Hillary Atkin

Edward Norton on His Passion Project, ‘Motherless Brooklyn’

Oct 29, 2019

“Motherless Brooklyn” has been in Edward Norton’s head for years, since he read the galleys of the 1999 novel written by Jonathan Lethem.

Flashing back to that era, 1999 also marked the release of “Fight Club,” the David Fincher film in which Norton starred alongside Brad Pitt in what has grown into a beloved cult classic.

Audiences will soon see what Norton has done with “Motherless Brooklyn,” which he directs and stars in as the lead character, Lionel Essrog, a savvy private detective saddled with Tourette’s, a disorder that causes involuntary tics and in Essrog’s case, often inappropriate yet truthful verbal outbursts.

Bruce Willis, Alec Baldwin, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Willem Dafoe, Bobby Cannavale and Leslie Mann co-star in a noir mystery set against the backdrop of powerful politicians and real estate developers conspiring to bulldoze working class neighborhoods, displacing mainly people of color.

The feature film, set for release Nov. 1, is also Norton’s first credited screenplay, and he received a rousing response to it from an audience of writers at a preview screening over the weekend at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills.

“Lionel is such a rich, hot mess,” Norton said in a lengthy discussion after the film with journalist Pete Hammond. “You are emotionally hooked by the end of page 1 of the book.”

Yet while the book takes place in the 1990s, Norton centered the film in the 1950s. “It’s locked in that tonality but I didn’t want it to be like the Blues Brothers. It opened up a gateway to look at a shadow narrative and what was going on then in New York City, things that interested me,” said Norton.

He talked about the long road to getting the film made and especially writing the screenplay, a process that kept getting interrupted by his acting gigs, including acclaimed turns in “Birdman” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”

“This one kept bothering me. I was a bit obstinate. I got writers block but Toby Emmerich pushed me and pushed me — and to direct it. He said you’ve woven it into this unique thing — you should do it.”

Emmerich became the chairman of Warner Bros. Pictures Group in 2017 and told Norton, “We can do it now.” “He was relentless and I am forever in his debt for supporting me,” Norton said. “They’re the studio that made ‘L.A. Confidential,’ and that makes me happy.”

The film’s budget was $26 million and it was shot in 46 days. The starry cast worked for scale.

“If you see me in something that seems beneath me, I’m paying it off,” Norton said with a laugh.

The three-time Oscar nominee also lauded “Motherless Brooklyn’s” cinematographer, Dick Thorpe, who he said DP’d most of Mike Leigh’s films, along with the effects team who created 680 special effects on a $2.5 million budget, including re-creating the glory days of New York City’s Penn Station.

“It was our Victoria Station, but it got lost to backroom deals to those types of people,” Norton said, referring to the Alec Baldwin character who is partially based on Robert Moses, known for his huge role in building parks, highways, bridges, tunnels, housing and civic centers across mid-century New York City.

“I was nervous until Alec said he would do it,” Norton admitted. “This is a character with a dark psychology, a bully who doesn’t care about other people — only about his power. Alec is Shakespearean — look at his work in ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ and ‘Streetcar’ on Broadway. He has a muscular love of language. He did the scene by the pool twice and crushed it. The whole crew was watching. It was a gift.”

Norton said he was heavily influenced by films including Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” which he called one of the most important films about America, and Warren Beatty’s “Reds,” and that he called Beatty for advice. At the time, Beatty was told that the movie would flush his whole career.

“I trust and believe that grown-up audiences don’t mind a density of ideas and they actually love it,” Norton said about those films. “If it’s convoluted, like ‘Chinatown,’ and you’re in the dark like in ‘L.A. Confidential,’ but they look so great and the acting is so great that you flip the switch and you’re bought in. Same with ‘The Godfather.’ They still leave people with an essential sense of plot. ‘Chinatown’ was released in 1974 during the Vietnam War and pictured California as a place of theft and incest. It’s not an accident, grappling with a dark narrative. Noir is an American idea. Things are going on in the shadows that we should be looking at. Dark forces exist. Faye Dunaway got a bullet in the eye.”

Music plays an important role in “Motherless Brooklyn.” In the book it was Prince’s music but in the film it is changed to bebop and jazz, with Wynton Marsalis playing trumpet under an actor and Radiohead’s Thom Yorke composing a ballad. “They and composer David Pemberton came together with an incredible mashup of styles,” Norton said.

“Bop is the most Tourettic music on record. It’s ‘On the Road’ and Neil Moriarty screaming with the band,” said Norton, in discussing a scene in which his character grooves, loudly, to a jazz band playing at a Harlem nightclub as he tries to uncover new information about the murder of someone close to him.

(No more spoilers about the movie, certain to become part of the awards season conversation.)

Outside the theater, a group of autograph hounds waited for Norton to emerge. They got him to sign posters of “Fight Club.”

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