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Novelist David Benioff

Novelist David Benioff is the author of 25th Hour, about a drug dealer who has one day left on the outside before beginning his seven-year prison sentence. It's the basis of the Spike Lee film of the same name, starring Edward Norton.


Other segments from the episode on May 30, 2003

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 30, 2003: Interview with David Benioff; Interview with Edward Norton; Review of the film "The Italian job."


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: David Benioff, author of "25th Hour," discusses how
his book was turned into a movie

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev, in for Terry Gross.

Many first novelists pray for the luck that David Benioff had. The movie
rights to his first novel, "25th Hour," were purchased by Tobey Maguire before
the novel was even published. Benioff got to write the screenplay. Spike Lee
directed it. Edward Norton stars in it. And now it's out on video. "25th
Hour" is about a young drug dealer named Monty who has one day left before
beginning his seven-year prison sentence at Otisville Federal Penitentiary in
New York. In those 24 hours, he wants to tie up the loose ends of his life
and find out who betrayed him to the police. In this scene from the film,
Monty, played by Norton, is having dinner with his father, who owns a bar that
was paid for with Monty's drug money. The father's played by Brian Cox.

(Soundbite of "25th Hour")

Mr. EDWARD NORTON: (As Monty) I don't want you to get involved. OK? I mean
it. I'm going to be all right.

Mr. BRIAN COX: You know, you'll still be a young man when you get out. I
know you don't think about it, but don't start any trouble in there. Keep
your head down.

Mr. NORTON: (As Monty) Don't worry about me. Please.

Mr. COX: It should never have happened. You could have been--if you wanted
money, you could have done anything, anything you wanted--doctor, lawyer.

Mr. NORTON: (As Monty) Don't lay that on me.

Mr. COX: That's all I'm saying.

Mr. NORTON: (As Monty) Don't lay that on me. I mean, when Sal and his crew
were squeezing you for the payments, I didn't hear you wishing I was a law
school student then; not one word from you back then. Where'd you think that
money was coming from, Donald Trump?

Mr. COX: That was a mistake.

Mr. NORTON: (As Monty) Well, let's just forget it then.

Mr. COX: There were lots of mistakes. I should have stopped drinking when
your mother passed.

Mr. NORTON: (As Monty) Pop, please, please, don't do this.

Mr. COX: And 11-year-old boy with a dead mother and a drunk father. I ain't
got no one to blame but myself.

Mr. NORTON: (As Monty) Pop, stop, stop. It wasn't you, Pop.

BOGAEV: A scene from the film "25th Hour." When Terry spoke with David
Benioff this winter, she asked him to read a passage from the same scene as it
appears in the novel.

Mr. DAVID BENIOFF (Author, "25th Hour"): `"This should never have happened,"
says Mr. Brogan, staring at his glass of soda water. "All right. Let's not
start now. It's a little late in the game." "I know," says Mr. Brogan. "I
know it and I'm sorry, Monty. I should never have let you get involved."
Monty raps the tabletop with his knuckles. "Hey, let it go. You had nothing
to do with it, OK? Don't start with this now." "I just wish we could have
talked about it. You could have made so much money in a real business. You
didn't need that. You should never have got involved with that." But money
was never the sole draw for Monty. He hadn't grown up poor. And he wasn't
greedy. He liked fast cars and Italian shoes, but he didn't need them, didn't
hunger for them. It was more about sway. Sway helps make your money and
money helps make your sway, but sway is not money. Sway is walking into a
clothes shop and knowing you can buy anything on the shelves. True. But sway
is also the clerk opening the shop after hours so you can walk through the
aisles alone with your girlfriend. Sway is the clerk unlocking the back room
to show you the latest deliveries still sheathed in plastic bags. Sway is the
clerk standing silent in the corner while you browse and the clerk won't
complain if you paw the merchandise and kiss your girl for an hour because he
knows about you, and the trouble's not worth it.'

TERRY GROSS (Host): That's David Benioff reading from his novel, "25th Hour,"
which he adapted into a screenplay for the movie of the same name. David,
how'd you first get the idea for this story, you know, the guy who has 24
hours before he goes to prison for seven years?

Mr. BENIOFF: I went to a party for a guy who was going to prison the next day
and not someone I knew particularly well, but it was a very unusual scene, and
at that time, I had always kind of assumed that once you got convicted of a
crime, you're led off from the courtroom in shackles and all. And so I didn't
realize there was for so many convicts this kind of limbo period between
sentencing and actual beginning of incarceration. And this party was such a
surreal atmosphere. There was, you know, a printout banner on the wall
saying, `Do not drop the soap,' and people were drinking and, you know, seemed
to be having fun and all, but I couldn't help but stare at this guy who was
going in the next day, and thinking, you know, `What's going through his mind
right now? I mean, how can he even be pretending to have a good time?' And
that just stuck in my head for years and eventually--I'd written two novels
before and both had been rejected, and I was looking for a new idea for a
story and this is what I came up with.

GROSS: So what are the main things that you have put in your character's mind
as he faces that last day of freedom?

