Film noir may have been born in the 1940s, but its cynicism endures because there’s always something new in America about which to feel hopeless. That fact is strikingly borne out by Motherless Brooklyn, a star-studded detective tale whose action has been relocated from the 1990s of its source material (Jonathan Lethem’s acclaimed 1999 novel) to 1957, and whose depiction of political and social treachery is deeply rooted in our present Trumpian day. The closing night selection of this year’s New York Film Festival (and in theaters Nov. 1), it’s a portrait of the old boss as the new boss as every boss, presiding over a world in which power is wielded ruthlessly, and compassion, love and justice are in dire danger of being trampled underfoot.
Ask Motherless Brooklyn’s writer/director/star Edward Norton about the parallels shared by his period piece and our current corruption-plagued circumstances, and he concedes that his latest look at the damage wrought by amoral, unchecked government elites is all too relevant. Nonetheless, any direct comparisons end there, since his film’s villain, Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin)—inspired by real-life NYC visionary and tyrant Robert Moses—is a brilliant man, unlike the current Oval Office occupant, whom Norton refers to only as “this insane clown charlatan.”
Baldwin’s Randolph is the black heart of Motherless Brooklyn, looming large over its story about a fledgling private eye named Lionel (Norton) who, following a tragedy, finds himself drawn into a mystery involving a variety of enigmatic characters—played by the likes of Willem Dafoe, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Michael K. Williams and Bruce Willis—whose paths crisscross in a New York City undergoing radical urban-planning change. And did I mention that Lionel has Tourette’s syndrome, and is thus prone to blurting out inappropriateness in great, uncontrollable bursts?
In Norton’s hands, Lionel is a unique protagonist in a familiar noir milieu. And both the character and his saga—indebted, most heavily, to Chinatown and L.A. Confidential—are emblematic of the idiosyncratic challenges that have typified the Primal Fear, Fight Club, American History X and 25th Hour actor’s career. Having worked on it for the better part of two decades, Norton’s adaptation is clearly a passion project. It was thus no surprise that, sitting down with us a day before its NYFF premiere, he was enthusiastic about discussing the film and a host of related topics: its ties to our contemporary political reality; the difficulty of making adult movies in the age of Marvel domination; Steven Spielberg’s critique of Netflix; and what he views as the potentially fatal shortcoming of the theatrical moviegoing experience.
Motherless Brooklyn is a narratively and thematically packed film. Has that made talking about it more difficult?
When you get into this process, it’s like many things in life: you have to decide what gear you want to be in. If you enter it exhausted or cynical, it’s going to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I think you have to look at it as an extension of the reason you made the film in the first place. In the case of something like this, obviously this is film isn’t in the category of a Xanax. It is, I hope, something that activates. You want it to activate empathy, activate the questioning of, wait, did these things really happen? And is it possible that there was that much power outside the system it’s supposed to be in? You have to look at the chance to talk about it as the same quest: to activate the conversation about things. That’s fun, and positive, and an extension of the same original impulse.
It’s a full film.
It’s like a five-course meal instead of a Big Mac.
Motherless Brooklyn’s portrait of a cruel, racist 1950s NYC tyrant feels directly connected to today. I know you’ve been developing the film for close to 20 years. Did you ever envision it being this timely?
No. I finished writing it in 2012—not that I didn’t work on it after, but I finished it in 2012 with most of it, including Alec Baldwin’s big soliloquy at the end, very much written as such. I felt that the fundamental emotional hook of Lionel, and this journey of a person who we can empathize with (or maybe even see ourselves in, in the sense that he’s lonely and misunderstood) having to grow up a little bit, and become his mentor, and realize he has to get over his own shit in a way—that cohered. The emotional journey of him and his growth was, I hoped, timeless in a way. Or human.
I had moments where I had this shock of realization that it’s a true thread in American life that there’s this shadow narrative that goes on under the public narrative of who we say we are. And that there are stories—the fact that L.A.’s built on stolen water, and that in New York, there was a history, for nearly half a century, of an authoritarian dictator essentially running the biggest and most important city in America (because everyone modeled themselves on it) through the prism of his racism and his brutality and, actually, his disdain for human beings.
This idea, about the power that’s hidden, or unseen, and the danger and consequences and losses that can be incurred from that… Obama was getting inaugurated for term two, and I was like, “Maybe it’s all in the rearview mirror! [Laughs] We’re entering post-racial utopia, and everyone’s going to be like, sure it might have happened then, but there’s nothing to that now!” And then in the spring of 2017, Toby Emmerich, who’s running Warner Brothers and had been a great champion of this, was like, “I’m just calling because I think this is the year we need to make this film. I’m feeling that there’s a reason that it’s waited, and this is the now, and we have to figure this out.”
