Edward Norton is the best possible person to explain each stage of the moviemaking process for his new drama Motherless Brooklyn—he’s the film’s writer, director and lead actor. For our upcoming Fall Guide to Making Movies Issue, Norton told us how he assembled Motherless Brooklyn from beginning to end.
Edward Norton: When people talk about screenwriting, there are usually plenty of jokes about Robert McKee. I have a pretty violent disagreement with McKee’s idea that there are structural fundamentals to the way stories should be told. I think Joseph Campbell is right: It’s absolutely true that there are core mythic themes and archetypes that writers re-visit and re-skim to address the times we’re living in. But if you look at a script like Chinatown, which people often point to as a great noir film, the main character has absolutely no motivation whatsoever! He doesn’t really like the people he’s trying to help, and in true American fashion, the only thing that gets under his skin is that somebody else tries to play him, so that’s what carries through the whole movie.
If you workshopped the structure of Chinatown in a screenwriting group, everyone would take it apart. It’s so opaque that if you wiped the hard drives of everyone’s minds so that they’d never seen Chinatown or had other people tell them it’s a classic, anybody watching it would have no idea what’s happening eight tenths of the way through. And yet, between the music, the iconic L.A. landscape, and Jack Nicholson being a person you’d watch read the phone book, it’s hypnotic. Ninety-nine out of 100 people who love the movie would fail to narrate the details of that convoluted plot, but somehow by the end of it they understand essential truths—about how a land of American hopes and dreams was built on a seedy crime, and how a kind of dark violence exists underneath everything we want to believe in.
Of course, the first-level success of any script is simply that it engenders empathy. When I wrote my latest film, Motherless Brooklyn, I wanted people to root for the underdog and see him become a better person than he was in the beginning. So, if audiences could get to the end of the film and have the sense that deep, dark things— autocracy, racism, things that are antagonistic to everything we say about “who we are”—created the modern city of New York, then that would be a second-level success.
The opening of the book that Motherless Brooklyn is adapted from, by Jonathan Lethem, gave me a great springboard into a story—a James Bond-esque pre-title sequence with a stakeout, some murky clues, a chase, a murder, and the fallout from all of it. I wrote that part quickly and easily, but after that, things got complicated: “Why did this happen?” I had researched a lot about New York in the 1950s and had a clear idea about the crime at the heart of it all, but figuring out what kind of journey our character would go through took a long time. So, another couple of years went by before I sat down to try to plot it out.
I did all the classic things: mapping the story out with cards, strategizing on how to hide certain details from the audience. I asked myself, “What’s the mechanism by which we peel the layers of the onion back to find out what’s really going on?”
I reached a point where I had written about 60 pages, but had gotten so hung up in the maze of the story myself that I felt distracted, put it in the drawer, and didn’t touch it again for another five or six years. Then something wild happened: I actually had the experience, those five or six years later, of reading it and not remembering I had written it! I thought some of it was pretty good, and thought, “Why didn’t I finish this?” It was as if my subconscious had worked on it for a while and found its way through the script, and that’s what allowed me to finish it. Screenwriting is hard. It takes a lot of puzzling.