Edward Norton (Lionel Essrog) in the neo-noir crime drama, "Motherless Brooklyn". Picture: Glen Wilson
Edward Norton (Lionel Essrog) in the neo-noir crime drama, "Motherless Brooklyn". Picture: Glen Wilson

Edward Norton talks intrigue and drama in 'Motherless Brooklyn'

By Debashine Thangevelo Time of article published Nov 22, 2019

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When you think of Edward Norton, two movies immediately spring to mind - "Fight Club" and "American History X".

Although he has won his fair share of awards over the years, an Oscar, despite being nominated, has, sadly, eluded him.

Nonetheless, the 50-year-old actor continues to pour his passion into his work.

The latest talking point is "Motherless Brooklyn", a movie he wrote, directed, produced and stars in.

Expanding on the journey, from penning the script to bringing it to life on the big screen, Norton says: “It goes back a long time, are you ready? (Laughs) Jonathan Lethem’s novel, Motherless Brooklyn, came out in the late ’90s.

“I managed to get it in galleys and read it before it actually hit the streets. I was so taken with the central character in it - Lionel Essrog - and his affliction, which is a combination of Tourette syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder, that I reached out to secure the rights to the book and make it into a film before it was officially even a book. This was just when (the author) Jonathan Lethem was getting going in his career.”

He adds, “Early on, I had this notion that I wanted to do something fairly unorthodox with it. I had long been interested in what was going on in New York City in the late ’50s. The novel is a contemporary story but I felt the characters had a very 1950s gumshoe gestalt to them - they speak and act very much like men out of time.

“In talking with Jonathan, I wanted to be transparent with him. I said that as a film, some of the aspects of the book that were possible in a literary sense might be challenged by being a modern story on-screen. It might make it seem ironic if you had guys, in the modern era, acting like film noir gumshoes. He agreed, and we shook hands on the idea that I was going to take Lionel and transpose him into a story different from the era and the plot of the novel.

“With that licence, I embarked on the very long process of writing the script. There’s a poet that I love who says that gestation is everything - that 10 years is nothing, if it’s something with real guts in it. That’s how I feel about Motherless Brooklyn.

“It’s been a long, 20-year journey to bring it into being but it’s been worth it.”

On how he chose to introduce Lionel, he shares, “Even though we took this giant liberty and sent him back in time to a different story, we kept his inner monologue from the book and made it a detective’s voice over. There’s this intimacy with hearing his inner voice, and you know him right from the beginning of the movie, even as you’re watching the way the world interacts with him and the startling manifestations of his affliction.

“There’s this really nice moment in the film where a trumpet player, played by Michael Kenneth Williams, says to Lionel: ‘You got a head just like mine, always boiling over, turning things around but that’s music. It controls you more than you control it, once it gets in you. Some people call it a gift, but it’s a brain affliction just the same’.

“That encapsulates Lionel very nicely. He has a capacity to remember and fixate on things. He even says at one point: ‘An unfinished puzzle makes my brain hurt more than most people’.

“He can’t let things lie, he can’t not pull out a thread. As a detective, that gives him a relentless compulsion to figure out what’s really going on.”

On also directing the film, he reveals: “I would like to direct a movie and not be in it next time. It’s a lot. I’ve done it before. It can be done.

It’s not like I stepped into some transcendent level of multitasking. Orson Welles, Robert Redford, Sean Penn, Clint Eastwood and Warren Beatty have all done this.

“What this film is about is an underdog, who loses his only friend in the world. Within his loneliness and isolation, he has to figure out a grand mystery, en route to finding a connection with another lonely, isolated person.

“It’s a detective story, a mystery thriller, with this driven character with this amazing and compulsive brain at the centre.”

*"Motherless Brooklyn" is currently streaming nationwide.

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