Edward Norton — On Creative Process, Creative Struggle, and Motherless Brooklyn (#393)

“It’s nice to be reminded that it’s been hard for other people when they were getting things done that you admired because it maybe gives you that extra little bit of determination or patience to persevere a little more.” — Edward Norton

Edward Norton (@EdwardNorton) is one of the most celebrated actors of his generation. He has been nominated for three Academy Awards for his performances and has starred in, produced, written, or directed more than 30 films. His most recent film, Motherless Brooklyn, which he wrote, directed, produced, and stars in, will be released on November 1st.

People mostly know Edward for his acting, but he has a substantial parallel career as an entrepreneur, investor, and activist in both technology and environmental sustainability ventures.

In 2010 Norton co-founded and was chairman of CrowdRise, a charitable crowdfunding platform which raised more than $500M for U.S. nonprofit organizations before being acquired by GoFundMe, the largest social fundraising platform in the world, which Norton now serves on the board of. He also co-founded EDO, which applies advanced data science and machine learning to the analysis of audience engagement signals for the media and advertising industries. EDO’s data and software are used by every major film studio in their media rotation planning, and virtually every major television network now includes EDO data alongside Nielsen data within their pricing metrics.

He is the founding board president of the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust, an award-winning Kenyan conservation and community development organization, and in 2010 he was appointed the first United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for Biodiversity.

Edward seems to do it all. In this wide-ranging conversation, we go deep into his creative process and creative struggles, both inside and outside of film.

If you’d like more Edward after this episode, you can listen to my 2016 interview with him at tim.blog/edward. And take my word for it and go see Motherless Brooklyn in theaters. It’s absolutely outstanding.

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, StitcherCastbox, Google Podcasts, or on your favorite podcast platform. You can find the transcript of this episode here. Transcripts of all episodes can be found here.

#393: Edward Norton — On Creative Process, Creative Struggle, and Motherless Brooklyn

This episode is brought to you by Zapier. If you run your own business, think about all of the hours you spend moving information from one software program to another, or one window to another, one social media platform to another, copy and pasting, all because those things don’t easily work together. With Zapier, now they do, automatically.

Zapier is one of the best pieces of automation software I’ve ever come across, and it supports more than fifteen hundred business applications, so the possibilities are virtually endless. It is the easiest way to automate your work. Best of all, it’s easy to build the exact solution you need in minutes, without writing code or asking a developer for help. Join more than 4.5 million people who are saving an average of 40 hours per month by using Zapier. Go to Zapier.com/tim and try Zapier for a free, 14-day trial.

This episode is also brought to you by SuperFat Nut Butters.These little beauties are great. I’ve been using them as quick mini-breakfasts and on-the-go fuel for a few months now. They’re 200–300 calories each, depending on which ingredient cocktail you eat (MCT, protein, macadamia, caffeine, etc.); 3–5g of net carbs per pouch; keto- and Paleo-friendly; and easy to throw in a backpack or pocket. The first time I tried SuperFat, I finished the entire box in a few days, so watch your portion control.

I suggest ordering the Variety Box and you can try all 5 SuperFat flavors in one box, and it has 2 pouches of each flavor. Get 15% off your order by going to SuperFat.com/tim.

Want to hear Edward’s previous appearance on this podcast?Listen in on our pier-side conversation about the importance of surfing, early mentors, what separates good actors from mediocre ones, favorite books and movies, and much more. (Stream below or right-click here to download):

#133: Edward Norton on Mastery, Must-Read Books, and The Future of Crowdfunding

QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode? Please let me know in the comments.



  • Connect with Edward Norton:

Twitter | Facebook | Instagram


  • We each share how we first became fans of Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem when it was first published in ’99. [08:23]
  • Who is “Bailey,” and what does he represent? [15:21]
  • As the person who wrote, produced, directed, and starred in this film, what did its creation look like from Edward’s perspective? How did it go from favorite book to active project? [18:12]
  • Edward’s self-talk when he decided to take a break from acting and get his pilot’s license, why his father was a particularly good role model to guide him toward this decision, and how flying a plane is like meditation. [23:21]
  • Edward’s considerations when trying to wrap his head around how he could possibly adapt a book like Motherless Brooklyn into a movie, and why such an adaptation — when done well — is a bit like transposing a piano concerto for guitar. [31:59]
  • How did Jonathan Lethem feel about Edward’s proposed changes from his original work — including setting it in the era when Robert Moses ruled New York City like an autocratic Caesar? [35:27]
  • The conversation that convinced an initially reluctant Edward to wear the hat of Motherless Brooklyn‘s director on top of producer, star, and writer — once the writer’s block was conquered. [42:28]
  • In which movie would you rather invest millions of dollars: a cross between Chinatown and Rain Man, or a cross between L.A. Confidential and Forrest Gump? [54:10]
  • What was Edward’s writing approach upon returning to the Motherless Brooklyn script that had been set aside to gather dust in his desk drawer for so long? [57:57]
  • The pros and cons of allowing the creative process to get competitive (even if it’s just in your own head), the confidence gained by learning new skills (even if you don’t have to use them), and the looming dread of an unfinished project (even when the thing that holds it up turns out to have an easy solution). [1:02:35]
  • By the time the Motherless Brooklyn project was ready for its producorial phase, was Edward still having doubts, or was he confident it would gain the necessary support to get made? [1:12:33]
  • A little insight into the world of film financing and hedging risks when big names are involved and millions of dollars are at stake — and how Motherless Brooklyn‘s financing is unique and probably non-replicable, but created deep bonds between Edward and the people who believed in the project. [1:18:53]
  • On Motherless Brooklyn‘s one-of-a-kind soundtrack and the deliberate thought and care that was put into its musical selections. [1:25:51]
  • What did documentary filmmaking legend (and recent guest of this show) Ken Burns think of Motherless Brooklyn, and how has Edward taken such an assessment from one of his heroes? What effect does Edward hope for this film to have on the rest of us? [1:32:18]
  • On gestation of art, why Edward is happier with the timing of Motherless Brooklyn coming out in 2019 instead of 2003, and why the world doesn’t need anyone putting a sexy stamp on the idea of nihilism right now. [1:45:13]
  • Why my wholehearted recommendation to see Motherless Brooklyn on the big screen (along with any recommendation I give) is sincere. [1:50:26]
  • Selective remembrance and final thoughts. [1:51:16]


