With the release of Motherless Brooklyn this week, Edward Norton will finally see the realization of a project he’s been trying to make happen most of his career. After an auspicious start with an Oscar nomination for his first film role in the mystery drama Primal Fear, and a second nod to follow two years later with American History X, Norton hatched a plan to write, direct, and star in an adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s then-new novel—a literary mystery narrated by one Lionel Essrog, a Tourette’s Syndrome sufferer trying to solve the murder of his mentor.
But the project hit various delays, and Norton’s career continued to flourish: He spent the next couple of decades acting in movies from heavyweights like Spike Lee, Ridley Scott, Alejandro Iñárritu, and Wes Anderson, with whom Norton has collaborated three times.
On Friday, his long-gestating Motherless Brooklyn at last arrives. In addition to writing and directing, Norton plays the lead role of Lionel, with support from a blue-chip cast that includes Bruce Willis, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin, Willem Dafoe, Leslie Mann, Cherry Jones, and Bobby Cannavale.
But Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn is an atypical adaptation: While the novel was set in the present day, Norton has—with Lethem’s blessing—moved the story back in time to the mid-1950s and thrown out most of Lethem’s plot. In its place he has woven a new mystery steeped in real-life New York City history, and featuring Baldwin as malefactor “Moses Randolph”—a character based on the land developer Robert Moses, the divisive “master builder” who acquired vast power over public funds in New York and massive influence over the city’s infrastructure—at one point he held 12 public offices simultaneously, despite having never won a single election.
Moses was known to be merciless in his zeal for urban renewal, and particularly for his privileging of private motor vehicles over public transit, blasting away residential neighborhoods to make way for highways, tunnels, and bridges that betrayed not the faintest echo of the structures and neighborhoods that they replaced. Robert Caro’s mammoth 1974 biography of Moses, The Power Broker, presented a damning case indicating a segregationist motive to many of Moses’s decisions. His disdain for public transit also doubtless contributed to the razing of Penn Station in 1963—a loss that led directly to the enactment of New York’s Landmarks Preservation Law less than two years later.
Norton’s creation of a Moses stand-in provides an interesting wrinkle made more intriguing by the fact Norton is the grandson of James Rouse, an urban planner who argued that housing should be affordable to all and that communities should be shaped by humanistic impulses rather than purely economic ones. Rouse founded Columbia, Maryland—a planned community outside of Baltimore—in the mid-1960s as a sort of model of his theories of urban development. His grandfather died in 1996, but Norton has remained involved in the issue of affordable housing, and is a lifetime member of the board of trustees of Enterprise Community Partners, the nonprofit Rouse established to expand access to housing for low-income Americans.
Norton spoke with Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. about his unconventional approach to adapting Motherless Brooklyn. This transcript has been edited for clarity.
I can’t think of another literary adaptation of a novel like this one, where you have taken the character from the book but changed the time period, and then dropped in a character who is a pretty unmistakable analog of a major historical figure.
My feeling is that if the book if a book has an author who's alive, you have to work respectfully with them and get their blessing. Chuck Palahniuk was wildly enthusiastic about what Fincher wanted to do with Fight Club. What Jonathan [Lethem] and I discussed was how the characters live in what feels like a bubble in modern Brooklyn. They act like men from another era, in their vernacular especially. Film is more literal than a book, and the sort of meta surrealism of Jonathan’s writing — I worried that in a film, it could sort of feel like The Blues Brothers. It could feel like irony. I asked Jonathan about that, and he was very much in favor of giving a hardboiled authenticity to Lionel’s isolation. So it felt that setting [the movie in the 1950s] had a pure emotional value, because Lionel can be called “Freakshow” without any kind of modern sensibility of, “Wait, people wouldn’t be that un-PC.”
[The period] also became a gateway into looking at some of the ways that things that happened in New York in the 50s are very resonant with the political conversation we’re in right now.
The fact that the grandson of James Rouse, and someone who grew up in the planned city of Columbia, Maryland, has made a movie that’s essentially about Robert Moses will be of interest to a lot of people.
Without a doubt, my grandfather was sort of the anti-Robert Moses. He believed profoundly that communities and cities should be designed and revitalized with a focus on uplifting people. He did not prioritize what I would call an infrastructural vision over quality of life. And he knew that if cities did not take into account the stabilization of low-income people, then you would have a negative feedback loop that would lead to flight from the cities and the dessication of cities. He predicted that. He wrote about it in the ’50s, and it happened in the ’60s and ’70s. He spent most of his career as a commercial developer working on the idea of revitalizing cities and then, later, really trying to figure out the affordable housing crisis.
My grandfather met Robert Moses in the ’60s. One of my uncles told me that he came out of that meeting shaken; he said, “That’s one of the most dangerous men in America.” A lot of the things that Willem Dafoe’s character says in the movie [Dafoe plays the estranged brother to Baldwin’s character, just as the real-life Robert Moses had a brother who strongly objected to his philosophy] are literally things my grandfather used to say: “To serve people you have to love people.” He was truly a great humanist.
