Motherless Brooklyn – A story about power and dispossession

The beating heart of writer-director Edward Norton’s meticulously crafted private-eye mystery Motherless Brooklyn is a highly original and poignant riff on the noir detective—a man driven into the darkest shadows of 1957 New York City by a need to understand a world that has left him a misjudged outcast. 

This is Lionel Essrog, whose over-charged brain would seem to bar him from the classic detective realms of the smooth and the no-nonsense.  But in making Lionel the hero of a story about power and dispossession, Norton upends a hard-boiled character integral to American cinema and re-imagines him through an emotionally stirring prism of chaos, need and vulnerability. 

When Lionel attempts to find the killer of the only man who ever cared about him, his boss Frank Minna, he is lured deeper and deeper into the city that made him.  His compulsion to make order from mayhem, to put all things broken back together again, leads him into the very structural framework that holds up modern New York and into the visionary, if venal, realms of the men who drove its Mid-Century ascent.  His search for simple justice becomes an epic odyssey—one that takes him into timeless forces not only of ambition, greed, bigotry and the dark allure of wielding power, but also the countervailing forces of music and emotional connection. 

The film’s 20-year journey to the screen began in 1999 when Norton saw the cinematic potential in Jonathan Lethem’s novel Motherless Brooklyn and its unforgettable central character. 

But from the beginning, Norton aimed to transpose Lethem’s contemporary characters into a different period and plot and give it a distinctive atmosphere by re-setting the drama in the 1950s—a time of great change in New York City.

Almost two decades ago, Norton first read Jonathan Lethem’s inventive, genre-bending novel Motherless Brooklyn and fell in love with its hugely energetic, highly unlikely narrator. 

Lionel might openly dub himself a “freakshow,” but Norton saw in him a universally human quest to untangle the threads of who he is and how he might rise above a chaotic world.

“I was very taken with this orphaned kid who grew up on the mean streets of Brooklyn, who is afflicted with Tourette Syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder; yet, who is also extremely bright and has this compelling way of seeing the world,” Norton says. 

“There was a very positive side to Lionel’s obsessive personality, which is that he holds information, as he says, like ‘glass in the brain.’  Lionel can’t let things lie, he can’t not pull on a thread, he can’t stop thinking about things that haven’t yet fit together.  So, as a detective, he has a relentless compulsion to figure out what’s really going on around him that I found exciting and moving.”

Norton continues, “Jonathan created a character at once funny and poignant, one who you instinctively root for because you can see what he’s really like on the inside.  I’ve always been drawn to underdogs and I fell in love with Lionel as a kind of underdog hero.”

Yet, just as Lionel often gets the urge in his mind to take the things that matter most to him apart, so too did Norton feel the lure to play with this character who held him so rapt. 

Norton couldn’t help but do something he knew broke all the rules: he imagined dropping Lionel into an entirely different timeline and series of events from the book. 

At the same time, Norton wanted to keep Lionel very much a motherless child of Brooklyn, a detective on the trail of his mentor’s killer, a verbal virtuoso and a man deeply attuned to the mysteries and fireworks of the human mind. 

He wanted the movie, like the book, to be at once an homage to noir and an open-eyed, soul-searching love letter to New York in all its aspirations and mayhem—in fact, he wanted this idea to take the lead. 

When Norton approached Lethem with this radical notion of shifting his acclaimed novel’s narrator into fresh territory, he knew the risk was real that Lethem might be appalled.  Laying his cards on the table, Norton told Lethem straight out that much as he intended to be faithful to the spirit of Lionel, he aimed to entirely switch up the plot. 

As it turned out, Lethem was open to the idea. Even better, he was intrigued. 

“The novel is contemporary to the `90s.  But the characters have such a `50s gestalt to them—they speak and act like men out of time,” notes Norton.  “This works beautifully on a literary level, but I was very transparent with Jonathan that I felt in a film it could feel ironic if you had guys in our times talking like noir gumshoes.  Fortunately, Jonathan agreed.  He said the plot was always secondary to the character in his mind and if I wanted to send Lionel off into another adventure, that was just fine with him.”

Norton already knew precisely where he wanted to take Lionel.  “I’ve long been interested in what was happening behind the scenes in the development of New York in the late 1950s, when the old New York became the modern city,” he explains.  “It felt like a very charged place to put Lionel.  Thankfully, Jonathan is as passionate a student of New York as I am, and he completely understood what I hoped to do, so I couldn’t have been luckier.” 

Lucky as he felt, Norton couldn’t rush the process.  It would require exhaustive research but also a very tricky, polyphonic twining of history into a fictional creation. 

Norton worked on the script off and on over the next decade, and then fought several more years to bring it to the screen. 

In the same period, he would achieve acclaim for a diverse range of roles ranging from Fight Club and 25th Hour to The Illusionist, Moonrise Kingdom and Birdman, as well as making his directorial debut with the romantic comedy Keeping the Faith.