Moses obviously shares similarities with Donald Trump. And he’s portrayed by Alec Baldwin, who of course plays Trump on Saturday Night Live. Did you have to take that dynamic into account?
No, no. There are two dimensions to that. First of all, I think the character Alec plays in this movie is, in anything other than a glancing analysis, an entirely different beast than this insane clown charlatan [i.e. Trump]. He’s based on a mélange of a couple of people—one in particular—who were geniuses. Like, who really were the equivalent of Anakin Skywalker going to the dark side. A true Jedi knight. To me, that’s—I don’t want to be pretentious and say Shakespearean, but the idea of someone of enormous capability, this brilliant mind that could grasp the complexities of society, going to the dark side and doing damage instead of good—that’s really what we’re dealing with.
In many ways, Willem Dafoe plays Obi-Wan Kenobi. He’s the Jedi in rags, not seen as the Jedi that he is, and you realize that there’s been this dark history, and that their relationship is the loss of his ally, the loss of his fellow Jedi. These things were very compelling.
So casting Baldwin in light of his SNL gig didn’t give you any pause?
I didn’t really hesitate in terms of Alec. Alec is one of the great comedic actors of modern times, and in particular, he has this capacity to weaponize his satirical abilities against power—and I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that’s what he’s been doing. He’s been doing the thing that tyrants hate the most, which is mocking them. Thank God you can still do that in the United States. Doing what he’s doing in Russia will get you killed, literally. I don’t think it should be glibly treated; I think what he’s been doing is bold.
But all that said, I came up on Glengarry Glen Ross Alec, and I saw him in A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway when I was in my twenties, and he has always, to me, as a dramatic actor, had this gravitas, this very rare basso profundo. He has real heft, like a Brian Dennehy or a Lee J. Cobb or a Marlon Brando. He has that thing that not a lot of people have, which is that real force. “Coffee is for closers only”—that is like a logline for a lot of us. You think about how many times people will use that as the maxim of, “Put that down, I’m the boss!” So to me, there was no question in my mind that this guy who says things like, “If someone wants to try to jack me, then the Dodgers can take on the arches to the fucking coast”—you can’t hear that many people saying that with authority. With him, I could. Furthermore, he has a Shakespearean actor’s command of language. He can take that soliloquy at the end and drive through it like one dark thought. So I was very hung up on the idea of him.
He also fits into this ensemble, which is full of actors with forceful, weighty presences. They help keep audiences engaged even when they may feel like they’re operating behind a complex story.
It’s what you said at the beginning: if you’re going to ask people to eat a complex multi-course meal, then what shows up along the way better be good. With actors like that, they’re able to take text and complex, mature thoughts, and make a grown-up audience go, I’m going to stay with this because these people hold me, step by step. I don’t know exactly what’s going on here, but these people show up—Michael K. Williams, whomever—and you go, what is this, holy shit!
I think that’s sometimes how the best of these work. You don’t remember the plot of L.A. Confidential in the slightest. I couldn’t today tell you what happens in that film. But what I remember, as an audience member, is that about three minutes in, something in your brain flips and you go, these are good, really mature actors. There’s no tongue-in-cheek in this; this isn’t Gangster Squad, we’re not doing period cliché. They’re in it all the way, the music is great, the picture looks friggin' fantastic, and I’m just in. You get to that place where you go, I’m just happy to be here, inside the seriousness with which they’ve treated this. And then you just go.
I get confused when I hear people pulling out the question of whether something’s convoluted. There’s not one good detective film that’s not convoluted—like, not a single one. And indeed, getting lost in the murk is part of the experience, because what you’re going through is the idea of the unknowability of certain things, and in some cases, you’re being purposely taken down a false path so you can be, like in Chinatown, literally 95 percent of the way through the movie without knowing what’s really going on. Then when you finally figure it out in the last eight minutes of the movie, it’s not at all what you thought it was going to be. That’s what you remember. I don’t think 99 out of 100 people could narrate what the mechanism of Chinatown’s crime is; they remember, “She’s my sister and my daughter, my father and I,” the nickel job, and L.A. is built on stolen water. That’s it. But what’s the pleasure of that film? It’s the hypnosis of it. The pure hypnosis.
This is a big-studio drama for adults, which makes it somewhat rare—and puts it on one side of the divide that Martin Scorsese recently raised in his comments about Marvel movies being “theme parks” and not “cinema.” Has that division grown wider, and has it made it tougher to get films like Motherless Brooklyn produced?
