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Why Edward Norton fought to deliver his new film, 'Motherless Brooklyn'


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

William Brangham: Actor Edward Norton has starred in movies such as "Everyone Says I Love You," "Primal Fear," "The Grand Budapest Hotel," and "Birdman."

But, as Jeffrey Brown discovered at the Toronto Film Festival, his newest film, in which he both stars and directs, is his most personal yet.

This report is part of our ongoing coverage of arts and culture, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: In the film, "Motherless Brooklyn" Edward Norton plays Lionel Essrog, a small-time detective thrown into some very big doings.

The story is based on the 1999 novel by Jonathan Lethem.

Edward Norton: I got hold of it and was immediately grabbed by this character. The core of Jonathan's book is much less the plot than it is this emotional intimacy he creates between you and this character and his incredible mind.

Jeffrey Brown: Lionel is familiar in some ways, extraordinary in another. He has a form of Tourette's syndrome, a kind of verbal tic which causes him to fixate on words and yell them out, often at the most inappropriate moments.

Actress: They haven't even submitted plans, just milked until it really is a slum.

Edward Norton: Slamming for the slumlords, Bailey.

Despite this being a very debilitating thing in functioning in the world, inside his mind, it's this constant kind of beautiful game of almost jazz.

Jeffrey Brown: And what was that like taking it on as an actor?

Edward Norton: That's a nourishing meal as an actor, to take on the empathy that you feel, the nuance, the beauty and the pain, all of it. It becomes a rich challenge.

Jeffrey Brown: Norton is best known for acclaimed performances in small, tightly wound film such as "American History X" and the cult hit "Fight Club," as well as the commercial blockbuster "The Incredible Hulk."

But he's recently chosen to be very selective in his projects.

Edward Norton: Working less as an actor becomes a better and better thing, because, at a certain point, I get tired of seeing the same people too many times myself. And I think about how people I really respect and admire their work...

Jeffrey Brown: Who are you thinking of?

Edward Norton: Well, Daniel Day-Lewis or Sean Penn.

Sometimes, people say like, oh, we wish we saw you in more. And I always say like, why? Why? Because is it -- part of the reason you like what you like is when it's withheld from you for longer, I think.

Jeffrey Brown: In the new film, he's done it all, written the screenplay, starred and directed a cast of top actors.

And he's opened up Lethem's book to set the action against big social change in New York in the 1950s, as a character based on real life New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, played here by Alec Baldwin, plots and connives to carve up and shape the city.

Moses, known as the master builder, never held elected office, but wielded an autocratic clout.

Alec Baldwin: Palaces of culture where hellish slums used to be you.

Edward Norton: It all sounds pretty grand, I guess, unless you happen to be one of the people whose house is in the way right now.

I was fascinated by those things. I felt -- I feel even still that many people really don't have a clear view of what the truth of how modern New York that we live in now came to be what it is, in many of its dysfunctions.

Jeffrey Brown: Right, gentrification, the loss of neighborhoods.

Edward Norton: When we tell our stories about how America works to ourselves, we don't say, these things get decided by, like, autocratic, imperial forces who were racist and never held public office. We say, that's not how power works in America. Power is with the people. We make these decisions.

And that's not true in modern New York.

Jeffrey Brown: Norton thinks movies, especially the film noir style of "Motherless Brooklyn," can offer a challenge.

Edward Norton: Good noir, good noir cinema is kind of a tradition of saying, hey, under our sunny narrative, there's stuff going on. If you peel back the corner, there's stuff going on in the shadows that ain't quite everything we're saying it is. And I like that.

Jeffrey Brown: This is clearly a passion project, one that took Norton years to pull off.

Edward Norton: It's hard to get these kinds of movies made at the scale that I made this.

Jeffrey Brown: You mean hard in Hollywood?

Edward Norton: Hard. Yes, it's hard. It's hard.

Jeffrey Brown: Because?

Edward Norton: These kinds of movies aren't getting made so much anymore. That just means you have to sort of persevere and figure it out.

When I was coming of age, like, a movie like "Reds" had a huge impact on me. Warren Beatty wrote, produced, directed and starred in a three-hour-and-15-minute film about American socialists, with documentary interviews with the real people from the time.

And I remember Warren telling me that people told him, this is going to end your career. At a certain point, you kind of go, I have been doing this for a while. I have got the musculature. I have got -- I know what I want to say, and go -- what am I waiting -- why wouldn't you do this?

Why wouldn't you try to do what people who have inspired you have done in the past, and go for something that has scope to it and says things that you care about?

Jeffrey Brown: The film "Motherless Brooklyn" is now playing around the country.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at the Toronto International Film Festival.

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