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Why Edward Norton fought to deliver his new film, ‘Motherless Brooklyn’


WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Actor Edward Norton has
starred in movies such as “Everyone Says I Love You,” “Primal Fear,” “The Grand Budapest
Hotel,” and “Birdman.” But, as Jeffrey Brown discovered at the Toronto
Film Festival, his newest film, in which he both stars and directs, is his most personal
yet. This report is part of our ongoing coverage
of arts and culture, Canvas. JEFFREY BROWN: In the film, “Motherless Brooklyn”
Edward Norton plays Lionel Essrog, a small-time detective thrown into some very big doings. The story is based on the 1999 novel by Jonathan
Lethem. EDWARD NORTON, Actor/Director: I got hold
of it and was immediately grabbed by this character. The core of Jonathan’s book is much less the
plot than it is this emotional intimacy he creates between you and this character and
his incredible mind. JEFFREY BROWN: Lionel is familiar in some
ways, extraordinary in another. He has a form of Tourette’s syndrome, a kind
of verbal tic which causes him to fixate on words and yell them out, often at the most
inappropriate moments. ACTRESS: They haven’t even submitted plans,
just milked until it really is a slum. EDWARD NORTON: Slamming for the slumlords,
Bailey. Despite this being a very debilitating thing
in functioning in the world, inside his mind, it’s this constant kind of beautiful game
of almost jazz. JEFFREY BROWN: And what was that like taking
it on as an actor? EDWARD NORTON: That’s a nourishing meal as
an actor, to take on the empathy that you feel, the nuance, the beauty and the pain,
all of it. It becomes a rich challenge. JEFFREY BROWN: Norton is best known for acclaimed
performances in small, tightly wound film such as “American History X” and the cult
hit “Fight Club,” as well as the commercial blockbuster “The Incredible Hulk.” But he’s recently chosen to be very selective
in his projects. EDWARD NORTON: Working less as an actor becomes
a better and better thing, because, at a certain point, I get tired of seeing the same people
too many times myself. And I think about how people I really respect
and admire their work… JEFFREY BROWN: Who are you thinking of? EDWARD NORTON: Well, Daniel Day-Lewis or Sean
Penn. Sometimes, people say like, oh, we wish we
saw you in more. And I always say like, why? Why? Because is it — part of the reason you like
what you like is when it’s withheld from you for longer, I think. JEFFREY BROWN: In the new film, he’s done
it all, written the screenplay, starred and directed a cast of top actors. And he’s opened up Lethem’s book to set the
action against big social change in New York in the 1950s, as a character based on real
life New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, played here by Alec Baldwin, plots
and connives to carve up and shape the city. Moses, known as the master builder, never
held elected office, but wielded an autocratic clout. ALEC BALDWIN, Actor: Palaces of culture where
hellish slums used to be you. EDWARD NORTON: It all sounds pretty grand,
I guess, unless you happen to be one of the people whose house is in the way right now. I was fascinated by those things. I felt — I feel even still that many people
really don’t have a clear view of what the truth of how modern New York that we live
in now came to be what it is, in many of its dysfunctions. JEFFREY BROWN: Right, gentrification, the
loss of neighborhoods. EDWARD NORTON: When we tell our stories about
how America works to ourselves, we don’t say, these things get decided by, like, autocratic,
imperial forces who were racist and never held public office. We say, that’s not how power works in America. Power is with the people. We make these decisions. And that’s not true in modern New York. JEFFREY BROWN: Norton thinks movies, especially
the film noir style of “Motherless Brooklyn,” can offer a challenge. EDWARD NORTON: Good noir, good noir cinema
is kind of a tradition of saying, hey, under our sunny narrative, there’s stuff going on. If you peel back the corner, there’s stuff
going on in the shadows that ain’t quite everything we’re saying it is. And I like that. JEFFREY BROWN: This is clearly a passion project,
one that took Norton years to pull off. EDWARD NORTON: It’s hard to get these kinds
of movies made at the scale that I made this. JEFFREY BROWN: You mean hard in Hollywood? EDWARD NORTON: Hard. Yes, it’s hard. It’s hard. JEFFREY BROWN: Because? EDWARD NORTON: These kinds of movies aren’t
getting made so much anymore. That just means you have to sort of persevere
and figure it out. When I was coming of age, like, a movie like
“Reds” had a huge impact on me. Warren Beatty wrote, produced, directed and
starred in a three-hour-and-15-minute film about American socialists, with documentary
interviews with the real people from the time. And I remember Warren telling me that people
told him, this is going to end your career. At a certain point, you kind of go, I have
been doing this for a while. I have got the musculature. I have got — I know what I want to say, and
go — what am I waiting — why wouldn’t you do this? Why wouldn’t you try to do what people who
have inspired you have done in the past, and go for something that has scope to it and
says things that you care about? JEFFREY BROWN: The film “Motherless Brooklyn”
is now playing around the country. For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Jeffrey Brown
at the Toronto International Film Festival.

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