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In Motherless Brooklyn, Edward Norton channels an unlikely underdog

In a Q&A, the award-winning actor talks about Fight Club, the joys of streaming services like Netflix, and the new noir film he directed and wrote that opens in theaters Friday.

Connie Guglielmo SVP, AI Edit Strategy
Connie Guglielmo is a senior vice president focused on AI edit strategy for CNET, a Red Ventures company. Previously, she was editor in chief of CNET, overseeing an award-winning team of reporters, editors and photojournalists producing original content about what's new, different and worth your attention. A veteran business-tech journalist, she's worked at MacWeek, Wired, Upside, Interactive Week, Bloomberg News and Forbes covering Apple and the big tech companies. She covets her original nail from the HP garage, a Mac the Knife mug from MacWEEK, her pre-Version 1.0 iPod, a desk chair from Next Computer and a tie-dyed BMUG T-shirt. She believes facts matter.
Expertise I've been fortunate to work my entire career in Silicon Valley, from the early days of the Mac to the boom/bust dot-com era to the current age of the internet, and interviewed notable executives including Steve Jobs. Credentials
  • Member of the board, UCLA Daily Bruin Alumni Network; advisory board, Center for Ethical Leadership in the Media
Connie Guglielmo
21 min read

Norton as private detective Lionel Essrog in Motherless Brooklyn.

Warner Brothers

Edward Norton does a great Jimmy Stewart. His unexpected impression of the Hollywood legend comes after we trade the best lines from The Philadelphia Story, which Norton calls a "genius" comedy, ranking up there with his all-time favorite film, Ruggles of Red Gap.

"C.K. Dexter Haven! Oh, C.K. Dexter Haaaa-ven," Norton says, perfectly mimicking Stewart's drunken drawl from a famous scene with Cary Grant in the 1940 classic. Norton leans forward, a smile reaching his eyes as he continues channeling Stewart's down-to-earth, tipsy charm. "C.K. Dexter Haven. You have unsuspected depth."


Norton at CNET's San Francisco offices.

James Martin/CNET

Having unsuspected depth is something you really can't say about Norton. His depth as an actor has been on display since his award-winning debut in 1996's Primal Fear. Since then, he's starred in a string of memorable movies, playing good guys (The Illusionist, Moonrise Kingdom), the bad guy (The Italian Job), a bad guy turned good (American History X) and a tormented superhero (The Incredible Hulk.) He's voiced a noble dog named Rex (Isle of Dogs) and a Jewish bagel that sounds like Woody Allen (Sausage Party).

And he helped turn 1999's Fight Club into a cult classic, though no one would have called it that at the time. "A cult film is what you start calling your movie when it flops financially," Norton said with a laugh during a Q&A at CNET's offices last week, reminding everyone that Fight Club was a box office failure. "We were at a big film festival and it was getting booed. I was sitting in the back with Brad [Pitt], and as people were booing, he looked at me and said, 'That's the best film I'm ever going to be in.' I felt the same."

With Motherless Brooklyn (watch the trailer here), Norton has gone all in -- directing, producing, starring and writing the screenplay for the noir detective story that's inspired by, rather than based on, Jonathan Lethem's 1999 award-winning novel of the same name. It's a passion project, since Norton has been working on turning his vision of the book into a film for the past 20 years.

Why? Because, says Norton, of the main character. Lionel Essrog is an unlikely detective, an "underdog" with Tourette's syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder who sets out to solve the murder of his friend and mentor (a too brief role played by a charming Bruce Willis). Unlike the novel, which takes place in the late 1990s, Norton set the story in New York in 1957, tapping into film noir to show the horrible underside of what was happening in the city at the time.

"Noir films basically say, 'Hang on a second. We're going to peel back the corner, and we're going to acknowledge that there's a shadow narrative underneath our story. And in the shadow narrative, there's stuff going on that should give us a lot of concern,'" Norton said. "Those films tend to ask the question, 'How much are we going to tolerate of what's going on in the shadows?'I like that. I think that's healthy. And I think sometimes those [stories] come when we really need it."

