Edward Norton on Detective Stories, Befriending Radiohead, and the Legacy of 'Fight Club'

ed norton
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

Edward Norton has been asked about his new film Motherless Brooklyn in interviews for nearly 10 years. Now he can finally talk about it. Norton finished writing his adaptation of Jonathan Lethem's 1999 detective novel in 2012, and his name had been attached to the project even further back than that. It hits theaters this weekend, having morphed considerably from its source material. What was once a neo-noir set in present day New York has become an actual noir in the 1950s. The kooky arc of the novel's mystery has been exchanged for a tale about a Robert Moses-type figure and the gentrification he wrought on the city as New York City's "Master Builder," responsible for the landscape for the city as it exists today. There are echoes of Trumpian racism and hubris, and not just because the Moses character is played by Alec Baldwin. 

What remains is the central character, Lionel Essrog, portrayed Norton, who also directs the film. Lionel's a gumshoe with Tourette's who finds himself at the center of a conspiracy when his boss Frank (Bruce Willis) is murdered. It's a showcase for Norton, the typically bold and intense performer from films like American History X and Fight Club, the latter of which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. 

When I sit down to talk with Norton in a Manhattan hotel room one early morning just before the film closes out the New York Film Festival, he starts by quizzing me about Thrillist before digging into the details of this passion project. Admittedly, it's hard to get a word in edgewise when Norton gets going. By the time our scheduled 30 minutes was nearly over, I still hadn't gotten to many of my questions and Norton agreed to speed things up. (He didn't.) 

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Norton in 'Motherless Brooklyn.' | Warner Bros.

Thrillist: I think almost every interview I've read with you since 2010 you've talked about working on this project.
Edward Norton:
That's possible. People sort of relentlessly kept bringing it up. And you didn't want to say, "Leave me alone about it. It'll happen when it'll happen." So no matter what phase of it I was in, I was always sort of saying, "Yes. Be patient. Someday. I'm doing a few other things." I mean this only in an observational way, what's funny is in the era of Google -- people put their little IMDb searches, the thing pops up, and so it conveys an accepted authenticity of, "Oh, well, IMDb says this is what's going on next, so it must be what's going on next. And therefore, I'll ask about it." Sometimes I wasn't working on it. I was making Birdman or I was doing other things. Probably the phase that was authentically -- struggle is not the right word, given the world we're living in -- but if there was a part where actual focus and perseverance was needed, it was after I had finished writing it, and I really did want to make it -- the five years between 2012, when I finished it, and 2017, when we started making it. That was sort of a push. 

Can you talk a little bit about the journey with it? You take this book and do very interesting things with it that are not in the original text at all.
It's a radical departure from the book. But this is the thing: It's a departure from the plot of the book. It's not at all a departure from the emotional experience or the ethos of the book, which is, to me, the beauty and strength. I would say the total experience of the book, for almost everybody who says they love it, is the character. Nobody talks about the plot of the novel, including Jonathan [Lethem]. Jonathan even said to me once, "I wrote a B plot for an A character." It's the effect that Jonathan achieves on page, one of intimacy and sympathy with a very unique mind. You literally are riding with Lionel inside the struggle of his experience, and you laugh when he knows it's ridiculous, you wince. And then at times, it's like, "This is really poignant. He's very lonely. People don't treat him well, and he's underestimated." So I think the deep achievement of the book is the empathy and the experience of him. That was, for me, mission number one, to retain exactly that. As with all, I think, good detective things, [the book] goes into such a Byzantine and esoteric plot, but what you're holding onto is love. He has lost his mentor, and he's lost his shelter. In the film, as Tony says to him, "Frank ain't here to cover for you." And in a way, what I love in the book, he has to come out of the safe space in which he can be Lionel without having to do the adult things of interacting with the world, and he has to come out and grow up a little and kind of become Frank. That's very core to the book, too, is that Lionel in essence becomes Frank.

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Baldwin and Norton in 'Motherless Brooklyn.' | Warner Bros.

At what point did you hit on the '50s setting and bringing a Robert Moses-esque character into the narrative?
Well, Jonathan and I discussed the initial notion to put it in the '50s, not as a function of desire to go into that story, but as a function of that in his book, they feel like these men living in a pocket of Brooklyn that hasn't moved in time. They feel sort of like '50s gumshoes and stuff. 

