Edward Norton discusses 'Motherless Brooklyn' and looks back on his favorite roles

The actor talks to Peter Travers about starring in and directing his newest film, "Motherless Brooklyn."
22:13 | 11/15/19

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Transcript for Edward Norton discusses 'Motherless Brooklyn' and looks back on his favorite roles
Which he is written directed and star. My guest Edward Norton great to be have been too long it's been way too but I did talk about long. As long as I've known. Which asked to be going on twenty years yet it is yeah we've been talking about mother. Could I think. You think that book came out Jonathan that from this book came out yet you said I'm gonna do that. Yet she's going to be let it. Finally he Peter I told you I would and I did I did but you know I can't wait another twenty but now that I think that you're doing to do it but how do you feel that really good. I. When something's been rattling around your head for a long time it is an it is nice to get it out it's sort of like. I relate my character has threats and drone and an obsessive compulsive disorder and where he talks about having glass in the brain. And that's a little bit how this project was for me it was like glass and migrated it was like I I want it was. Uncomfortable and I wanted take I did want to get it out. But apart from that. Personal compulsion to see it through I'm happy with the way it came out maybe needing more than I usually am actually. It's saying the things I want it this thing. And I think. Maybe you commented on this it's it's sort of I don't think it would have had the residents that it has now ten years ago honestly. We were talking about this before we started just the difficulty it's it's what we're Suzie has commented on very eloquently I think. In in his kind of elegy that the how difficult theatrical films have gotten it how difficult it's gotten to release original theatrical films. It's it's always been a struggle for filmmakers to make original bill in these visions it's always been. You see the cast we had in this film we have Bruce Willis and will of the flow and Alec Baldwin and Goodman that Iran and body can volley great great actors but you still have that he still have to sort struggled the fines. The resources you need to make it and I wasn't and I didn't need them. 200 million to all age risk for any stage my friend that Howard guy I got Al Hayat all actors working to free. All my actors worked for nothing to help me get a name honestly be still be still have to. Thought to figure it out yeah well there's so many. Things in terms of motherless Brooklyn about. What you have to do even with the studio backing you have. A movie that maybe they don't know what the title is maybe they never read Jonathan's book gravy they're saying. What to the back out break of what is your business and that money has to be poured into letting them know what it is because not pre salt. Now. And yet it is any guide us now to do property. He did those things early and went and looked in my case I was there saying look I wanna make that date old fashioned period. Epic about New York. In the vein of the godfather or LA confidential or any. Any of these great old fashioned movie experiences that I think demonstrably audiences really love me when they're good we all love those films. And and I wanted to mash it up a little bit with. Other another type of movie I love that which you also have appeared you know sort of the underdog the Forrest Gump the green man. That idea. A person a hero's very unusual resident usual condition never seen before that you feel empathy for. And that empathy the U feel for him. The fact the east immediately you're on his side that's part of what that's what pulls you through. So a murder case every line all is one of the nice guys you've ever play. But I debt he is. I think he's well it's funny someone said to me that a lot of people with conditions are afflictions I said no I've been allowed people who are speaking. In addition there yeah like primal fear and fear is a game this gore went to Niro and American history acts there's no faith that they'll be okay. He they just say he's angry not mentally ill and and the truth is look this character Lyle he's not mentally ill he just has yet threats in Durham. So people they call him freak show but he's. He's Smart and he's intelligent he's he's is sent insensitive what can we look at this quick scene yet they only Agassi what's happened Anderson senior yes a look at this weird looking yet he has he has compulsions verbal compulsions. To and we rolled. That clip yet seen a guy. Been used in. Wednesday's yeah. Himself. Begun. In. Please. She's gonna ask. But you see what it in the act very quit the we establish something that people would look at and say. Why's he doing that's funny yeah and this a little strange and I'm distancing myself from him in some way I think he's weird. But he's also incredibly Smart yep. And a great thing about watching this movie is that it takes awhile sometimes for you to say. My brain isn't working why us right you know he's piecing together this puzzle. In his own head yet his own sin taxes and we're trying to and put a Linear thing I bet that isn't there. No but I actually the only thing that is here is I think that. You're busted green new and existing buys by a certain point all doors. I think when characters this goes back like JD Salinger and movement caught Holden Caulfield in catcher in the rye. When sometimes when a character tells you his own story can right from the start you. You relate you feel the heat it's a great emotional hook and I think. If he set that hook early with the characters in this case. Lional in a classic detective voice over he tells you I have something wrong with me when I struggle with it. I I I have friends who understand me like Bruce Willis but not everybody does. And it's thought it's tough you know you can hear you start to go all I I I'm inside this guy I understand in my day and then by the time you get to. A moment like this you're sort of like ear your face while riding because you you you want him to do well you don't want him to trip himself a plan that. Well you're always root out for. I just think what you're also doing is saying I don't quite know. How he's piecing it together yet doesn't tell you no and that goes to what you've done with Jonathan that the book yep. It says in the late ninety's. But you send it back in time yes to the fifty that witness I don't think anybody ever