Mr. BENIOFF: A whole bunch of things. I mean, anything from, you know,
self-loathing and self-pity to this kind of sense of--it's an immediate
nostalgia. I mean, he's wandering through New York on his last night out, and
this is a kid who's grown up in New York City, who's never really left it for
any length of time, and, you know, he's saying his goodbyes to all his friends
and his father and the woman he loves, but one of the main characters he's
saying goodbye to is New York. And he's trying to retain as many images of
the city as possible because he knows he's going to be trapped in a cell for
seven years. And he wants those mental snapshots to hold onto.

GROSS: Now in the movie version of "25th Hour," the New York that the
character is saying goodbye to is the post-September 11th New York.

Mr. BENIOFF: Right.

GROSS: It's the Manhattan that still has the shrines to the people who died
on September 11th. The opening credits, actually, has that double-beamed
sculpture that briefly commemorated those people who lost their lives on
September 11th and...

Mr. BENIOFF: Right.

GROSS ...commemorated the World Trade Center towers. Was that a difficult
decision whether to like find a way to work that in since you were shooting
after September 11th or whether you should kind of pretend it didn't happen
and just do it as written?

Mr. BENIOFF: It wasn't that difficult, actually. And in speaking to Spike
Lee about it, he's extremely passionate about the idea that if you're going to
film a movie in New York in the year after 9/11, after the attack, it would be
dishonest to pretend that it hadn't happened, and he speaks, you know, I
think, very eloquently about his--you know, so many directors have chosen to
digitally remove the twin towers from shots of New York and so on, and Spike
didn't want to do that. I mean, it's very much a New York story and, I mean,
oddly enough, there are elements in the book, you know, which was written well
before the attack--you know, for instance, Monty's obsessed with firemen. And
so it made sense that there would be some reference to it and it's clearly not
a story about 9/11, but it is a story about New York in the year after, and we
thought that it would be dishonest to not confront that issue and the way it's
affected people.

GROSS: One of the things I really like about your novel and the screenplay is
that I think you write terrific dialogue. Did you have to make a lot of
changes in adapting the dialogue from the novel into dialogue for the film
knowing that people actually had to speak the dialogue in the movie?

Mr. BENIOFF: A lot of the dialogue I was able to take pretty closely from
the book. I mean, there are certain places that ended up getting cut. For
example, there's a long monologue where Monty asks Jakob, played by Philip
Seymour Hoffman in the movie--he asks Jakob to take his dog, and it's
probably the longest speech that Monty has in the book, and it was certainly
the longest speech in the screenplay, and a very important speech for me. And
we ended up having to cut it because we didn't really have time for it, and,
you know, something that--a page in the book can work fine, but listening to a
character speak for a minute and a half on screen can sometimes be dull, so,
you know, there are times where we had to make alterations like that.

GROSS: Did Spike Lee or the actors give you any feedback on the dialogue and,
you know, were there any lines that looked great on the page but you realized
once an actor was going to be speaking it, that it was a little too writerly?

Mr. BENIOFF: Yeah. I mean, the first time I went to visit the set
actually--it's kind of an odd thing for the writer to go to set because
there's not much for you to do on set. And everyone's very nice to you and
all, but you kind of feel like you're just in the way because you can't even
move equipment or anything. You're just sort of off to the side. And they
gave me some headphones so I was listening to the actors speaking, and in one
of the scenes, 30 seconds after I put on the headphones, I heard one of the
actors saying, `I can't read this line. It's stiff. This dialogue is stiff.'
You know, it was kind of just a knife to the gut when I heard that, so I think
I threw off the headphones and kind of slunk away.

There are definitely some places where it works in my head, you know, when I
hear the characters saying it and it works in my head, but then when you hear
the actual actor speaking the lines, it doesn't quite work, and, you know, we
were lucky enough that we had very, very talented actors and, you know, there
are certain places where they were just ad-libbing, and there are certain
places where Spike Lee came up with a line that he thought would work better,
you know, which can be painful sometimes for the writer, but it's also just
recognizing that this is a collaborative process and, you know, having faith
in other people on set to do their jobs.

BOGAEV: David Benioff speaking with Terry Gross. His first novel, "25th
Hour," was adapted into a film directed by Spike Lee. Benioff wrote the
screenplay. It's now out on video and DVD. More after a break. This is

(Soundbite of music)

BOGAEV: Back now to Terry's interview with David Benioff. He wrote the novel
"25th Hour," which was made into a film directed by Spike Lee.

GROSS: In "25th Hour," there's a couple of key scenes that take place in a
club, a club that's owned by drug dealers, and, you know, some of the people
inside the club are part of that scene, and other people inside the club are
just trying to make the scene and be in the right place, and they're clueless
to what else is happening in the club. You were once a bouncer for a club?
Is that right?

Mr. BENIOFF: Yeah, in San Francisco.

GROSS: So was it the kind of club that was backed by drug money?

Mr. BENIOFF: Well, the owner of the club had spent time in prison for drug
offenses, and, yeah, you know, I never really asked too many questions about
where the money was coming from, but...

GROSS: That was probably smart.

