Edward Norton: When you finally finish writing, you get very lit up about what’s on the page—with how cool it would be to walk one of your characters into the old Penn Station… but the problem is, the old Penn Station doesn’t exist anymore. Once you start to develop your movie on a budgetary and practical level, you might realize that you’re tilting at windmills and you’ve set yourself up for a nasty array of logistical challenges. There will be a lot of moments where you have to be prepared to say, “I’m going to have to come up with another way of shooting this location, because we’re not going to find that pool, or that office, or that main reading room in the library.”
We didn’t give these locations up when we made Motherless Brooklyn—they made their way into the film. Still, figuring out how to do it for a price and get the cast together took us about five years. I knew I needed to get certain actors who were the type to make the studio happy and secure financial backing, like Alec Baldwin, Willem Dafoe, and Bruce Willis, so my crew and I figured out how to meet that goal. But then, when you get into the phase where the production is less hypothetical, you now have to figure out the prep of it all. Early into our roughly six-month prep period, we realized that without spending a lot of money, we needed to take weeks to hunt around New York for places that captured a sense of the city in that era that didn’t feel like a diorama.
It’s crucial to bring people who are masters at their tradecraft aboard your production. Motherless Brooklyn had the cadre of production designer Beth Mickle, costume designer Amy Roth, and one of the great cinematographers of the modern era, Dick Pope. Amy came into the prep stage with her own visual look-book for the film; I thought my producer must’ve tipped her off or something, because she had downloaded Robert Frank’s photographs of New York and pulled pictures by Vivian Maier as references for little set details that were the exact ones I loved. It’s important for your team to have a natural grasp of the aesthetics you’re looking for. Everybody’s got their own unique frequency wave, but you have to get your entire crew to lock into the same one—to synchronize your vision, speak the same language, and cooperate in the same dimensional space. When you feel that coming together, it’s pretty exciting.