MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN is the kind of big studio movie that doesn't come around all that often. It is handsomely produced, has a complex narrative and is strictly for adults. Edward Norton created the film as a passion project, devoting 20 years to bringing the 1999 novel by Jonathan Lethem to the big screen. We want to give you a look inside that process, to see how and why Norton made this detective thriller oriented around Lionel (Norton), a small-time private eye who suffers from Tourette's Syndrome.
Norton adapted the screenplay, produced, directed, and stars in MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN. If you think doing all those jobs at once sounds tough, you'd be correct. "Directing a movie is, almost by definition, antagonistic to the state of mind you want to be in as an actor," Norton said. "You want to be out of your head when you're acting, and you've got to have your head on top of everything when you're directing. So that means if you’re doing both, first, you've got to really own that character long before you ever step into doing it. But it also means that if you're going to have any hope of focusing as an actor, you've got to have a game plan and you’ve got to have really experienced collaborators who are able to show up on the day having already asked all the questions, ready to execute."
And execute it he did. Norton guides a jealousy-inducing cast which includes Alec Baldwin, Bruce Willis, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Cherry Jones and Willem Dafoe, through a serpentine plot, to create a truly remarkable thriller. How did he really pull it off? Read on to find out.
Norton's MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN adventure began in 1999 — as the actor was garnering acclaim for his starring role in FIGHT CLUB — when he read Jonathan Lethem's novel of the same name. The filmmaker immediately thought he was the one who could adapt it for the big screen.
"I was very taken with [Lionel,] this orphaned kid who grew up on the mean streets of Brooklyn, who is afflicted with Tourette Syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder; yet, who is also extremely bright and has this compelling way of seeing the world," Norton said. "There was a very positive side to Lionel’s obsessive personality, which is that he holds information, as he says, like 'glass in the brain.' Lionel can’t let things lie, he can’t not pull on a thread, he can't stop thinking about things that haven't yet fit together. So, as a detective, he has a relentless compulsion to figure out what's really going on around him that I found exciting and moving."
It would be one thing if Norton was just interested in adapting and directing MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN, but he also had his eye on playing the main character. "Jonathan created a character at once funny and poignant, one who you instinctively root for because you can see what he’s really like on the inside. I've always been drawn to underdogs and I fell in love with Lionel as a kind of underdog hero," Norton said.
When bringing the novel to the big screen, Norton took a big chance by transplanting the action from modern New York City to the 1950s. "The novel is contemporary to the '90s," he notes. "But the characters have such a `50s gestalt to them—they speak and act like men out of time." Which is great on the page, but might not have leaped so easily to the screen. "This works beautifully on a literary level, but I was very transparent with [author] Jonathan [Lethem] that I felt in a film it could feel ironic if you had guys in our times talking like noir gumshoes. Fortunately, Jonathan agreed. He said the plot was always secondary to the character in his mind and if I wanted to send Lionel off into another adventure, that was just fine with him."
Also, Norton was fascinated by what was happening socially and politically in Manhattan at that time, as it tumultuously transitioned into a contemporary metropolis. "I’ve long been interested in what was happening behind the scenes in the development of New York in the late 1950s when the old New York became the modern city," Norton said. "It felt like a very charged place to put Lionel. Thankfully, Jonathan is as passionate a student of New York as I am, and he completely understood what I hoped to do, so I couldn't have been luckier."
As the mystery of MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN unravels, Lionel is drawn into a conspiracy orchestrated by one of New York's wealthiest and most powerful land developers. The subject of urban development is of keen interest to Norton, as his maternal grandfather, James Rouse, was a progressive developer, philanthropist, and early champion of urban renewal programs. His baby was Columbia, Maryland, a community built and designed around equality. “The story of how old New York City got converted into the modern city is a really deep and dark one,” Norton said.
"There are many great books and documentaries about that era, but it hasn’t been richly explored in film. We often think of the Mid Century as the heyday of American democracy, but what was being swept under the rug is that institutional racism was being built directly into the city planning in New York and elsewhere. The truth is that many things that happened in the city were achieved through methods that were fundamentally at odds with America’s commitment to democratic leadership and, in fact, bordered on actual autocracy. In many ways, bridges, roads, and housing projects are to New York what water is to Los Angeles: the lifeblood but also a container for the darker secrets of the city."
Baldwin plays the movie's big bad, a developer named Moses Randolph. He's based on Robert Moses, a real-life player active during the film's real-world time period. Moses was instrumental in building landmarks such as Lincoln Center and the Central Park Zoo, but he made those projects happen with an unscrupulous power — all of which informs the film's villain. As the mystery of MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN deepens, Lionel finds himself on a collision course with Randolph. Their conflict escalates the story from a tale of an unlikely private eye seeking justice, to the scale of classic tales of people who speak truth to power.
"We’ve never seen a detective story with a character like Lionel Essrog before," concludes Bill Migliore, who produced the film in concert with Norton, Michael Bederman, Gigi Pritzker and Rachel Shane. "Bringing this terrific and unique character, who has no one looking out for him, into a story that is also about class, race, abuse of power and the history of New York, felt not only original but highly relevant to our times—times when so many feel disenfranchised and disempowered." We're excited to see Edward Norton's vision of the story on the big screen — check out MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN at your local Cinemark!
All images courtesy of Warner Bros.