[Interview] Edward Norton details why taking risks is a winning move – especially with ‘MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN’

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Edward Norton hasn’t made a strong career off of safe bets. He’s taken acting, producing and directing gigs that have led to incredible opportunities working alongside a few of the boldest filmmakers who’ve, in turn, inspired his own risk taking endeavors. He’s also divested his time, energy and intelligence in the tech field, having invested in Uber and launched start-up ventures like the funding network CrowdRise and the data-analytic firm, EDO. So getting his second directorial effort, MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN, to the silver screen again demanded a bit of risk from him – and everyone else involved.

In addition to directing and acting, Norton produces and adapts the novel by Jonathan Lethem, moving the book’s setting from the 1990’s to the 50’s. This noir-tinged detective drama revolves around Lionel Essrog, a private eye afflicted with Tourette’s syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder, out to solve the mysterious murder of his mentor (Bruce Willis). His big city playground is paved with scandal and solace when he unwittingly uncovers ties to government corruption led by a Robert Moses-like villain, Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin).

At the film’s recent press day, I spoke with the affable talent about everything from the groundbreaking films he’s been a part of, to the filmmakers whose bold creations stimulate him, to the psychological connection between acting and data analytics.

My mom passed away ten years ago and she had two movies she’d watch over and over again, one of them being THE PAINTED VEIL. So I have to start with thanking you for doing that beautiful movie.

I have a very affectionate spot for that film. I think it’s beautifully directed by John Curran. I remember Harvey Weinstein saying to me, “If I had that film, John Curran would’ve been nominated for best director.” I sort of agree. I feel like it got underserved. I was proud of that movie.

Let’s shift gears and talk about MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN. I love noir detective movies and it seems like we don’t get to see these kinds of movies these days. What took so long to bring this to the screen? What were some of the challenges you faced in the decades it took to get this made?

Some of it was just the complexity of the idea to transpose it to the 50’s and mash it up with that deep, dark history of New York in that period. The writing of it was a more complex challenge. A lot of it was original. I wanted to preserve the emotional core of the character and his motivation and relationship with his one and only friend and his history. Once we set off on this journey into the history, I had to write it from scratch and it took a while.

But, you know, I had the script ready in 2012, if you want to still make these movies in a traditional configuration to make one of those kinds of films I love, like L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, it’s an ambitious thing to say, “I want to make this 50’s set film, with this Tourettic detective and finding support – people who will back that original and unusual, in this day and age, it’s challenging. A lot of this was putting this cast together and finding those aligned. Everybody beautifully, from Bruce Willis on down, took scale to make the film so I could make it for a very modest budget. Once we got that all wrangled, it took a lot of jigsaw puzzling.

Was it nerve-wracking to go to Jonathan and pitch your take with your changes?

That was long ago, early on. I wasn’t going to proceed without his blessing. Jonathan’s a real cinephile. He’s got a deep catalogue-like knowledge of films – and film noir in particular. Because he has said, on a number of occasions, that adaptations that stay deeply faithful to books end up boring. He kind of had this prior conviction that you have to boldly springboard off of a book to make a great movie. Fortunately, when I said to him that the tone of the novel transposed to the modern world, it could end up feeling like irony, like something between THE BLUES BROTHERS and RESERVOIR DOGS, like people being self-consciously retro. We were afraid that we were being tongue-and-cheek and not taking Lionel’s condition as seriously. It might be all funny and not poignant. By setting it in the 50’s Lionel’s isolation and people’s cruelty to him is very real. It’s more hard-boiled and sets him in a lonelier place.

Was it always the plan that you were going to write the adaptation, direct, star and produce? Or was that something that happened out of necessity?

“It was always to produce it and adapt it. The later decision was directing. For a period, I sort of imagined that maybe I’d go to one of my favorite directors – old comrades from New York, or people I worked with. [Warner Brothers chairman] Toby Emmerich, who ran New Line at the time, he was really the one who urged me toward directing it. We had worked together on AMERICAN HISTORY X. He kept saying to me, “Look. I think this is your story. You’ve invented this story and character. It’ll be great for you to edit this performance.” We started talking about movies that had a huge impact on us, like Warren Beatty’s REDS, or Clint Eastwood’s UNFORGIVEN. I think he was saying, “You ought take that swing. You should just go for it.” He gave me the encouragement to take it all on.

You give such a finely-calibrated performance here. From an acting process standpoint, was there something that would help you re-center yourself to get back into Lionel’s psyche? Directing takes you out of your mind, but for acting, you have to be in your mind.

