Published Oct 30, 2019When actor-director Edward Norton set about adapting the '90s detective novel Motherless Brooklyn for the screen, he needed just the right song to convey the mindset of its lead character, Lionel Essrog, a lonely private eye with debilitating Tourette's. For the task, he turned to an old friend: Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke.
"Thom, as a writer, has expressed this duality of longing in the heart, but also psychic terror and fracture and dissonance," Norton tells Exclaim! during a interview at TIFF. "I was very drawn to the idea that, musically, he expresses Lionel's head perfectly. So I asked him if he would read it, and he wrote this song in response to it."
Within this moody story of political upheaval and gentrification in '50s New York, Yorke's aching piano ballad "Daily Battles" becomes a mantra of sorts; it features prominently in the soundtrack, and the melody re-emerges as a trumpet solo during a scene at a jazz club. Norton reveals that his screenplay ended up being shaped by Yorke's song, and he even inserted Yorke's phrase "daily battles" into the script. "He responded to the script and I responded to the song," Norton says. "It was a very nice snowballing."
Norton also worked closely with another notable contributor: author Jonathan Lethem, who wrote the novel Motherless Brooklyn. While the book had been set in the current day, Norton chose to make his adaptation a period piece — something Lethem supported wholeheartedly.
"He had written sort of a '50s hardboiled bunch of characters, but he had set them in the modern world. I didn't want it to feel like The Blues Brothers — like, guys in fedoras. He agreed with that 100 percent," explains Norton. "The initial impulse to set it in the past was simply to allow the vernacular and the world and the language that he had written to be authentic and organic, as opposed to ironic. He loved that idea."
In the new 1950s context, Motherless Brooklyn explores themes of racial discrimination and gentrification in New York City. After Lionel's mentor Frank (Bruce Willis) is killed on the job, Lionel works to solve the murder. The case leads him to form a bond with lawyer-activist Laura (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who is working to prevent local politician Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin) from tearing down impoverished neighbourhoods in the name of progress.
"It's important to acknowledge that we, within and under the sunny narrative of Pax-Americana in the postwar '50s, New York City baked racism into its infrastructure," says Norton. "Working class and middle class minority neighbourhoods that weren't slums were razed to literally build slums. There isn't a cheap, redemptive palliative to this. These things happened, and we're still dealing with the consequences."
There are complex issues that, given America's current political climate, are more relevant than ever. With Motherless Brooklyn, Norton has made a film that reflects the nuance of its themes — and Norton is quick to share credit with his collaborators.
"People like that make you look like you know what you were doing," he says with a self-deprecating smile. "They really elevate it. That's what a cast does. I think directing is like you're the madman in the room, saying, 'We're going to do this and we're going to do that.' It's all insane. And then other people bring their talents to bear on different dimensions of it, and suddenly it looks like vision."