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Edward Norton On Urban Planning And 'Slow Cooking' 'Motherless Brooklyn'

For actor Edward Norton, a passion for urban planning runs in the family. His grandfather, James Rouse, was an idealistic developer and planner who designed Faneuil Hall in Boston and the Baltimore Inner Harbor.




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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's out with a cold. Yesterday, before her voice was as hoarse as it is today, she recorded the interview we're about to hear with Edward Norton, who wrote, directed and stars in the film "Motherless Brooklyn." He adapted it from a novel by Jonathan Lethem but rewrote much of the story. Norton's known for his roles in films such as "American History X," "Fight Club," "The 25th Hour," "Moonrise Kingdom" and "Isle Of Dogs." He's been nominated for three Oscars, including one for his performance in "Birdman."

Norton grew up in a diverse planned community, Columbia, Md., designed by his grandfather James Rouse, who was described in his New York Times obituary as a socially conscious, visionary developer who built new towns in the countryside, shopping malls in the suburbs and festival marketplaces like Faneuil Hall in Boston. He used some of his profits to help generate housing for the poor. Rouse stands in contrast to the city planner and developer played by Alec Baldwin in "Motherless Brooklyn." He's a corrupt power broker, forcing working-class Americans out of their neighborhoods to make way for new developments.

Norton plays a private eye who stumbles on this corruption while investigating a murder. Norton's character is a loner who has Tourette syndrome and is always explaining and apologizing for his tics, twitches and verbal outbursts. In this scene, he's driving a young African American woman, an activist who's trying to prevent working-class black people from being forced out of their homes. The car radio is tuned to a jazz station, and he's trying to explain his tics and verbal outbursts, like this one.


EDWARD NORTON: (As Lionel Essrog) Bebop Bailey (ph) in the Metropolitan Opera House. I'm sorry. I'm sorry.

GUGU MBATHA-RAW: (As Laura Rose) Don't be sorry. It's kind of funny.

NORTON: (As Lionel Essrog) Yeah? Well, hang around a little while and see what you think. Ef (ph).

MBATHA-RAW: (As Laura Rose) What is all that, anyway?

NORTON: (As Lionel Essrog) I don't know. I never got a name for it. It's like a piece of my head broke off and got a life of its own and then just decided to keep joyriding me for kicks. Kicks and tics. Licks and tics. Sorry.

MBATHA-RAW: (As Laura Rose) It's OK.

NORTON: (As Lionel Essrog) It's like living with an anarchist, you know. The funny thing is, is it also has to have everything in its right place, things have to be ordered and lined up just right, has to sound just right, or else it'll really put me into knots until I fix it. Like, I'm talking to you right now - right? - but that part of my head, it's worrying. It's worrying that the bills in my wallet aren't lined up all in the right sequence and saying, stop talking to this girl and deal with this. It's not fair.

MBATHA-RAW: (As Laura Rose) Hey, we all got our daily patterns, right?

NORTON: (As Lionel Essrog) Yeah, fair enough.


Edward Norton, welcome to FRESH AIR. Thanks for coming. I love the film.

NORTON: Thanks so much. Glad to be here.

GROSS: So you don't have Tourette's. You're not an orphan like the main character in "Motherless Brooklyn" is. But are there things you identified with about this character?

NORTON: Sure, I mean, apart from an identification with compulsive tendencies and a tendency to have arguments with myself in my own brain (laughter). What makes any character great who has a heightened condition that's maybe more extreme than anything the rest of us live with is if we can still see ourselves in them, and I think Lionel's got paradoxes in him. He's got contradictions. He's really smart. But he trips himself up. He's pretty dysfunctional and chaotic, too. He's tough. He's a Brooklyn street kid. But he's also really lonely and sad, you know?

And I think whether or not you've got Tourette's, you can relate to the feeling of being misunderstood or underappreciated. He's an underdog.

GROSS: There's a part in the film where this character's having a conversation with a jazz trumpeter played by Michael K. Williams. And the character, Lionel, the detective, is trying to explain his, like, tics and obsessions and saying things that he doesn't mean to say and how his brain seems to have something wrong with it. And the trumpeter says, OK, you got a head that's always boiling over, turning things around. But that's music. It controls you. Some people call it a gift, but it's a brain affliction all the same. Did you write that?


