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In ‘Motherless Brooklyn,’ Edward Norton Takes on Timeless Power Struggles

In Edward Norton’s “Motherless Brooklyn,” the ‘50s-set New York noir detective story he produced, directed, wrote and stars in, politics are never far from the surface. But they’re not the obvious parallels to any racist autocrats from New York of modern times, but instead focus on more timeless politics – the way disabled people and minorities are marginalized by powerful, monied interests.

Norton, at Poland’s 27th EnergaCamerimage cinematography festival to accept the Krzysztof Kieslowski prize, says these elements seemed deeply in tune with the period of the film, which he changed from Jonathan Lethem’s novel, set in modern times.

So the plot that your character, Lionel Essrog, uncovers in the film while battling his own Tourette-like syndrome, was this inspired by some of the work you do with non-profits in affordable housing?
In the plot in the book, the crime had to do with the Yakuza and the sea urchin markets and these things. Jonathan said to me once, ‘I wrote a B-plus plot for an A-plus character.’ He’s the first to say it’s kind of like a Rube Goldberg machine, an excuse to see Lionel work his way through the world. It’s like the way “The Usual Suspects” isn’t “about anything.”

But you’re quite religious about authenticity in details about the city as a noir landscape.
Lethem grew up in Brooklyn and he’s a real student of not only New York and Brooklyn and noir and his book has what I would call kind of a meta-noir surrealism. The characters feel a little bit out of time. They call Lionel “freakshow”. They’re hardboiled in a Chandler kind of way and I told him, “I’m a little worried that in film that would feel like ‘The Blues Brothers.’” I kind of think we’re better served with going with the aesthetic of the book and a different time.

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Did you want “Motherless Brooklyn” to be more relevant than just an enjoyable detective story?
I think that the best of the films of that era, they’ve got something to say about what’s really going on in the country. Like “Chinatown” obviously, “L.A. Confidential,” like the lie under the narrative. And I feel like if we go to the fifties there’s certainly a deep, dark secret about New York City in the modern age. Even with the Ken Burns’ brother Ric Burns’ documentary (“New York: A Documentary Film”) the percentage of people who understand the Shining City on the Hill, the melting pot, the Big Apple, is run like an authoritarian fiefdom by a racist is very few.

The forces of money and exclusion in New York have deep roots. Was this also something that interested you in adapting the book?
Yes, [New York public official] Robert Moses was a genius – but an absolute Darth Vader, a Jedi knight gone dark, who broke people’s lives with spite and intention. There’s nothing admirable about that guy. The heart of the book is not plot. The heart of the book is empathy and that character. Identification with things we relate to even though we don’t have that heightened condition.

And Lionel’s character with his ticks and outburst – did you think that might be a challenge for audiences to relate to?
It’s isolation, it’s the argument inside your own brain. Like everyone reads that book and laughs because you argue with your own brain all the time. Everybody has these inner voices doing absolutely bizarre things. He’s made this character where it all manifests literally. I think the whole thing with Lionel is you’re going, “I’m three synapses twisted the wrong way and I’m the same way.”

Every person on a daily basis is at war with the voices in their head, whether it’s like “Don’t eat that steak.” “I want that f–king steak.” I mean down to that. And that idea of the anarchist. I think there’s not a single person who doesn’t go in their head this is the kind of anarchist who is always trying to trip me up.

The scene in Penn Station, which you had to create digitally since it was torn down in 1963, has an almost religious quality. Why did you set the big reveal there?
I think the thing about empathy for a character is more about looking at those things from a visceral point of view. Whether you truly understand what Penn Station was for New York as a loss – it’s like having Notre Dame torn down – there’s a visceral experience seen in a space that has a transcendent quality and for those who do understand it, it’s like seeing a ghost.

Alec Baldwin’s character, Moses Randolph, who riffs on the real Robert Moses, the powerful developer of the 1950s, is a force of nature.
We can read about a thing but when you have the idea in people like Trump, this unapologetic quality, what the actual psychology is, “There’s not a person in the world who can tell me I can’t do what I want to do.” What makes a person think they’re going to get over on this? If you can see the person, the way Alec Baldwin’s Moses Randolph character says, “Do you want to know how it works? This is how it f–king works.”

What was the battle with your own brain while acting Lionel’s character and also directing yourself? Were you in conflict sometimes?
It’s more analytical than that. On an analytical, dramaturgical level I know what I’m trying to achieve. It’s like saying “Would the oboe argue with the guy playing it?” I’m using myself to get at something I know I want to get. My conversations with myself, that’s very efficient. I can do it and easily know, “Did that get me what I want?”

It’s actually freeing. Because sometimes as an actor when you’re not directing it, sometimes you feel a certain sense of “I want to keep control over my own instincts. So maybe I don’t want to give him one take that’s redlining because maybe that’s the one he’ll use.” But here I can just give myself one that’s real low, one that’s in the middle and one that’s redlining and I’ll go, “I’ll figure it out later.” There’s no inhibition, no protectiveness.

You’ve said you were concerned that your quick changes from director to actor might throw the rest of the cast off. How did you manage that?
I think the schizophrenia that’s more challenging is the impact on other actors. We kind of use each other to keep up this pup tent of pretend. And if one of us is breaking out of it and then coming back in and being the analytical force, you mess with the little bit of weird magic that actors try to sustain for each other. But honestly the hedge against it is just really great actors that you have a shorthand with. Gugu Mbatha-Raw (love interest Laura Rose) was the only person in the cast sort of new to me. All the way down the cast, these are people I’ve known for years and years. I couldn’t really have what I would call preciousness.

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