It was the fall of 1999, and everything seemed to be lining up for Motherless Brooklyn. Edward Norton, fresh off his Oscar nomination for American History X and about to open Fight Club, was ready to direct, produce, and star in an adaptation of the brand-new novel by Jonathan Lethem.New Line Cinema had optioned the book for what was reported as a “sum in the high six-figures.” And most crucially, Lethem had signed off on Norton’s bold idea of shifting the modern-day detective story to the 1950s, taking the story’s central characters and jettisoning them off into a completely different adventure.
What happened next is a familiar Hollywood story: delays, bad timing, years of puzzling out the script. But this fall, exactly 20 years later, Motherless Brooklyn is at last a reality, with Norton as the book’s unforgettable hero, Lionel Essrog, and Bruce Willis as Frank Minna, the paternal head of the seedy Brooklyn detective agency that’s employed Lionel since he was an orphaned teenager. Those characters will be familiar to readers of the book, but as these first-look images make clear, the rest of Motherless Brooklyn is a new world entirely.
“Jonathan’s book is this incredible character,” Norton said on a recent phone call. “It was set in the late ’90s but it had a quality to it of an anachronistic bubble of acting like ’50s gumshoes. I made the case to Jonathan that film is very literal, and I didn’t think I wanted to make something that felt like irony.”
Instead Lionel and Frank are transplanted to 1957, the year of Sweet Smell of Success and Slaughter on Tenth Avenue. It’s also the era of another distinct New York story, one nowhere to be found in Lethem’s book but that Norton has wanted to tell for a long time: Robert Moses, the “master builder” who held immense governmental power and utterly transformed New York City from the 1930s to the 1960s. Norton calls this 1950s period “the secret history of modern New York, with all of its kind of institutional racism and the devastation of the old city from neighborhoods right up to Penn Station, perpetrated at the hands of an autocratic, almost imperial force, who was intensely antagonistic to everything we think defines American democratic principle. That’s not a history most people are actually familiar with.”
So into Motherless Brooklyn arrives Moses Randolph, a Robert Moses stand-in played by Alec Baldwin. “I needed someone who is equally charming and alluring and a little bit intimidating,” Norton said of Baldwin. “And obviously he has that great seductive intellect and presence and that capacity. That Glengarry Glen Ross capacity to be the most intimidating bully. But Alec has that old-world New York political boss DNA that is not that common.”
The emotional plot of Motherless Brooklyn remains the same: Lionel, whose Tourette’s syndrome and obsessive-compulsive tendencies isolate him from most of the world, sets out to find the killer of his mentor, Frank. But the power broker Randolph is entirely new to the story—as is the character played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Laura Rose, who strikes up an unlikely alliance with Lionel.
“She’s sort of woven together with Lionel within the context of people who are not being seen for who they really are, and the poignancy and loneliness of being a black woman who everyone thinks is a secretary but she’s really a lawyer,” Norton said. “I like the idea of someone who kind of is a little bit of an unknown presence, and Gugu is so striking and has such a fierce intelligence, she has that perfect blend. You can see why he would follow her. She’s alluring and beautiful, but as you get to know her and her intelligence, a fundamental goodness comes out.”
Willem Dafoe joins the cast as another new character, one Norton describes as “the Jedi knight in rags. I call him the Obi-Wan Kenobi of the film, if Alec Baldwin is Darth Vader.” Like Willis and Norton, who appeared together in Moonrise Kingdom, Dafoe is a frequent player in Wes Anderson’s films; Norton credits his skill at “conveying a person that you have an ambivalent feeling toward, but he has such a terrific humanism.” In Motherless Brooklyn “he’s sort of the keeper of secrets. You realize he’s the most deeply moral character in the story.”
Much as Lethem was inspired by classic detective fiction when writing Motherless Brooklyn, Norton has drawn from famous film noir—including probably the most famous one made after the genre’s heyday in the ’40s and ’50s, Chinatown. “It came out right when the Watergate scandal is breaking open, Vietnam is ending, [Roman] Polanski’s wife has been murdered,” Norton said. “You have probably the deepest cynicism that had ever emerged in American society, and that film was responsive to that…. I think there’s a lot of what we’re going through now that is provoking also a lot of looking at dimensions of what sits under the surface of what we call American life. [It’s] is especially resonant when you’re going through moments that are giving people deep dismay.”
So, despite its origins in the ’90s and setting in the ’50s, Motherless Brooklyn is very much a film for the Trump era. Norton finished the script in 2012, and he and his collaborators saw its relevance rise after the 2016 election.
“Jesus, it’s feeling more and more responsive to about four dimensions of what’s going on,” he said. “And I think we all felt that there was real value to digging in and getting it done.”
Motherless Brooklyn will world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and opens in theaters November 1.