Mr. BENIOFF: Yeah. I mean, it's kind of this unknown world for a lot of
people outside the business, but, I mean, the whole idea of a one-way door,
where the bouncers know exactly who the dealers are, and they're letting in
certain people. They're letting in certain dealers and keeping others out to
keep the competition away from the dealers, and then the dealers give them a
cutback of whatever they make that night.

GROSS: Is that the position you were in?

Mr. BENIOFF: No. I was a very junior bouncer, so I was, you know, maybe
like the sixth man down the totem pole, and never actually--luckily, I guess,
never was getting money from the dealers. Although, you know, I would get
money from other bouncers at the end of the night, and I'm sure they were
getting it from them, so indirectly, I probably was, but was, you know, never
actually getting paid off by the local dealer.

GROSS: So were you the kind of bouncer who decided who had a good enough
leather jacket to get in or who had a nice enough hairdo, cool enough clothes
to get in?

Mr. BENIOFF: No. See, I wasn't even that senior. I was more the bouncer,
you know, in the back, near the dance floor, who's watching, you know, and
seeing when the drunks started getting too rowdy and, you know, trying to
break up fights whenever possible. And I was also probably the most peaceful
bouncer in the history of bouncing, and I would always try to--yeah, I found
that giving someone a free cocktail, which is probably, you know, thinking
back on it, not the best thing to give to a rowdy drunk person, but would
almost always break up a fight before it happened, and so, you know...

GROSS: How would you do that? Two people are fighting, and you go, `Hey,
want a free drink'?

Mr. BENIOFF: Well, once actual fisticuffs have started, it's impossible.
Then you just have to get them out of there. But when, I mean, you hang out
in these clubs long enough, and plus, you know, the fact that you're sober as
the bouncer, and everyone else in there is not, you can kind of see things
starting to happen, and you can feel the tension level rising, and so just
trying to step in before blows have actually been exchanged and, you know,
take someone aside and try to make it, you know, a question of--you know, try
to just deflate the person's temper as much as possible.

And I remember when this absolutely enormous bodybuilder and his brother, two
enormous guys, were about to murder this guy, and I walked in, and I knew that
if something happens, I mean, I didn't have any, you know, backup there, and I
wasn't going to be able to really defend myself from these guys, and just kind
of in desperation, I said, `You know, listen, you guys. I wouldn't walk into
your house and disrespect your house. You guys are in my house right now, and
I think you should respect that and let me buy you a drink.' And it was kind
of just, you know, a `Hail Mary,' and for some reason, they responded to it.
And they said, you know, `OK,' and I got them drinks and got the other guy out
of there, and nothing happened.

GROSS: You're in a studio in LA, and I'm in a studio in Philadelphia. How
big are you?

Mr. BENIOFF: I am 6'2", and at the time when I was bouncing, I was 210, and
now, I've lost a lot of weight. I'm probably about 190 now. That was back
when I was playing rugby and wrestling and was much thicker.

GROSS: Does it help you command respect at story meetings?

Mr. BENIOFF: It's definitely--you don't get as intimidated in story meetings
once you've faced down two angry Samoans.

GROSS: Being a bouncer is, in a way, a good occupation for a fledgling
novelist, because what you're doing is observing people and making judgments
about their character.

Mr. BENIOFF: That's a good point. That's a good point. I think being a
bouncer, and then later being a high school teacher were both very helpful
jobs in terms of observing characters and, you know, observing characters in
stress particularly.

GROSS: Who challenged you more, your students or the guys in the club?

Mr. BENIOFF: Definitely the students. I mean, I taught in Brooklyn, which
was a lot of fun, also, you know, sometimes frustrating. It's interesting,
because I also taught college at Irvine, where everyone was very well-behaved
and disciplined. And while I was teaching in Brooklyn, I think I would have
thought that was, you know, my dream, to have a well-behaved class. And it
turned out it was actually much less interesting, because the kids in
Brooklyn, as rowdy as they were, you know, first of all, just getting great
dialogue from them. I mean, I think it's one of the great things about being
a teacher, as a writer, is that you just hear the way kids speak, and you hear
the new jargon, and so phrases that I used in the book that I never would have
heard, I think, if I hadn't been hanging around with 16-year-olds and...

GROSS: Can you think of a particular phrase that stuck in your mind that you

Mr. BENIOFF: You know, I remember one of the first classes I taught, this kid
named Angel wrote a poem about getting lifted, and he was finished reading,
and it was a really good poem, and I said, `Just tell me, what does it mean to
get lifted?' And everyone's kind of laughing, and I said, `No, tell me, what
does it mean?' And he said, `Oh, it means getting high.' And I thought,
lifted, to get lifted, that's a nice way of saying it. And since then, I've
heard it in, you know, rap songs and all, but at that time, I hadn't been
exposed to it.

GROSS: Do you miss, in a way, having a connection to that? One of the things
I think that--I think one of the frustrations that scriptwriters, successful
screenwriters have is that they can sometimes be cut off from real life.