It's disorienting when they talk about Prince in the book.
Yeah. It is a little bit. And Jonathan's evoking these Raymond Chandler-type characters. I got slightly concerned about what I'd call "gumshoe irony," like tongue-in-cheek, wink-wink -- something between Blues Brothers or Bored to Death or Reservoir Dogs, like self-conscious retro-hip. I asked Jonathan if he felt like the value was that meta-trickiness, and he didn't. He said, "It's the identification with Lionel." I said, "Well, I think that if we went ahead and just put it in the '50s and made it one of those movies…" If you're going to play it straight, it needed to go back, because then it can be hard-boiled, un-PC. Just the fact that everyone calls him "freak show," that feels like the '50s more than it feels like now. And so I proposed to Jonathan, "Are you against the idea of actually making this like Lionel exists within a serious adult version of those movies we love, L.A. Confidential? Can we play it straight?" And he was like, "Oh, I like that a lot." Because he's from Brooklyn, and he was like, "Oh, Lionel in a real noir. Like a real thing." Then we got turned on by that. And then having decided to do that, the conventions of the book of the Japanese sea urchin trade, they didn't make sense. 

I had in my mind for a long time that the stories of what went on in New York in the mid-century was really compelling. On its own, that history felt a little bit like what [Ric] Burns had dealt with it in New York: A Documentary. I had sometimes wondered is there a Citizen Kane-like movie about Robert Moses? Two things, I often ran up in my own mind against going, "This is too esoteric. It's just too dense." You know, people roughed up Orson Welles over Citizen Kane when he made it as being dense and weird. And I was like, "These days, no one's going to go for that without some mechanism of entertainment within it." And also, as much as I liked it, there were other aspects of it that didn't have to do with Robert Moses that I thought were compelling to deal with. And then I had this moment of sudden inspiration that Lionel, like so many of my favorite movies that used the detective as this proxy for us, poking into the shadow narrative under America. Did you read Maureen Dowd's column [about Chinatown and Trump]

I did not. 
 It's really wild. I felt like someone had sent her a video of one of my press conferences or something. I called her. I was like, "What made you write this?" I said to her, "I have been doing nothing but talking about Chinatown and noir in general and the whole idea of the detective." The detective is sort of proxy for us mired in our own lives and not being crusaders. The detectives are never crusaders. They're always out for a buck. And then something happens that starts to make them feel a little bit irritated by the people who are playing them. They start, I think like all Americans, to go, "Hey, we believe in the system, but if you start to really try to pull one over on us, if you really think you're going to screw us, you're going to start to irritate us." We say, "These are the principles we operate under, and we're proud of them. Now, we're going to get down to our daily work and our daily struggles and assume everything's good. But at a certain point, if someone catches a whiff that there's people rigging the game or playing unfair, and it's messing with all of us..." And the detective takes us on those, like, "Hey, wait a second. There's a shadow story that's not the way things are supposed to be, and what are we going to do about it?" And I liked the idea that Lionel could be a pretty atypical version of that detective, not smooth, not like Bogart in The Big Sleep. When the cute shop girl in the library hits on Bogart, and he kind of double takes. It's raining. He's got that great line. He goes like, "I got a bottle of rye in my pocket. Maybe we ought to get wet in here." She goes, "Ooh." That's the scene where the girl hits on Lionel at the bar, and he can't stop blowing out the match. I liked the idea of the detective who's taking us on this journey into some things we ought to be concerned about, but who's really the opposite of Bruce Willis.

To your points, I grew up in L.A. And I watched Chinatown for the first time in a high school class learning about water.
Can I say this to you? You know what's really funny? The equivalent of The Power Broker for the American West is this book called Cadillac Desert, Marc Reisner's book. Which is not only the history that's in Chinatown, the story of L.A. stealing the Owens River Valley water, but also the Central Valley and all of it, the deep, dark, dirty politics of the dry American West. But Chinatown takes Cadillac Desert and distills this essential sense. When you watch that movie, nobody watching Chinatown has any idea what's going on in that movie eight- or nine-tenths of the way through it. It's all very Byzantine. And you're like, "The Albacore Club, these old people, this property, this guy -- what the hell is going on? I don't really get this." But what you end up coming away with is this basic understanding that L.A.'s original sin is the theft of water.

Even in high school you can kind of go, "How much of this is true? Did L.A. really steal its water? Were there great fortunes made in the San Fernando Valley by driving out the farmers? Wow. The history of L.A. has a big dark, dirty secret under it." And so the California of the American dreams, it has this big water crime. And the types of people who do that, who are that powerful, also rape their daughters. There are people who are so degraded by their power that they also think that these things, that they get a pass on. I love that idea. Not that there are people like that, but I love the idea that we have to stay alert to the idea that power can end up residing in places that it's not supposed to be. That's not where it's supposed to be. It's supposed to be in the town hall. It's in this era of the Koch brothers and these things where you say, "How the hell is this happening? How the hell is climate science been completely crushed?" And it's like, "Oh, my God. These people have amassed this enormous network of power over half of our political spectrum. And how the hell did this happen?"

