The Theater, Present Day New York City
Setting a movie in the Big Apple is hardly groundbreaking. But this ain't the sweet-natured NYC from rom-coms, or the hardened, gritty Scorsese NYC. This New York is just…weird.
And we hardly ever get to see it, because most of the time we're stuck in Riggan's head, er, the theater.
The St. James Theater is the actual theater used from the exterior and interior stage shots of the film. (Despite how the movie might make it appear, it's actually quite the prestigious venue in the real world.) It's located right next to Times Square—you know, the place with all the people that flock to an almost-naked Riggan and later appear on stage in Riggan's dreams.
The Hallways in the Theater
Hallways are traditionally a place of transition. You don't go in a hallway to be in a hallway; you go in a hallway to get somewhere else. And while this is true of all the theater corridors, there's a surprising amount of action that takes place as people are moving about. But before diving into this action, we should ask why we're spending so much time walking through the hallways in the first place.
The short answer is: one long tracking shot. In a normal movie, any sort of transitory scenes, where a character moves from one locale to another, are cut. Do we really want to spend five hours hanging out with our protagonist as they snooze on a plane from L.A. to New York? Not really. But in Birdman we don't have a choice. The camera never turns off and so we're trapped in a way, forced to follow Riggan and whoever else as they move from room to room or from back stage to on stage.
And "trapped" isn't a bad word to use. The title of the book Mike is reading as he gets his tan on is Labyrinths, by Jorge Luis Borges. And these hallways are a kind of labyrinth. As an audience we never fully make sense of what is where, as we peek into various rooms and go up or down stairs to the stage or the balcony. The staccato beats of the drums are always playing, adding to the claustrophobic spaces a sense of entropy and urgency. This is show business and people are always rushing around, needing to be at one place or another. The hallways serve to add that sense of urgency to the movement of our characters, as well as a purposeful senselessness, like rats running through a maze.
But in one moment the hallway is a place of serenity. After one of the most chaotic sequences, in which Riggan runs through NYC in his underwear and ends up finishing the scene on stage in the same manner, the camera uses Jake to drift away from the main action where it comes to rest looking down and empty hallway. In the background we hear the shot from the toy pistol and, after a moment, the applause from the audience. But the camera remains still, pointed away from it all, a brief respite which puts the success of the play and the craziness of Riggan's life into perspective as we stare down the calm, vacant hall.