That was a back-door way, he admits, of letting him know he was also abandoning Lethem’s frothy plot, which involved sea urchins, Buddhist monks and Yakuza who somehow end up in Brooklyn. “I told him I had always wanted to do something about the moment of New York’s deepest modern crime, which was the destruction of the old city for reasons that were not what they were said to be and the way that racism was baked into the city’s infrastructure.” His villain would be a real-estate tycoon remaking New York in his own predatory image, based on an infamous mid-century power broker called Robert Moses. Lethem, whose appreciation of film is such that he is a guest curator at Telluride Film Festival, didn’t mind. “He wasn’t precious about the book,” Norton says. “He was precious about the character.” It was Essrog’s singularity that mattered.
It wasn’t a surprising choice; a concern with the fabric of the city has been hardwired into Norton from birth. His maternal grandfather, James Rouse, was a well-known town planner with high ideals about urban renewal and community; Norton grew up in Columbia, a town his grandfather designed in Maryland, where homes for different income levels were next to each other and the letterboxes were clustered sociably at the end of the street. Norton himself was an early campaigner for the preservation of the old railway line that became New York’s celebrated High Line.
“It’s funny. I can’t say I was like ‘let’s do a film about urban planning sometime’,” he says. “But I can say that era was woven into my involvement in housing issues in New York. My grandfather was famously the antithesis of the Robert Moses impulse to destroy community.”
In his day, Moses had more power than any mayor; he remade New York with public works that erased neighbourhoods, destroyed public transport networks and corralled minorities in ghettoes, deliberately designing bridges across the roads that led to beaches or white neighbourhoods to be too low for buses – transport used by the poor – to pass underneath. He had the kind of dominance Donald Trump desired in the ’80s, when he was the big noise in Manhattan real estate; in 1985, the New York Times opined that “if Mr Moses were to be born again, he’d probably return as Donald Trump”.
Norton renamed him Moses Randolph for fictional purposes – hardly an impenetrable disguise – and eventually cast Alec Baldwin, the gold standard in Trump impersonators, in the role. The parallel seems obvious now (although Baldwin does not play Randolph as Trump and Norton says they never discussed it) but for much of the time when he was working over his script, Norton wondered whether the character would even resonate with modern audiences. Barack Obama was elected president, then re-elected.
“I had this moment then of ‘oh my God, like maybe this has lost all its teeth. Maybe all of this is in the rear-view mirror. We have a black community organiser as our president and we’re in this kumbaya moment. And then four years later, it’s like oh my God, it’s almost like more germane than ever. Where there is this huge confrontation with the sexual manifestation of brute power – not even kink, but authoritarian power dynamics, people who believe that power grants you access to whatever you want and other people are just collateral.” As it turns out, he judged that 20-year gestational delay perfectly.
What seems surprising now is that, having secured the novel, Norton hadn’t set about making his Motherless Brooklyn immediately. Ed Norton is quite a singular character himself. At 50 he is strikingly and intensely focused; he talks rapidly, precisely and, as one interviewer put it, “like he’s always leaning forward”. And, by his own assessment, he is less ferociously single-minded now, with outside interests such as parenthood, surfing and founding digital start-ups, than he was when he was young and out to prove himself.
In 1999, he was in mid-surge. Having begun his career in the theatre, he came from a late start to make six notable films in three years, getting Oscar nominations for two of them (legal thriller Primal Fear, in which he played opposite Richard Gere; and American History X, directed by Tony Kaye, about a neo-Nazi). The last of that initial half-dozen was David Fincher’s enduring cult classic Fight Club, to which he brought a memorably highly strung energy. And he was still only 30, but with a veteran’s clout.
He also, rather less fortunately, had a reputation for being difficult and demanding. That reputation is baked on hard; people routinely ask about it. Equally routinely, he dismisses the stories of behind-the-scenes conflict with directors, other actors and studios as tabloid or social media exaggeration. Inevitably, he will say, there is push and jostle between creative artists focused on producing the best possible work. “Picking fights between other people for clickbait is grotesque,” he recently scolded a reporter from the New York Times who dared raise the subject. “I’m not being hyperbolic. It’s part of what’s problematic in our country.”
