Let it never be said that Edward Norton lacks persistence. Exhibit A: his audacious new film, Motherless Brooklyn, an epic detective drama that’s been in the works ever since Norton first laid eyes on the Jonathan Lethem novel it's based on, nearly two decades ago.
In addition to writing, producing, and directing the film, Norton stars as quirky private eye, Lionel Essrog, whose severe Tourette syndrome relentlessly triggers cascades of socially awkward verbal tics that make for one seriously lonely existence.
On the upside, Lionel’s freewheeling mind draws connections that other gumshoes miss, which comes in handy as Lionel attempts to track down the mystery murderer behind the death of his boss and mentor, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis).
In adapting Motherless for the screen, Norton instituted curiously effective changes to the source material. He notably shifted the setting from the contemporary 1990s to the noir 1950s, giving Norton the ideal opportunity to slingshot his characters back into an era that has long fascinated him—post-World War II New York City urban expansion. During this growth explosion, poor neighborhoods were systemically razed to make way for roads, bridges, and cultural centers far too expensive for the displaced residents to enjoy.
“Every great city is built on crooked dealings, racist biases, and exertion of authoritarian power that seems to thwart democratic principles,” says Norton, who conducted exhaustive research to ensure the context of his fictional creation was historically accurate.
Within this canvas emerged a kaleidoscope of supporting characters, led by Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a ravishing housing activist directly affected by gentrification, who becomes Lionel’s unexpected ally and love interest. Corrupt real estate magnate, Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin), Randolph’s disapproving brother, Paul (Willem Dafoe), and bombastic community organizer, Gabby Horowitz (Cherry Jones), round out the top-notch cast.
Norton sat with Script magazine to discuss this ambitious passion project.
Editor's note: This interview was edited for content and clarity.
What was your point of entry in adapting Jonathan Lethem’s novel?
My point of entry was to transpose, as effectively as possible, the terrific emotional hook of the book, where you’re inside the character’s head, and then you’re outside, letting you see his unique condition trip him up and cause him all kinds of hilarious and poignant problems.
What major themes from the book were jettisoned?
Every adaptation has things you have to leave behind or springboard off of, in service of creating a cinematic idea that embodies the essential values of the book. But none of this is possible without the gifts that great authors give you. And in this case, the main gift of the book is the immediate, page-one affinity you feel for Lionel. Being inside his mind is special because his mind is strange. To me, that was the spine of the whole story.
During the adaptation process, did you periodically float ideas by Jonathan, or did you work autonomously, then present him with a finished script?
Well, Jonathan is fairly unique. For one thing, he’s a real deep, deep cinephile. Like, he guest curates the Telluride Film Festival. He knows his movies, and he holds a strong opinion that the most successful adaptations are ones that substantially depart from the source material, so, fortunately, he was pre-inclined to support my departure. But he also grew up in Brooklyn, so this idea of the character he created becoming a guide into the shadow narrative of how the Brooklyn he intimately knows was reshaped, was red meat to him.
We also talked about how the author, Raymond Chandler, wrote multiple novels with the Philip Marlowe character as his protagonist, and Jonathan liked the idea of Lionel going off into another detective adventure. But the short answer is that I pretty much worked on this on my own, from the time he gave me his blessing. I didn’t send him any early drafts, because I was so far from being able to realize the movie. I think Jonathan thought this project was just conceptual, until he came to the set and saw the detective agency and the actors dressed in character. He was pretty delighted.
Lionel’s verbal outbursts seemed very real. In playing him, how exacting were you in uttering every syllable and every stutter that was written on the page? And did you shoot vast and varied takes where you were more subdued, then more unhinged, to give yourself editing choices in post-production?
Answering the second part of your question first: Yes, I definitely changed it up, because one of the principal advantages of directing the film is that it liberated me as an actor to experiment, without a voice in my head worrying that someone would use a take that was out of joint. I knew I was giving myself the raw material to sculpt, because I was confident that the right calibration was somewhere among the takes we shot, 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.
To answer the first part of your question, Lionel’s condition and the vocal expressions that sprang from it, were definitely a blend of me saying the words written on the page and improvisation. Because I felt that within the condition, his seemingly spasmodic and uncontrolled verbiage had the potential to convey things that were very revealing. The line: “I’ve got threads in my head!” is very Tourettic because of the rhyming wordplay of “threads” and “head,” coupled with the fact that he’s literally pulling on a thread, which is very much how that condition often works. So, that line was written to show this idea that he’s compulsively pulling on something he should leave alone, that’s unraveling. But then you get into scenes where you find inspiration in the moment, and there were places in the script where I simply wrote: “Lionel tics,” whenever he was exposed to a new character. In those instances, I gave myself the room to figure out how he would express himself, on that day.
His speech patterns felt uniformly authentic, although I’m no expert on Tourette's.
This is a bit off the topic of writing, but we held an advanced screening for the members of the Tourette Association of America, and they wrote me to say that not only did the people love the complexity and the humanity of the character, but as soon as the movie started and Lionel first started to tic, it triggered the whole audience to freely and happily call and respond to the screen. It crushed me that I wasn’t there to experience that.
Let’s discuss the moment when Lionel engages in a deep conversation with Laura, and his tics momentarily stop. Can you explain the rationale behind this?
In one of the voice-overs, Lionel says there are a few mechanisms that can settle him—gum, weed, other stronger substances. But his mother also had the capacity to calm him down. Lionel and Laura forge a connection that has that same calming effect because they have a closeness. It’s funny, people with Tourette syndrome told me that if they’re singers, their tics go away when they sing, as though the music has a cancelling effect on their condition. I love that idea that Laura has a cancelling effect on him.
Finally, it’s well known that this project had an extraordinarily long wick on it, and--
I wouldn’t say, “wick.” I’d call it a “gestation.”
I stand corrected.
You can’t be afraid of gestation, because even though the mental perseverance can be hard and frustrating at times, gestation ultimately creates dividends.