knew what to Ritz that's right well debt that we just that is part of the reason we put in the fifties. The isolation. The that characters isolation. Not just in terms of other people being a little less sensitive calling him freak show students but if you know that he doesn't even know what he has. You are even more sympathetic it's even more isolating to not know what along with Newton in some sense but the other thing was honestly Jonathan and I just both. Really like. Those movies that the old fashioned atmosphere. Feeling of that those noir films from that air the novel. Motherless Brooklyn is very interior it's inside the characters had but obviously a film is a big. A bigger canvas you have you've got to. You gotta create a landscape. For people to look at. And well it's great landscape yeah it's that whole that these. Thing that's going on in new York and why line though is called mother west rock yeah you know why basically has no but so. Now looking for but he has Bruce Willis is can actor yes when a man as boy so he. Has something and that's now. This movie starts it's about who killed my mentor young who did this and then we get what to me has a real Chinatown. Yes which is. Where's what's festering underneath this it's not just. Who murdered. Net characters what's going on its yes though not what I'd attend had the water in now way that was going on human its intent on tenant owns great because it's about LA's original sin. It's not just about a mystery it's about the idea that LA is built on crime. And that's and that's that's what I like about the War Films they they do what you said is exactly right says hey. They say hey yes it's of a certain mystery at a certain emotional relationship is driving why he's investigating but really what what this about is. The more he takes us into the shadow we realize there there are things going on. In what we call our democratic like egalitarian New York society. That are violently antagonistic to everything we say we believe in which we see through the Al Baldwin characters Robert Moses tight. Character. It's master builder via a person that says I'm gonna create the city that look like this and then cuts out. Anybody can sit outside read anybody who is in to 1% there right which is what goes to the topic yeah. Even now and was a racist themes that total yes and I I actually got idea of the weighted. The way that we actually see. Is people don't let institutional racism that. The weight discrimination was literally baked into the way New York was. Built into a modern city it they literally do you do things like lower bridges. To the new beaches that they overpasses they set them to vote for buses. To clear them because they didn't want black and Latino minority. Citizens coming into the new public beach and so they literally limited. Access. And people think that sounds like a conspiracy theory but it happened. Now it did happen and we see it and yet these are things that you have in your screen by this book added. To death what was in the book right when you collaborate with somebody like John Brett who's a really terrific ride a really great. He will if you want. Yeah I could have done what I did on this is bold you could call it that but but he doesn't say what have you done know don't know why I wouldn't do that without checking out with him I. I felt that I thought there was reasons to set in the fifties we talked not that he liked that idea because he likes those films and I think he knew his film is book where had a certain surreal. Metal modernism if you want to call it that is it. It's really about the interior life of this character. He wasn't so married to the plot per say the plot didn't wasn't like. The story of my family or the story of my city it was it's a very Byzantine. Mays it's really an excuse to write the character in some sense you know he also loves like. Raymond Chandler and you know does get Marlow at the detective in Chandler with a went through a couple novels rate so we kind of approached it like. His great character. Going into another. The next another story you know. In terms of taking a movie which you describe we talked about it now and putting it on the screen. Do you worry about it reaching an audience. Putting out kind of putting out work that you do that you. You have a deep feeling for is always. It's always gat. Certain emotional risk no matter Howell. Thick skin and you get over the years no matter how many. No matter how many you know I've been through quite a few experiences like I'm getting on a nice honor from those camera in garage festival in Poland. This year it's the great some photography festival in. And they sent me a rundown of the films they wanted to review in this thing. And it's amazing like. At the top line of those kinds of assessments of films I've done that people think are really. Definitive tonight that you have like fight club then is always in there in the 25 ours always and there. An American history X is always in there and none of those films did well. I would say. Lou almost everybody says these are great films that was like these best films that stated finishers in a masterpiece that's. Americans checks is kind is still being cited. These days. All this films did poorly at the box office they were underwhelming. Initial releases. And and they and none of the let it and our districts we. You know got nominee but that. But most of them work fight club would never was even in the awards conversation not even remotely but don't nobody believed it and neither would think that our right with you you. What you come to understand is that. Is it in this world we're living in films have an incredible capacity to ultimately get to people. And they form their own relationship with people. And yes it would be nice if something other than DC. Marvel. Comic characters. Somehow. Motivated the investment. To sell. Movies that broad scale or or brought people out in large numbers. But at a certain point you've got a like separate yourself from that agenda you've got to recognize its in this I think. Martz was he said really eloquently in very generously he wasn't. He wasn't need Keating anyone else's pleasure in a certain kind of thing what you're saying is that for him. The experience that he wants to have of a regional unpredictable complexity. Emotional complexity complexity of character. That these these things you have to do it in your mind recognize that these things can co exist you know in his point about room in the theaters I think is very good