The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

Leave a Reply

Comment Rules: Remember what Fonzie was like? Cool. That’s how we’re gonna be — cool. Critical is fine, but if you’re rude, we’ll delete your stuff. Please do not put your URL in the comment text and please use your PERSONAL name or initials and not your business name, as the latter comes off like spam. Have fun and thanks for adding to the conversation! (Thanks to Brian Oberkirch for the inspiration.)

15 Replies to “Edward Norton — On Creative Process, Creative Struggle, and Motherless Brooklyn (#393)”

  1. You are amazing Tim! I enjoy your weekly interviews and 5 bullet Friday’s. I feel inspired, excited and happier when listening.

  2. In this weeks 5 bullet Friday there is an Outdoor Magazine article about the 33 best places to visit. Portugal is on the list. Consider drilling down further and exploring the Azores, a series of Portuguese islands. Views are breathtaking everywhere you go, hiking is incredible and they have great little restaurants in the villages. If nothing else give them a quick Google search.

  3. Tim! Great post!

    Ah my favorite song! Listen to the remix of “Trampoline” by Jauz.

    All music platforms.

    You won’t be disappointed.

  4. G’day Tim

    This is more related to your 5 bullet friday and your planning trips abroad.

    There is one you can come along on as a secret unknown guest, involves 8 days in Tasmanian wilderness with a small group of free minded people that will fully immerse themselves both in the spectacular remote gorges of the Franklin River and with some more traditional processes that I understand you have a penchant for.

    Will keep things brief for the sake of anonymity.

    Cheers, Jim

  5. This weeks quote ““The problem is no longer getting people to express themselves, but providing little gaps of solitude and silence in which they might eventually find something to say…. What a relief to have nothing to say, the right to say nothing, because only then is there a chance of framing…the thing that might be worth saying.” is one of the best you put out there. The balance of input and output is just not there in so many ways today. “Act, don’t think” seem to be the leading theme nowadays. I’m fortunate to live on the countryside and can choose to go outside, getting clean air and silence and just breath in silence. I wish everyone could do this, and I’m sure the world would be a better place if all and everyone could do that occasionally. What happens inside of you is so much more important than what happens outside. Clearing the mind=being free. Thanks for all your thoughts, interviews, newsletter and books and food for thoughts. I’ll continue listening and selecting. I’ll now continue my life by listening to your interview with Edward. 🙂

  6. This interview sums up the reasons why I have listened to every podcast of yours for the last 4 years. I have so many feelings but to cut to the bone, I thought this interview was just beautiful. So honest and revealing about the internal and external processes involved in creating an artful film. I love that I feel I know Edward in a very human way, like we were sitting next to each other at a very long dinner party. Thank you for making this happen and inspiring honest conversations all the time. You can’t know how much you and your guests have educated and influenced me. Keep up the beautiful work.

  7. i have no idea how else to contact you but here is a cool quote that i think you’ll like

    “The role of genius is not to complicate the simple, but to simplify the complicated.” – CRISS JAMI

  8. Great to hear that Motherless Brooklyn delivered. Was waiting for it, too, but was scared it would come out bad.

  9. Hey Tim,

    Just wanted to tip my cap to you. You did a fantastic job in this interview. It has been a pleasure to listen to you evolve as an interviewer.

    This episode is one of your best – I loved how you were able to explore the creative process by following one timeline from 2003 to 2019.



  10. Hi Tim,

    Not sure where to put this, so I am leaving it here.

    Why aren’t Tools of Titans and Tribe of Mentors available in audio book format?

    Or am I just not looking in the right place?



  11. After listening to this podcast I went to watch Edward Norton’s new movie Motherless Brooklyn and I must say I had a ‘richer’ movie watching experience as a result of this interview.

    It added another dimension to my experience, I had a layer of perspective that made me feel more ‘invested’ in the film. I was nervous and anxious at the start, I was focused on the details as if I were reviewing my own work.

    And by the end of the movie I was moved, inspired, and in subtle way I was relieved that is over.

    Knowing what went into preparing for the movie, and the sacrifice the actors took to share in Edward’s goal, I came away feeling as if this was gift worth sharing. The movie and the music are beautiful in so many ways and the long form confession Tim has with Edward made me consciously aware of the effort it took to create that beauty in ways I would have normally overlooked.

    If anyone went to watch this film after this interview I’m curious to hear your thoughts.

  12. To Tim Ferriss:

    (This is not episode related)

    I want to say thank you so much. With tears in my eyes, I am forever grateful for what you have contributed to during your lifetime. I wish I someday could meet you in person to give you my many many thanks. In several ways you have changed my own life and I am certain that you have changed many more. I hope you will manage to overcome your internal obstacles and that you will find peace and harmony within.


    Dag-Are Halland

  13. Hey Tim,

    What an enlightening post! This is stacked with incredibly valuable information. Your style of interviewing is always so refreshing!

    I am presently working for a start-up called Efortles, which aspires to empower

    small business owners. Currently, we offer CPA services for free, which is just the

    initiation of our objective to eliminate all obstacles confronting small businesses.

    I will certainly share this information with all my friends, customers and

    associates. Looking ahead to your next post.