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Edward Norton’s ‘Motherless Brooklyn’ is a passion project both personal and professional

Edward Norton wrote, directed, produced and stars in “Motherless Brooklyn.” (Lexey Swall for The Washington Post)

Edward Norton leans in and pauses, putting a dam in his stream of consciousness. The 50-year-old actor has otherwise carried himself with an enthusiastically anxious energy throughout a conversation about his new film, “Motherless Brooklyn,” rocking his chair from side to side one moment, tapping a spoon against his coffee saucer the next. Now, Norton is taking a second to collect himself and choose his words carefully.

“I’m not trying to throw shade,” he says on an October afternoon in Georgetown. “But when L.A. people roll into New York to make a New York movie, they make a very, very different kind of movie than when New York people who have lived there for 30 years make a New York movie. It’s why Woody Allen’s movies made in New York have a kind of magic that was oft imitated, never replicated. It’s why some of [Martin] Scorsese’s earlier and best films have an awareness of where and how.”

Norton’s understanding and appreciation of New York City is evident in “Motherless Brooklyn,” a film noir homage set in the 1950s that he wrote, directed, produced and stars in. When it comes to his adopted home of the past three decades, he tends to get protective.

Loosely based on Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel, “Motherless Brooklyn” stars Norton as Lionel Essrog, a private detective with Tourette syndrome who finds himself drowning in guilt after he fails to stop the murder of his father-figure boss (played by Bruce Willis). As Lionel tracks down the men responsible, the outcast with a hyperactive mind unravels a larger conspiracy tied to the changing sociopolitical tapestry of mid-century New York City.

“Motherless Brooklyn,” out Nov. 1, marks a reemergence of sorts for Norton, who hasn’t had a substantial role on-screen since his supporting turn in the 2016 drama “Collateral Beauty.” (In the meantime, he made a cameo earlier this year in “Alita: Battle Angel” and had a voice-over part in 2018’s “Isle of Dogs.”) Search for his most recent lead role and you’ll have to go all the way back to the 2010 thriller “Stone.”

“Choosing things is very hard to systematize or characterize,” the three-time Oscar nominee says when explaining why he acts less frequently nowadays. “It’s elusive and ever-changing. When it hits, it hits hard. The only thing that has really changed for me is, at a certain point, the novelty of just a genre experience doesn’t interest me as much as it did.”

Although Norton admires films like “Chinatown” and “L.A. Confidential,” the appeal of the noir genre on its own wasn’t enough to move the needle. Rather, it was the opportunity to explore the depth of New York’s history, beauty and complexity that turned “Motherless Brooklyn” into a passion project worth its two-decade journey to the screen.

“There is a degree of love letter to the city in this movie,” co-star Willem Dafoe says. “Besides the political story that he tells and the detective story and that kind of nostalgia, somewhere deeply he addresses how — in a city of this size, with this kind of classic melting pot — people deal with each other. It’s very particular to New York City, I think.”

New York, though, is not Norton's hometown; that would be Columbia, Md., a city founded by his maternal grandfather, real estate developer James Rouse. Norton fondly remembers his formative years wedged in suburbia between Baltimore and Washington, when he would see plays at the National Theatre, make pilgrimages to the 9:30 Club, and listen to the Pixies, the Clash and R.E.M. on WHFS. In his early 20s, he relocated to New York and landed a job at his grandfather's nonprofit, Enterprise Community Partners, which helps create affordable housing for low-income residents. There, the ideas Norton would eventually probe in "Motherless Brooklyn" took root.

“I was going all over Brooklyn, all over Queens, all over in the Bronx and Harlem, and talking to people about the crushing situation they had been in” before finding affordable housing, Norton recalls. “I grew into an awareness of what had happened in the mid-’50s. These really wrongheaded ideas — but also, frankly, straight-up unapologetic racism — were baked into the infrastructural decisions of the city, essentially by one person.”

That man was Robert Moses, a mid-century urban planner who came to have an outsize influence on shaping New York City as we know it. Hailed by some for spearheading the construction of countless roads, bridges and parks across the city, Moses also bulldozed his way to a reputation for recklessly enabling elitism and gentrification.

Norton initially struggled to find a creative avenue through which to explore such sprawling issues. Then he got his hands on an advance copy of “Motherless Brooklyn” in 1999, not long after finishing production on “Fight Club” and wrapping up his Oscar campaign for “American History X.”

“There were a lot of times where I thought, ‘How could you do this?’ and it seemed very esoteric,” Norton says of his attempt to address Moses’s contentious legacy. “Then I read ‘Motherless Brooklyn,’ in which the plot is almost tertiary to the point that Jonathan, the author, can hardly narrate it to you. But it’s this phenomenal character hook. Lionel is this hot mess of contradictions — he’s hilarious, poignant, really smart. By the end of the first page, wherever this guy is going, you’re going with him.

“Then the lightbulb moment for me was that this could be the conveyance into” an urban development story, Norton says.

While the book was set in the 1990s, Norton went to Lethem with a radical proposal to revamp “Motherless Brooklyn” on-screen by changing the year to 1957. The narrative’s throwback gumshoe aesthetic would play better cinematically in a period-appropriate setting, Norton argued. Lethem gave his blessing with little persuading necessary.