Yet as time pressed on, the themes of the story kept resonating more and more with social and political concerns simmering just beneath the surface of American culture.  By the time production began, the film’s 1957 New York—that fork in the road when choices were made between unchecked ambition and a more just city—felt like a mirror for our own era. 

As he carved Lionel’s new story, Norton let the chase for Frank Minna’s killer take him deeper and deeper into the labyrinth of a city then forging both its high-minded beauty and the undercurrent of inequity that continues today.

Norton brought Lionel into smoky jazz joints where he finds something that breaks through his brain’s chatter to touch his soul. 

But he also turned Lionel’s search for Frank Minna’s killer into a confrontation with a giant: Moses Randolph, the ambitious developer remaking the city, portrayed by Alec Baldwin.  In Randolph, Lionel discovers crime beyond anything Minna ever taught him—uncovering corruption, discrimination and wholesale destruction of neighborhoods taking place in broad daylight as the city grows to the spectacular benefit of some and at the devastating expense of others. 

In a twist on Balzac’s famous dictum “every great fortune is built on a crime,” Norton began thinking about the idea that “every great city is built on a crime.”  If Los Angeles’s original crime was pilfering the water so necessary to its growth, New York’s original crime was building its soaring infrastructure on a bedrock of crooked dealings, racist biases and exertion of authoritarian power that seemed to thwart democratic principles.

Housing issues have, in a sense, always been in Norton’s blood.  His maternal grandfather, James Rouse, was a progressive developer and philanthropist who was an early champion and philosopher of urban renewal.  Rouse turned all his boldest ideas for how cities might improve everyday human life and social relations into a real place: Columbia, Maryland, built from the ground up as a self-contained community strategically designed to foster economic, racial and social equality.  Later, Rouse founded The Enterprise Foundation, a nonprofit that has been an advocate for affordable housing in diverse neighborhoods for low and moderate-income families since 1982. 

Norton grew up in Columbia, the town his grandfather imagined and built.  After studying history at Yale, he spent several years working in affordable housing development himself before devoting himself to acting.  He’s also a Lifetime Trustee of The Enterprise Foundation.

So, Norton relished the opportunity to bring to life an arrogant, insatiable, unashamedly biased urban planner who represents all that Rouse rejected. Though Randolph never existed, he is drawn from the ethos of New York’s Mid-Century powerbrokers and resembles a pastiche of characters from the city’s history, most unmistakably the notorious Robert Moses. 

Often called the “master builder” of the booming 20th century, Robert Moses helped mold the face of New York as it exists today.  He spurred the construction of hundreds of miles of roads, bridges and highways and built up thousands of acres of parkland, beaches and playgrounds.  He erected 150,000 housing units as well as developing such landmarks as Lincoln Center, the UN headquarters and the Central Park Zoo.  In his day, Moses was often feted as a man who got things done and who centered the city’s future on big ideas and constant growth.

But behind the scenes, Moses also amassed so much power that he was essentially running an unelected shadow government bolstered by strong-arm techniques, self-promoting propaganda and back-room deals.  Meanwhile, his public works sparked the evictions and uprooting of a half million lower-income citizens who stood in the way of his vision.  Entire neighborhoods were bulldozed out of existence, as Moses forged an elitist model of the city that helped to entrench poverty while stoking inequity and divisions.  Famously, Moses was even said to have ordered engineers to lower the bridges over the Southern State Parkway on Long Island to keep busses carrying minorities from travelling to the beaches.

“The story of how old New York City got converted into the modern city is a really deep and dark one,” observes Norton. “There are many great books and documentaries about that era, but it hasn’t been richly explored in film.  We often think of the Mid Century as the heyday of American democracy, but what was being swept under the rug is that institutional racism was being built directly into the city planning in New York and elsewhere.  The truth is that many things that happened in the city were achieved through methods that were fundamentally at odds with America’s commitment to democratic leadership and, in fact, bordered on actual autocracy.  In many ways, bridges, roads and housing projects are to New York what water is to Los Angeles: the lifeblood but also a container for the darker secrets of the city.”

Though Lionel is intimately familiar with raw deals in life, coming face to face with the sheer extent of the systemic corruption at the heart of his home territory stuns him.

Yet, one of the most fascinating things about his character is that Lionel is too much of a realist to go in for tilting at windmills.  He is laser-focused on his own smaller, personal, yet still unquestionably daring aim: to settle the score with Moses Randolph, no matter how big and imperious he is, on behalf of Frank Minna.

