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Edward Norton talks ‘Motherless Brooklyn,’ filmmaking and Robert Moses | Interview

October 18, 2019 Peter Stamelman
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Edward Norton’s name on a film is like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval: a guarantee of substance and quality.

In films as varied as “Birdman,” “Fight Club,” “25th Hour” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” he has made singular and memorable contributions that have earned him multiple Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations.

In his latest film, “Motherless Brooklyn,” Norton has assumed the mantles of writer, director, producer and star. It’s a pleasure to report he pulls this feat off with flying colors.

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The film is a gripping, free-wheeling adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel about Lionel Essrog, a Brooklyn-based private detective. Armed only with his wits and his obsessive mind, Essrog sets off from his Henry Street office on a quest to unravel the murder of his best friend — a quest made all the more challenging because he has Tourette Syndrome. In the process, he ends up exposing the urban schemes of New York’s foremost power broker: Moses Randolph, a thinly disguised stand-in for real-life master builder Robert Moses.

Norton has assembled a remarkable supporting cast: Bruce Willis, Alec Baldwin, Willem Dafoe, Bobby Cannavale, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Leslie Mann and Cherry Jones, all of them at the top of their respective games.

Left to right: Alec Baldwin as Moses Randolph and Edward Norton as Lionel Essrog in Warner Bros. Pictures’ drama “Motherless Brooklyn,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

Filmmaking is not Norton’s only pursuit. He sits on the board of trustees for Enterprise Community Partners, an organization for developing affordable housing founded by his grandfather, famed real estate developer James Rouse. He was an early investor in Uber and now sits on the boards of several tech start-ups.

“Motherless Brooklyn” was the closing night film of the New York Film Festival — and with its Nov. 1 release date fast approaching, the Brooklyn Eagle sat down with Norton to discuss the film, its lineage and reference points, and his approach to the craft of filmmaking.

The below conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Brooklyn Eagle: What appealed to you about the book? Did you know as soon as you’d read it that you wanted to film it?

Edward Norton: I knew I wanted to play the character. The book put a real hook in my head — the greedy actor, not the high-minded director with grand ambitions. Lionel is a great character; from page 1 it’s a terrific emotional roller-coaster ride. You’re inside his head, from the outside you’re watching his wild condition trip him up. He’s smart, but he’s lonely, it’s funny but it’s also poignant.

On top of that he goes somewhere…he starts off in the shadow of his best friend, then he sort of steps into the shoes of this mentor and grows. That, too, was very appealing. Those things are, in a fundamental sense, what makes stories function well, if people can see themselves in the characters. I don’t mean they have to have Tourette Syndrome, but if they see loneliness or they see a person misunderstood it triggers the empathy.

I think, in particular, underdogs pull out of audiences the “better angels” of their nature. They align with [the characters], and in aligning with them they remember that it’s a good way to be. That it’s better to root for Forrest Gump than to be unkind. And I don’t think that’s a small thing; it has a salutary effect, it reminds people that they ought to be that way.

Eagle: When did you know you wanted to direct the film?

Norton: That was later. And I had the encouragement of Toby Emmerich at Warner Brothers. He’s a real mensch and a real New Yorker. He said, “These kinds of projects aren’t easy to get financed these days if you want to do it the old-fashioned way — in other words, to make a theatrical film and release it in theaters. But Warner Brothers made ‘L.A. Confidential,’ ‘Argo,’ we make Clint Eastwood’s movies — we do these things here and we want to keep doing them.” Especially after 2016, he encouraged me to make the film and to keep my vision of it intact.

Left to riht: Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Laura Rose and Edward Norton as Lionel Essrog in Warner Bros. Pictures’ drama “Motherless Brooklyn,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

Eagle: How were you able to assemble such a remarkable cast?

Norton: [Laughs.] Debts I’ll be paying off for years! When you see me in appearing in something and go, “Why is he in that?” You’ll know, “Oh he’s paying off the ‘Motherless Brooklyn’ debt.”

No, seriously, it was the result of long relationships, hopefully a good script. I am in debt to this cast, because I did not have $200 million from Netflix, yet I wanted to make a big, period, New York American epic. But I had to do it for $26 million. And the only way I could do that was if my whole cast worked for scale, which they did. Nobody did it for the money. Starting with Bruce [Willis]. He was the first one, he said, “I’ve always wanted to work with you, tell me where and when,” and then I got Willem [Dafoe], Alec [Baldwin], Bobby [Cannavale].