one. But they can coexist that we can have mass entertainment. But but. You have to calibrate your expectations when you make this kind of work and part of the reason I needed for such so a modest cost. Is I don't want the pressure of you know making like that happening in live by night which is a very fine film when you make it for 120 million dollars. You you create the potential for catastrophe. Financial catastrophe right now if you make a film the way I made it. You you can have a very modest. Box office theatrical. Outcome and still do quite fine and united mean and that's important I think that's what we're light. At the end of that tunnel is through that movies can be re discovered. That they have a shelf life yet by cub is the perfect. That nobody would believe how that was treated winning team. Critics were really tough to me now you know her but the fact is now you actuary you use. Absent through form if it's not be popping but brought you know you re Rolling Stone. And I think. The reason that wrote Rolling Stone in my view there's a vitality. It because Rolling Stones he goes and you're eat those. Has always been I think. To seek the zeit Geist right to look for. What what is that what is going on in the way people are fueling. About the culture they're living in and it's not just rock and roll like it's always been about like making shares say. What's what's giving people a sense of identification. You know and the reason is the reason you understood fight club celebrated because you saw in it. Its capacity. This to let people see themselves you know you knew that people. Be a lot of young people feel these things and it indeed is something humorous and dark but mostly that there is that it it it was. Observing as much as the graduate was. In its day it's observing. It's observing attention to young people feel about becoming a doll almost ahead of its time Allstate Rolling Stone is. Did does put music which is a different energy. Yes and you know you brought me this and am grateful yeah that's. Tom York had I don't know I got him pastor who basically do this for you move would be get he doesn't just say sure now. I'm. The music that you put in motherless Brooklyn and what's there's is another energy that people relate to it. And this is fun it's this is old school it's not a vinyl 45 of Tom. Tom and flee the version they did Tom song and then on the B side is that. Wynton Marsalis is you know view on this as emerges from that from from saint which are both in the film but those are both things I love. Jazz is right for in the fifties but that's also I love that music and I think if there was never a music that has at her Redick. Kind of qualities do we read it I'd like these it's it's it's pop jazz is joining me it is and I think did. It it also has dissidents and and and Tom. You know great musicians like Tom who have explored dissidents. And fracture in their music. Dave you know Tom loves Charles opening it straight who was a great jazz innovator in terms of looking at a total and he rhythmic. Dissonance it's you know explorations. In in the past. Great I would be into your character gets everything that's happening in and it just worked it has an energy to and I think I think there are lots of people by the way. Tom an hour laughing there's lots of people we unit you know there's some people who. Here Tom's voice and their Radiohead fans and they know immediately that's Thom Yorke but we've had quite a few people we showed this in Atlanta and this. This African American lady in her fifties cannot means he has he has who was the woman singing that beautiful. Navy flag and it is like like the commodity Billie Holliday of the like well her name is Tom. But her name is Todd yeah that's so we have to let but that's great to be that what's really like added I'll is. If it if it has a tone now audience some people don't and they say like how these things go together it shows you that it. You can make personal work and there could people be responsive to you know I have to take a couple questions from the outside world of digital. Bring that we bring it here it is mr. Norton home yeah it's like you're on set. Is there a director actor that you haven't had the chance to work with but you most like to. Well. I showed this action this on the Sean Penn the other night because he's always been one of those artists I'd I would act in one of his films I would love to direct a minute film I would love to just act of them. Connecting Sean has retained. A very unique personal sense of his own artistry and vitality and yet look to workers on and he he's had to type that septa yet to do it if it nobody to Meryl Streep by Merrill street I would. Kill to work you Romero do you hear that yeah that would still at heart one more one more. Let's see what this at me says do you ever still find yourself humming songs from debt this rich Levy what I do. Andy is a person's case to case that's all I have to tell you have to say the answer is yes and you have great taste well you know that we always in the shown song. I did and well you forget you know but that's it do you remember a little bit of something from that the stretching. Out well I helped. Right some of those songs. You did well with. Come on it's in their Edward O that I did like there was a song your step dad's not mean he's just adjusting. Alice good line. Now the home team I need this hands of the musical. Colin I can't say you ten pound billion plan. Well what's songs in your head right. What what seat anybody is what's in my head I can't think that's what it may take time and act kid who went Marcellus trumpets let you know elevators there's in the theme of not those Brooklyn I'll say this go out on this and in the mother list theme. It's this it's this really lovely like. Which kind of reminded me from the great Michael nine and scores yet Michael nine and went one of the really under appreciated film composers. Like the end of the affair. Great films or do you remember that didn't beautiful piano film score like. That didn't do there's work on this the Daniel numbered and did that. Reminded me some ways of the best and Michael nine and that. But in now one wins Horne comes in wins for an entrance on that a fact that up against any piece of music composition. Let's recently back yeah we go out that's not getting anymore yeah yeah. But I got a little so pitiful I think there's any of trumpets. Think it.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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