Esther McCarthy


How Edward Norton learnt from the masters

Edward Norton has put his years on sets as an actor to good use as he writes, directs and stars in Motherless Brooklyn, writes Esther McCarthy

How Edward Norton learnt from the masters

Edward Norton has put his years on sets as an actor to good use as he writes, directs and stars in Motherless Brooklyn, writes Esther McCarthy

Working with some of the world’s top directors teaches you a few tricks of the trade when it comes to making your own movie.

So when Edward Norton turned director to make the sweeping and ambitious period crime thriller Motherless Brooklyn, he remembered the many tips he had learned from being on the film sets of Spike Lee, Wes Anderson and Alejandro Inarritu.

An observant actor, Norton witnessed first-hand how those filmmakers could tackle challenges by making the very best of the resources they have.

“I worked with Spike Lee on 25th Hour, which he made in a blazingly short number of days,” he says. “The same with Birdman, the same with a lot of Wes Anderson films that I worked on.

You develop an actual understanding of a playbook of how to execute, and then more time in preparation so that you can move faster when you’re shooting. You develop your chops, in a way, by working with people who also are pulling off a lot with a little. It sets you up to understand how to orchestrate that. And it helped me a lot.”

It’s not his first time in the director’s chair, but Motherless Brooklyn is a massive project for Norton to undertake as director, writer and lead star. Adapted from Jonathan Lethem’s much-admired novel, it tells the story of a private investigator determined to solve the murder of his boss and mentor.

Set in contemporary times, Norton — with Lethem’s blessing — has shaped it into a film noir set in 1950s New York, enabling him to explore its big themes of power, greed and corruption among city bosses. Alec Baldwin is fearsome as city developer Moses Randolph.

“If you read the book, it’s not as strange a departure as it seems,” says Norton. “There’s a whole literary romance with the style and the genre of old detective novels and film. In a way, we had concerns that the characters, the way they speak and act in the novel, feels like a time capsule from the ’50s in many ways. If you shot a modern film true to the characters you’d have something that feels tongue -in-cheek. And we didn’t want to do that. We wanted to play it straight.”

He and his team used movie magic to bring back New York’s original Penn Station — an iconic Beaux-Arts style building and one of the cities greatest architectural works — onscreen.

“It’s a marvellous piece of work by very clever architectural software designers and special effects wizards,” he says of the recreation.

“Penn Station was our great transcendent gateway to the city, and it was torn down in the early ’60s, in a dark backroom deal.

"Someone wanted a concert hall/stadium there and they did a deal with the right people and suddenly it was gone.

"It’s one of those ghosts that haunts New York. It’s one of those things that the modern preservation movement in New York was almost born out of. It was such a staggering loss that many people resolved to not let things like that happen again.”

It’s an appropriate reminder of what was lost, he agrees, “when you’re making a film about the consequences and the losses that flow from power being unchecked by people.

“One of the things that’s fun to me about noir films as a tradition is that they go into that shadow narrative and they remind us that if we don’t acknowledge what’s going on in the shadows, if we either pretend it’s not there or get passive about it, or we just fail to see things as they really are, then we’re going to get burned.

I like that idea that films can be a reminder that we have to stay on our toes.


Norton has a great deal of personal interest in this subject matter. His maternal grandfather, James Rouse, was a pioneering developer, philanthropist and planner of some renown. “He was a very humanistic. He was the antithesis of Alec Baldwin’s character,” he smiles.

For a time, Norton even followed Rouse into the trade, working in affordable housing development in New York before turning to acting. “It was an amazing way to be introduced to New York, because I got to move around through all sorts of areas of the city and learn a lot about life, what the experiences of people were like who had experienced a destabilising event. I think inevitably that’s where you get exposed to some of the secret histories of what really created these dynamics.”

Norton established himself in theatre before embarking on a film career that has seen him become one of America’s most-respected actors. An early breakthrough was in courtroom thriller Primal Fear (1996) where producers were looking for an actor who could hold their own against Richard Gere.

Norton got the role after his friend Leo Di Caprio passed, and in Hollywood buzz was building for his performance before the movie was even released, in a role that won him a Golden Globe.

A memorable performance in The People Vs Larry Flynt followed, and he’s been mixing it up ever since, playing a fearsome and violent white supremacist in American History X and standing out in Fight Club, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Birdman.


But he’s long maintained the value of having a career outside of acting, and has set up a number of tech-related companies.

One was a crowd funding platform, for charitable donations called CrowdRise. These other things I’ve been involved in are more data-science oriented. They flow from other interests and experiences that I’ve had.

“The best way I can say it is I didn’t get into acting or filmmaking only to treat it like a job at a bank. You know what I mean? I don’t want to ever feel like I have to... it’s just not a 9 to 5 job. And I never wanted it to be one. It leaves room and space for developing other interests. That’s part of the beauty of it to me.”

He recently said that an actor can become their own pollution. What did he mean? “If you’re interested in characters that people absorb, if you want characters to have a really exciting authenticity, if you want to do different sorts of ones, it’s harder to do that if you’re showing up all the time in things. It’s like some version of the old idea that familiarity breeds contempt. If you’re seeing someone too much, you’re going to start to see through it.”

He feels the global growth in demand for stories on the big and small screen makes it a more democratic and exciting landscape for actors and film-makers.

“There are so many more doors to knock on. You can be wildly independent. Also, think about the nature of the types of stories that are out there now. The diversity of them. Think about the programming, the types of shows that are on now, the subjects. It can always get even better. But I think it’s also better than it’s ever been.”

Motherless Brooklyn is in cinemas from Friday, December 6

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