Edward Norton's 'Motherless Brooklyn' Is Set In Robert Moses' New York The actor stars in — and directs, and wrote the screenplay for — his adaptation of Jonathan Lethem's detective novel. But he moved it to the 1950s to mine a dark side of NYC history.
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Why Edward Norton Moved 'Motherless Brooklyn' To The New York Of Robert Moses

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Why Edward Norton Moved 'Motherless Brooklyn' To The New York Of Robert Moses

Why Edward Norton Moved 'Motherless Brooklyn' To The New York Of Robert Moses

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Edward Norton's new movie, "Motherless Brooklyn," is the first he wrote, directed and stars in. It's set in New York in the 1950s, a noir detective film. Norton plays Lionel, a private eye with Tourette's syndrome.


EDWARD NORTON: (As Lionel) I got something wrong with my head. That's the first thing to know. It's like having glass in the brain. I can't stop picking things apart, twisting 'em around, reassembling 'em. Words and sounds, especially. It's like an itch that has to be scratched.

KELLY: He twitches, blurts out words, as is typical of Tourette's. He's also brilliant, mind like a tape recorder, which comes in handy as he investigates the murder of his mentor and friend. When Edward Norton stopped by our studios at NPR West, I started by asking him why he had taken the story, which is based on a novel set in the 1990s, and shifted it to the '50s, and whether that changed the way he wrote Lionel.

NORTON: In the book, all his old pals from the orphanage, they call him freak show, right? And it had - it feels like another time. Like, it doesn't feel like the sensitized, sort of politically correct world that we live in. You know, it's hard-boiled, and it seemed like suddenly to me that Lionel, if we went to the '50s, Lionel could be a really terrific vehicle for going deep into the murk of what happened in New York in that time.

KELLY: You are playing a character with a very prominent disability who is treated cruelly by just about everybody in the movie. Was that more possible situating it in the '50s when it just - people weren't as politically correct, when it was OK to call somebody a spastic, which is a word your character calls himself in the movie?

NORTON: Yeah. Not a word you hear today.

KELLY: Yeah.

NORTON: You know...

KELLY: I mean, it's - you hear the word now, and it makes you cringe.

NORTON: Yeah. It makes you cringe.

KELLY: But said in the '50s, you think that's probably...

NORTON: That's right.

KELLY: ...That's probably how they talked.

NORTON: In institutional settings, I think that's how they referred to people who had either palsies or things like Tourette's where they twitched. Tourette's syndrome, many dimensions of it are fascinating. It's not a mental illness at all. It's a neurological disorder. Lionel does not have a mental disorder. He is not, like, limited.

KELLY: No. As I said, he's brilliant.

NORTON: He's brilliant and sensitive. And actually, in his own way, a street-hardened Brooklyn tough guy of an era when people weren't taking care of each other, when American values had shifted from sort of pre-war, Depression-era commitment to the idea that American life was about lifting each other up to a kind of post-war, we're now the superpower - you know, obsession with strength. And what happened to the city, the brutal push for modernization and progress was prioritized over communities. And there was a lot of cost. There was a lot of pain and damage done that we're still dealing with.

KELLY: Yeah. There's a gorgeous scene in a nightclub in Harlem. Lionel references that his mom used to be able to calm him down when she would just touch him. And there's this scene in the nightclub in Harlem. Another woman, who Lionel is maybe becoming interested, in touches him. And they're dancing. And you see him calm.


KELLY: That actual music is Wynton Marsalis playing. Is that right?

NORTON: It is. That's a composition that was Clifford Brown and Max Roach, called "Blues Walk." It was a staple of kind of that hard bop era...

KELLY: Yeah.

NORTON: ...In the '50s. Because the story takes us into this very atmospheric jazz club in north Harlem.


NORTON: Interestingly, I had a whole chapter of - in my college life of, you know, my go-to to try to, like, create a seductive mood when I was in college was to put on Wynton Marsalis, called "Intimacy Calling." And it had this picture of Wynton in a hat with his feet up and his horn in his hand. And I had a long period where I imagined that I might be perceived that way if I turned the lights down low enough. So when...

KELLY: Sorry. I got to ask. Did it work? Did the women buy it?

NORTON: Never.

KELLY: Never. OK.

NORTON: I was going to say, when - I told him when I met him, I said, you know, you were my go-to, and you never came through for me...

KELLY: (Laughter).

NORTON: Not once. You are not the closer.

KELLY: But you're not holding a grudge. And here he is in your movie.

NORTON: No. No. Because - well, he paid off his debt by doing this film with me.

KELLY: There you go. He owed you.

NORTON: Yeah. (Laughter).

KELLY: The movie tells this story that's about endemic racism in New York in the '50s. There's one detail that your character, Lionel, stumbles on that will stick with me. He discovers that the city was deliberately building bridges too low because buses, which is what a lot of people of color were relying on to get around, they couldn't get to beaches. They couldn't get to public spaces that the city was building. Is that true? Did that really happen?

NORTON: Yeah. Yeah. It's actually documented in not only Robert Caro's book about Robert Moses, called, "The Power Broker," but it's - I think it's referenced in the Burns series "New York." You know, the assumption was that minorities didn't own as many cars and that when the new parkways were built to these grand public beaches to help people escape the rat race and inspire the mind, right, there was all this language that made people go, wow, these are great gifts to the public brought by selfless public servants. But then with great intention, they limited the access to those public assets.

KELLY: All right. We have been circling around the Alec Baldwin character, and I want to go there. You have cast him as Moses Randolph, this corrupt city planner, who, his critics say - and I think it's pretty clear from the movie - he's trying to drive poor families out of neighborhoods he wants to build in in New York. I want to play a little bit from the climactic confrontation with your character, Lionel. This is Moses Randolph explaining his world view.


ALEC BALDWIN: (As Moses Randolph) Do you have the first inkling how power works? Power is feeling, knowing, that you can do whatever you want, and not one person can stop you. And if I want to build highways while the rest of the country is broke, I'll punch through any damn neighborhood I want. If some Negro slum is where I'm going to put my federal project or the off-ramp of my bridge, well, the goody-goods can shrink and moan all day long.

KELLY: Edward Norton, I have to ask because we're talking New York real estate, we are talking a larger-than-life character obsessed with power who is being played by Alec Baldwin...

NORTON: (Laughter).

KELLY: ...Is there is there an intentional reference here to Donald Trump?

NORTON: No. Fairly emphatically no, in the sense that I finished writing this in 2012.

KELLY: Pre-Trump.

NORTON: Yeah. Well, Donald Trump was a game show host. I would say President Trump is a game show host, also. It's just a more damaging game that he's playing.

KELLY: But did you change - well, I mean, because this movie's coming out in 2019, did you change the script?


KELLY: You had to be aware that people would look at Alec Baldwin, who we all know from "Saturday Night Live," and think, oh, my God...


KELLY: There he is.

NORTON: The thing is that the character that Alec plays is a genius. He masks his power to the degree that everybody thinks he's the parks commissioner. I was much less interested in what I would call clownish, Mussolini-like autocracy and more interested in the idea that the much bigger danger is when people amass power that we didn't give them and we can't see it. That actually is the way noir at its best tends to function, as a mechanism for saying, we're going to look at what's going on in the shadows under American life. When we're not looking at what's going on, we're in real, real danger.

KELLY: Edward Norton. He wrote, directed and starred in the new movie "Motherless Brooklyn."

Edward Norton, thank you so much.

NORTON: Pleasure.

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