GROSS: And where does that come from? Do you feel that way about acting sometimes?

NORTON: I do. I do, yes. In a lot of ways, the trumpet player was me (laughter) in the sense that I've always felt - like, when Lionel says to the trumpet player, yeah, but, you know, at least you have a horn to push it out through and make it sound pretty, I'm just, you know, stuck twitching and shouting. I feel like acting gives me an outlet for a compulsion I have toward mimicry, that I've always had as a kid - imitating people's voices, the sounds of their accents. It's a very reflexive thing for me.

And I think acting, also, and writing - there's a lot of obsession with words in it, a lot of, I think, compulsive twisting-around of words and language. There's a jazz - that music that was playing in that scene you just played is from the great album "Bird And Diz." And it's funny, like, "Bird And Diz" is - like, it's a jazz album that any movie actor can really relate to because they've got, like, four takes of "Lester Leaps In" and, you know, four takes of each of the tracks. Though, in fact, this track called "Bloomdido" is the only one that there's a single take of it. They put multiple takes.

And that's what film acting is; it's chasing a variation on a theme that lands right in your head. And I think I relate very much to that musical kind of impulse to keep twisting a phrase around until it hits some sort of state of Zen in your head.

GROSS: I want to get back to the idea that you were compulsive about mimicking people when you were young. Tell me more about that.

NORTON: I think sometimes my parents thought it was funny, and then sometimes it became a thing - like, a manners thing (laughter), like, I think they could feel me starting to - almost, like, Zelig-like - absorb the vocal mannerisms of people that I was hanging out with. And it was so - it was totally innocent. It was like - and, you know, if I was hanging around with cousins who were from the South, I would find myself sort of falling into their Southern, you know, kind of twang.

Partly, I think it's, like, a genuine kind of memetic impulse to - that - because I just - I can't explain it. It is like a compulsion. But in part, also, I think, to me, there was probably some desire to create kind of a bond or a sense of intimacy or become part of that club because I never really felt like I was in a clique or anything like that. And sometimes I think if you feel - I don't want to say isolated. But if you feel like an outsider looking in in your social life, like, in a lot of ways, I think you morph yourself. I think all kids do that in some ways. I just - I was very inclined to kind of morph to fit in with the people I found myself around.

GROSS: Did you feel like your voice had no personality, so should - you should take on other people's voices?

NORTON: Yeah, somewhat. I've always been drawn to the specificity of other people. And I think the idea of playing dress-up psychically has always been interesting to me, the idea of, like, getting inside headspaces or physicalities that are different from my own is - it's exciting, you know. It's like getting to lead alternative lives.

GROSS: So when you were a child and you were doing all this compulsive mimicking of other people's voices, that could be a way of fitting in. It could be a way of flattering somebody. It could be a way of really insulting someone. So did you often mimic people's voices behind their backs or to their faces in a way that was mocking? And what was the - so I guess...

NORTON: No. I was little. If I - I was little. If I didn't slip around in the world in a friendly way, I (laughter) - it was not like I was some tough kid. You know, just like anyone who does impersonations - I talked about this with Larry Wilmore, who used to be on "The Daily Show," and he's a great writer and producer and stuff. And Larry's really, really deft talent for impersonation, too. And we talked at length just about how when you have that impulse, like, you do it by yourself. You know, you do it in the car. You do it singing along and imitating singers, imitating people. You know, it's like - it's not always directed at other people or related to the interaction with other people at all.

GROSS: So "Motherless Brooklyn" is adapted from a novel by Jonathan Lethem. But you've changed so much of the story. Why did you want to adapt it and, after getting the rights to adapt it, like, totally rewrite it? You changed the setting from the late '90s to the late 1950s. You changed a lot of the story. You added new characters. So talk about wanting to adapt it and then basically rewriting it, yeah.

NORTON: Well, Jonathan and I - I have a really great relationship with him, and he's, like, a wonderful writer. As I started thinking about adapting it, we ran into things that I confront - I brought up to Jonathan very quickly, which were just that the book has a very - it has a very meta tone to it. It has a little bit of a self-referential '50s Raymond Chandler homage feeling. And I was a little concerned about it. I didn't want it to feel like irony. I didn't want it to feel like the whole thing was a joke or that Lionel's condition was a gag.