(laughs) I would say it’s the opposite: when you’re acting you want to be out of your head, in your instinctual, muscular self. And directing, you can’t get out of your head, you have to be highly analytical. (laughs) You’re right they are antagonistic to each other, but in the flip-flop way. Some of it is just preparation, right? As a director, if you meticulously prepared and boarded and had great collaborators like Dick Pope, who’s one of the greatest cinematographers, who you trust and you’ve got a game plan, then you have other people helping to execute your plan. If you rehearse and put the time in, as an actor, to get yourself to that place where you, yes, you get distracted, but honestly what helps you the most are the other actors. A cast of exceptionally great actors, all across the board, who are all theater trained actors, are able to help you. Each and every one of these actors dropped me back into – I can’t explain it – a suspension, a sense of living in an imaginary moment. They’re all so switched on. When you said, what pulled you back in, the other actors pulled me back in, in a lot of ways.

Edward Norton in 25th Hour. Courtesy of Touchstone Pictures.

Quite a few of your films were so far ahead of the curve predicting shifts in sociopolitical conversations. MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN comments on abuse of power and racial discrimination in housing as timely then as it is now with gentrification. Is that something you look for in your projects?

Yeah. Those are my favorite things. Without any question, I’ve done some work where there were other motivations entirely, like THE SCORE, which isn’t a deep social commentary. It’s a heist thriller, but then people call up and say Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro are gonna do this film (laughs) and that is motivation enough. That’s a dream come true in a different way.

But, yes. I’ve always identified most with the types of films that had the biggest effect on me. One of the defining, mind-expanding experiences in my young adulthood was DO THE RIGHT THING. When Phil Hoffman and I were working on 25th HOUR, we would talk about the effect that DO THE RIGHT THING that had on us. It changed your aspirational goals in some ways. It made you realize that this is a young filmmaker, writing, directing, acting in a film on his terms, in his style, and he’s talking about his city and his experience in life that is forcing the whole country to have a conversation about things that it’s uncomfortable with. It’s truly astonishing. Within the last 30 years, it’s got to be the most social significant films in terms of getting people to activate their minds and deal with things. It was a landmark film. And for a lot of us, who were 18, 19 at the time. It was like, “If that’s what you can do. That’s all you should try to do.” I felt that way. If you can do something that resonates where people really see themselves, see their own experiences in the generational moment they’re in, that’s powerful. Those stick. Those are the things that keep reverberating in people, as opposed to those sort of like dopamine hit of some high-octane confection you’ve forgotten before you’re even at dinner.

I’ve been really lucky and have been invited into those like, FIGHT CLUB and 25th HOUR with Spike. Others I’ve had more of a developmental role, like AMERICAN HISTORY X or this one. You never know.

I think almost everything, even the doing of it, feels half-baked and risky. I’ve come to realize that, not only in my own experience, but also when I asked Warren Beatty about REDS, he told me that everyone told him, “No one wants to see this movie. No one wants to see a 3-hour movie about American socialists with documentary footage from that era.” He said he really had to sit with himself and say, “But wait a minute. I want to see this. This is important to me. This speaks to things about America.” And he was inspired by Orson Welles doing that with CITIZEN KANE. He was really specifically, he held that as a beacon of taking a big risk and trying to say and do something that actually looks at who we are and whether America is what it says it is. It was ambitious. To me, hearing from him that it felt highly uncertain and risky felt motivating. A lot of the ones that I really respect, that was the sensation and so I’m not going to be afraid of that sensation.

You mention risk taking and I know you’re also in the tech world and, for me, that sounds like that’s an even bigger risk. Is the thrill of risk taking as an actor, director, producer in equal relation to being a risk taker as an investor?

Sure. Yes, but more so, the analogy holds for the companies I’ve started myself and built from scratch with my partners. An investor, you just have to be smart about the levels of risk you are taking relative to how… it’s more doing things at an appropriate scale to what your capacity is. That’s not the same. Starting Crowd Rise and building that up, and starting EDO, our data science company, those are entrepreneurial endeavors where you have an idea and are engaging other people and saying, “You put your talents into this,” and nobody knows if it’s gonna really work. But, just like with your production designer and your DP and your cast, you’re almost like being an impresario, saying, “Let’s all come together around this idea and build something and make it work.” In that sense, those are very similar, because it’s a lot of work, investment of talent and time – not just you alone, but you with other people. You are taking a shot at collaborating and building something together that you can be proud of. Those are very similar.

MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN opens on November 1.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.