“Noir reminds us that behind the American narrative we trust in, there is a shadow side of power machinations,” explained Ed Norton of his choice to make Motherless Brooklyn (2019) full-on film noir. “Noir is a tradition in American cinema. There’s a kitsch version, but the best of it - films like Reds (1981) or Unforgiven (1992) - look at the shadow side of life.”
In Motherless Brooklyn, Norton adapts a Jonathan Lethem novel about an orphan with Tourette’s syndrome who has matured into a hard-nosed detective. His pursuit of the murderer of his mentor leads to an unscrupulous New York developer who is covertly destroying the city. The developer’s huge projects make money at the expense of working class people, many of them people of color, and line the pockets of a tiny minority of very rich individuals. While the theme has contemporary relevance, Norton reminded the audience that he began the project in 2012 and his “inspiration goes much deeper than current affairs.”
“It’s wonderful that Edward got this film made,” producer Hawk Koch interjected. Koch and Norton appeared in person for a Q&A between screenings of Motherless Brooklyn and Primal Fear (1996) at the Aero Theatre on December 15, 2019.
Koch, who produced Norton's debut film Primal Fear, had a surprise for Norton and for the audience at the Egyptian - a three-minute tape of Norton’s audition for Primal Fear.
“We were looking for someone to play opposite Richard Gere,” Koch recalled. There were open auditions and Norton was chosen from 2,400 young men seeking the part.
Koch brought Deborah Aquila and Trish Wood onto the stage to share their memories of being the casting team that discovered Norton. Wood recalled that she started early in the morning and had sixty audition tapes to view that day. She was struck by Norton’s transformation from a vulnerable, stuttering boy to an ice-cold killer, his split personality. By nine that morning, Norton was chosen. Norton recalled that he knew, in order to get to Gere’s slick lawyer character, he had to “grab him by the balls,” so that’s what he put into the audition tape.
Some people can act, some can write screenplays, some can direct, some can produce, Koch continued, “but only a few at the top—Barbra Streisand, Warren Beatty—can do all of these.” With Motherless Brooklyn, Norton became one of this group at the top.
“I don’t mean to be facetious, but it’s been done,” Norton said. He pointed out that Orson Welles made Citizen Kane (1941) at age 25 and Spike Lee made Do The Right Thing (1989), which set the aspirational bar for directors at that time, at 27. Norton is 50 and has made forty films.
“If you’ve done it a few times, you know what the dynamics are,” Norton continued. “There are people who you know will do what you need. There are people you trust.” Cinematographer Dick Pope, who worked on The Illusionist (2006) with Norton, was expert at making a quality period film on a small budget. Music director Daniel Pemberton explored the relationship between jazz and what goes on in the lead character’s head. “If you make a film set in the 50s, jazz is a beautiful landscape for it,” Norton concluded.
Norton hired actors experienced in the New York stage. “This was a tight budget. There was no time for notes. No time for pre-rehearsal. This was like a method acting ban,” Norton explained. The actors had to know what to do and "just come in and do their job. A film is a layer cake of talent. If it works, everyone is reinforcing each other, is on the same frequency.”
Asked if the character of the developer, played by Alec Baldwin, was based on a particular individual, Norton replied that, like Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane, it’s not important that he be based on one, two or three real people, but just that he be a manifestation of power.
The character Norton plays, the detective with Tourette’s syndrome, appealed to Norton when he read Lethem’s book. “From page one, you care about him, feel empathy with him. So people will go a long way with him.”
Norton concluded with a compliment to Koch. Norton listed three Hollywood biographical books he thinks everyone should read: The Kid Stays in the Picture by Robert Evans; How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime by Roger Corman; and Koch's new book Magic Time: My Life in Hollywood (Post Hill Press, 2019). He said he would recommend the book for many reasons, but especially because of how it humanizes the great legendary filmmakers. He makes you realize that the greatest films you admire are all “half-baked, chaotic, full of mistakes. It makes us realize these legends were just guys like us swinging hard at what they wanted. It illuminates the activity of how those movies got done and makes it seem doable for us.”
Judith Resell, Ph.D. is a volunteer for the American Cinematheque.