And there seemed to me something almost more true to the spirit of the book to put it in the '50s. And he really liked that idea because Jonathan loves noir movies. He's very - he's got a very deep knowledge of those films. And he wasn't precious about the book. He was precious about the character; he wanted the integrity of the character to sustain. But he said things to me like, I think some of the best film adaptations are the ones that springboard in the most interesting and unexpected ways.

So setting it in the '50s and weaving into it this whole other story that's not in the book of, basically, what Robert Moses did to New York in the '50s was my idea, but Jonathan was unbelievably supportive. He gave me, like, a very liberal and generous hall pass to go and almost, like, do a alternative universe version of this - of the adventure that his character goes into.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Edward Norton. He wrote, directed and stars in the movie "Motherless Brooklyn." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Edward Norton. He wrote, directed and stars in the new film "Motherless Brooklyn." "Motherless Brooklyn" reminds me so much of "Chinatown," but, like, the New York version. You know, "Chinatown" is set in LA in the '20s, '30s? Thirties probably, right?


GROSS: And what's really scarce in LA is water. So the mystery has a lot to do with water rights and corruption in water rights. And your movie, "Motherless Brooklyn," is set in New York, and what's scarce in New York? Land rights. So this has to do with land rights and construction rights and redevelopment and somebody very corrupt behind a lot of it. And that corrupt person is named Moses Randolph, and they're clearly modeled on Robert Moses. And Robert Moses, you know, remade a lot of New York. He tore down a lot of buildings and - buildings sometimes that he considered slums and then built bridges and roads and theaters and beaches

NORTON: And the projects. Yeah, the housing projects, the federal - you know, which, ironically, in New York, many neighborhoods that were actually stable working-class minority neighborhoods were tagged slums so that federal money could be used to clear them and build things like the federal housing projects, which in fact became essentially the worst slums in New York.

GROSS: Your grandfather, James Rouse, was a developer. And his emphasis was on building diverse communities for diverse economic and racial and ethnic groups to live in together. So did you see your grandfather as a kind of alternate version of Robert Moses?

NORTON: Yeah, he certainly was. His values were almost polar opposite, diametrically opposed - however you want to put it - to Robert Moses. He - a lot of my grandfather's ethos and values come through the character that Willem Dafoe plays in the film. Willem Dafoe plays the brother of this sort of dark and powerful developer, city planner.

And some of my grandfather's ideas about cities and the need to think of them in human terms and to think of the impact on people, not some abstract vision of progress or the future or infrastructure, but, you know, the idea of cities as a place that help people become the best version of themselves. He had a very humanitarian - some would have said almost utopian - kind of ideal that drove him. But he was also extremely effective. He was very prescient in terms of predicting what was going to lead to the decay of cities in the '60s and '70s. And he was a real visionary in terms of thinking about the ways that urban centers could be revitalized instead of being abandoned. And he was a big believer in community and culture and revitalization, as opposed to the wrecking ball.

GROSS: Among the things he did was develop malls and marketplaces in cities, including Faneuil Hall in Boston, Harborplace in Baltimore and, in Philadelphia, The Gallery, which was considered, I think, either the first or one of the first urban malls. And interestingly (laughter), it was recently, basically - not exactly torn down but totally remodeled. It's no longer The Gallery; it's now called Fashion District. It's a whole different thing. So I don't know if you knew about that.

NORTON: That could have been - in Philadelphia, actually, his nephew, my uncle, Willard Rouse...

GROSS: Oh, that's right.

NORTON: ...Did a lot of the Philadelphia development, yeah.

GROSS: That's right. That's right. That's right.

NORTON: That was not - that wasn't actually my grandfather. But the ones you're talking about - Baltimore's Inner Harbor and the Faneuil Hall, the marketplace in Boston - those were good examples of places that - in cities that had been written off. Actually, the Baltimore Inner Harbor was literally a dump. It was a trash dump.