Mr. BENIOFF: Yeah. I mean, there's definitely that danger. I work at home,
and it's kind of isolated. I mean, one of the nice things is that out here in
Los Angeles, I have--one of my best writing students when I was teaching in
Brooklyn went on--he's now actually at the graduate school at USC master's
program writing screenplays and I see him a lot, and he's writing and doing
wonderful stuff and a very talented young writer, so that's been one very
gratifying moment as an ex-teacher, to see that. But yeah, I try to, you
know, get out when I can, but there's also, I think, you know, a lot of
writers have a monastic side where you just like to shut the door and it's
just you and your dog in there, and try and get as much work done as possible.

GROSS: In the opening scene of the movie and the novel "25th Hour," the main
character, the drug dealer, finds an abandoned dog in a deserted part of town.
And the dog is lying there all kind of bleeding and cut open, and the main
character picks him up and puts him in the trunk of his car to take him to a
vet, and the dog is really angry and acting kind of vicious and even bites the
main character in his neck. But then, you know, he survives. The dog
survives and becomes the dog of this character, and they're really close.

Mr. BENIOFF: Right.

GROSS: And I thought, this writer, here is a man who likes animals.

Mr. BENIOFF: Well, people have asked me, actually, which characters in the
book--you know, are they based on real people? And really, the answer is no,
with exception of the dog. And my old roommate here in Los Angeles was
driving in a pretty bad neighborhood one time and saw this black pit bull
lying on the side of the road. And she pulled over and, like the dog in the
book, this dog had been beaten by its old masters, and cigarettes had been put
out on its hide, and so forth, and she--which I've always thought was an
incredibly courageous act, she got the dog into her car somehow, despite the
fact that this dog did not want any help and was biting at her. And she
brought it to the vet and got it patched up, and then she brought it home.
And I ended up living with that dog for two years, and so, you know, there are
times where you get inspiration for ideas from different places, and
sometimes, you don't know exactly where it comes from. And I think sometimes,
you know, that inspiration just wakes you up with its barking in the middle of
the night. And I remember thinking, hearing Olive barking, that's an
interesting story. That would be an interesting way to get access to a
character and to open up a larger story.

GROSS: What do you think it says about your character, that he takes the dog?

Mr. BENIOFF: About Monty's character?

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. BENIOFF: You know, it's interesting. I mean, later, in the long speech
where he's talking to--which is not in the movie, but in the book, where he's
talking to Jakob and asking Jakob to take the dog, he says it's the best thing
he ever did, you know. And the best thing he ever did was save that dog,
because every time he hears the dog barking, every time the dog is chasing a
ball or chewing a bone, he knows it's because of him. It's because Monty
saved the dog's life, and so, you know, if nothing else, Monty has loyalty,
you know, and it's a very important part of his code, that you have loyalty to
those that have done you right. And Doyle, the dog in the book and the movie,
you know, definitely exemplifies that attribute. You know, he's been rescued,
and he had a new life given to him, and he will never abandon the man who gave
him that new life.

GROSS: Well, David Benioff, I wish you good luck with all those new
screenplays that you're writing.

Mr. BENIOFF: Thank you, Terry. It's been a lot of fun.

BOGAEV: David Benioff is the author of the novel "25th Hour." He also wrote
the screenplay for the film now out on video and DVD.

Today's the birthday of clarinetist and band leader Benny Goodman. Let's
listen to the Benny Goodman Orchestra in 1939 with Lester Young on tenor sax
and Lionel Hampton on drums. This is "Estrellita." I'm Barbara Bogaev, and
this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of "Estrellita" performed by the Benny Goodman Orchestra)


BOGAEV: Coming up, actor Edward Norton. His films include "Primal Fear,"
"Fight Club" and "American History X." David Edelstein reviews Norton's new
movie, "The Italian Job." It's a remake of the 1969 film of the same name.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Edward Norton discusses his film career

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev, in for Terry Gross.

Edward Norton had no trouble getting noticed after he started making movies.
He was nominated for an Academy Award for his feature film debut in "Primal
Fear," in which he played an altar boy on trial for murder. Then Woody Allen
cast him in his musical "Everyone Says I Love You." He played Larry Flynt's
lawyer in "The People Vs. Larry Flynt," and received another Academy Award
nomination for his role as a skinhead in "American History X." He also
starred in "Fight Club," "25th Hour" and "Keeping the Faith," which he

His new film is "The Italian Job." Norton plays a thief, Steve, who
double-crosses his gang on a heist. In this scene, Steve meets his ex-partner
Charlie, played by Mark Wahlberg, in a restaurant. It's been a year since
Steve stole the take from the gang.

(Soundbite from "The Italian Job")

Mr. MARK WAHLBERG: (As Charlie) Same old Steve, huh? Always thinking
defensively. That's why you were always number two.

Mr. EDWARD NORTON: (As Steve) How do you figure that?

Mr. WAHLBERG: (As Charlie) You got no imagination. Couldn't even decide what
to do with all that money. Had to buy what everybody else wanted.

Mr. NORTON: (As Steve) Oh, oh. Try this on in your imagination, OK? That
gold is already gone.

Mr. WAHLBERG: (As Charlie) That's bull, Steve.

Mr. NORTON: (As Steve) No, really, it's over, Charlie. I'm trying to move
the last two bricks. You want to come after me over a couple of lousy bricks?
I mean, really, be my guest. But you're off to a bad start, you know, because
you just blew the best thing you had going for you. You just blew the element
of surprise.

