Edward Norton: ‘A lot of horrible things have made my movie relevant again’

Edward Norton in Motherless Brooklyn
GOOD NOIR ALWAYS HAS POLITICAL COMMENTARY, SAYS MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN’S STAR AND DIRECTOR, WHO, WITH HIS LONG-HELD REPUTATION AS A PERFECTIONIST, HAS GONE ALL OUT TO GET HIS THRILLER, WHICH HE ALSO WROTE AND PRODUCED, JUST THE WAY HE WANTS IT

Edward Norton is in a London editing suite with Motherless Brooklyn’s editor, Joe Klotz, who also cut The Paperboy and Rabbit Hole. The final edit of the film is done and dusted, but the pair continue to tinker, to offset any changes that will come from digital transfer.

I think many of my favourite film-makers take their time. It’s very consuming. I didn’t initially want to direct; I wanted to focus on character

“We’ve been working on how it looks on the new high-def TVs and 4K TVs,” explains the actor and director. “That changes the look of the film. And because Dick Pope is such an incredible DP we’re trying to make sure it looks like it’s supposed to look like, instead of a supersaturated, pumped-up version of it.”

Norton is something of a superfan of Dick Pope, particularly the cinematographer’s work on Mike Leigh’s period films: Topsy-Turvy, Vera Drake, Mr Turner and Peterloo. The pair worked together on The Illusionist.

“He came out to New York even before we started prepping for a deep dive into old photographs and Edward Hopper pictures,” says Norton. “I suspect The Illusionist is not as good a film as people think it is; it’s all about the photography. He’s so good at shooting period without it feeling painted on, in a way that looks three dimensional and deep. So you never have that feeling that they are only getting away with the period because it’s all taking place in little rooms.”

American History X: Edward Norton in the Tony Kaye film that he recut
American History X: Edward Norton in the Tony Kaye film that he recut

Norton, who earned his third Oscar nomination at the 2015 Academy Awards for his performance in Birdman, has long had a reputation as a perfectionist. Even as a young emerging star his clashes with the director Tony Kaye over the final cut of American History X made for as much controversy as the film. When Norton’s well-regarded two-hour cut hit the theatrical circuit, Kaye filed an unsuccessful $200 million lawsuit against the production and asked the directors’ guild to remove his name from the credits and replace it with “Humpty Dumpty”.

It’s odd to think that some years after Norton’s star-making performance in Primal Fear, Motherless Brooklyn is only his second film as a director and that his first directorial effort, Keeping the Faith, bowed 19 years ago.

“I used to say to Alejandro [González Iñárritu]: how come you only do a movie every few years? And he said: ‘Sometimes it takes a long time to get it done and sometimes I just have nothing left.’ I think many of my favourite film-makers take their time. It’s very consuming. I didn’t initially want to direct; I wanted to focus on character. But my friend who is now the head of Warner Brothers said, ‘I think you have to direct this, because I think you won’t be able to give the performance without also sculpting the film around it.’”

Motherless Brooklyn, an adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 noir novel, sees Norton assume duties behind the camera as writer-director and in front of it as Lionel Essrog, a man with Tourette’s syndrome who works for a detective agency (and part-time car service) headed by Frank Minna (Bruce Willis) in 1950s Brooklyn. When Frank is shot in the line of duty, Lionel is determined to find out why.

His investigation takes him to a jazz club in Harlem and introduces some famous costars, including Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a community activist named Laura Rose, Willem Dafoe as a mysterious informant and Alec Baldwin as a tyrannical urban planner, Moses Randolph.

It has taken Norton almost 20 years to make the film. Indeed, the actor was still feeling the bounce from his Oscar nomination for David Fincher’s Fight Club when he first pitched for the project. “I read the book a long time ago. Even before it came out I got the rights from Jonathan,” he says.

“And I told him what I wanted to do, which was a little bit radical. It was almost like taking the character and putting him in a different story. Jonathan told me he said he came up with a plot as an excuse to write the character. It’s not just other people who say: I don’t remember the plot, I remember the character. He says that himself.

“But when we first talked about it I was directing another film, so I didn’t even start writing until four years later. I actually finished writing it about six years ago. We tried to get it together once, but it didn’t work out, and then there was another period where we had the cast but we’re trying to find the money. And then, around the time Obama was re-elected, I wondered if the script’s themes of authoritarianism were out of date.”

He smiles. “But a lot of horrible things have happened since then to make my movie relevant again.”

Even when film noir is not talking about politics it’s inherently political. It’s a mediation on power and the manifestations of power. The best noir, like Chinatown, excavates the ways a place like LA was built on a crime

Politics are seldom far from the surface in Motherless Brooklyn. The 2016 US election provided the project with a fresh impetus. But that, says Norton, is what film noir is all about: “I think good noir always has political commentary,” he says. “That’s what makes it such an American genre. There has always been this tendency, especially after the war, and the Pax Americana, to look in the shadows of American life.

“That’s what I love about it as a genre. Even when it’s not talking about politics it’s inherently political. It’s a mediation on power and the manifestations of power. The best noir, like Chinatown, excavates the ways a place like Los Angeles [was] built on a crime.”

Motherless Brooklyn: Edward Norton has needed almost 20 years to make the film
Motherless Brooklyn: Edward Norton has needed almost 20 years to make the film

Motherless Brooklyn seeks to fashion a New York history wherein city planning occupies the same space as water in Chinatown. It’s a subject that’s close to home for Norton.

His maternal grandfather, James Rouse, was the founder of an urban planning enterprise that he named the Rouse Company and cofounder of the real-estate corporation Enterprise Community Partners. Norton has served as a member of the board of trustees of the latter corporation, a nonprofit developer of affordable housing. Baldwin’s character is partially named and modelled on Robert Moses, the “master builder” of mid-20th century New York City, whose ideological scuffles with the urban activist Jane Jacobs were related in the 2016 documentary Citizen Jane.

“I always say that Moses was like Anakin Skywalker,” says Norton. “There was a time before he became Darth Vader. That’s what makes him an incredibly compelling figure. You’ll see dimensions of him in this film, but there are aspects of the story that are drawn from other dark figures. There’s a scene in which he himself addresses his own authoritarianism. He talks about taking the long view and doing what needs to be done to make the world over in a positive way. He tries to rationalise what he’s doing.

“But you can’t rationalise what was done to New York. Penn Station was to New York what Gare du Nord was to Paris, and they took it down for no reason. Middle-class black neighbourhoods got torn down to build projects. They literally baked racism into the infrastructure of the city.”

Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Edward Norton in Motherless Brooklyn (2019) ? 2019 - Warner Bros. Pictures
Motherless Brooklyn: Edward Norton with his costar Gugu Mbatha-Raw

It’s also a big showcase for Norton, whose acting skills have been sorely missed of late. His most recent films are often animated – Sausage Party, Isle of Dogs, Alita: Battle Angel – and none of them could be mistaken for heavy lifting.

“I watched some very good and not very well known documentaries about people with Tourette’s which were both delightful and painful,” says the actor. “I’ve known some people with Tourette’s; most people know someone with Tourette’s but they don’t realise it, because they have very mild symptoms, twitches or people who squeeze their eyes very hard compulsively.

“I think that’s amazing and wonderful about it; every individual is affected differently. Some people don’t have the component of shouting; some people don’t have obsessive-compulsive disorder on top of it. We showed the film to the Tourette’s Association [of America] and they loved it. My favourite thing that I’ve read about the film is that at the Tourette’s Association screening, the character’s twitching was making people in the audience twitch.”

Motherless Brooklyn is released on Friday, December 6th