• Interviews

Edward Norton on Acting and Directing in “Motherless Brooklyn”

Edward Norton talks about acting in and directing Motherless Brooklyn, at the Allora Film Festival (Italy), on June 21, 2022.

Golden Globe winner for Best Supporting Actor in Primal Fear in 1996, Edward Norton has been a force in Hollywood ever since his acclaimed acting debut in Gregory Hoblit’s thriller about an altar boy accused of murdering a priest. Norton was then 25 (he was born in Boston in 1969), yet he already had a long resumé as a theater actor. The talented Norton went on working for the big screen in hits such as Everyone Says I Love You, The People vs. Larry Flynt, The Fight Club, American History X  and The Illusionist. He even played Bruce Banner, aka The Incredible Hulk, in the Marvel 2008 extravaganza, and more recently was nominated for both a Golden Globe and an Oscar for Birdman.

He has also directed and co-written films, including his directorial debut, Keeping the Faith (2000). He has done uncredited work on the scripts for The Score (2001), Frida (2002), and The Incredible Hulk. In 2019 he wrote, directed and acted in Motherless Brooklyn, which he adapted from Jonathan Lethem’s novel, turning it into a compelling film noir piece set in New York in the ’50s: the story tells of a detective afflicted with Tourette syndrome (played by Norton), who tries to solve the murder of his best and only friend. The film also stars Alec Baldwin as the ominous capitalist Moses Randolph, Willem Dafoe, Bruce Willis, Bobby Cannavale and Gugu Mbatha-Raw.

Off the screen, Norton is also an environmental and social activist and is a member of the board of trustees of Enterprise Community Partners, a non-profit organization for developing affordable housing, founded by his grandfather James Rouse.

Norton talked about Motherless Brooklyn to a crowd of film enthusiasts at the Allora Film Festival in Ostuni, Puglia (Italy), last June. He started by admitting what a challenge it is to be both acting in and directing the same movie, performing the Herculean task of being both behind and in front of the camera at the same time, and reflected on why he chose this novel as his most recent directorial effort.

“It’s certainly difficult to do both, acting and directing,” Norton says. “When you’re an actor, you have some time to rest, you have time to think and prepare. And when you’re a director, you have some time on yourself. When you do both, you have no time for anything. You lose your meditative time as an actor and you lose your meditative time as a director because everything is pulling on you in one way or another.”

Lionel Essrog, his character in Motherless Brooklyn, who is fighting “with his own head” and thinks he’s invisible, lends himself perfectly to Norton’s soulful observation of human nature and the theme of loneliness in the big city, as well as to the director’s innate solitude. “He feels lonely because people can only see his affliction and can’t see who he is inside, and that is very poignant, very touching to me,” Norton explains of Essrog. “I relate to this character. I do feel in myself a kind of a compulsion with words, to repeat words, to say them one way and say them another way…  maybe all actors are somehow Tourettic!”

Norton came up with the idea of moving Lethem’s story back in time, retrofitting it to the ’50s (the book is set in the ’90s when it was written). “I’m fascinated by that time period in New York,” Norton says. “I had this moment where I realized these two things: this detective story with this character could be the vehicle for going into this larger story about New York and America. I read the book for the first time 15 years ago, and it stuck in my mind.

“The book is very different from the film we made,” he continues.  “It’s not about Moses Randolph (played by Alec Baldwin) and his brother and the girl, Laura (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who are not in the book. The book is just about this detective with Tourette syndrome who tries to solve the murder of his boss. But I went to the author and I asked him for permission to change the story. I said, ‘Can I use the same idea, but have the story be in the ‘50s?’ Fortunately, he loved the idea. So, the character was from the novel, but the story was my own invention.”

Norton has lived in New York for over 30 years. “I love making films in New York,” he says. “I think this was maybe the tenth film I’d made in New York. All the films I’ve directed are in New York and I love working there. But making a period film in the modern New York is a big challenge.”

With a small budget, it’s not easy to recreate a period, with anything from the scenic props, cars and street feeling, to the costumes. “We had a 46-day schedule,” Norton continues. “At one point I showed the film to Francis Coppola and Warren Beatty and some people I admire. And Warren said, ‘That’s probably an 80-day film.’ And Francis said ‘100 days, 100 days!’ And I said, ‘No, 46.’ And they didn’t believe me. So, we had a lot to do. I think the two things that made that possible were, first, I had an absolutely brilliant cinematographer, Dick Pope, who shot all of Mike Leigh’s films and whom I had worked with on The Illusionist, which was so beautiful the way he shot it. Then I had Beth Mickle, the production designer, and some producers who were just wizards. And I think the team was a big part of it. And then preparation. Some things I learned from people like Spike Lee and Wes Anderson and other people I’ve worked with who have made films, directors capable of filming for very small amounts of money on very short schedules. I learned a lot working with people like Spike and Wes about the value of preparation, much more preparation than most films make time for. And if you double your preparation, if you triple your preparation, you can get things done.”

Motherless Brooklyn also benefited from the practicality of special effects. “Yes, that was another big help,” Norton says. “The cost of visual effects has come down notably so far. We had over 680 visual effects shots in the film, small things to get the ‘50s feeling, but also big things like the train station at the end when Lionel says, ‘I’m going to Penn Station,’ which doesn’t exist anymore, thanks to people like Moses Randolph. Some people asked me: ‘Why do you want to make a scene in a train station that doesn’t exist anymore?’ I say, ‘Because this is what happens when people like that take over, they rip down the old city.’ And the loss of Penn Station, as a train station, was a big loss for New York. So, we did it in an airplane hangar with green walls. That train station is just a digital effect. But 10 years ago, I could have never done that for less than $80 million.”

Finally, Norton agrees he intended his film as a love letter to “his” New York. “My grandfather was an urban planner, an urban philosopher,” he says. “He was the opposite of Moses Randolph. He was very humanist progressive. So, I grew up around people who really loved cities and really thought a lot about cities. And I love New York. But when you live in New York, you come to understand that there are things that are broke, that are problematic, that were engineered by people to be that way. I think New York is a wonderful city, but also a very hard town. It’s brutal for a lot of people even while it’s beautiful in other ways. And I think I like that counterpoint. I also like the idea that it’s very easy to be lonely in New York. It’s so crowded, but that’s what I liked about Lionel. He’s a very solitary figure. He’s a very lonely figure in a big city. And there’s something I liked about that.”