“We’ve never seen a detective story with a character like Lionel Essrog before,” notes Bill Migliore, who produced “Motherless Brooklyn” in concert with Norton, Michael Bederman, Gigi Pritzker and Rachel Shane.  “But Lionel is also part of a grand tradition of movies about a person whose affliction turns out also to be their greatest gift.  Bringing this terrific and unique character, who has no one looking out for him, into a story that is also about class, race, abuse of power and the history of New York, felt not only original but highly relevant to our times—times when so many feel disenfranchised and disempowered.”

Adds Michael Bederman, “At its core, this is a story about a man trying to put his life back together after a traumatic event where his best friend is murdered.  When he comes up against this huge governmental misconduct, Lionel realizes he can’t take down the entire system.  What he can try to do is to help the people he cares about.  Sometimes we fail in those big endeavors, while finding small, vital steps forward.”

Even as Lionel is descending into the dank, hazy layers of the city, he uncovers something that gives him a blessed escape from the exhausting excursions of his mind: a tender connection with a woman who doesn’t try to change him.  Lionel has never really known before what it is to be touched, to be seen, to be loved.  Norton wanted this to become one of his small but enlivening triumphs in the midst of solving the larger mystery.

“Lionel has a need and a desire to connect.  He’s always felt unseen, because people don’t see past the prism of his condition.  So, the character of Laura Rose, played so beautifully by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, becomes the emotional core of the story,” says Norton.  “She’s the one who expresses this idea that we all just need someone to look out for us in this world.”

It is Laura who leads Lionel into another discovery that opens up a new dimension in him: the disjunctive but electrifying wonders of jazz and jazz culture.

“If there is a musical expression of the improvisational, wild, delightful language that can come out through Tourette Syndrome, it’s jazz, and especially hard bop, so I just loved the idea of Lionel finding his way into that world,” says Norton.  “He gets sort of liberated by the music, which, like his mind, is anarchic and chaotic, but wonderful and beautiful, too.”

The verve and spontaneity of jazz seduces Lionel into another side of the city, one that exists in the shaded hollows beneath the glorious skyscrapers that obsess Moses Randolph.

Later, the film’s music would see Norton bring together an extraordinarily unusual trio who became the sonic key to the film’s mood-driven atmosphere.  Composer Daniel Pemberton would fuse the freedom of jazz with electronic sounds that echo the looping thoughts in Lionel’s brain for his score.  Norton’s friend and iconic jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis would join the production behind the scenes to play with an all-star band for the club scenes within the film.  Then, another longtime friend, the singer, musician and songwriter Thom Yorke wrote an original song (featuring the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea) for the film, which was then reflected back into a jazz-infused refrain played by Marsalis.

“The music in the film became a way not only into the time period and the history of New York jazz clubs but an emotionally visceral way into Lionel’s inner life,” sums up Norton.

As Norton prepared to film the story that had lived in his mind for nearly two decades, casting became a central crux.  The characters were so multi-hued they called out for something special.  But also, Norton knew he needed an absolutely crack cast if he was going to carry off the feat of playing Lionel while directing and producing a film of lavishly detailed scope and scale.

“Directing a movie is almost by definition antagonistic to the state of mind you want to be in as an actor,” Norton points out.  “You want to be out of your head when you’re acting, and you’ve got to have your head on top of everything when you’re directing.  So that means if you’re doing both, first, you’ve got to really own that character long before you ever step into doing it.  But it also means that if you’re going to have any hope of focusing as an actor, you’ve got to have a game plan and you’ve got to have really experienced collaborators who are able to show up on the day having already asked all the questions, ready to execute.”

He got exactly that with an ensemble that includes Bruce Willis, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Bobby Cannavale, Cherry Jones, Michael Kenneth Williams, Leslie Mann, Ethan Suplee, Dallas Roberts, Josh Pais, Robert Ray Wisdom and Fisher Stevens, as well as Alec Baldwin and Willem Dafoe.

“Every single person that Edward wanted showed up, and not only did they show up, but they brought their A games,” says Migliore.  “Each brought the absolute best part of themselves, which made the story even better.”

Then, Norton began his balancing act.  “The movie rests on the audience’s ability to connect to and care for his unusual character,” Migliore continues.  “And watching Edward embody Lionel was nothing short of thrilling. I’ve had the distinct privilege of watching Edward multiple times build a particular character in real-time on set—and I would describe it as a cross between elaborate math and jazz.  And then, to also have the discipline, thought and artistry to be able to toggle back-and-forth between that and his directorial vision, working with our large and dynamic cast, was extraordinary.”

Producer Rachel Shane adds, “It was amazing on set to watch how seamlessly Edward could turn from a director, being very empathetic with his actors and crew, to then an actor perfectly embodying the complex character Lionel Essrog, at the snap of a finger.”

For Baldwin, who portrays Moses Randolph as a man of titanic contrasts, the story works only because all his fellow cast mates brought their best.  “When you have such a smart and complicated script, you’ve got to bring in people who can really take a bite out of it, and that’s what Edward did,” he says.

