Directed by Edward Norton, Motherless Brooklyn tells the story of Lionel Essrog (Norton), a Brooklyn detective in post-war New York. Working with street smart private investigator, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), Lionel (who also goes by the name Brooklyn) and his team uncover the truth for hire. However, when Minna is shot and left for dead, Lionel determines to unravel the mystery, plunging him into a Brooklyn underworld riddled with crime, corruption and colourful characters. As his quest for truth leads him further up New York’s ladder of power, Lionel’s investigation is complicated by his Tourette syndrome, which leaves him prone to compulsive behavioural tics and inappropriate verbal outbursts. Adapted from Johnathan Letham’s book of the same name, Norton wanted to bring the story to life due due to the interesting and complex nature of its lead character.
“The character [of Lionel] was entirely the initial hook for me,” he begins. “The many things that got woven into it to sort of expand on its scope or the broader target that it had ultimately were not where I was within the beginning. I just was completely enamored with this character that Jonathan Letham created, not just because he’s a unique character with a unique condition and the idea of sending him, a person with those mental gifts and challenges, up against the idea of solving mysteries is just sort of fun. [It was also that] Jonathan’s emotional hook is brilliant. It’s exactly what we… transposed in the film.”
“You hear his inner voice from the opening page. You’re inside his head. You know him free of his condition. You know his inner mind, his inner heart and then, you see him on the outside [where] he’s kind of a hot mess of ticks and twitches and shouts [so] watching him navigate that is funny and poignant. That’s all before the end of page two. You’re rooting for him. He’s a great underdog character. You’re laughing, wincing and you [know that] wherever this guy’s going, it’s going to be fun because watching him navigate this is itself the pleasure. That was the entirety of my initial interest in it.”
Though many of his characters over the years have appeared to struggle with a variety of conditions, Norton feels like this may be the first chance he has had to portray a man with genuine mental health issues onscreen. In order to prepare for the role, much of his research involved exploring the individualistic nature of Tourette syndrome.
“I’m trying to think if I have played characters with authentic mental health issues. I’ve played [many] characters who are faking…” laughs Norton. “So, I actually think arguably this is the first time I’ve played a character with an authentic psychological condition. It’s not a reductive , like how do you approach it? There are documentaries about people with Tourette’s. I’ve met some. You talk to people. For me, honestly, because Tourette Syndrome has many components and can be expressed in people in very individualistic ways… what I set myself out to do was find out what are a credible sort of symptomatic pieces of it and then build my own basket of them for Lionel so that you can create a weave of consistent things, like his compulsion to tap people that he feels close with or his compulsion that the idea of having a single word – in his case ‘if’ – that he says over and over… Then, [I tried to] structure that into the story…”
However, Norton also argues that much of the importance in representing mental illness onscreen lies in refusing to allow one trait to define the character entirely.
“I don’t actually tend to think that representing physical manifestations of a thing are the hardest thing or the most important challenge,” he explains. “I think the bigger thing is not reducing any kind of disability to the whole of that person’s character. I think [that] if there’s anything people I’ve talked to say really drives them nuts, it’s when it’s made all about the disability. Obviously, in this [film], a huge part of this is Lionel’s love for Frank. It’s his sense of being motherless. It’s as much about the fact that he has never been a person who, as he says, looks past his own problems. So, I kind of concern himself with the rest of the world, you know? He’s got to grow up like anybody else… But what I think is really cool is when Laura [says], that it’s not everything. ‘Everybody’s got something,’ she says kindly. We’ve all got daily battles, right? And, it really pulls him up. Suddenly, someone’s looking at him and not seeing him just for that. They’re saying that’s just a part of life.”
In light of this, one of the film’s more poignant scenes highlights the complicated nature of Lionel’s Tourette syndrome by comparing it with the sonic beauty of jazz music.