In a wide-ranging interview, Norton talked about why he enjoys playing underdogs like Essrog and the Hulk, what he learned about acting from Fight Club, why he's become a tech entrepreneur interested in measuring the effectiveness of TV ads, and why he's a big fan of streaming and tech's potential for new storytelling. Here's an edited version of our conversation.

Watch this: Edward Norton on his new movie and his cat co-star

Q: You've been working on Motherless Brooklyn for 20 years. Tell us about why this was a passion project for you.
Norton: Jonathan's novel does what we all try to do in films, songs and books. It creates an instant, emotional hook with the character. As I've thought about it, I realized it reminds me of the first time you read Catcher in the Rye, and you're inside Holden Caulfield's head even as you watch him trip himself up. It's an endearing, empathetic intimacy that you form with the narrator. That's hard. Getting hooked on page one or in the first two minutes of a movie -- that's what we all shoot for. And I was very hooked by this hot mess of a character. He's really funny. He's smart. He's dysfunctional, he's lonely. He's all these great things. And underneath this very chaotic condition that he's got, he's very human. 

That condition is Tourette's and obsessive-compulsive disorder, so not your typical film noir detective.
He's not [Humphrey] Bogart. Let's put it that way. Everything Bogart is, he's not.

The story has a certain literary surrealism to it. He's an orphan in Brooklyn. He works for a detective, a cool detective. But it feels as though he's in a pocket that's never moved from the '50s. When I talked to Jonathan about transposing something, you have to think cinematically. You can't make a book. You have to imagine a film inspired by a book. It has visual scope. It  has music. It has all kinds of dimensions to it.

The novel's very interior and … it's retro contemporary. I felt like if we did it literally, you might feel like you were doing The Blues Brothers -- guys in fedoras being funny in the modern world. I thought it had more. The character deserved to be played straight. So I floated to him the idea of, what if we did what it feels like ... that it's in the '50s?

The novel is actually based in the late '90s, but the characters all talk like something out of a film noir.
They do -- like a Philip Marlowe in a Raymond Chandler novel. And fortunately, Jonathan is that rare artist who loved the idea of springboarding off of the book. He talked about the movies that he thinks stuck too close to the book and were boring. There are many, many great adaptations of books that are very freewheeling and make great films in their own right. 

Fight Club is an interesting example because the novel of Fight Club is brilliant and hilarious, but it's very small, very interior. The ending is totally different from the film and you had to put a hand grenade in and explode it into its own version of the same themes. And so I think often, freewheeling adaptations are are a better way to approach a book.


Norton with CNET's editor in chief, Connie Guglielmo

James Martin/CNET

I'm definitely going to ask you about Fight Club, but let's go back to the character at the center of Motherless Brooklyn. Who he is to you? He's quirky, interesting and brilliant underneath, but not everyone sees that.
Yeah, he tells you from the beginning that there's something wrong with his head. And as you begin to encounter it, it's pretty wild. He's not really a private eye -- he works for a private eye, who gives him a place in the world and is really his best pal and mentor.

And the film in a lot of ways is a mashup of things I love. It's sort of half Rain Man and half L.A. Confidential. The best things come from the things you love, and I love underdog films. Films like Forrest Gump, Rain Man and A Beautiful Mind -- where you have a character who's an underdog, we empathize with them. In a way, they take us on a journey that's really as much about remembering that we want to be on the side of the underdog and root for them. That's part of why those films feel good. 

I also really like not just noir films, but films that are grown up and take you back into another time -- not in a kitschy way but in a way where when you're a few minutes in, you go, 'Whoa, this is like heavy and real and deep.' And everything's right. The picture looks great. The sound is great, the music is great, and the actors are grown up.

I'm thinking of The Godfather or L.A. Confidential or Chinatown -- where you allow yourself to drift because the hypnosis of a very grown-up rendering of a time holds you. I wanted to put those things together, and I thought you could put them together because the detective in a lot of those films stands in for all of us and the times we're living in. I think people relate to feeling like an underdog, they relate to the feeling that there are powerful forces that are working against us. And that it's hard within your own daily struggles to have the energy to figure out how to contend with those forces and in some ways, be a be a citizen. I liked that idea of someone whose particular struggle is more amplified than our own, but who we can relate to -- the struggle it takes for him to get up out of his own apathy and sort of fight.