Everyone was inspired by the funny, melancholy, justice-seeking, genre-breaking detective that Lethem originated—and equally the roiling New York world of treachery and passion that Norton plunged him into with such resonant effect.

Sums up Mbatha-Raw, “What Edward brings to life is a moody noir and a soulful, sweeping love letter to New York as well as an unusual personal journey.  Along the way he weaves in timely themes of culture, gentrification, racial discrimination and the history of American cities, but you see it all through the eyes of an underdog who society might otherwise overlook.”

Norton feels a debt to those who came together around his daring vision and supported him both in front of and behind the camera.  “This was a production with such a big scale of complexity that it could never have been pulled off without a group of stone-cold professionals at every level,” he reflects.  “I felt like I had the fantasy league team surrounding me in each one of the film’s dimensions.  Without a doubt, it was one of the best collections of collaborators from top to bottom that I’ve had the pleasure to work with in my career.”

Lionel Essrog and The Noir Tradition

Just as Jonathan Lethem playfully riffed on the American pulp paperback tradition of dark-alley private eyes to create Lionel Essrog, so too would Norton improvise freely on the classic elements of the film noir style those paperbacks begat.

By the 1957 setting of Norton’s film, noir had risen from B-movie status to become one of Hollywood’s most iconic artforms, cherished and imitated across the globe.  The aesthetic fundaments of noir—rain-soaked streets rife with brooding, double-crossing rebels and misfits, high-contrast lighting and rat-a-tat dialogue—became, along with be-bop jazz, part of the birth of the cool.  But it was the way noir also seemed to interrogate social norms and expose the shaky bedrock of modern life that made it such a persuasive and ever-evolving form of storytelling.

Arising from the shattered innocence of post-WWII, the stoic, broken heroes of noir mirrored the destabilizing mix of melancholy, guilt and anger roiling in the global psyche.  But also, in an era of rapidly shifting gender and racial balances, noir was the rare genre that dared to confront mounting anxiety over the very idea of “The Other.”  And that’s what made it a particularly potent form for “Motherless Brooklyn,” as the story’s marginalized characters uncover the hypocrisy of a gilded world that is in fact built on crimes.

For Norton, it was a way of returning noir to what it does best: exposing dark corners.  “In the `50s,” he says, “you had this sense of America rapidly ascending in power.  We were a young, optimistic, idealistic country.  But with noir what you got was people making films that said hang on a second, let’s peel the edge back.  And when you glimpsed beneath that edge, there was a lot of dark stuff happening.  That notion of peering into what’s happening in the shadows, into what’s happening below the more comfortable narrative of who we are and what we have achieved, I think is as compelling now as it ever has been.”

As writer and director, Norton would play up the crime film tropes already seeded throughout Lethem’s novel.  He did so with an expansive visual design that draws from eight decades of widely varying takes on noir—from the moody chiaroscuro of the 1940s and `50s to the more sociologically-driven, self-referential and wildly colorful neo-noirs of the `60s and beyond.

But as an actor, Norton would re-interpret noir cinema’s most elemental character—the glib, cynical gumshoe—in an utterly fresh rendition.  Essrog is no Sam Spade.  He’d like to be, but he doesn’t have a hope.  While many noir detectives are men of few words, Essrog can’t stop the words from erupting out of him at every inopportune moment.  He can’t keep himself from punning and clanging, nor can he cease the constant self-analysis that makes him far more vulnerable and transparently human than an entire pantheon of noir protagonists.

In his agile performance, Norton did everything he could to keep the character from ever being merely the sum of his outbursts and compulsions.  The hope was to have Lionel’s Tourette Syndrome become to the audience simply organic, as much a part of who he is as being an orphan or a Brooklynite, and just one part of many that make up the man.

Norton lets the audience in on the anguish Lionel feels trying to grapple with his mind’s duplicities.  But then you see Lionel realize that very same mind is what gives him the drive and the skills to find the answers he needs to feel whole.  As he becomes more accepting of his eccentricities, Lionel discovers something life-changing: he doesn’t have to be alone.  He too can find solace in opening himself up to a deep connection with another human being—a universal desire to which anyone can relate.

“For me, the essence of Lionel’s personal journey is his need to connect,” Norton says. “He feels unseen, or not seen for who he really is, because he has been seen mostly through the prism of his condition.  The interplay of his sorrow and frustration with his humor and his tenacity is a mix I’ve found in many of my favorite film characters and it always moves me.”

“All of my favorite filmmakers set up paradoxes, and this film has lots of paradoxes—from the mix of beauty and pain in Lionel’s affliction, to the mix of destruction and creative vision in Moses Randolph,” Norton concludes.  “I hope the film asks some big questions about cities and discrimination and the path of the future.  But most of all, I hope audiences come to have a relationship with an unexpected character who takes a deeply emotional journey of discovery.”