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

Edward Norton (shown here with co-star Gugu Mbatha-Raw) describes his <em>Motherless Brooklyn</em> character as a sad and lonely "street kid."
Glen Wilson
Warner Bros. Pictures
Edward Norton (shown here with co-star Gugu Mbatha-Raw) describes his Motherless Brooklyn character as a sad and lonely "street kid."

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.

"He saw opportunity in parts of city centers that had really been essentially relegated to being pockets of true decay," Norton says of his grandfather. "He was a big believer in community and culture and revitalization — as opposed to the wrecking ball."

Norton was an early board member and supporter of the High Line project in New York City, which turned an old elevated train track into a public park. Now, he's exploring urban planning in a new way in Motherless Brooklyn, a film he wrote, directed and stars in.

Norton's character Lionel Essrog is a detective with Tourette's syndrome, who, while investigating a murder, uncovers corruption in the world of New York City planning. The movie, which is based on Jonathan Lethem's 1999 novel, was 15 years in the making — a process that Norton likens to "slow cooking."

Norton made a lot of changes to the novel in his script, including moving the story to the 1950s and giving it a noir feel.

"What's cool about noir films is the detective tends to take us into a world where dark things are going on under our idealistic American story," Norton says. "Who are the people in the shadows? Where is the power that's dangerous to us that we can't see?"

Interview Highlights

On adapting Jonathan Lethem's novel — and changing it considerably

I have really great relationship with [Lethem] and he's a wonderful writer. As I started thinking about adapting it, we ran into things that I brought up to Jonathan very quickly, which were just that the book 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. 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 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."

On his grandfather, city planner and developer James Rouse

"There was great victory in getting this movie done," Norton says of his role writing, directing and starring in <em>Motherless Brooklyn. "</em>It's very hard to get these kinds of films made at all these days."<em></em>
Glen Wilson / Warner Bros. Pictures
Warner Bros. Pictures
"There was great victory in getting this movie done," Norton says of his role writing, directing and starring in Motherless Brooklyn. "It's very hard to get these kinds of films made at all these days."

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. ... People told him he was crazy. You can't make 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. He was really one of the people who 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 parts of cities.

On growing up in the planned community of Columbia, Md., which his grandfather developed

It was very idyllic. It really was. I mean, you took things for granted. ... Columbia was designed so that upper-middle-income housing, middle-income housing and even Section 8 housing — all were woven together in ways that made people of all socio-economic and ethnic mixes [and] persuasions share 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 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. 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 don't even think about it as a kid. It was just really cool.

On his own work on New York City's High Line project

I lived in the neighborhood [before the High Line was built] 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 showed what people can do when they stand up and defend their city.

On having Thom Yorke of Radioheadand Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers write a song for the film, "Daily Battles"

I think [Thom Yorke is] one of the very best writers in modern music, in terms of capturing both longing sensations in the heart (melancholy), but then also in his music, really capturing the fracture and the darkness and the dissonance of living in times that feel overwhelming or oppressive and stuff. 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: Thom just expresses a lot of what I think is going on in Lionel. And instead of using some clichéd 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.

Heidi Saman and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.

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