Norton with Alec Baldwin, who plays a New York boss working to remake the city at the expense of others.

Warner Brothers

You're playing somebody with obsessive-compulsive disorder who talks to himself, which is not so strange today because anybody who walks down the street with their smartphone talks to themselves.
I did it before I had a phone. [Laughs] I lived in New York City where no one looks at you twice if you're walking down the street mumbling to yourself. And then at a certain point, if you become well known for your compulsive habits, then people just go "He's talking himself, but I know him and I like his work. So hopefully he's working on something good."

Tourette's is unique in many ways. One of the things that's fascinating about it is that it expresses itself in every single person slightly differently. There are different components of it --  physical twitches and vocal obsessions, like the tic of saying the same word compulsively, or the more cliched, extreme component where people can't restrain the inhibition to yell something inappropriate. People have different mashups of all of those to different degrees. So I was free to create a collage of symptoms for him that work for him and work for the film.

You describe what's going on your head and say it's like living with an anarchist, which I thought was a great line.
I do think the writer on mythology who I love --  Joseph Campbell -- has this one great thing I've never stopped thinking about, which is that stories function best if they're transparent.

If you see through the story, and you can see this is really about me, then it lands deeper inside you. That's the identification or empathy. In things where we feel the zeitgeist, we see ourselves [and] we see the times we're living in. There are also things that are opaque. That's the stuff that gets handed to us that's some combo of high fructose corn syrup and Xanax and it's not intended to really engage us. It's intended to opiate us. And that's fine. I think there's a certain fast food value in that.

But I don't think that the things that really land deeply in any of us ask us to be passive. I think they're the things where we're interpreting and we're seeing and we're being asked questions, not given answers. 

When someone has an extreme, heightened condition like Tourette's syndrome or obsessive-compulsive disorder, though we may not have it, we still identify with them because all of us have voices in our head. We think if a couple synapses were twisted wrong, we might be that guy who's shouting what's in our head. And if we did, we know it would be trouble. Or we'd know that while we're doing things we're supposed to be doing, our brains are occupied in the most bizarre ways on looping and twisting and enslaving us.

We know there's this other person in there. 

Sometimes with really great characters, what they do is take things that are inside us all and they make them explicit. But we can still see ourselves in it and we can relate to the loneliness. We can relate to the sense of being underestimated or misunderstood. If you create that kind of relationship, nobody cares about the plot. It's more about riding with the experience of where that character's taking you and hopefully seeing them rise. Because I think when a character rises that you've identified with, you feel, like a proxy and you've come along with him.

You've used the book as a reference point and created a new story. But why does your Lionel version of Lionel have a cat? In the book, he had one, but it didn't work out.
Why does he have a cat? [Laughs] Look: The old rule that you don't work with children, animals or on water -- these are tried-and-true maxims of filmmaking that you violate at your peril. That cat was named Lester. 

We worked it out. We came to an agreement. I needed him in one key scene to stay on the bed when Lionel is actually suffering. We're seeing not the part of his condition that's funny but the part that's really painful, where his physical convulsions are hitting him so hard it's like he's going to snap his own neck with his twitching. He's coming into his apartment and we wanted to have just that moment where it's like [Lester is] his only friend, his only person is there in comfort. But then the switching is so bad that even the cat runs away. You know what I mean?

But the problem was the cat, bless him -- obviously if someone he doesn't know walks in, and he's yelping and twitching, he ain't hanging for the pat on the head. What we realized was, I had to mime it until the one [take] where we want him to run away. And then we layered in the sound later. I realized we needed to respect Lester's need for a certain method. It was a method cat actor.


Norton with Gugu Mbatha-Raw who plays lawyer Laura Rose.


Warner Brothers

You've done a lot of interviews over the past few weeks and talked about your cast, which includes Alec Baldwin and Willem Dafoe. I just thought the cat needed a moment.
I agree.

