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Norton produced and wrote the screenplay for the 1950s-set noir, adapting Jonathan Lethem’s book of the same name, and took on the starring role of Lionel Essrog, a private detective with Tourette’s Syndrome.
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the film screening as the closing night selection for the New York Film Festival last month, Norton said he didn’t feel as if he’d taken on too much.
“At a certain point you look at people who inspired you,” Norton said. “When Warren Beatty did Reds and everybody told him no one wanted to see a three-hour movie about American socialists, he did it anyway. He wrote it and directed it and produced it and acted in it, and that film had an enormous impact on me. Do the Right Thing had an enormous impact on me, and Spike [Lee] did everything on that film. Sometimes you look at the people who inspired you, and you say, ‘I’m going to try for that bar of excellence.'”
After talking to Lethem, Norton re-set the story in the 1950s.
“I wouldn’t have done anything without Jonathan’s blessing,” Norton said. “He loves noir films. His book feels like men who were in the ’50s caught in modern Brooklyn, so it was a little surreal, and we decided it was better to play it straight than tongue-in-cheek.”
And ultimately Norton went off in his own direction, as his character’s investigation into his mentor’s death gets him involved with a powerful Robert Moses-like figure played by Alec Baldwin.
“Once the bad thing happens to [my character’s] boss, everything after that is my invention,” Norton said.
Baldwin’s Moses Randolph voices thoughts about being able to do whatever he wants without anyone stopping him, which to audience members may sound like the musings of other powerful men in 2019.
Co-star Willem Dafoe said it was the story’s exploration of “important” themes like “socio-political questions about power and the city government’s relationship to the well-being of the people” that further drew him to the project after Norton asked him to be a part of it.
“These things are about human nature,” Dafoe said of the issues explored by the film. “Of course it’s about an identity specifically tied to New York City. Many of these questions are relevant today. It’s a story; it’s not a pure polemic, but these things do surface, these questions do surface. So it’s nice to have a film that is entertaining and fun to watch, a noir, a kind of puzzle, there’s great suspense, but then there’s great content.”
Norton previously told THR that with this film he wanted to explore, “what happened in New York in the mid-’50s. I felt like that was the period when a lot of enormous institutional corruption and racism essentially baked itself into the fabric of modern New York permanently. A lot of what we still struggle with in New York and a lot of what we are seeing in the political landscape today was taking place in a very subversive way back then.”
His familiarity with that era quickly became apparent to co-star Josh Pais when Norton gathered Pais and co-stars Bruce Willis and Fisher Stevens on the first day of shooting.
“We all sat in a room and Edward gave us a whole history of this era and it was just an incredible, articulate history lesson that grounded us all in this time in New York City,” Pais said.
Both Pais’ character, William Lieberman, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s lawyer and activist Laura Rose weren’t in Lethem’s book.
Mbatha-Raw’s character connects with Norton’s character as someone also facing challenges in how she’s viewed by others.
“I think that she relates to him. As she says, we all have our daily battles,” Mbatha-Raw told THR. “I think for Laura as a woman of color in the ’50s, many people assume she’s a secretary and yet she has a law degree and so she relates to the idea of not being seen for who you really are and I think that’s how they connect.”
While the $26 million film may seem like a less obvious studio release in 2019, Motherless Brooklyn‘s producers praised Warner Bros.’ execs for their long support of the project.
“The support from Warner Bros. has been extraordinary, all along,” producer Gigi Pritzker told THR. “And I know [Warner Bros. film chairman] Toby [Emmerich] has been a huge fan of Edward doing this for a long time, so it’s been a really great partnership from the very beginning.”
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