Edward Norton: Making Motherless Brooklyn Relevant Again

February 15, 2020
The actor finally follows up his directing debut with the adaptation of the Jonathan Lethem novel, which he optioned 20 years ago.

Twenty years after directing his first movie Keeping the Faith, actor-turned-filmmaker Edward Norton is back in the chair for his sophomore feature, Motherless Brooklyn. Adapted from the novel by Jonathan Lethem, Norton moves the action from the 1990s to 1957 to craft an indelible film noir.

Norton plays Lionel Essrog, a private eye afflicted with Tourette syndrome who gets drawn into a web of city-wide corruption when his boss, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis) is gunned down.

In the London edit suite, Norton, 50, sat down with FilmInk to discuss his love of film noir, recreating 1950s New York and the influence of Donald Trump.

This has been a project almost twenty years in gestation. What took the time?

Well, the book came out in 1999. I got the rights to it… Jonathan hadn’t written many books at that point. I told him that it was going to be a while before I could get to dealing with it. I was directing another film. I don’t even think I started trying to write it for four or five years after it came out. Then I researched it for a long time, I wrote some of it, and I got blocked, and then I finished it. I probably finished writing it in about 2012. But from there, I actually was trying to make it. I’ve been trying to get it made… it took about five years between when I finished it and two years ago, when we really pulled it together to make it.

On the Motherless Brooklyn set with author Jonathan Lethem

What is it about Jonathan’s novel that impressed you?

The character of Lionel is such a compelling character. There are so many paradoxes in him. He’s afflicted but he’s brilliant. He’s lonely but he’s tough; he’s an orphan from Brooklyn. He’s not a moralist really but then he does care. There are so many paradoxes in the character, or dualities, that I think are great. I loved the idea of a mind that is a gift and a torture at the same time. The book takes place in 1999, but I had this idea from early on that I wanted to graft it with this period of New York that I was very interested in. Fortunately, Jonathan really, really liked that idea. He always said to me that the plot was an excuse for the character. He said to me that nobody remembered the plot! He said himself, ‘I don’t remember it!’

What kept you going when the going got tough?

Sometimes, I had a conviction that we could make something that was resonant with things that were happening today. Sometimes, at a certain point, you almost feel like a dog with a rope in your teeth. The fact that you’re being blocked… you have to decide that this is too tiring, or you get annoyed and get determined to not be defeated on it.

Have there been other projects that have taken you this long?

The Painted Veil, we tried to get that film made for seven years, maybe more. At one point, Sydney Pollack was going to do it, and then his wife got sick. We went through so many different attempts, but then we did it and it was a really beautiful experience. It’s always in my head that sometimes it takes a long time for these things to get done. You have to persevere. But also in a weird way, when I finished writing it, it was right when Obama got elected to a second term, and I had this thought, ‘Maybe what I’m writing about is irrelevant now! Maybe we’ve gotten beyond racial tension! And sexual power dynamics aren’t as interesting!’ And then Donald Trump came in and made my whole film relevant again! The way it worked out, this was the right moment to make this film. It’s extremely meshed up in a lot of what’s going on right now.

Your character has Tourette syndrome. How did you set about playing that on screen?

Tourette’s is extremely individualistic. There’s no consistent expression of it. Some people have physical twitches and no vocalisation whatsoever. Some people… it’s much more extreme than this. Much more, paralysingly extreme. Some people don’t have the obsessive-compulsive component of it. Some people do. It’s a very anarchic and in some ways creative condition. There are people who don’t do anything more than blink their eyes really hard, or look like they’re stretching their neck. You’ve probably known people with very mild Tourette’s and you’ve never known that’s what it is. And then there are people I’ve met that if you did it on the film, no one would believe it. They can’t stop yelling things. They yell really, really off-colour and inappropriate things. There’s a documentary called Twitch and Shout…. your jaw’s on the floor, it’s really, really severe. Exhausting.

What were you most mindful of when playing this character?

It is so variable the way it expresses itself that one person that I talked to said, ‘You could invent your own version of it and that would be correct.’ You see that, watching these films about people with it. Every single person’s version of it is different. Nobody’s is the same. So that was very liberating. But for me the thing I was most mindful of… the thing I love about the book is that it creates an intimacy. By being inside his head and outside, you get an intimacy with him where you feel sympathy because you can hear his inner voice and hear that he’s a smart and calm and thoughtful person and then you see what he’s struggling with. And that was the main thing that I wanted to engender. Right from the beginning, hearing directly from him, it’s like he says, ‘I have a significant problem that I’m going to let you in on.’

What are your references in noir?

Well, many. To me, in terms of looking at the sun-kissed dream of Los Angeles, well Chinatown… it goes back further and says, ‘All of that is built on theft’ and I love that. The Maltese Falcon, you can’t remember why anybody’s doing anything in that. I can’t even remember the plot! I just remember there’s nothing in the bird! It’s like the emptiness of greed, but there’s no grand social dimension to that. I love the French film Le Doulos. Sometimes there is noir that is style for style’s sake and it’s fun. But I do like the ones that are more political. The Big Sleep is not political, but it has that feeling that polite society has a lot going on under it which is pretty ugly, which is a neat take.

What was your take on noir?

We wanted to subvert noir. Noir is often so cynical and the detectives are really not moralists and I think Lionel is not really someone who is looking past his own problems in this. But one way it subverts it is the people who seem heroic in the beginning prove to not be and the people who emerge as heroic are the people who are not sitting on the fence.

What was it like recreating New York in the 1950s?

The film is a lot about big things, and big things happening on a large scale, and we wanted the film to have scale. So when we did the car chase we wanted you to be looking very deep, many, many blocks. There’s a scene with a protest in Washington Square and we wanted a vast field of people – a sense that you were getting out of that sensation of very controlled limited frame so it didn’t feel like a television show.

How well do you know Brooklyn?

Very well. Brooklyn for a lot of people holds a romance because it was always for a lot of people the middle class version of New York. Even now, it’s still changing fairly radically. In those days, it was changing in the sense that the working class and middle class were being pushed aside and there was racism that was being baked into the way the city was being rebuilt, tearing down middle class black neighbourhoods and calling themselves slums, and putting the projects in, which became the real slums.

What was the most challenging part of making this film?

Directing and being in it was challenging. It was challenging in part because I felt anxiety… I felt OK with myself in part because whatever I felt uncertain about in terms of how Lionel’s unique thing manifests itself, at least in this case I knew I could trust the director! I could do it at 11, do it at 6 and do it at 2, and choose later. I didn’t feel a pressure to nail it. I knew I could give myself a lot of raw material. I actually felt more anxiety about the other actors. As an actor working with other actors, you want to exist within the thing together and stay there. As a director for actors, you want to be able to create an environment of focus and do what they need. I was just very aware that in doing both things, I was going to completely throw a hand-grenade into that kind of focus; I just decided very early on, I knew I couldn’t have people who were needy. And I don’t mean that in a casual sense. Sometimes, some actors they need focus and that’s the way they work. Almost everybody is from the New York theatre who I’ve known a long time, and I knew were stone-cold trade-craft professionals. The only person I didn’t have a pretty deep history with, and could work with me in a way where they’d be very facile, was Gugu [Mbatha-Raw]. She didn’t come from my long-time team, but she is RADA-trained…I can’t say enough about her. She was absolutely unflappable.

Motherless Brooklyn is in cinemas February 27, 2020

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