Can you talk about what this movie is about? On the surface it's a murder mystery.
I think the best thing about noir films -- and by that I mean let's put aside kitschy, B-movie spin-offs -- the best of the genre, really, there's a very American impulse in those films that I admire and which I think is healthy. We acknowledge that there's a certain narrative that we have about ourselves as a country, as a society. We have a value system -- the people have the power in our country. On a day-to-day level, we mostly believe in it, invest in it and we're proud of it. But noir films basically say, 'Hang on a second. We're going to peel back the corner and we're going to acknowledge that there's a shadow narrative underneath our story. And in the shadow narrative, there's stuff going on that should give us a lot of concern.'

And the detective tends to be like us -- not a crusader, not on the barricades, not a moralist. Just a person who's doing their job. But they go into the shadow narrative and in those films they tend to find that power is where it's not supposed to be, that power has amassed and [the bad guys are] doing things out of the view of the rest of us and damage is being done. 

What's great about guys with a certain sort of cynical veneer, like Bogart or [Jack] Nicholson, is that it's almost like, you really have to be doing bad stuff to piss these guys off. And eventually when Nicholson gets to the point of saying, "How much is enough? How much better do you have to eat before you stop screwing the rest of us?" That's all of us, all of us kind of going, "We'll tolerate a lot, but not too much."

Those films tend to ask the question, "How much are we going to tolerate of what's going on in the shadows?" I like that. I think that's healthy. And I think sometimes those [stories] come when we really need it.

So there are things that went on in New York in the '50s, the great melting-pot city where democracy really works, the shining example of American values. The truth is New York was run for nearly 50 years by a very autocratically inclined, racist property developer who was ruining everything. Wait a minute. [Laughs]

Big difference being he was a genius. The real guy was a genius and more of a Darth Vader-like figure in the sense of someone who had been like a Jedi knight, one of the bright lights of the progressive urban development movement, who went dark. Who literally went dark and went to the dark side and became the most powerful person in New York in the 20th century.

Robert Moses was his name.
Yes. He ran the city as an imperial autocrat, with almost nobody realizing that he was the most powerful person in the city or the state. He never held elected office and made every major decision about how the infrastructure of New York was built. And baked his discrimination and his racism literally into the infrastructure of the city in ways that we're still dealing with. 

This is not the story of New York that most people tell. But when you look at it, and you look at the damage done to people, to places, to our greatest train station being torn down, to the Dodgers moving to LA. Literally, lots of things that people call signature bad things, happened to New York happened because someone whom we never gave power to took it and did damage. For a variety of reasons, I think these are themes that are interesting to meditate on right now. 

That sounds polemic in a way. You can tell a good story with these things in the background and the agenda is not to make a documentary. I think in some ways it's almost more to create a literary vision that makes people say, "Wait a minute, could that really have happened? Is that true? Did they put bridges over the new parkways to the beaches purposely too low for public buses to clear so that blacks and Latinos couldn't go to the public beaches? Did that really happen?"

That idea of real dark, dark, nefarious doings and machinations, it's good storytelling.

Let's switch to Fight Club. I found an interview with you and Brad Pitt from when the movie was released. Your quote was, "This is a zeitgeist film. If we catch the spirit of the book, we will have held a mirror up to the culture at the time." Why were you so confident? The two of you seemed confident it was going to be a cult classic.
Those may have been the desperate assertions of two people who had just shown the film in the Venice Film Festival and had it booed. [Laughs]

OK, it's not going to be a hit. It's a zeitgeist film! That's it. A cult film is what you start calling your movie when it flops financially.

But people don't remember that. They don't remember it didn't do super well at the box office -- I think a large percentage of people of a certain age who were reviewing films at the time may have felt slightly indicted by it.

But as [director David] Fincher said, if we didn't piss anybody off, then we really didn't go far enough. I think some people didn't know what to make of the joke. There were people who got the joke and there were people who didn't get the joke. And that's fine. 

I think what we were feeling was that we liked it. Joking aside, we were at a big film festival, and it was getting booed. I was sitting in the back with Brad and as people were booing, he looked at me and said, "That's the best film I'm ever going to be in." And I felt the same. 