To me the value of a film is, it's not a documentary, it's not a book about those histories, but it's a way of hopefully taking people into a thing where, using Jonathan's emotion, but you go in and you're like, "Whoa, this looks and feels like the real deal. This is cool. The music is good." You trigger that part of the brain where you're like, "I'm happy to be here. And this is really weird." And it can get people into a place where you're like, "Okay. I don't know what the hell this is about, but just take me along." And they can come away with an essential sense of, "Was there someone who was that powerful in New York City who really did those things and really made bridges too low for buses to take black people and Latino people to beaches? Jesus. What the hell?" That's what I think is what film can do.

You finished the screenplay in 2012. The allegorical stuff that we're talking about is almost a little prescient.
I don't mean to say, "I was prescient." I mean it was more that, to me, those were the real things that happened. There were people who architected discrimination into New York's infrastructure. I admit, I had a certain sensation in 2012 of like, "I think and hope Lionel is a good character, and it's a nice conveyance into this stuff." But I was sort of like, "Is anybody going to feel like this has any teeth anymore? Because we're moving into the post-racial America." And 2016 was definitely a snap-back. The head of Warner Brothers literally called me in like February of 2017. He was like, "We have to do this now, this year." He goes, "Suddenly I'm reading your script, and it feels white hot to me. Let's figure out a way to get it done."

Do you think the climate pushed this project, which had been lingering so long, or is it just that timing can be funny?
It's funny. I don't know. I think it's in the vagaries of it. You never know. For one thing, the person who was the biggest champion of it on its own merits in that same moment became the head of Warner Brothers. So you could say it was as much that Toby Emmerich, who I've known since he was a music executive at New Line when I did American History X. He's a person who has great taste. He didn't happen to have the job where he had the collateral to do that. So as much as [it was] Trump getting elected, Toby became the head of Warner Brothers. And thank God he's one of those people who said, "We're doing Aquaman, and we're doing the things I'm supposed to do," but who literally said, "If I have this job, I'm going to pick up Bruce Springsteen's documentary Western Stars." And "I'm going to make a movie like this that feels like an old fashioned Warner Brothers type of movie." He told me, "We made L.A. Confidential. We made Clint Eastwood's adult dramas." And I'm the beneficiary of his kind of determination to say, "Yes, we have to figure out ways to make original, adult dramas." So I got my chance.

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This is sort of a sidebar because I do find it interesting that this film is within this studio system because it feels like an outlier. But it was funny to see you pop up earlier this year in Alita: Battle Angel, which is something that you hadn't done in a while, a big blockbuster like that.
Well, yeah, I'm not in it.

I mean, you are.
I'm very good friends with Jim Cameron. He's been a mentor and a friend as much working on things together in environmental projects and nothing to do with movies. But he read Motherless Brooklyn very early on and was very, very encouraging about it. When I had some things I wanted to reshoot and redo, but I had some technical issues, he really helped me sort through some very clever ways to do certain things with some visual effects and stuff like that. I've always wanted to work with him, and he wanted me to do something in Avatar, but the schedule was gigantic. It was, like, years of my life. I couldn't do it. And then he said, he was like, "You know, this is the thing. It's been my baby for a long time. Robert's going to direct it." And I've known Robert [Rodriguez] a long time. More than anything, it was one of those things of like, these are friends of mine. It's a lark. It's fun to play in Jim's weird worlds.

And get the hair.
Yeah. Sort of like do David Bowie's -- I don't know. It was one of those things you do with your friends.

So you see it as a one-off, because I think a lot of people were saying, "Oh, now he's going to be the main villain in the sequel if they get to make it."
Well, I guess it was kind of like, "Hey, if that happened, that could be fun." But if it's a one-off, it's a great gag.

I wanted to ask about your friendship with Radiohead over the years and getting Thom Yorke to do the song "Daily Battles" for this movie. 
I've known those guys a long time. I used to see them in little clubs in New York. They played at Irving Plaza one time. We were all in our mid-20s. I'm trying to remember how... I met Michael Stipe, who, growing up, was a big deal to me. R.E.M and the Pixies. I remember when R.E.M would play clubs in D.C., and we would go down and see them. Somehow I met Michael and just became friends with him. And Radiohead was opening for R.E.M then. Michael was the first person who said to me, "You've got to hear these guys out of Oxford." That was around the time of The Bends. And then Michael told me, "They've been writing this new record. They're going to play it while they're still recording it." [It] was, I think, one of the first times they did that, they would go out and play stuff live while still making the record to get a feeling for it and then go back in [the studio] and tweak it. So Michael told me, "Let's go to Irving Plaza tonight because they're playing an unannounced show." They just came out and said, "This is the new record we're working on. It's called OK Computer." They played the record. I've never felt like the person who was at one of those moments. I'm always reading about [them, as a] fanboy, "Oh, can you imagine having been at that thing?" And that, I felt like I was at something that happened. There was this collective sense of, "What in God's name was that? Did we just hear The Wall for the first time?" It was really, really special. I think they knew it was special. I ended up sitting in the corner with Thom that night and talking. It's just been this multi-decade conversation with him now.