It’s hard to overstate what a big deal that is, because if I didn’t have the cast on board when you’re doing a film for $26 million it can’t be done, it breaks the bank.

Eagle: Your production design is also remarkable. For example, where did you find your uncanny stand-in for Penn Station?

Norton: The only things that are real are the lockers and the benches. Everything else is CGI. Now when I say CGI, I don’t mean a fantasyland, but now you can actually get the original architectural plans and put them into software for modeling and build off of that, it’s a very different thing. You’re not synthesizing, you’re recreating in enormous detail.

In fact, another production designer came up to me after a screening and said “Did you go to Budapest for your Penn Station?” And I said, “No, Long Island.” And this was a production designer who knows where the great old railroad stations are. The fact that he didn’t realize that it was CGI was a great compliment.

Eagle: The housing project that you call “Hamilton Housing” in the film actually refers to Fort Greene, correct?

Norton: Yes. Most non-New Yorkers will think it’s Harlem, but actually it was Fort Greene, the Pratt housing project [the Lafayette Houses]. And Cherry Jones is playing Hortense Gabel, who was the real-life woman in the ’50s who fought against Title 1 housing moves in Brooklyn, when Robert Moses used federal slum clearance money to raze and build some of the worst public housing.

People don’t realize the degree to which the modern projects, especially in Brooklyn, were built on the bones of very stable, middle-class minority communities. Because when the federal money came in, Robert Moses wasn’t not going to spend that money because controlling that money was the source of his power. That’s what the scandal in the film refers to. The trade unions, construction, they ran the city, because they were the pipeline through which the federal money flowed.

Moses looked around and said, “Who’s got no political power,” and it was the minority neighborhoods. It sounds like conspiracy theorizing, but it wasn’t. In fact, the New York Post, as is depicted in the film, broke the story and a reporter named Gene Gleason won the Pulitzer Prize for his expose.

Triborough Authority officers were awarding these development contracts and instead of actually developing the neighborhoods they ground them down. Very much like Jared Kushner’s enterprise in Baltimore. And it turned out that Triborough Authority officials had ownership stake in the companies tearing down the housing. Not Moses himself but it was the first real stain on his reputation.

Left to right: Edward Norton as Lionel Essrog and Willem Dafoe as Paul in Warner Bros. Pictures’ drama “Motherless Brooklyn,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

Eagle: Did this material have a special resonance for you because of your own social activism and because your grandfather, James Rouse, was so instrumental in carefully and respectfully developing urban communities?

Norton: Yes, in fact, there are things that Willem [Dafoe] says that I actually took from speeches that my grandfather made.

My first job in New York after college was working in my grandfather’s affordable housing office. I interviewed prospective tenants. It was in that job that I realized that the face of homelessness in New York is usually a schizophrenic guy sitting on cardboard over a grating — but actually, the majority of homeless people have had a single paycheck dislocation and they can’t pay their rent.

When I worked in that world, the human reality became much clearer to me. I’ve always been interested in how New York’s structural problems are the result of a single person: Robert Moses. It’s staggering.

Eagle: There’s a great line in the film: “Those who can, build. Those who can’t, criticize.” It sounds like something Robert Moses himself would have said. Is it?

Norton: I think that is a paraphrase of someone else. There’s a little bit of Teddy Roosevelt, who himself was a fairly forceful New Yorker. One of Teddy Roosevelt’s famous lines was “It’s not the critic who counts, it’s the man in the arena.” In fact, that line is emblazoned on one of the walls at the Museum of Natural History. Remember that, the four big Roosevelt quotes.

Alec Baldwin’s character is an amalgam of, obviously, forceful people, but obviously Moses was the central inspiration. In the same way that Charles Foster Kane is, and is not, William Randolph Hearst…

Eagle: Or Hollis Mulwray [in “Chinatown”] is, and is not, William Mulholland.

Norton: Right. It’s better that way.

Take one of the great novels about America “All the King’s Men:” Willy Stark is, and is not, Huey Long. It’s better that way. The benefit is that you can create and mash-up and distill essential truths without getting mired in the actual truth.

I don’t like books or films that play fast and loose with the historical truth. I think it’s much better to approach it in a literary fashion. It gives you more latitude.

Peter Stamelman writes frequently about film, theater, dance, books and the visual arts.

Correction (Nov. 4): A previous version of this article misspelt Hollis Mulwray. The Eagle regrets the error.

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