(Soundbite of Charlie hitting Steve)

Mr. WAHLBERG: (As Charlie) Surprised?

BOGAEV: Terry spoke with Edward Norton in 2000.


Let me ask you about your first movie role, which was "Primal Fear." In fact,
let me play a clip from it. In this you play a former altar boy named Aaron,
who's from a small town in Kentucky. You're accused of brutally murdering a
cardinal. Your lawyer is played by Richard Gere. Now you claim to suffer
from amnesiac blackouts, and a psychiatrist hired by your lawyer thinks that
that's a symptom of multiple personality disorder. In this scene, after your
lawyer tells you that he thinks you're really guilty, your other personality,
Roy, comes to the surface. This is the first time your lawyer has seen
evidence of a split personality.

(Soundbite from "Primal Fear")

Mr. NORTON: (As Roy) You his lawyer. You his lawyer, ain't you?


Mr. NORTON: (As Roy) Yeah. Yeah. With your fancy suit. I heard about you.
Well, my, my, you sure (censored) this one up, counselor. It sounds to me
like they're gonna shoot old Aaron so full of poison it's going to come out
his eyes.

Mr. GERE: Where is Aaron?

Mr. NORTON: (As Roy) Aaron's crying off in some corner somewhere. You scared
him off. You've got to deal with me now, boy. I ought to give you a beating
on principle. Look at me. You ever come in here pulling that tough guy
(censored) on Aaron again, I will kick your (censored) ass to Sunday, you
understand me?

Mr. GERE: I understand you. I understand you. Aaron gets in trouble, he
calls you. You're the man.

Mr. NORTON: (As Roy) Well, Aaron couldn't kick his own ass. I mean, you seen
him with the d-d-d.

Mr. GERE: Yeah.

Mr. NORTON: (As Roy) Jesus Christ, he can't handle anything. And he sure as
(censored) couldn't handle all that preacher's blood, could he? If he'd have
done like I told him, we wouldn't be in this mess. But he got scared and ran
off and got hisself caught, the stupid little (censored).

Mr. GERE: So Aaron did kill Rushman?

Mr. NORTON: (As Roy) What? Hell, no. Jesus Christ, where'd they find you?
Ain't you been listening to me? Aaron don't have the guts to do nothing. It
was me, boy. It was me.

Mr. GERE: It was you.

Mr. NORTON: (As Roy) Yes, it was.

Mr. GERE: It was you. It was you.

GROSS: That's Edward Norton and Richard Gere in a scene from "Primal Fear."

So this was your first movie role, a big part. How did you get it? How'd you
get such a good part the first time out?

Mr. NORTON: I don't know. That was weird listening to that for me because I
don't think I've watched that movie since the week it came out. I was
listening to it like I can't even remember that's what that scene was about.
It was wild. I just haven't revisited that in a long time.

GROSS: You have a foul mouth, sir.

Mr. NORTON: Yeah. Well, yeah, that guy, he's a tough character. But that
was very interesting. We improvised a lot in those scenes, so a lot of that
was just stuff that kind of--you know, we kind of riffed around the basic
components of the scene and Richard was really good at that. So it was fun to

GROSS: So how did you get the part?

Mr. NORTON: Well, it was a situation where they--obviously by its nature it's
a role that has to do with first impressions and deceptions and kind of acting
within acting. And I think that wisely Greg Hoblit was--it was something that
if the audience could actually be fooled in the same way that the lawyer is
being fooled, it would be very effective as opposed to, you know, if it was an
actor that people were familiar with and so they were aware of the artifice on
some level from the beginning, that that could kind of diminish it. And I
think he was very intent on trying to find someone who was unfamiliar to
audiences. And so as a result they engaged, you know, in an audition search.
And so it was a very unusual circumstance of a very, very good part where they
were really looking around. And they went all over the place, and I was
obviously acting in New York in a theater at the time and the casting director
for Paramount had seen me in some plays and brought me in among many, many
others to audition for Greg. And I think it kind of went on from there.

GROSS: Was this audition an interview or did you have to do lines from the

Mr. NORTON: No, no. It's always--if they're doing it right, I mean--I think
one of the worst things that can happen in an audition is when you walk in the
room and there's the director and producer and they start talking to you
because it's just like--I mean, try to imagine going to see, you know, Dustin
Hoffman in "Rain Man" and before the movie starts a little thing comes up on
the screen and Dustin Hoffman says, `Hi, I'm Dustin Hoffman and I'm about to
play this role and I hope you-all enjoy the film,' and then you watched him
play that character. It's like it just punctures...

GROSS: Absolutely.

Mr. NORTON: It punctures the bubble. And I've always said whenever I've gone
to classes or, you know, to places where younger actors want to ask questions
and things like that, one of the things I've always said is: Don't let them
do that to you. You know, when you go into an audition, do not let them talk
to you beforehand, because it's just like cutting the legs out from under
everything you're about to try to do, which is to say fool them in the same
way that you're going to fool an audience, even when it's not such a deceptive
character, even when it's not a character who is pulling such a trick on
people. Even if it's just, you know, me playing--oh, I don't know, you know,
like any of the characters I've played in films. You don't want to walk in
and talk and be yourself and then launch into this character because it's
automatically going to sort of seem more like a put-on.