And, you know, he saw opportunity in parts of city centers that had really been, you know, essentially relegated to being pockets of true decay, you know. And he - people told him he was crazy; you can't make, you know, a vital marketplace out of these parts of the city. And he proved people wrong over and over again and kind of brought life back in - he was really one of the people who kind of shaped the modern urban renewal ideas that we've seen take place in a lot of places, where you've seen revitalization through creative reuse of sort of decrepit, former industrial, you know, parts of the city, parts of cities.

Even in New York, we worked on - I worked on the High Line project. I was an early board member of this project where we - you know, we turned the - an abandoned elevated rail track that was slated to be torn down into a park. And it was very much in the spirit of the things my grandfather loved - you know, envisioning something as a place for people, as opposed to simply, like, an old piece of infrastructure that needed to be torn down, which would have cost hundreds of millions of dollars and gotten the city nothing. And instead, we got - we reimagined something, and it became not just a gem in the city but actually a big part of the economic revitalization of the whole industrial West Side.

GROSS: I haven't been to that yet, but I've heard great things about it. What was your role in developing it?

NORTON: I was - I lived in the neighborhood, and I used to climb up on it and walk along this kind of wild stretch of tree-filled train tracks. And I was amazed by it. And then when I saw that these two guys, Joshua David and Robert Hammond, had launched this little community group initially just to fight against tearing it down.

There wasn't a vision of a park, originally. I joined forces with them. I became an early fundraiser and board member and just was a passionate supporter and an advocate of that project from the early days of it. And those guys became some of the most noted civic heroes of my generation in New York. They won the Jane Jacobs Prize and really, you know, showed what people can do when they stand up and defend their city.

There's a lot of that in "Motherless Brooklyn," too. There's a scene where you actually go into the old Penn Station, you know. And of course, that's, like, New York's great ghost. We lost Penn Station. We lost our great, transcendent train station that you entered and exited the city from because of dark backroom deals. And people weren't aware of what was going on, and when it was gone, suddenly everybody was saying, how could that have happened? You know, how could we have lost our great rail station? Like, you know, that's like Paris' Gare du Nord or Victoria Station or Union Station, you know. It's like we - and now New York - you know, you scuttle in underground like a rat. You don't have any...

GROSS: (Laughter).

NORTON: You don't have any great, transcendent experience of entering or exiting the city. And those kinds of wounds, those kinds of losses, I think are a lot about - "Motherless Brooklyn's" got a lot of that in it. I think - it's like, what do we lose when people don't know what's going on in the shadows, you know, when we don't pay attention to the ways that powerful people are, you know, rewriting the rules?

DAVIES: We're listening to the interview Terry recorded yesterday with Edward Norton. He wrote, directed and stars in the new film "Motherless Brooklyn." After a break, they'll talk about how some of the film's plot is inspired by Norton's grandfather, James Rouse, an idealistic developer who stands in contrast to the corrupt developers and power brokers in the film. Norton grew up in a planned community his grandfather developed. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's out with a cold. Let's get back to Terry's interview with Edward Norton, who's had starring or supporting roles in such films as "American History X," "Fight Club," "25th Hour," "Moonrise Kingdom," "Isle Of Dogs" and "Birdman." He wrote, directed and stars in the new film "Motherless Brooklyn." He plays a private detective with Tourette's syndrome who's uncomfortable around most people but is great at digging up information. While investigating a murder, he discovers corruption in the world of New York City Planning and Development. Working-class neighborhoods with predominantly African American residents are being destroyed to make way for new projects. The residents are being evicted, and the city isn't providing the help it promised.

GROSS: You grew up in one of your grandfather's planned communities in Columbia, Md. And this was a community built from scratch. What was different about that community from other communities?

NORTON: It was very idyllic. It really was. I mean, you took things for granted that would have been very - you know, there was - if there was an elementary school and a public pool and other sort of neighborhood facilities, Columbia was designed so that upper-middle-income housing, middle-income housing and even Section 8 housing, like, all was - were woven together in ways that made people of all socioeconomic and ethnic mixes, persuasions, shared, you know, community resources, neighborhood resources, schools, pools, shopping centers. Even mailboxes in Columbia weren't at your house. They were on your street. They were joint, you know, mailboxes where everyone in the neighborhood had to go to the mailbox to get their mail. And it was literally done by design so that people would meet each other at the mailbox and foster a sense of community. It was very, very, very forward thinking and very - and so when I was growing up, there was a lot about the mix and shuffle of kids I played with. It was from a very diverse bunch of backgrounds. And you just didn't even think about it as a kid. It was just really cool.

