Norton's busy year embodies indie spirit

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Edward Norton is smart, talented and more invested than most working actors in the final cut of his movies. Much like fellow arch-liberal and workaholic George Clooney, who also acts, writes, directs and produces, Norton deploys his star clout to make independent movies. This year yielded an astonishing trifecta: David Jacobson's micro-budget neo-Western "Down in the Valley"; Neil Burger's $16 million sleeper hit "The Illusionist"; and "The Painted Veil," a $21 million period adaptation of the W. Somerset Maugham classic co-starring Naomi Watts.

Since his breakout film debut in 1996's "Primal Fear," the Yale-educated Norton, who earned two Oscar nominations before he was 30 and is now 37, has figured out how to apply his high standards to his movies. That might not seem like a big deal, but it is. Very few people working in the movie business today have that luxury -- especially actors. And to deliver three high-quality movies in one year? Well, that's just remarkable.

Norton is the kind of person who doesn't settle. His capacity for hard work is enormous. He has already directed one film, "Keeping the Faith," written by his producing partner Stuart Blumberg, and plans to do more. When he works with such experienced directors as Woody Allen ("Everyone Says I Love You"), Spike Lee ("25th Hour") or David Fincher ("Fight Club"), he lets them do their own thing. But when he is invested in helping to get a smaller movie made, he will roll up his sleeves on the script (he did six weeks of uncredited work on then-girlfriend Salma Hayek's "Frida") and will spend weeks in the editing room to help get the best possible final cut. The results are clear: Tony Kaye's "American History X," for example, made Blockbuster's list of the top 30 DVD rentals. "No one in their right mind," Norton says over a bowl of pea soup at Kate Mantilini, "can resent hard work on behalf of the end product."

For the actor, the determination to do the right thing is fierce. When he found out that "Painted Veil" producer Bob Yari and Warner Independent Pictures, working with Warner China Film HG Corp., had signed away the right of final cut to the Chinese government in exchange for the right to shoot the film in China and get released there, he and his director refused to accede to Chinese censors' demands for cuts. At the risk of Norton's future dealings with Warner Bros., he asked a family friend, Time Warner chairman and CEO Richard Parsons, to intervene. Ultimately, Warner China did successfully push for some concessions. "We achieved what we wanted and held the line on the things we care about," Norton says. "So I feel very good about it."

That fight, though, delayed delivery of the final print to WIP to mid-November. In Norton's view, Warners has not provided enough advertising support for "Painted Veil," which opened Dec. 20 in Los Angeles and New York to favorable reviews (its Rotten Tomatoes average is a strong 77%). The film will broaden out Dec. 29. "We need to get it seen by people," Warners president Alan Horn says. "A lot of critical reviews are not in. There's time to push it if it resonates with the critical community. We'll see."

"As nicely directed by John Curran and adapted to the screen by Ron Nyswaner, this version of the story lulls you by turning Maugham's distaff bildungsroman into a fine romance," the New York Times' Manohla Dargis writes. But so far, only six trade ads have appeared, and none have mentioned the film's inclusion on the top 10 list of the National Board of Review, or Norton's Independent Spirit nomination. WIP bought plenty of print ads to support the opening, however, says WIP marketing chief Laura Kim, and more trade ads are planned.

There are risks when taking the indie route, Norton admits: "You realize there are trade-offs for the freedom to make this kind of film and maintain the integrity of your own idea of it without too much creative micromanagement."

The actor-producer invested seven years in trying to get the Nyswaner script made, first working with "Nowhere in Africa" director Caroline Link and then with Curran ("We Don't Live Here Anymore"). Norton felt strongly about making changes in the Maugham novel to turn it into a more timeless romance like "Out of Africa."

"I don't think you can go to the '20s and China and not have these characters end up somewhere different from where they began," he says. "When you make this kind of movie, you want to feel that you've traveled somewhere not just physically but emotionally." He also wanted the movie to resonate beyond its time and place. "My character became emblematic of Westerners mucking around in other countries and telling them how to do things," he says. "At the end of the day, that's the folly of what we're doing in Iraq."