GROSS: What would make it even worse, I think, is that you had to do a
Southern accent for this.

Mr. NORTON: Yeah, accent.

GROSS: So they hear your regular accent and then they go, `Oh.'

Mr. NORTON: Especially.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. NORTON: Absolutely. I have a theory about accents which is that if
someone--I mean, I think if you walked up to any--even if you did a bad
British accent, say, if you walked up to someone and you were doing it and
that was the first time they met you, no one would question it. Whereas, you
know, I could walk up to a lot of people right now and do an absolutely
flawless British accent and by virtue of the fact that they know I'm not
British, they'd be saying, `Oh, well, that kind of doesn't sound right to me.'
I think people have a very relative--their critique of things is relative to
how aware they are that you're doing a put-on, you know. And I think when
actors have to do an accent or anything like that, if they have to go into an
audition, the worst thing in the world is to have to talk to the people
beforehand and then launch into this, you know--because in their minds they're
going to go, `Oh, I don't think he's doing that that well,' you know.

GROSS: "Fight Club" is a movie about people who find meaning in life by
joining this very secret club in which they fight each other, fight each other
quite hard. I'm going to play a clip from early in the movie where all we
really know about your character is that he's a young guy who's just really
disenchanted with the life he's found himself leading, worrying about shopping
for the right bedspread and the right coffee. And he's a numbers cruncher for
a carmaker, and he's become an insomniac. So he tries to find peace of mind
by attending support groups for problems he doesn't even have. His job
requires him to do a lot of traveling, you know, by plane. And this is him
thinking about all the travel and all the trivialities and mind-numbing stuff
that it leads to.

(Soundbite from "Fight Club")

Mr. NORTON: You wake up at SeaTac, SFO, LAX. You wake up at O'Hare,
Dallas-Ft. Worth, BWI, Pacific, Mountain, Central. Lose an hour, gain an

Unidentified Woman #1: Check-in for that flight doesn't begin for another two
hours, sir.

Mr. NORTON: This is your life, and it's ending one minute at a time.

Unidentified Woman #2: Flight...

Mr. NORTON: I wake up at Air Harbor International.

Unidentified Woman #2: ...the aircraft has come to a complete stop.

Mr. NORTON: If you wake up at a different time, in a different place, could
you wake up as a different person? Everywhere I travel, tiny life:
single-serving sugar, single-serving cream, single pat of butter, the
microwave cordon bleu hobby kit, shampoo-conditioner combos, sample packaged
mouthwash, tiny bars of soap. The people I meet on each flight, they're
single-serving friends. Between takeoff and landing we have our time
together, but that's all we get.

GROSS: That's kind of like the urban, neurotic, alienated professional
version of rap. Did you do that voiceover with the music or without it?

Mr. NORTON: No, no. Without it. Without it. We spent a lot of time in
booths like this one working--we tried every kind of mike, close to the mike,
far from the mike. We experimented just into infinity with finding exactly
the right tone to create the feeling of that voice that's in your head so that
it would have a quality distinct from sort of what we're used to hearing in
voiceovers, you know, of really almost being inside the brain, that voice
you're talking to yourself with, you know. And the narration--obviously it
was such a critical component of the novel that we felt it needed to be a part
of the film as well.

GROSS: Is narration very hard? Because it's not like you're talking to
somebody and yet you have to make it really believable as that inner voice.

Mr. NORTON: It is. It is. And it has to be a characterization. I mean,
especially in the case of this film where the underlying truth of the film is
revealed to be something very different from what the narrator himself is
presenting it as. I mean, it's a bizarre comparison in a way, but, you know,
I've always thought what's great about a book like "The Catcher in the Rye" is
that it's told in a first-person narrative by a narrator who's not a very
reliable, you know, source of perspective on himself. And you learn things
about Holden Caulfield that he's not really telling you about in the dialogue
in the scenes where what he's saying to people kind of goes against what he's
saying to you in his inner monologue. And this reminded me of that because my
character in "Fight Club" is a totally unreliable source of information about
himself. He's telling you a version of his story that as the story goes along
you realize is a completely deluded understanding of his own problems. And so
that has to be--the voiceover can't just be a narration, it has to be a

GROSS: Which leads me to say, without giving away too much of the story, that
you've played a lot of like double personalities and double roles in your
career where your character has to undergo some kind of transformation and is
both good guy and bad guy.

Mr. NORTON: Yeah.

GROSS: Why do you think you've had so many roles like that?