I felt confident in what we'd done because we put our own feelings and experiences into it, all of us: Helena [Bonham Carter], Brad, Fincher, [screenwriters] Andy Walker, Jim Uhls and everybody on that. … I think sometimes you have to play long ball with these things. And it's actually very gratifying. 

We know the first two rules of Fight Club. Is there a secret rule of Fight Club that we don't know about that you can share now?
Well, we had a name for the narrator, but we'll never share that.  

No, you can share it.
Oh, no we can't. 

I will say, if anything you read suggests any form of a sequel, musical or anything like that, it's clickbait and they're trying to sell you something. Don't click on it, don't read it. It's never happening. So you don't have to go to whatever ad stream is behind that clickbait article about a sequel to Fight Club.

So now you've given us a clickbait headline that there's not going to be a musical about Fight Club.
Resist. Resist. [Audience laughs.]

The best note I ever got from a director -- we were doing one of the things, where it was funny. It was definitely funny. It was like running around in the wingtips in the underwear, going a little crazy in the end. I can't remember how I was hamming it up a little bit, but Fincher came over and said, "A little less Jerry, a little more Dean." And I went, "A little less Jerry, a little more Dean. I know what that means. That's great." That's all we have to do the rest of the film, just be Jerry, Dean, Jerry, Dean. That's all. I knew what to do.

I'm a fan of your take on The Incredible Hulk. What made him a superhero you wanted to get behind?
Well, the Hulk is the myth of Prometheus, stealing fire from the gods and being burned.

And green.
Yeah, yeah, that's what I mean. Messing with nature. I always loved it. And I loved the Bill Bixby show. I grew up on it. I still think it's a great lonely [story] --  it's the reason that I love Lionel. He's the underdog.

You've said there's a lot of opportunity to get films out, even though it was a challenge to bring Motherless Brooklyn out. And part of that is streaming services like Netflix. Some people have had a point of view in Hollywood about whether it's good or bad to have these streaming services out there. What is your take on that?
It's complex. Nobody who's in the business of storytelling, generally speaking, could ever argue that there's not more opportunity for creative people to tell stories in dynamic and original ways than there has ever been in the history of filmed entertainment. There's just no argument about it. 

I think that's great. Just great. I think the idea of being precious about the form in which stories are told and shared is ridiculous. 

I think at the end of the day, it's very, very exciting. It's allowing for different form and shape to storytelling structure and length. I see nothing but opportunity and dynamism in more platforms and more forms. It's all great. 

Are you going to do something for a streaming service?
I'm not against it. Actually, a terrific director -- Cary Fukunaga, who did the first True Detective series and he did Maniac. He's also directed these fantastic films -- Sin Nombre and Beasts of No Nation and he's making the James Bond film now. We have a novel that we both love and are obsessed with, that we've been trying to wrangle into a form of a screenplay for years.

We've sort of embraced that it should just be a longer-form story so we don't compromise on what we love about it. Ten years ago, I think a lot of people would have said, "Well that's that's kind of a downgrade somehow." Nobody's thinking that way now. Meryl Streep's on Big Little Lies. The best of the best are working in every format now, and that's very exciting.

What about storytelling using tech -- things like iPhones and other personal tech to make films. Is that something you're looking at?
I make films all the time. I make goofy little films -- they're a blast. It's inevitable for someone who's been working as a camera assistant in Lagos, Nigeria, for the African soap opera factories. He's learned his chops and has a smartphone and is going to go off and make a film. And it's going to blow open all over the world. This is going to happen.

We're going to get beyond the United States being the predominant source of entertainment and content that goes global. We're going to get to where the star talents, the dynamic original talents from all over the world, are going to just reach everybody more and more easily. And the technology unquestionably is going to liberate that and create that more egalitarian and democratized kind of capacity for people to share widely.

You have a tech startup -- EDO -- that is described as a TV analytics company. What are you trying to do?
Well, this gets a little wonky, and I know this is a controversial thing to say out here, but for all the digital publishing, the largest amount of advertising dollars is still spent on linear television. And there's a reason for it, which is that it's effective. But there's a very old data set that still governs the pricing of television [like Nielsen] … this idea that you can take some proxy of people and decide how many people watched a thing. 

