At what point did you hit on the '50s setting and bringing a Robert Moses-esque character into the narrative?
Norton: 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.
Norton: 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.
Norton: 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.
Norton: 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.