Jonny [Greenwood]'s been writing these great film scores, and Thom didn't seem to have that kind of interest. But I talked to him about that for the whole movie. He said he was way too busy. And then kind of just proposed to him, I said, "Can I send you the script? I want one ballad or theme that's like if you wrote Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit," emotional but slightly with a sense of the darkness of the times. But feeling like it's out of the past." And so he wrote that song. It was very striking and all the things I hoped. It crystallized some of the things in the film I thought needed underlining more. And then we ended up doing a jazz arrangement of it [with Wynton Marsalis]. That's what Laura [Gugu Mbatha-Raw] and Lionel dance to in the club is Thom's song played as a Miles Davis-style ballad. Thom was was knocked out by that. He loved it. It was all a little bit high concept, but it worked. I hope it did. I think people like Thom and Wynton Marsalis, they've become so adept at what they do. I think they're really drawn to the idea of crossing over into worlds that are novel or hold allure to them. Daniel Pemberton wrote this beautiful score. But Wynton, when he was realizing what we were doing, he kept saying to me, "Look, we can do all these dissonant, strange horn sounds." And he was pulling these Juilliard students in and saying, "This is what it means to push yourself."

Reds was very formative movie to me. When I was young, it was one of those things [where] I went, "God, the ambition of this. A three-hour movie about American socialists with documentary footage of the real people," and blah, blah. I remember Warren [Beatty] telling me that everybody said to him, "Nobody wants to see this movie." And he said, "I remember thinking, 'Oh, wow.'" And then he said, "I woke up one night, and I went, 'Wait a minute. I want to see this movie.'" And at a certain point, you have to get to a place where you say, "Are you managing for a career or are you trying to push things through the prisms of what you know and what you like and make what's of interest to you?" I thought that was very inspiring. That's one of those things I wrote down in my journal and put over my writing desk like I did when I was in college. "Remember Warren Beatty said, 'I want to see this movie.' Don't cut shit just because other people don't get it."

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Pitt and Norton accepting at the Spike "Guys Choice Awards" in 2009 when 'Fight Club' was inducted into something called the "Guy Movie Hall of Fame." | Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Are you surprised that we're still having debates about Fight Club 20 years later?
No, I think because it's elusive. I don't remember if it's in The Hero with a Thousand Faces or if it's in his interviews with Bill Moyers, but Joseph Campbell has this thing you study in college. To me I never, ever have forgotten that thing in one of his lectures where he says that if things are transparent, then they activate. If things are opaque, then people receive the story in a passive way. I've thought a lot about that. And I think Fight Club is exactly what he's talking about. Everybody of a certain age who saw it looked right through the story. The very fact that the narrator's not even named means it's me. Everybody goes, "I am in this story." It's dark, and it's surreal. It's all these things, but it's about us. I think what The Graduate did for people in '69, this sense of, "I don't want to enter this square world. I don't want to be this square." In Fight Club, [it was], "I don't want to become a copper top of consuming bite-sized life pushed on me by franchises and with a sense of masculinity that's coming from Calvin Klein." When things [are] communicated in that way, and they have lots of little Easter eggs buried in them, then people enjoy them in a different way.

But do you think the dorm room-ification -- if that makes sense -- of the image of Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden has skewed the taking the piss out of this masculinity that you and David [Fincher] wanted to do?
I remember talking about it at the time with David. Brad's one of these genetic physical specimens that makes men insecure. I was saying to Fincher, "What should I do?" And he was like, "I think you need to imagine yourself as sort of a heroin addict. It's a junkie." So I was starving myself and trying to become gaunt and wasted because the point is they think they're getting sexy, and they're actually decomposing. But then even in the process of working, Brad shows up, and he takes his shirt off, and you're just like, "Jesus. Come on, man." You're like, "This is annoying." But that's the sure sign that it was right because what the narrator is doing in imagining his alter ego, imagining the seductive allure of going in a direction, I think everybody when they walk past the shop front glass and check themselves, they grade inflate. We all do it. You grade inflate yourself into whatever you think is the slightly better version. When you know that Tyler is him imagining himself into a more perfectly renegade and yet sexy version of himself, that's what it is. You know what I mean? It's like you don't want Tyler to be decrepit; he's not fantasizing himself to as a decrepit rebel leader.

It's like the New York Magazine cover story about the incels who are getting facial reconstruction surgery. 
Oh, god.

You should read it. 
I think the fact that Fight Club generates every year, [that] we get PhD dissertations from philosophy students and divinity students and all these things, it's like Mad Libs. People fill in the blanks and read into it what they're actually going through themselves.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.