GROSS: Were you known in the neighborhood as the grandson of the developer who created the community?

NORTON: Funny question - somewhat, somewhat. It was a very low-grade form of notoriety in our community. Fortunately, he was such an unpretentious person. He was a real eccentric. He wore - he was very beloved. He was the kooky granddad of the whole place because he wore madras pants and green jackets and fishing hats with fly lures in them. And he was just kind of a character. So a lot of people really loved him. And it made it easy. It wasn't - he was so folksy and homespun that he was very accessible to people. So it wasn't like, you know - and he was un-showy (ph). Like, he had a very modest lifestyle. So it wasn't like being John D. Rockefeller's son or something like that at all. It was the opposite.

GROSS: Did he live in the community?

NORTON: Oh, yeah, yeah. It was like sharing your granddad with everybody else. But that was fun because he was so funny and goofy, and I was, like, proud of him but almost more just because everybody loved him.

GROSS: Was it different for you when you moved out of that community and went to communities that weren't as diverse?

NORTON: Sure, yeah. You know, I was in shock when I went to an Ivy League school and had roommates that had gone to, you know, schools where there was virtually no black kids in their schools. Like, it - you know - and not just private schools but public schools, you know? One of my roommates went to a public school outside Pittsburgh, and it was, like, 2,000 people. It was, like, an all-white school. It was just, like, hard for me to even comprehend that that had been people's experience, you know, or that the idea of - we had a roommate from Compton, and it was - that was quite exotic to some of my other roommates. And it didn't even - you know, I couldn't really comprehend, you know, a growing up experience that was that segregated, really. There's no other word for it.

GROSS: I recently read in The New York Times an article that was partly about Columbia, Md., where you grew up because the county that it's in is trying to do some redistricting and school busing to make things more ethnically diverse in the schools. And there's been a lot of resistance to it. Have you been following the story?

NORTON: I saw that, yeah, yeah. I - some of the undertones of it were - are so ugly, you know, not even undertones. It's like - you know, it's like things - people talk about this 'cause I did this film "American History X," and when we did it, it seemed - the ideas in it were so fringe. And we were presenting them as, you know, extremist...

GROSS: You were a neo-Nazi in it. You were a white nationalist.

NORTON: Yeah, extremist, yeah, you know, a skinhead and all these things. And now you're constantly seeing examples of essentially the same ideas given room within mainstream conversations. When I read that article and I realized that there was people, you know, opposing it who were invoking that level of racist, xenophobic dialogue in some notion of defending, like, a community, it made me sick to my stomach. My grandfather would have been rolling over. It's a little bit complicated because Howard County - Columbia, Md., sits within Howard County. And Howard County is a big county. And so there's a lot - you know, there's Columbia, but there's a lot of county around it.

I was unclear how much of the resistance was more broadly across, like, more rural parts of the county and how much of it actually stemmed from within Columbia, which would be beyond shocking to me. I mean, really, really shocking. On the other hand, you know, I grew up in the early days of that. And Columbia now is a community of, I think, nearly 150,000 people. So you're probably going to see all dimensions and points of view in America, even the negative ones, reflected in some measure in any community that size. But I haven't lived there in so long. I just don't know.

GROSS: So I have just one more question about growing up in Columbia. I mean, you can create housing for economically diverse groups of people and hope to attract racially and ethnically diverse people. But, I mean, you're not going to be auditioning them for humanitarian values that conform to your grandfather's humanitarian values in envisioning this community. Do you know what I mean? So I am wondering, like, how many people in the community actually shared the values that the community was meant to represent?

NORTON: I think most people would say that in the beginning, the declared values of the community - and it wasn't passive. My grandfather was extremely active in writing about and in the marketing. They used phrases - Columbia, Md., will be an open community. You know, they were very overt in declaring that it was welcoming to people of all ethnicity, race, creed, economic station. It was - they did wave a banner or ring a bell and say this is a progressive community. And in the early days, there was an enormous amount of, I think, many, many, if not the majority, of people who were drawn to live there were very much drawn specifically to the idealism of Columbia. And I think you felt it growing up there.