But in 2019, that just doesn't mean anything. That's like a stone age tool in a Star Wars era. And essentially, without getting way down into the weeds, what we do is a very, very high-grade, machine learning-driven way of looking at how individual TV ads drive immediate activity around search engagement and how that actually correlates with purchase intent. So if you're an advertiser or you're an ad seller on television, there are much, much, much better ways of determining whether the ad you ran on TV was effective or not. That's what we do.

You sound like a total techie.
Well, I've been involved in dimensions of that world. It sounds less related to the other parts of my life than it actually is. 

So Motherless Brooklyn is being put out by Warner Brothers, which is really, really neat for me. When I see that label spin up, there's a romance in it for me because that's the studio that put out L.A. Confidential and films that I absolutely loved. 

We made the film independently, but they picked it up and are putting it out and taking a big risk, right? We made the film -- we did not get $200 million from Netflix. We made the film independently for like a tenth of that. We're very proud of what we did. We kept it down, but Warner still has to take a big risk in putting it out. And to put a movie out wide, you have to spend a lot of money. And a lot of that traditionally, it's been very spray and pray.

Warner Bros doesn't have really accurate information about the effectiveness of what they're doing, [but] they're getting better and better and better at it. They're one of our biggest clients at EDO in the studio business. They're using our data with as much sophistication as any studio in town. The better they get, the better in a traditional business sense, they'll get a return for the dollars that they spend. That actually matters to artists. 

Because the better they can assess risk and the better they can assess their investment, the more tolerance they'll have. They can understand what's the right price for original movies, which are harder and harder to make because of the risk. So helping people understand effective implementation of their marketing dollars.

I don't take for granted that I'm supposed to get money from someone to make my crazy little Tourettic detective movie. I really appreciate that. I want them to do well. And if they have better data, they can do better. They'll have more tolerance for making more types of films. But also, by the way, the way we work in these things -- when we make The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson and everybody in the film worked for scale to get that done. 

We only make money if they make money. And so, literally, artists do better if [distributors] do better and have more efficiency. So to me, it sounds like data science and ad things -- what does that have to do with anything? It actually trickles down in a very meaningful way into what gets made and how do creative people do financially on the back end of it.

Last question. In 2010, you were asked to name your five favorite films, I'm going to run through them. Tell me if they're still on your list or what you would add

Ruggles of Red Gap with Charles Laughton.

This is why people have to watch movies. In Barton Fink, the Coen Brothers' movie, there's a scene where John Turturro hasn't delivered his script and the producer says, "What's taking you so long, Fink. It's not Ruggles of Red Gap. It's a wrestling picture." And I remember my roommate and I saying, "The Coens don't say anything that doesn't mean something. What is Ruggles of Red Gap? Why is he saying it's a wrestling picture and not Ruggles of Red Gap?" So we went and watched Ruggles of Red Gap, and it's like one of the greatest comedies ever. Ever. It's so funny.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
This was my top five? 

Yes, I  didn't make this list. You said top five.
It might not be in my top five. It's a great film. I'm not sure if it's in my top five anymore. I don't know.

I love Japanese films. And that's my favorite Japanese film.

The King of Comedy with De Niro?
That might be out of my top five today. I don't know,

The Cruise, a documentary?
That's definitely one of my favorite documentaries. Bennett Miller, the great filmmaker, we came up in New York together. That is one of the best films ever made about New York.

So we got Ruggles of Red Gap, Tampopo and The Cruise. You've got two more. What would you add?
I'm going to put some modern classics in. I think if people have not seen the films of Jacques Audiard, the French filmmaker who made A Prophet -- I would rank it with The Godfather and Goodfellas as the three best gangster films I've ever seen. It's a masterpiece, and the one he did after that -- Rust and Bone -- that he did with Marion Cotillard is a masterpiece. I don't think enough people saw those films. 

I think Alejandro González Iñárritu's film Biutiful, the one before Birdman, is a masterpiece. Every actor I know talks about that performance by Javier Bardem as an unappreciated masterpiece. I would so see those ones if you haven't seen those.