Mr. NORTON: Well, I mean, I think that any character should undergo a
transformation. I mean, that to me is what drama is about. It's like I had a
good acting teacher one time who said, you know, `You should always be able to
look at a scene and certainly a whole piece and say--you should be able to
look at a drama and identify, you know, what happens that changes things in
it. I mean, a story should be at its fundement--you know, something happens
as a result of which something changes. And to me if a character doesn't
transform on some level in a story, it's not worth playing because I think
that's why people are going to movies, to plays, reading novels, because you
want to read about people evolving in some way. That's what you connect with.
And I think that in "Fight Club," you know, it's very different from "Primal
Fear" in the sense that it's--I mean, "Primal Fear" is about somebody acting;
basically "Fight Club" is about a person actually going insane...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. NORTON: ...and not knowing that he's going insane. And obviously I don't
play both halves of his personality; I play one half, and I play the half that
is learning--a guy that has to come to grips with the fact that he's crazy and
has to realize how crazy he's gone. So even though on a loose level it's
connected with "Primal Fear," it really was a different sort of a thing. But
what I liked about it is the character, he changes.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. NORTON: His sense of his own desperation in the beginning leads him to
experiment with a kind of a solution that he ultimately realizes is very, very
negative and very unhealthy and from which he pulls back and finally by the
end, you know, defines himself. He finally, I think, on a certain level right
at the end figures out who he is on his own.

BOGAEV: Edward Norton speaking with Terry Gross. He stars in the new film
"The Italian Job." We'll hear more of their conversation after a break. This

(Soundbite of music)

BOGAEV: Back now to an interview with actor Edward Norton. He stars in the
new film "The Italian Job."

GROSS: Let's get to another one of your movies, "Everyone Says I Love You,"
which was Woody Allen's musical in which he had actors who really aren't
singers singing songs for the film. You had two songs, "Just You, Just Me"
and "My Baby Just Cares for Me." Let's hear a little bit of "My Baby Just
Cares for Me."

Mr. NORTON: Oh, God.

(Soundbite of "My Baby Just Cares for Me")

Mr. NORTON: (Singing) My baby don't care for rings or other expensive things.
My baby just cares for me. My baby don't go for big Rolls-Royces. There's
sometimes a doubt about her choices. My baby don't care to own some 14 carat
stone. She's sensible as can be. My baby don't care who knows it. My baby
just cares for me.

GROSS: Edward Norton, what were your thoughts when you found out you had to
sing in order to be in Woody Allen's movie?

Mr. NORTON: I felt much the same way I feel right now having played that back
in my ear. I feel like putting a paper bag over my head. You've officially
turned this into a torture booth now that you've played me singing back to

GROSS: Did you know right at the start that singing was a essential role to

Mr. NORTON: Nobody knew. I remember when I met Woody for the second time and
it seemed to be going well in terms of, you know, him wanting me to do the
part, right toward the end, you know, he came over and he went--I read a scene
and he went, you know, `That was perfect. That was great. And, you know, by
the way, do you sing at all?' And, you know, I kind of went, `What?' you
know, `Sure, you know, not in a great way but is the character a singer?' And
he went, `Well, you know, I'm not looking for Pavarotti, it's just something
I'm playing with.' You know, and I was going, hmm, I wonder what that's
about. So I got the part and I was all excited.

And, you know, a couple months when by, and about a month before we started
shooting I got this call from Dick Hyman, who's Woody's longtime music
supervisor and arranger and kind of genius of orchestration and arrangement.
And, you know, he said, `I'm going to have you get together, you know, with a
voice person in Los Angeles because we need to get your range.' And I went,
`You know, what is this for?' And he said, `Well, we're making a musical.'
You know, I kind of like started hyperventilating and apparently everyone else
had pretty much the same experience because he didn't want to give anybody any
time to panic and go out and, you know, work on it. He wanted everybody to
sound--the whole idea was, you know, the characters like normal people just
bursting into song with all their, you know, cracking voices and everything.
He did not want a polished thing. So...

GROSS: Nevertheless did he want you-all to take some voice lessons?

Mr. NORTON: No, not at all.

GROSS: Coaching? Nothing?

Mr. NORTON: He insisted that we not do it. And, in fact, when I went and
laid down--we prerecorded the songs so that we could sing back--you know, lip
sync to our--or sing along with our own playback when we filmed it. And I
prerecorded the songs and, you know, of course, I had worked on them because
there was no way I was going go in cold. And I did it, and about a week later
I got a call, you know, and they said, `Woody wants to talk to you about what
you recorded,' and I panicked. You know, I just went, `Oh, no, I'm getting
fired,' because Woody lets a lot of people go. Woody's famous for, you know,
firing people. And I thought, `This is it. I'm out.' And I went back in to
see him and he said, `You know, we need to do it again because you sound too
good. You sound like Perry Como, you know, I need you to scale it back a
little bit.' So he actually made me come in and do it worse. I had a couple
tracks that I was really happy with, and he made me come in and kind of sing
it more like a guy on the street, you know.

GROSS: So what impact did this movie have on your own self-consciousness
about singing?

Mr. NORTON: I try to shut it out, and occasionally someone will do what you
just did and throw on the soundtrack and it will all come raging back to me
like a...

GROSS: Like a bad dream.

Mr. NORTON: No, the experience--no, I'm kidding. I'm kiddin. It's just hard
to hear it--disconnect.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. NORTON: I love watching it in the film because I think the film is, you
know, so light and funny. And actually that song, "My Baby Just Cares for
Me," is the one in Harry Winston's jewelry store where the whole musical
number erupts in the jewelry store. And I think it's a hilarious sequence.
But out of context, it's a little bit like looking at your high school
yearbook pictures.