Using the character of Lionel and the death of his mentor as a launchpad, Norton penned an entirely original mystery with a new cast of supporting characters. In a not-so-subtle nod to Robert Moses, the script’s antagonist became a cynical development titan named Moses Randolph (eventually played by Alec Baldwin). Although Norton’s grandfather died in 1996, his idealistic voice lives on through the character of Paul Randolph, Moses’s more empathetic brother (played by Dafoe).

“When [Paul] says to Lionel, ‘To serve people, you have to love people,’ that is literally something my grandfather would say in speeches,” Norton says. “He was very known for his unapologetically exuberantly humanist statements.”

Struck by writer’s block and distracted by the comparative simplicity of acting, Norton found himself shelving “Motherless Brooklyn” for years at a time. When he finished the script in 2012, he imagined shopping the movie to directors such as Bennett Miller, Paul Thomas Anderson and David Fincher. But then-New Line Cinema executive (and current Warner Bros. chairman) Toby Emmerich told Norton he should make “Motherless Brooklyn” a true auteur project by directing it as well, a la Warren Beatty’s 1981 historical epic “Reds.” Norton went on to have a conversation with Beatty, who helped encourage him to take the plunge.

“ ‘Reds’ was a defining film for me,” Norton says. “It changes the aspirational benchmark because you go, ‘Man, soft middle finger to everybody else.’ If you can swing like that and connect, that’s just it.”

When “Motherless Brooklyn” finally entered production last year, Norton faced a shooting schedule that was two weeks shorter than the 62 days he had to film his previous directorial effort, the 2000 religious rom-com “Keeping the Faith.” Still, his ambitious period piece came together, thanks to past lessons learned while sharing sets with visionary filmmakers. Milos Forman taught Norton the benefits of always grabbing more footage than you think you need. Working with Fincher was a master class in shot composition. Spike Lee showed Norton how meticulous preparation breeds efficiency. (“There’s no way that before working with him I could’ve made this film in 46, 47 days,” Norton notes.)

Hollywood’s film noir canon also gave Norton a wealth of tropes to draw on. With its trilbies, trench coats and smoky jazz clubs, “Motherless Brooklyn” unabashedly honors the atmosphere of classic hard-boiled mysteries. And Norton’s castmates vouched for the clarity of his communication on set.

“Edward is an actor first, so he totally understands from the inside out how you would want to get there as an actor emotionally — the vocabulary, the kind of notes that are really going to move your performance forward,” says Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who plays community activist Laura Rose. “He was so thoroughly, thoroughly prepared.”

The role of Lionel was no small challenge, either. Although Norton researched Tourette syndrome, imbuing the character with a “grab bag of things I observed in other people,” he learned that the compulsive condition manifests itself differently in every person. He therefore worried less about precisely capturing the affliction and focused more on Lionel’s journey as a low-rent private eye who stumbles into a battle for his city’s soul.

“What’s more interesting is his own confrontation with the fact that he’s giving himself a pass — he’s passive, he’s not a crusader, he’s not a moralist,” Norton says. “He essentially goes, ‘I have to get off the fence. My daily issues are not an excuse for apathy.’ ”

Lionel’s virtues are put to the test by Baldwin’s Moses Randolph, who delivers a monologue late in “Motherless Brooklyn” that speaks to the unchecked immorality of some influential white men. “Power is knowing that you can do whatever you want,” he says, “and not one person will stop you.”

As much as the speech seems to connect to the current dialogue surrounding the Trump presidency and the #MeToo era, Norton wrote the scene back in 2012. As he watched President Barack Obama’s second inauguration in January 2013, Norton even considered the possibility that “there wasn’t as much teeth in this as I felt there was.”

“I wondered if some of what I was trying to grapple with was happily moving into the rearview mirror,” Norton says. “I certainly think that what we’ve experienced is cold water in the face. There are people for whom power is its own aspiration and value. As a drug, it transforms other human beings into things to be made inconvenient or invisible.”

The movie comments on the cost of indifference when Lionel visits the original Penn Station, the architectural marvel that was demolished in 1963 to make way for Madison Square Garden. Norton acknowledges that the digital re-creation of Penn Station was a painstaking process for what amounts to a minute or two of screen time. But he never considered relocating the scene for budgetary reasons.

To Norton, the sight of that lost New York institution puts a magnifying glass to what can happen when people don’t speak up for their community.

“Jonathan’s book is beautiful because it’s about a person who is not being looked out for, and it extrapolates out into what happens when we’re not looking out for ourselves at large,” Norton says. “We let people’s neighborhoods be rolled over in the name of progress when it’s really racism. We let Penn Station get torn down out of some blinkered notion and now it’s gone forever — our Victoria station, our Gare du Nord.

“The loss of that is hard to even quantify,” he adds with exasperation. “Why did we lose it? We lost it because people didn’t make enough noise.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article transposed the call sign for the radio station that Edward Norton would listen to; it was WHFS, not WFHS. The story has been updated.