“I think jazz has a very Tourettic characteristic,” says Norton. “There’s the idea of looping around, playing with variations on a theme. The kind of exuberant release that is in jazz. There’s a great passage in the book about Prince’s music, but obviously we weren’t going to do that [due to the film’s period setting]. So, to me, the idea of… a scene where you see and feel for once [of] Lionel happily losing his inhibition and finding a moment of poetic liberation in it was a neat idea. I liked the idea of it that he finds an affinity with a Charlie Parker, [or] Dizzy Gillespie kind of a figure who sees him.”
While the film’s title extends from Lionel’s nickname, it is also focuses its lens on the future and well-being of Brooklyn itself. Asked whether or not he sees any comparison between Lionel and the city, Norton believes that any comparison lies in the damage that happens when anyone (or anything) is left ‘motherless’.
“I think [the idea of the title, Motherless Brooklyn is expressed when] Laura says that, ‘We all need someone looking out for us.’ On an individual level, it’s a very lonely condition to not have anyone caring for you… Some people said to me, ‘Why are you going to… break your back trying to figure out on a budget how to effectively recreate Penn Station?’ It is kind of tilting at windmills, but it’s not nothing. The micro scale is that its lonely and sad and hard to be alone in the world and people should take care of each other. But, on the macro, it’s that, if our city is motherless, we lose Penn Station. We lose things that we’ll never get back… We lose some of the richest, most diverse communities in Brooklyn [and they] get replaced with the worst ghettos in the world, the projects. They literally [take] stable places, call them slums, rip them down and put up slums. There’s aesthetic loss. You lose the things that make a place great, like Penn Station, and to me it was like, you’ve got to see the ghost of what we lost. To make the subconscious point, these are the costs of allowing power to tell us all to get out of the way.”
Using the shadows of its 1950s noir atmosphere, Brooklyn explore the perils of absolute power upon the average citizen. With this in mind, Norton believes that the corruptive nature of power takes root when authorities lose sight of the value of others.
According to Norton, “I think that part what creates the drive for power in some people is impatience with other human beings and a lack of authentic affection for [others]. I think we’re in an era where we’re seeing it expressed in a new resurgence of a very exclusionary idea of what America is, not only antagonistic to our actual ideals, but antagonistic to our whole history. That’s what’s so crazy about it. It’s like this romance for a thing that never existed in the first place. But it’s like what my friend (who is Mexican) said, ‘This is the Latin American hefe (or ‘dictator’) problem.’ There’s something base in us that responds to the audacity of someone [else] saying, ‘I’m going to punch through the inefficiency of us having to all work together and just get [stuff] done.’ It’s like some part of us goes, ‘yeah…’ It’s amazing that, in 2019, we’re actually still grappling with the idea that, under the right circumstances, people will elevate a bully.”
While some might immediately assume that he is solely addressing the current presidency, Norton argues that abuses of power extend far beyond the Trump era.
“I think the thing that I was trying to look at is the idea that, in America, we’re supposed to know where the power is,” he continues. “It’s with us, right? That’s where it’s supposed to be. It’s not supposed to reside in places that we not only didn’t assign it, but we don’t realize that it has become outside of our purview… When where the power is [remains] unseen, that’s a truly dangerous situation because we’re walking around in democracy, thinking everything’s okay. We believe in the system and we don’t realize that there are forces dictating what’s really happening, that do not have our best interests in mind. That’s the most dangerous situation. To me, that’s as much about the Koch brothers as it is about Trump.”
“The darker idea is that like there’s a mayor being inaugurated [who is] completely irrelevant and we’re about to learn that the guy who is patiently looking at his watch in the shadow of a column, whose face we haven’t seen…, is the one who calls all the shots. Whether you want to ascribe it to Citizens United or an intrinsic part of American life and capitalism that enormous amounts of power get amassed outside of the political system and to the degree that they own the political system or are evading the political system. That’s what Ralph Nader rightly said. ‘The great challenge of democracy will be whether people can retain the priority of human interest over corporate interests (he would say) … but the interest of power, basically.’”
To hear full audio of our interview with Norton, click here.
Motherless Brooklyn uncovers the truth in theatres starting November 1st, 2019.