GROSS: You know, we've been talking about Robert Moses, the very powerful developer in New York who had been parks commissioner among other powerful jobs that he held in New York. And we were also talking about your grandfather, James Rouse, who was a very idealistic developer. So the developer in your movie, whose name is Moses Randolph, is inspired by Robert Moses. And you cast Alec Baldwin to play him, which is interesting in so many ways. And one of the ways it's really interesting is that, like, Alec Baldwin on "Saturday Night Live" plays Donald Trump, who is - or was - you know, a developer and...

NORTON: A racist property developer who's ruining the world.

GROSS: (Laughter) Well, your words.

NORTON: Yeah, I - but the thing is - here's the thing. I wrote the script - I was finished writing the script by 2012. In 2012, our insane clown president was a game show host, and it was certainly not aimed at him. It was much more, to me, a - kind of a distillation of the people that I think are the most dangerous and that I think in a lot of ways noir as a film tradition tends to look at, which is who are the people in the shadows? Where is the power that's dangerous to us that we can't see?

GROSS: Well, let's hear a scene with you and Alec Baldwin from "Motherless Brooklyn." And you've been posing as a reporter trying to dig up information about the murder of your friend and mentor, who was the head of the detective agency where you worked until he was murdered. And you've connected - you've managed to connect the murder to this corruption in this redevelopment scheme in New York that seems to be masterminded by Alec Baldwin's character. So you're talking to him knowing that he is a ruthless power broker with plans to tear down a lot of neighborhoods to create his vision in their place.


NORTON: (As Lionel Essrog) Is he above the law? Is that it?

ALEC BALDWIN: (As Moses Randolph) No. I'm just ahead of it.

NORTON: (As Lionel Essrog) What's the difference?

BALDWIN: (As Moses Randolph) Well, the laws are rulebook we make for the times we find ourselves in. You rebuild the city, in my experience, the law will follow you and adapt to what you do.

NORTON: (As Lionel Essrog) Yeah, a lot of people like this city the way it is. Who are you rebuilding in it for?

BALDWIN: (As Moses Randolph) The people to come 50, 100 years from now. What will matter of what we've done now? What will help people to make science fiction real? The laws of today are roads and bridges and tunnels for commerce to move swiftly over, beaches and parks to let people escape the rat race and inspire the mind, palaces of culture great hellish slums used to be.

NORTON: (As Lionel Essrog) It all sounds pretty grand, I guess, unless you happen to be one of the people whose house is in the way right now.

GROSS: OK, that's a scene from "Motherless Brooklyn" with Alec Baldwin and my guest, Edward Norton. So when you cast Alec Baldwin to play the Robert Moses-like character, was Baldwin already portraying Trump on "SNL?"

NORTON: Yes, he was already - he had been doing that.

GROSS: And did that figure into casting him at all?

NORTON: No, no. Really - in a way, the opposite. He and I both were like, do you think it matters that there's a couple little signposts on this? And it didn't to me because there's just not that many actors like Alec who have the heft and the - that old-world New York political boss, like, characteristic, you know? And he's so great with language. When I - I cast Alec Baldwin because when I imagined that big, final, dark soliloquy in the pool at the end of the movie, I really couldn't think of very many people who I thought would do it better than him. I could hear him saying those things in my head.

GROSS: Were you thinking of "Glengarry Glen Ross" also?

NORTON: Of course. You know, coffee is for closers only.

GROSS: (Laughter).

NORTON: The fact that I can sit here and say it, you know - you know, the fact that you can remember a scene like that is a testament to something about the power of that actor's ability to deliver that kind of a line.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Edward Norton. He wrote, directed and stars in the film "Motherless Brooklyn." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Edward Norton. He wrote, directed and stars in the new film, "Motherless Brooklyn."

A lot of film noir has jazz scores. And certainly "Chinatown" has a great jazz score. And "Chinatown" seems to be one of the inspirations for your film. There's two things I want to play back-to-back from the soundtrack. You use a song by Thom Yorke of Radiohead and Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and it's a new song. I'm wondering how that became part of the film.

