For Motherless Brooklyn, it's been a long journey from the page to the screen. For writer/director/star Edward Norton, adapting the 1999 book by Jonathan Lethem was much more complicated than filming the events of the story. Instead, Norton took the novel's iconic main character, Lionel Essrog, and transplanted him into a completely new setting, changing the time period from contemporary to the late 1950s, and telling a whole new story while remaining true to the themes of the original book. The final result is a visually striking film noir adventure with humor, soul, and palpable drama.
At a press day for the film in New York City, Screen Rant sat down with Norton to discuss his work on the film, including how he asked legendary studio executive Bob Shaye to help get the rights to the book way back in 1999. He also discusses his relationship with Michael K. Williams. Astute Marvel movie fans might recognize Williams' cameo in Norton's The Incredible Hulk, but he plays a much more significant role in Motherless Brooklyn as a jazz trumpet player who is wary of the political turmoil that threatens his neighborhood's livelihood.
Motherless Brooklyn is out now in theaters nationwide.
There's so much I would like to talk to you about this movie, but I really don't want to get too much into the story, because I feel like it's really something that should be experienced as fresh as possible. So I'd like to ask you a couple of behind the scenes questions.
I always look for the Special Thanks during the questions, and one name in particular jumped out to me, and that was Bob Shaye, from New Line. I recently interviewed him, it was one of the best interviews I've ever done.
Oh my God, I can only imagine.
What was his input on this? Did you call him for advice?
No, no, Bob Shaye ran New Line when I did American History X. And when we came through that process, I remember Bob looking at the movie, and he turned to me and goes, "Kid, that's a hell of a picture!" And he goes, "That performance is gonna get remembered." And I was like, "Oh, that's nice, Bob." I was thinking, this is our edgy little guerilla film that we made, but I was very struck by his support. He told anybody that would listen, that was a film he was very proud of having made. And he basically said to me, "Tell me what you want to do." And I had just read this book, Motherless Brooklyn. I read it before it came out. I got it in galleys because someone tipped me off about it, and I went to Bob and the other guys at New Line at the time, and I said, "Hey, would you get me the rights to this book? This character really speaks to me." And Bob Shaye was the one who got it for me.
And all these years later, you finally got to make it. Do you know if he's seen it?
He hasn't, but we're inviting him. Toby Emmerich, who now runs Warner Brothers, and worked for Bob, stayed my champion on it, and there's an amazing history... It's very rare that people talk about how studio people really helped them, you know, make an original adult drama, but these guys really did. They really believed in it, and they backed me, and they stayed with it.
There's a story, or I guess a legend, I should say...
...About you and Michael K Williams. His role in The Incredible Hulk, apparently being a big thing that was edited down to, like, two shots in the movie.
Are there two shots still in there?
There's one of, like, a car blowing up and he's like, "Woah!"
Yes. There was a... Yes. Like everybody, I was an obsessive fan of Omar and The Wire, and then Chalky White (in Boardwalk Empire), but I don't think that had come out yet, I don't remember. But basically, I immediately found... The first scene that he appeared in The Wire, I literally hit pause and was like, (pantomimes writing in a notepad) "Work with Michael K Williams someday." Right? I looked many times for opportunities to do that. This one was a better one.
This is the one.
He's like a shaman. He's like a truly... It's not even that he's a scene stealer. He's so hypnotic. When I was doing scenes with Michael, I sort of watched him saying these things that I had written, and he'd... And I was like, "Oh, is it my line?" I was like, "Oh, I'm sorry!" You know, I was literally like an audience member watching, going, "God, he's so good." And then I forgot I was in the scene with him.