Edward Norton has been in the spotlight for so long now it's almost hard to remember a time when the three-time Oscar nominee wasn't amongst the most accomplished working actors we have today.
A star making debut in 1997's "Primal Fear" opposite Richard Gere led to high profile projects including "Fight Club," "American History X," "Rounders" and "The People vs. Larry Flynt." His most recent Oscar nomination came in 2015 for "Birdman." Now Norton is puling quadruple duty as writer, producer, director and star of a passion project two decades in the making, "Motherless Brooklyn."
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Starring Bruce Willis, Alec Baldwin, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Bobby Cannavale, Cherry Jones and Michael Kenneth Williams, "Motherless Brooklyn" tells the story of Lionel Essrog, a lonely private detective with Tourette Syndrome venturing to solve the murder of his mentor and only friend while contending with thugs, corruption and New York power brokers of the 1950s.
Norton spoke with NBC Digital about finally getting the project underway, his near two decade stretch between directing gigs and why the original novel made such an impact on him 20 years ago.
You first read the novel Motherless Brooklyn nearly 20 years ago. Why did it stick with you all these years?
The character was just unforgettable. The author... Jonathan Lethem... he pulled off the kind of trick that everybody in music and literature and film wants to accomplish in that he creates within the matter of a few sentences a really strong sense of emotional connection. By the end of page one you're feeling empathy, amusement, amazement. It's a singular achievement in terms of getting you completely hooked on a character within an initial introduction. It actually reminded me in some ways the first time you read Catcher in the Rye and you meet Holden Caulfield
How often do you get an immediate spark like that from material?
Those sort of unforgettable introductions to a character are rare. It's rare that you identify or relate or that a character is so singular or so memorable. Honestly, as a greedy actor, I just thought that this would be such a good part. I didn't really even think of the big ambitions that we ended up expanding into in this film. I just thought this would be a really neat character.
Why did it take so long to get the project off the ground?
Honestly, for a few years I was very busy. I was directing another film. I was acting in films. And I knew I didn't have time to get to it. But the character was sort of rattling around in my head and I was kind of gestating on how can I make this into a movie. It's a great character, but how does it become cinematic? It was only a number of years down the road that I got serious about adapting it.
What were some of the challenges adapting the source material into a workable screenplay?
I started to confront that to make it more cinematic you needed to go wider. And I started talking to the author about the idea of maybe setting it in the fifties and he loved that idea, because the book has a very fifties style to it. Once we aesthetically decided to make it an old fashioned kind of a movie it opened up a gateway to broaden on the plot itself.
How did you manage to juggle the multiple responsibilities of writer, producer, director and star in the film?
In a way if you want something to happen you sometimes have to make it happen yourself. The world wasn't falling all over itself to help me make a big epic fifties film with a Tourettic detective. You have to will something like that into being because it doesn't fit a formula. In terms of the rest it's stages because you're not doing all of them at the same time. You work as a writer and get it to a certain place. You work as a producer to actually build it to a point that actually lets you get it done in terms of casting and financing. The main overlap that's tricky is acting and directing.
What did you find tricky about that?
What suffers the most is the quality of your interaction as an actor with the other actors, because you're an actor who's focused... but constantly being distracted. Actors use each other to sustain the concentration... to sustain the investment in that bubble of imagination... and when one of you is sort of breaking out it all the time you're the one doing damage to the little imagination game that actors play with each other.
How did this cast come together? Alec Baldwin, Bruce Willis, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Cherry Jones, Willem Dafoe. That's a lot of heavy hitters.
I called in every favor with my friends and cast actors I have deep relationships with who are mostly theater actors. Many of the best actors in the world who I knew really wouldn't need a lot from me... who would actually help me as an actor drop back into focus and they did. Apart from Willem and Alec and Bruce agreeing to do the movie practically for scale they literally helping me get the movie made... they were literally my rock.
Obviously your character's Tourette Syndrome factors heavily into his makeup. How did you go about preparing for that aspect of the role?
Its a fairly well researched condition. There are multiple documentaries and it's not hard to access meeting people with the condition. I actually knew one or two people with relatively mild expressions of it. So that wasn't some great mystery. The creative challenge was two-fold. Because it's such an individualistic condition it expresses itself in totally different ways in each person. So creating that spectrum for him was like sculpting my own incarnation of it. The bigger challenge was to not just create a character who exists only to show you they live with a condition. You're trying to have the condition become a feature of who they are, but not the totality of their complex humanity.
This is only your 2nd time in the director's chair the first being 19 years ago with "Keeping the Faith." Why so long between directing projects and will you do it again sooner rather than later.
I didn't intend for it to be that long, but I'm lucky I have a day job as an actor and I kept getting things put in front of me that are pretty good. It's hard to say I'm not going to do "Birdman" because I'm trying to direct my own film. So just like that, half a year goes away. But I'd love to do it again sooner rather than later. I could have never made this film 20 years ago. I actually had less money and less time to make this than I did on "Keeping the Faith," which sound crazy given the scope of this. But pulling this off was enormously affected by working with directors like Spike Lee, Wes Anderson and Alejandro G. Inarritu... very ambitious directors. Spike made "The 25th Hour" in 26 days. It was the shortest production schedule of any film I've ever worked on.
What did you learn from that experience with Spike?
Spike's rigor as a director. His rigor on preparation and planning. The way he executes when he's shooting. It was like a master class for me in how to do more with less. Wes is the same way. Alejandro is the same way. My capacity to do something thing like that was transformed in the time between the two films I've made. Phillip Hoffman and I... when we did "25th Hour"... we were talking about "Do the Right Thing" and how much that film reset the bar for a lot of us. It changed what your aspirations were in terms of what you could do with a film. It's easy to reference things like Warren Beatty doing "Reds" or Kevin Costner doing "Dances With Wolves," but for me "Do the Right Thing" was that film that really made me go 'This is what real authorship means' and you can take big bold swings and you don't have to have $100 million to do them. Spike is the great social filmmaker of our time.
"Motherless Brooklyn" hits theaters on Nov 1.