NORTON: Yeah, Thom Yorke has been, for me - in my generation, I think he's one of the very best writers in modern music in terms of capturing both sort of longing sensations in the heart, melancholy, but then also in his music really capturing kind of the fracture and the darkness and the dissonance of living in times that feel overwhelming or oppressive and stuff.

And I just liked the idea that his voice was sort of Lionel's voice. Like, I got this notion in my head that Lionel, with this dissonant brain that he has, I thought, you know, well, Thom just sort of expresses a lot of what I think is going on in Lionel. And instead of using some cliched needle drop of, like, a Billie Holiday song in a jazz film to express melancholy, I thought we should try something new. We should write our own standard. We should write a melancholy ballad that's unique to Lionel so that you're not having a relationship with the song - you know, oh, that song I already know is in this movie. You have a moment where you go, oh, what is this haunting, beautiful song and voicing? That way it can envelop the character and become one with the character and become one with the movie instead of being an imposed prior relationship that you have.

So I asked Thom if he would write a ballad that feels like it's plucked from the past. He wrote this beautiful song, "Daily Battles."

GROSS: So I want to play that, but later in the film, there's a jazz version of it, just an instrumental version with Wynton Marsalis playing trumpet. And it's really beautiful. So I want to play them back to back, first the Thom Yorke version and then the version with Wynton on trumpet. Do you want to say anything about that before we hear it?

NORTON: It's funny. It was - my character had to dance with a girl in the jazz club in this one moment. And Wynton had helped me curate and was playing the music in this jazz club. And it was sort of like if we play a ballad that everybody knows, they'll be distracted by that. We want them focused on the characters. And so Wynton did an arrangement of Thom's song, which he really liked. He arranged Thom's song as though it was something Miles Davis was playing in a club in 1957 during the birth of the cool kind of phase of his career. And it was just so beautiful. He adapted it, and we wove it into the film as if it was a '50s ballad. And Thom just loved it. Thom was overwhelmed by it. And in particular, there's a kid on the piano named Isaiah Thompson, who's very young. He's one of Wynton's proteges at Juilliard. And he just does this absolutely beautiful piano breakout in the thing that I love (ph).

GROSS: OK. So this is back-to-back "Daily Battles," first the Thom Yorke version and then the version with Wynton Marsalis on trumpet, both from the soundtrack of the film "Motherless Brooklyn."


THOM YORKE: (Singing) The lines are drawn for daily battles. The trumpets sound for daily troubles. Lock your dreams away and wake up. Enough about your broken heart. You're on parade...


GROSS: OK. That was two versions of Thom Yorke's song "Daily Battles," the first sung by Thom Yorke and then the second with Wynton Marsalis playing trumpet, both from the soundtrack of the film "Motherless Brooklyn," which was written, directed by my guest, Edward Norton, who also stars in the film. Do you pay a lot of attention to movie music? You know, sometimes, like, the soundtrack just kind of ruins a film for me because I think the music is so, like, bland or corny or predictable that it just gives me a bad feeling. It makes me think, like, how good can this movie be if the director chose that music (laughter) you know? And then the opposite happens, too. When the music's really great, I just feel like I'm in.

NORTON: I couldn't agree more. It can make or break a film at a level that I don't think - it's hard for people to even grasp how different the outcome of a film can be if the music is exceptional versus, you know, banal. And I think there's an unfortunate reality to the way you make films, which is you have to edit the film, and for a long time, you have to work with temporary music. It's very, very, very rare that people get to work with their composer all through the course of the making of the film. And it usually comes at the tail end, and it's usually a little rushed. And as a result, a lot of film music is what I - I would call it - it's a cheap mirror of what's already taking place in the film. It illustrates or just emphasizes the exact same thing that the scene is telling you in all its other dimensions. It's not its own voice. It's not its own thread of emotion. And when it's great, the opposite is true. It is its own thing that gives you a different information than you're getting in any other way.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Edward Norton, and he wrote, directed and stars in the film "Motherless Brooklyn." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Edward Norton. And he wrote, directed and stars in the new film, "Motherless Brooklyn."