BOGAEV: Edward Norton from an interview recorded in 2000 with Terry Gross.

Coming up, a review of Norton's new film, "The Italian Job." This is FRESH

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Movie "The Italian Job"

Director F. Gary Gray's first film was "Set It Off" which starred Jada Pinkett
Smith and Queen Latifah as bank robbers. Since then he's directed more
conventional thrillers, like "The Negotiator" and this year's Vin Diesel bomb
"A Man Apart." His newest, "The Italian Job," opens this weekend. Film
critic David Edelstein has a review.


"The Italian Job" represents everything that many of us have come to despise
in Hollywood movies, especially the ones the open between Memorial and Labor
Day. It's another remake of a tolerable late '60s English caper comedy and it
features heroes who are thieves and con artists. We're supposed to root for
them because they're cuter and nicer than the other thieves and con artists,
although they'd steal from us just as casually as the ugly, mean ones. It's
another vengeance melodrama, too. Someone double-crosses someone and for the
next 90 minutes it's payback time. And if you're sick of product
placement--and whenever I see a product in a movie, I make a note to avoid
buying it--this is basically a full-length car commercial for the Mini Cooper,
which gets to elude much bigger cars plus a swooping helicopter. And here's
one for us harried urban drivers: The Mini slides neatly into itty bitty
parking spaces while managing to accommodate the endless legs of Charlize

So "The Italian Job" is a pandering, trivial, debased little generic nothing
of a movie, and I'm still trying to sort out why I loved virtually every
second of it. One reason is it's a great pandering, trivial, debased little
generic nothing of a movie. After "The Matrix Reloaded" with its ugly sets
and long shapeless chase scenes, it feels terrific to be back in a Mini in all
senses. "The Italian Job" makes you think of words like `snazzy.' It starts
with a credit sequence that gives you horizontal and vertical slots of Venice
mixed with maps of those witty waterways. Then there's a genius caper
involving a house on the canals, a safe of gold bouillon, a speedboat and a
bunch of other elements I won't spoil.

As a kid, I endured week after week of that TV barbiturate "Mission:
Impossible" because I liked watching teams of crack techies snap things into
place while staring at the second hands of their watches. This is the same
kind of thing, but smarter and faster than any "Mission: Impossible" episode
or movie for that matter. The director is F. Gary Gray, who made a splash in
1996 with "Set It Off," a bank heist movie starring four African-American
actresses. You could tell from "Set It Off" and "The Negotiator" that he
loves pure action, but he loves pure acting just as much.

His cast is headed by Mark Wahlberg, who, OK, doesn't always bring a lot to
the party but has a prodding dopy sweetness that's very appealing, and that
locked-in quality works nicely opposite Charlize Theron, who's one of the rare
godessy model types with a down-to-earth and funny personality. The team
includes Mos Def as the explosives whiz with the significant moniker Left Ear,
the smooth Cockney Jason Statham as Handsome Rob, the guy who drives the cars
and distracts the birds, and Seth Green as a computer genius who wants to be
called Napster because he claims he invented the technology which was swiped
from him while he napped. The double-crossing snake is Edward Norton, who
reportedly had to do this picture because of a long-standing contract with
Paramount. But he's in better form slumming than he was trying hard in "Red

Here's a scene where Wahlberg and Theron and Green look at the floor plans and
diagrams wondering how they're going to move gold bouillon from Norton's safe
to the gates of his mans.

(Soundbite from "The Italian Job")

Ms. CHARLIZE THERON: So how do we get the gold from the vault to the getaway

Mr. MARK WAHLBERG: How wide's the hallway, Napster?

Mr. SETH GREEN: Six feet.

(Soundbite of music; car engine revving)

Mr. WAHLBERG: OK, let's go.

(Soundbite of car tires squealing)

EDELSTEIN: That part where the words stopped and the music and the
vroom-vroom engine kicked in, that was the big entrance of Theron's Mini
Cooper, which gets put through its paces in a mock-up of a six-foot-wide
corridor. And it's a harbinger of the beautifully designed final chase which
features red, white and blue Minis scooting around LA while Seth Green's
Napster plays with the traffic lights to give the good guys greens and the bad
guys reds. Sure, the movie is engineered to make you want to buy a Mini. The
first "Italian Job" created a huge demand for them. But after all, car
commercials and films and TV shows have been feeding on one another for
decades now. And the Minis are a hilarious non-sequitur, scurrying around
those fat LA freeways, darting onto sidewalks, diving into huge drainage
tunnels. They're like Hobbit-mobiles, only they're not a special effect.

Director Gray seems to have made it a point of pride not to use much digital
trickery. It's a sad commentary when a basically synthetic product like this
feels more real than anything else in the multiplex. But reality in summer
movies is relative. If nothing else, the Italian job is really entertaining.

BOGAEV: David Edelstein is film critic for the online magazine Slate.


BOGAEV: For Terry Gross, I'm Barbara Bogaev.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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