Yeah, sure. But I want to be careful. At the same time, I’m always a little leery of ever discussing these things that could be mistaken for griping about it. Because to be super clear, I would say that today, as a creative person who’s interested in telling stories, there has never been more opportunity to get original and diverse visions of a narrative across to other people—ever, in the history of American cinema, television, whatever you want to call it. Not even in the mid-to-late-‘90s, when Miramax created this new flowering of opportunity because all the other studios realized, we better make lower-budget auteur-driven things, and we all got to make Being John Malkovich and Magnolia…
...And Fight Club.
Yeah, a whole bunch of films got made at studios that would have had to vie for the chimera of independent finance, because Miramax forced the studios to revisit a different part of the business model, and all of us coming up in that era got to make this incredible wave of films. This is 10x that level of opportunity, and no one should ever say, is it harder than ever? No, it’s easier than ever to tell complex, long-form, character-driven stories.
If I disagreed with anybody, with great respect, it was [Steven] Spielberg [regarding his critical comments about Netflix posing a danger to movies]. Netflix invested more in Roma theatrically—theatrically—than any boutique label at any studio would have by a factor of five. They put a Spanish-language black-and-white film all over the world in theaters. Hundreds of theaters, not just a few; as many as Sony Pictures Classics would have done. They put more money behind it, in a theatrical context, than anybody would have. You can’t tell me there’s a whole lot of people making black-and-white Spanish-language films and putting that investment behind them. And you can’t tell me that there’s a lot of places making five-part documentaries about the Central Park Five.
There’s a lot going on because of Netflix, and what it was the vanguard of, that represents an unprecedented period of ripe opportunity for many more types of stories and voices to be heard, and told, and celebrated. It’s incredible, what’s going on.
But that boom has also coincided with a shrinking theatrical market for movies like yours.
I think what’s a challenge, but an elective challenge, because I chose to embrace it, is that the traditional model of making an original adult drama in the studio theatrical releasing configuration is rarer. But let’s be clear: I could have turned around and made Motherless Brooklyn with any of the streaming services in five minutes. With this cast? In five minutes. And by the way, instead of for $26 million and with 46 days to shoot it, and everybody taking scale, I could have probably fattened that up and gotten everybody paid, you know what I mean?
Why not go that route?
I did it the way I did it because I retained my own aspiration while the sun is still up on this model to make an old-fashioned type of movie that I love. Like L.A. Confidential, or Reds—that’s not a noir film, but that’s a big, bold film about America’s character, that’s a three-hour movie about American socialists with documentary footage that Warren Beatty starred in, wrote, directed, and produced. That’s a big inspiration to me; it had a big effect on me. So did Do the Right Thing, which is all the same things.
I wanted to still take a crack at that. I had a great ally in Toby Emmerich at Warner Bros, who wanted Warner Bros to still make those kinds of movies, like L.A. Confidential, which they made. That was my choice, to go the hard way with it. I’m grateful to the people who made it alongside me; I’m grateful to the cast for doing it for scale. We figured it out, for the tenth of the budget of The Irishman.
Fortunately, you didn’t need any de-aging CGI.
He [Martin Scorsese] has earned the right to do whatever he wants. And Quentin [Tarantino] has earned the right to do it his way for those numbers. I decided to do it this way. I guess I just felt, ultimately, that there was a tradition of a certain kind of American film that I wanted to make one of, and I liked the idea of doing it at Warner Bros. I get happy when that label spins up. It’s just me personally—there’s a romance in that. That’s where Clint Eastwood made Unforgiven. I do think there’s still an adult audience that still likes to go out to the movies together and see those kinds of films. And in due course, everybody else can get to it too. That’s the happy thing about where we are.
What is the biggest threat to the theatrical model, then?
If I had to say the single biggest contributor to people preferring to watch things on Netflix versus going to theaters, it’s that the theaters nickel and dime on bulbs. People have no idea how many theaters do this. A lot of filmmakers and cinematographers that I know that have really started to look into this say that more than 60 percent of American theaters are running their projector at almost half the luminosity that they’re required by contract to run it at. It’s the theater chains that are destroying the theatrical experience. Period, full-stop. No one else.
They are delivering crappy sound and a dim picture, and no one is calling them on it. If they were delivering what they’re supposed to be delivering, people would be going, “Wow, this is amazing, I do not get this at home.” Like Christopher McQuarrie and Tom Cruise with the motion smoothing, when they said to turn off the gaming thing, you’re ruining the work we’re giving to you! Well, I want people to literally walk into their theater and find the manager and say, “If this looks dark, you’re giving me my money back. Because I’m paying—and at the ArcLight, I’m paying premium—for a premium experience.”
I went in and quality control-tested my movie in a theater that was running Captain Marvel, and you know 14 is the spec that it’s supposed to be running at, and it was running at a 6.2. That means it was literally running at less than half the light that was supposed to be on there. You want to train people. Like, go get your money back. If the movie looks dark, it was—go get your money back! I think we should rally around that. I really do.