But Norton has always held out against control. Motherless Brooklyn is the second film in which he directs himself – the first was Keeping the Faith (2000), a romcom with Ben Stiller as Norton’s rival for Jenna Elfman – which he says made it possible to experiment with his performance in a way he would not have risked with somebody else ultimately able to choose which shots to use.
“I knew I was giving myself the raw material to sculpt,” he told Script magazine. “Which was freeing, because no matter how much you trust a director, you run the risk of self-editing your performance to prevent takes that might not hit the right notes. But directing this film, where I was in control, removed that component from the equation.”
Perhaps this is what he’s always wanted. “I say to young actors now, if you’re not willing to also be a writer and a director and a producer, you’re f—ed,” is how he put it in 2003. “Take as much control over your own destiny as you possibly can — otherwise you’re just a pawn in someone else’s game.” That is one spin on the idea of being directed. “He’s a daunting proposition, because you’re taking on a collaborator,” said David Fincher. And Fincher, whom Norton rates highly, is nobody’s pushover.
These collaborations have often taken the form of script rewrites which, even when invited, have not always ended happily. Norton’s most famous spat was with Marvel Studios, where he rewrote The Incredible Hulk for what was supposed to be the first film in a long-term residency in the Marvel Comic Universe. When the dust settled, Marvel supremo Kevin Feige announced he would be replaced with an actor “who embodies the creativity and collaborative spirit of our other talented cast members”. The role of the Hulk, aka Bruce Banner, subsequently went to Norton’s friend Mark Ruffalo.
It was a vicious thing to say, especially to the public at large, but Norton says there are no hard feelings, that Feige is a commercial genius and that anyway, he could never have pulled off Motherless Brooklyn if he had been committed to being an Avenger. “No way. Nor Birdman. Nor Grand Budapest Hotel. None of it,” he told The Telegraph. “There’s no way you could service that franchise and also give this the kind of focus it takes.” Birdman, in which he plays a narcissistic stage actor constantly trying to take over the play in which he is appearing – which was sporting, given how the role mirrored the stories told about him – brought his third Oscar nomination.
It is also a demonstrable fact that Norton has forged some excellent working alliances and friendships over the years that proved valuable when he came to make his passion project. The heavyweight cast in Motherless Brooklyn – including Baldwin, Willis, Willem Dafoe, Bobby Cannavale, Cherry Jones and Gugu Mbatha-Raw – draws on his New York theatre circle. His friend Thom Yorke of Radiohead wrote a suitably melancholic title song. Dick Pope, Mike Leigh’s regular cinematographer, says he came on board because he had so enjoyed working with Norton on The Illusionist in 2006.
Daniel Pemberton, who wrote the score, says Norton would spend days at his house while he was writing, feeding him ideas. “He was very good at giving me freedom to do what I thought was good but, at the same time, giving me solid direction,” he says. Part of the story revolves around a jazz bar, where the live performers are led by trumpet virtuoso Wynton Marsalis, but Norton wanted an unpredictable soundscape that would bond electronic atmospherics to the diegetic jazz trumpet and Yorke’s plaintive piano. “It’s great when you’re working with people who really respect what you can bring to the collaboration. They’re the people who get the best out of you. And I really think Edward got the best out of me.”
Whether we have the best of Edward Norton is the subject of critical debate; responses to the film in the United States were respectful but not rapturous and no major awards came its way. A frequent complaint was that it was confusing; too many plot strands and machinations at City Hall remained foggily unexplained. But that is the essence of film noir, says Norton. “I would say convolution and getting lost in the murk is almost an inherent part of the comment,” he told Vice magazine. “It’s very, very hard to know what’s going on in the shadows, because people who are doing bad things mask it.”
Which makes it the genre for troubled times. “To me it’s not coincidental that Chinatown, which says on an epic level that the American dream – the California that is advertised – is built on a crime, was made just as the Vietnam War was ending. It’s like this moment where people are going ‘Jesus, are we at all who we say we are?’” The detective become an everyman, the ordinary schmo who finally gets off his bar stool to find out what’s really going on. “At its best, film noir is this kind of American impulse to say ‘hey, we’re going to pull the corner back; there’s a dark shadow underneath’. That’s a healthy impulse, especially at certain moments. And now is good.”
Motherless Brooklyn opens on February 27.
Stephanie Bunbury is a film and culture writer for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.