So you're a father now. You have a son who's about 4?

NORTON: He's 6, actually.

GROSS: Oh, OK. Did being a father affect your approach to work, the kind of movies you wanted to make or how much work you wanted to take on?

NORTON: Yes, definitely. I think I probably, for instance, would have gotten around to making this film, "Motherless Brooklyn," sooner possibly than I did. I was - I had it ready, and I was ready to make it. But, you know, when kids come into your life, like, you got to make a lot of room and space for that. The idea of, like, missing out on magical phases of early life and stuff like that, it's just - to me, like, there's no movie that's worth that at all.

And so the times that I've delayed on doing work or, you know, just sort of, like, hit pause for family, it's not even - it's never really been a major debate for me. It's always a very easy decision. But the good news was by the time I did this, you know, we were in good footing. I got to make the movie at home, which is a big deal, you know? Like...

GROSS: In New York...

NORTON: Yeah, some people...

GROSS: ...Not in your home (laughter). Not in your house.

NORTON: Yeah, no. But literally at home. Some people, their dream project, it might take them to, you know, Romania and Egypt or Tunisia to shoot their film, you know? And I was working at times literally two blocks from home. Alec lives across the street from me. Willem Dafoe lives about four blocks down the other way. Most of the actors are...

GROSS: Wow, that's a really neighborhood film (laughter).

NORTON: ...Old friends are mine. Yeah...

GROSS: That's really funny.

NORTON: ...We shot all over - we shot all over in New York. But we - but the pleasure of working at home and having family nearby, being able to be at home on the weekends, it's - it was great. And when it gets really small, it's especially great. So I think that acting in films is a big commitment. And I take it seriously, so I dive into it. But directing is another level of commitment entirely. And I do understand why, in some ways, people that I really respect need time in between directing films.

GROSS: So how many years did you work on "Motherless Brooklyn?"

NORTON: "Motherless Brooklyn" I have worked on actively for - I'd say about 15 years.

GROSS: That's a really long time. Is it frustrating to know that you can work on a movie for 15 years, and it can play in theaters for a few weeks and then be gone?

NORTON: Look; the gestation - it's not like I was sitting in my room trying to get it made for 15 years not doing anything else. I made...

GROSS: Right. Right.

NORTON: I made 20 films in that time. And...

GROSS: Right (laughter). Yeah.

NORTON: ...I got nominated a couple times. I made some pretty good films, you know what I mean? Like...

GROSS: Yes, I know what you mean.

NORTON: ...And I made - I built some companies and sold them, had some kids. Like, it's...

GROSS: Right (laughter).

NORTON: I've been on the busier side of life.

GROSS: Yeah, got it.

NORTON: So the fact that underneath it something was gestating, and it was a thing that needed gestation and needed sort of, like, the equivalent of slow cooking, you know, that's not pain. That's just a creative process, you know what I mean? This project needed that. And then eventually, because I'm persistent, I got it done. There was a great victory in getting this movie done. It's very hard to get these kinds of films made at all these days.

And unlike, you know - I mean, "The Irishman" cost 200 million bucks, and "Once Upon A Time In Hollywood" cost almost 100 million bucks. I made this movie for, like, 26 million bucks. So the pressures on it are very different. And we did it in 46 days. So I was very conscientious about trying to minimize the the pressures of releasing the movie in the theatrical context by doing it in a very reasonable way.

GROSS: Well, Edward Norton, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

NORTON: Pleasure, yeah.

DAVIES: Edward Norton spoke with Terry Gross yesterday. Norton wrote, directed and stars in the film, "Motherless Brooklyn," which is based on a novel by Jonathan Lethem.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll spend Thanksgiving remembering Prince. Our guest will be Dan Piepenbring, who was collaborating with Prince on a memoir when Prince died. Piepenbring has edited a new book that includes the pages Prince had already written and Piepenbring's essay about working with Prince.


DAVIES: FRESH AIR's technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.


PRINCE: (Singing) Baby, baby, baby, what's it going to be? Baby, baby, baby, is it him, or is it me? Don't make me waste my time. Don't make me lose my mind, baby. Baby... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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