Fresh off a third Oscar nomination and a healthy haul of critics’ gongs for Alejandro G. Inarritu’s “Birdman,” Edward Norton isn’t so prize-hungry as to covet career honors like the Excellence Award presented to him Wednesday night at the Locarno Film Festival. “I tend to look at these things just as very nice compliments,” he says, his tone almost diffident, before passing the credit back to the festival itself, now in its 68th edition. “In its first year, Locarno showed Rossellini’s ‘Rome, Open City,’ and that’s still such a radical film. It’s flattering to be connected to that tradition of hosting and promoting cinema, even in a small way.”
Mike Shiner, the brilliant egomaniac thespian Norton played in Inarritu’s film, mightn’t have been so magnanimous. If there was a purported hint of self-parody to the performance, Norton’s persona — onscreen or off — has never been easy pin down: He’s equally persuasive playing put-upon milquetoasts and swaggering alpha males. The selection of films Locarno has chosen for its accompanying Norton tribute — David Fincher’s “Fight Club,” Spike Lee’s “25th Hour” and John Curran’s “The Painted Veil” — certainly doesn’t narrow things down.
“If they had ‘Death to Smoochy’ in there, I would think it’s equally worthy of inclusion,” he laughs. “If people tell me that they’ve seen a thread running through my films, it certainly doesn’t mean that I’ve seen or constructed it, but I love that they found it.”
Often laconic on the subject of his own work, Norton prefers to let the films speak for themselves, and for viewers to follow suit. He will gladly digest fans’ varying interpretations of “Birdman’s” cryptic ending, for example: “We live in a world where the conversation about films as broad commercial entertainment is so pervasive, any kind of evidence that people are independently interpreting your films, and not just passively receiving them, is a signal of success to me.”
Having played a pre-”Avengers” Bruce Banner in 2008’s “The Incredible Hulk,” Norton himself isn’t deaf to that aforementioned conversation, though independents are where his heart lies. When asked which of his films he wishes more people would see, he cites a pair of under-distributed titles from 2010: Tim Blake Nelson’s “Leaves of Grass” and another John Curran collaboration, “Stone.”
Still, he’s optimistic that new technology will serve them well: “The way films are disseminated is changing, and that’s a powerful thing,” he says. “If someone watches ’25th Hour’ on Netflix, ‘Stone’ pops up as a recommendation. It’s sort of like the film societies we had in college. That gives me faith to just do the work, and not look at the burden of how it initially performs.”
Norton is also joining the ranks of Hollywood talent embracing the possibilities of the small screen: He is acting as a producer and writer on HBO’s upcoming miniseries “Lewis and Clark,” a large-scale portrait of the 19th-century American explorers. Curran is among the directors, while Brad Pitt is a fellow producer; he and Norton began discussing the project while shooting “Fight Club” 16 years ago.
“Back then, we both agreed it was impossible to contain that story within a film, and that was when HBO was starting to make the likes of ‘Band of Brothers,’ so it was clearly the way to go,” he reflects. “I have zero prejudice about the form of delivery these days. It’s purely about how I respond to the material.”
By way of example, he cites a pair of projects he’s developing with Emmy-winning director Cary Fukunaga (“True Detective,” “Beasts of No Nation”) — one for film, one for TV. On the latter, his lips are sealed; the former is a “big, epic” adaptation of Mark Helprin’s 1991 bestseller “A Soldier of the Great War,” an 800-page First World War saga to which Norton himself secured the rights.
Meanwhile, Norton’s eyeing his first return to the director’s chair since making his feature helming debut with 2000’s Stuart Blumberg-scripted romantic comedy “Keeping the Faith.” The lengthy wait for a follow-up was by no means intentional. “I enjoyed directing enormously,” he says, “but if I was going to embrace that fairly consuming commitment again, I wanted it to be something that I’d written. So it’s taken a while to have something in place that I’m content with.”
Is it in place now? “Maybe this winter,” he replies. “Putting a film together is always a multidimensional financial puzzle. But it’s a dynamic time right now. People are going to keep pushing.”