Like many great actors, Norton considers himself a character actor and "shape-shifter." He places himself in the same peer group as Kate Winslet, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christian Bale and Adrien Brody. He was an actor-for-hire on the Burger-directed "Illusionist," a period piece that was always was designed as escapist fun. Norton plays Eisenheim, a powerful magician in turn-of-the-century Vienna. "I won't get to play Heathcliff," Norton says. "Eisenheim is the return of the dark, enigmatic guy with a secret who runs off and comes back and shakes things up with his mystery. It was like playing a superhero. I gave my makeup woman a picture of Dr. Strange, with the swept-back hair and goatee."

After its debut at January's Sundance Film Festival, "Illusionist" turned into an indie success story as financier Yari refused to make a studio deal and distributed it himself, spending about $12 million to push the movie to a $39.7 million domestic gross. "Even if a studio knew how to make that movie for $16 million, they'd still spend $30 million to market it," Norton says. "You got to hand it to Bob Yari and (Yari Film Group consultant) David Dinerstein: They did it smart, the way the old Miramax used to, and kept the margins."

Yari also backed "Painted Veil." "He's making movies the studios are not making," Norton says. "He's making adult dramas fly and figuring out how to do them in a way the studios are not now."

Of his three films this year, "Valley" was the most pleasurable for Norton to make. "I would put it in my top two to three favorite creative experiences," he says. "David and I found a deep pool of shared sensibility. Early on we felt the same about making a Western that wasn't some dim past or some rehashed fantasy of the West, but was applied to the West we're actually experiencing now. If you get to make a handful of movies in your career that are a document of the time you are living in, that's the whole thing to me. I related to it so deeply. I didn't expect 10 people to go see that movie, but you've got to make it."

Norton and Jacobson made the classic mistake of accepting an invitation to the Festival de Cannes in 2005. "We learned a lesson, which is that you finish your movie first," Norton says. "It's hard to resist the siren song of Cannes, even when you know in your gut you're not done. But the money people are going to say, 'The hell you're not done!' "

After the festival, Jacobson and Norton recut the film and sold it to ThinkFilm; it eventually earned good reviews but never broke out of the art house circuit, grossing a mere $570,000.

It is possible, Norton insists, to make movies that "form a relationship with people independent of the opening-weekend paradigm. It's an exciting time to be in movies. There are more ways to get a movie done than there ever have been in the history of the business. And more sources of money for film people to find patrons and business partners. But on the distribution side, it's hard to find room for good movies like 'Down in the Valley.' "

Norton has always dabbled in screenwriting with his partner, Blumberg. Initially, they turned down offers to set up an overall deal. But after picking up several books to adapt -- Norton is 80 pages into adapting Jonathan Lethem's detective novel "Motherless Brooklyn" -- three and a half years ago, they signed a first-look deal at Universal Pictures that expires at the end of this year.

Coming up next is Gavin O'Connor's "Pride and Glory," co-starring Colin Farrell and Tobey Maguire, which New Line Cinema might launch at Cannes. Universal bought Dan O'Brien's South Dakota ranching book "Buffalo for the Broken Heart," which Nyswaner is adapting for Norton to direct. Blumberg has written a remake of Universal's hockey classic "Slapshot." And Universal acquired Mark Helprin's "A Soldier of the Great War," an ambitious novel Norton compares to Tolstoy's "War and Peace."

Right now, Norton is dashing off in his blue Prius to a meeting at National Geographic about the HBO 10-hour miniseries "Undaunted Courage," which he is producing with Brad Pitt, about the Lewis and Clark expedition. (He'd star with Pitt if he could only nail him down, he says.) He also is excited about producing an exclusive documentary tracking Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's run for the presidency, which Norton hopes will be "a defining political study," he says. "It's about trying to look inside the American political experience."

Don't get Norton, who is talkative, started on all the ways that Hollywood should reform. No $25,000 Oscar gift baskets. No visiting the Motion Picture & Television Fund Country House only during Oscar season to solicit votes. The guild awards should not be televised. No more end-of-year "orgies of self-congratulation."

OK, so the guy is a self-righteous smartypants. But he has good values. And Hollywood could use more people like him.
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