He also really believed, if you look at his career, that there was value to the rich history of cities. If you look at the revitalization of the Baltimore Inner Harbor, or the parts of central Boston that had been written off, you see that. He would have loved the High Line project that [Enterprise Community Partners] worked on in New York. And he decried the tearing down of Penn Station.
Which is a historic building that you have recreated in the movie.
When you’re making a movie about 1950s New York in modern New York, and you’re trying do it [on a relatively low budget], that’s difficult. But if there’s any city in the world where you can go on a treasure hunt and still find the architecture and the structures of that era, it’s New York. But you get pressure. When you make a film you have limits on your resources. People were saying to me, “Does the penultimate scene of the film have to take place somewhere that doesn’t exist anymore?” [Laughs.]
But anyone who really knows New York knows that Penn Station is the one that got away. It is the ultimate symbol of the loss of spiritual experience to the wrecking ball. As [Senator] Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “You entered New York like a titan, and now you crawl in like a rat.” It changed the way people enter the city, literally, and it was a horrible loss, an irreplaceable loss.
Evoking the ghost of that place, bringing it back and letting people see again a thing we no longer have because of forces that are many ways anti-humanist... it was worth figuring out how to do that.
Your grandfather died when you were still early in your film career, and three years before Motherless Brooklyn was published. Had you been looking for a project that would let you address the sorts of ideas to which he had devoted his life?
No, no. I don’t hunt for themes. The genesis of Motherless Brooklyn is in the character [of Lionel Essrog]. It’s from reading Jonathan’s book and having a completely greedy actor’s impulse to want to play this great character. It’s one of my favorite types of characters in film: An underdog, a Forrest Gump, a Rain Man. The kind of character you root for because watching them navigate their unique condition, which gives them limitations but strengths also, it draws out of you empathy. Even if we don’t have that condition, we understand that feeling of being misunderstood and underestimated.
When audiences root for that kind of a character, they’re ennobled, they feel elevated. So the pull was the emotional response that I had to the character. So once Jonathan and I were aligned on this notion of putting Lionel into the past, the way Philip Marlowe appeared in many different stories, we starting thinking along the lines of, “Well, what’s a noir story that would resonate right now?”
So you come to a corrupt land developer who acquires a huge amount of power and is using public resources to enrich himself —
— and wants to inject his racism into the city. Right.
Did you have any trepidation about playing a character with Tourette’s? I think it’s fair to say that the conversation about how these kinds of conditions should be depicted has changed a lot in the 30 years since Rain Man or the 25 since Forrest Gump.
I think Forrest Gump is sort of like one of Shakespeare’s fools; he actually has the wisdom. Forrest Gump is a more politically toothy film than people remember, in the sense that it’s about a person whose essential core is love, and American society is atomizing around him. It’s a more cutting social critique than people remember.
But, no. In any era, there are the traps of falling into cliche or reductivism. If you think of [the 1989 Jim Sheridan film] My Left Foot, it’s about a poet with a literally crippling disability, but what’s wonderful about that film and about [Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance as Irish poet Christy Brown] is that it does the exact opposite of putting him on some saintly pedestal. It makes him fully human, including the fact that he could be a real son-of-a-bitch sometimes. He could have a real mean streak. The film doesn’t deny him his total humanity, and as a result, it’s a really great story. Because of his insistence on doing his work and on not being viewed through the prism of his disability. I think the greatest respect you can give any character is complexity.
Motherless Brooklyn is a big step up in scope from the other feature film you directed, Keeping the Faith, almost 20 years ago. In that interim you’ve been doing films with Wes Anderson, Spike Lee, Ridley Scott. Does working with those kinds of directors help give you the tools to take on a bigger canvas?
For sure. Twenty years ago, I could never have made a film of this scale in 47 days for $25 million bucks. Of course, if I could get Netflix to give me $200 million to make a three-and-a-half-hour Jimmy Hoffa movie, I would probably enjoy that, too.
I hope Martin Scorsese isn’t the last filmmaker to get that deal.
Oh, he will be. Nobody is going to get those kinds of numbers again. It’s not realistic. My capacity to do this with limited resources is completely a function of making movies for a couple of decades and getting to see people like Spike and Wes, in particular, work, because they’re two of the most efficient filmmakers: The best prepared, the most methodical, the most astute players of the chess game of “How do I get this done?” So you pick up a lot.
But when you have limitations, so really great work can come out of that. Dick Pope is one of the great cinematographers of all time, nominated for two Academy Awards. He’s done many films with Mike Leigh, working on short schedules, improvisationally. There aren’t many who could do what he did photographically on this kind of a pace. Beth Mickle is one of the greatest production designers in the business. And Mark Russell, the visual effects supervisor, who did more with less… I mean, there are 683 visual effects shots in this film.
And they don’t look like effects shots.
Well, Netflix aside, this is the sort of film that seems endangered right now—the complicated, adult-oriented mystery with some heavy thematic elements—so I’m glad you got it through.
Well to relate this to the Smithsonian, if there was ever a great American institution rooted in the value of looking at the past to understand the present better, that to me is what the Smithsonian fundamentally has always been about. It’s difficult to have clarity about the moment you’re living through. But looking backward, at the consistency of the struggles within a society, can make the present more resonant. That’s what films can do.