding,” I can't even think about it.
So this is something you've wanted to do for a while.
Oh, when did we do it? 1988? I've been saying it since about '92. And I really don't like doing things again, except that one I'd try again.
Is Tim in the same boat?
Well, you know more about it than I do. Every time I talk to people they're more up to speed on things than I am. I've given up following it. I don't know. I hear that it's on then it's off. He and I have communicated and we've both said – I don't want to do it without him, and he apparently doesn't want to do it without me. But just even the discussion, now it's gotten so old the sad part would be that they've taken so long – not Tim – to decide, that frankly, if I was the public, I would go, “You know what? Whatever. We're tired of saying we'd like to see it again.”
It's kind of like “Ghostbusters III.” Same situation.
Yeah. I wouldn't be shocked if they missed it and now the public – you can only ask a girl out so many times and have her say “no,” and then you go, “Hey man, with all due respect, whatever. I'm not going to beg you.”
Have you ever seen a script or anything?
No. But Seth Grahame-Smith is a really talented and funny guy. And he said, “I have this stuff, but I won't talk to you about it yet because I don't know what it is.” I go, “Whatever.” And now I don't know when – I got three projects, which is too bad because that would've been a cool one to do right now. Somebody should quit being so Hamlet-like and just make a decision.
Naturally “Beetlejuice” flowed into “Batman” and you and Tim kept the relationship going. I loved the quote that I ran across recently, by the way, where you said, “I'm Batman. I'm very secure in that.”
But would like to talk about “Batman,” if you're not sick of it by now. And hopefully this doesn't sound too fan-ish, but I do want to kind of intimate to you what that movie was for me. I think your son is around the same age as me.
So some of this might sound a little familiar, but growing up, I saw stuff in the theater like, I don't know, “Masters of the Universe” or “The Land Before Time,” whatever. I didn't really go to the movies a lot. So when “Batman” came around – I've written about it in these terms before – I call it my Cecil B. DeMille moment, where suddenly a movie was about more than the movie. It was like the event around the movie.
I get that for your generation, totally.
There are those movies where it's the thing that invites you into that world. And then of course you explore the nuance and art of film after that.
That's true. Like for me it was “Midnight Cowboy,” “The Graduate,” maybe “Easy Rider” to some degree.
But there's always that thing that opens the door for you, and it's generally an event, like “Star Wars” or “Jurassic Park” or “Batman.” That moment where suddenly movies are not this, like, curiosity. I was going to the movies a lot more after “Batman,” and I've always said that I owe it that, so in some way I guess I owe you that as well. So, you know, thanks!
Oh, you're welcome. I totally get how that could happen. Totally. And also, remember, it was possibly the most inventive, original campaign for a movie that I've ever seen, and it was really impeccable the way that Warner Bros. did it. That ultra subtle, simple thing. I remember I was in a theater seeing a movie and the very first trailer came up and you see a trailer, see another trailer, see another trailer, and then there's nothing. And then all of a sudden on screen comes the bat symbol, and then it disappears. People went fucking nuts. Then I think two weeks later or something it came on and I think it had the date under it or something, or it was just some subtle thing. And then we started doing little kind of just abstract – like the Batmobile comes flying across and leaves blowing up in the street or something. That was one of the best campaigns I have ever seen.
As a kid, the commercials and everything, it was like, “If I don't go to this movie, I'm way out of the loop.” It was “must-see” in the biggest way.
Yes. You need to be part of that.
Being in the middle of that maelstrom, what was that like for you?
Well, it was intense, but not intense. I'm really honest about all this stuff. I mean, I am so proud that I was in that movie and I think that first movie, if you consider what Tim had to work with and what he had to overcome and what was going on – nobody had tried anything like this. What he pulled off in that movie, I think people forget. You look at it now and you go, “It doesn't have the great stuff like Chris Nolan's films do.” I mean those are just really, truly great, even though I must say I've never seen one from beginning to end. But I never saw “Batman Returns” from beginning to end. But you see enough of Chris Nolan's stuff and you go, “Wow, this is great.” But if you think about what Tim did then, and nobody had ever done anything like that before, and the choice to go with those color tones, not just the darkness that everybody talked about but he created that real kind of, like, blue/black thing, and that shadowy thing and the visuals. He changed everything, and then it mutated and mutated and mutated into whatever those movies are now. And the pressure that he was under was enormous.
The design is…
The design is tremendous.
Just talking about that tactile thing, I mean, walking around that set had to be something else. I've talked to producer Michael Uslan about that, immersing yourself in those square blocks.
[Production designer] Anton Furst, dude.
Yeah. Phenomenal. That's one of my favorite Oscar wins of all time.
That's true. I forgot about that. Nice man, too. And getting back to the maelstrom – a good use of the language, by the way – what it really was was the first time, even though I was in popular movies and I was getting well-known – when the movie itself is that scale, and the symbols in the movie and the symbolism and the impact and the power of a movie like that, it really changes things. One of the reasons it changes things is that it goes international. That kind of shit goes international. And when stuff like that has impact, and being part of a thing – like it affected you – that has real impact. And then everything exponentially blows up. It was a great thing for me because now, you know, there's people in Norway and Burma and stuff going, “Holy mackerel. Look at this thing and look at that guy and look at Jack and look at everybody.” And Jack had been exposed to big international things by that time, but not like that. Think about this. Jack Nicholson at the time, that kind of actor to be in a movie like that was really unusual. Like, those kind of actors wouldn't do a movie like that.
Yeah. It was like a reinvention for him in a way.
Yeah. And then to be so effective and so good in it. And we all found the right tone, which was not an easy thing to do. Once that ends, that affects your life.
What did you want to do and what were you able to do, I guess, with that level of newfound superstardom?
You know, I do what I do. That's the thing. I didn't say, “Oh, now I'm going to be this.” I don't think like that. I did ensemble pieces. I went and did “Pacific Heights.” I did movies with people – I did “Clean and Sober” and people said, “You can't” – or did I do “Clean and Sober” before?
That was right before, but I get what you're saying. I mean you went off and you did Shakespeare with Branagh.
Yes. Because I actually, honestly – I'm not being, like, “Aren't I cool?” – I think that's my job. And also it's what I really like. I mean how lucky am I that I get to do Dogberry in “Much Ado About Nothing,” do “Multiplicity, do “My Life?”
Oh, tears, by the way. “My Life.” Niagara Falls.
Oh, that kills guys.
Can't handle it.
Men. That crushes every fucking guy I know.
I don't know if it's just the story or the story plus John Barry just killing it.
Yeah. I know. It really gets guys. It really hits guys hard. Kevin Stevens was a really tough guy; he played for the Penguins and told me he was sitting in the theater in Pittsburgh one day and something went wrong. They had an electrical problem and they had to shut the projector down and the lights in the theater come up. And he was sitting there with his wife and, like, people are looking around, and people in Pittsburgh being huge sports and hockey fans, turn around and they go, “Here's Kevin Stevens.” And he said he's sitting there like this because, tears, and it's this tough guy and there were tears running down his eyes. Yeah that crushes guys. I did that movie because I thought if I never get to do anything again, and this does something for somebody somewhere, I get to actually do something for somebody. Honestly, that's the reason I did it. I mean I have a job where you're sitting there telling me what it meant to you. How lucky am I? How many people have a job where I get to do something like that? I mean, nobody gets that. Nobody gets to have a job like that. It's really amazing.
Tomorrow: Finally, “Birdman” and the unexpected virtue of an overstated “comeback.”
Michael Keaton will receive a career tribute and the Modern Master Award at the 30th annual Santa Barbara Film Festival on Saturday, Jan. 31.