Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Edward Norton (@EdwardNorton), 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.
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.
Transcripts may contain a few typos—with some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it’s difficult to catch some minor errors. Enjoy!
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Tim Ferriss: Hello, boys and girls, ladies and germs. This is Tim Ferriss and welcome to another episode of The Tim Ferriss Show where it is my job to interview and attempt to deconstruct world class performers to tease out the habits, routines, and so on that make them tick, make them good at what they do. My guest this episode is none other than Edward Norton. You can find him on Twitter @EdwardNorton. He is one of the most celebrated actors of his generation and has starred in, produced, written, or directed more than 30 films. He’s been nominated for three Academy Awards for his performances. His most recent film, Motherless Brooklyn, which he wrote, directed, produced, and stars in will be released on November 1st. I’ve seen it and I do not say this lightly, it is spectacular. It’s based on one of my favorite books and we dig into that and get into a lot related to creative process, creative struggle, and so on in this episode.
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. He hit a lot of home runs. We don’t cover that in depth in this episode, but we talk about it here and there. As one example, in 2010 Norton cofounded and was chairman of CrowdRise, a charitable crowdfunding platform which raised more than $500 million for US nonprofit organizations before being acquired by GoFundMe, the largest social fundraising platform in the world for which Norton now serves on the board. 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. EDOs 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 member 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 really seems to do it all. And in this wide ranging conversation, we explore how he does that, why he does that, why he feels able to change chapters in his life. We go deep into, as I mentioned, creative process, 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, which is very, very different at tim.blog/edward and take my word for it, go check out Motherless Brooklyn in theaters if just for the music alone, it’s absolutely outstanding. So with that said, without further ado, please enjoy a very wide ranging and for me, super fun conversation with Edward Norton.
Edward, welcome back to the show.
Edward Norton: Love being here. You know I love our conversations.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, man. And we have a lot to talk about. And I want to start with going back in time to 1999, and this is an interview where I’m going to ask you questions, but I want to share some autobiographical sketch from my own life. So 1999, my mom recommends a book to me and my mom is, I would go so far as to say. a book snob in the best way possible. She recommends me perhaps one book every two or three years. And in the span of two weeks, my brother, who is exactly the same, recommends the same book, which was Motherless Brooklyn. And it became a favorite book. I read it multiple times and for ages I thought to myself, why hasn’t a movie a film adaptation of some type been made? And I want to know how you came across Motherless Brooklyn in, I believe ’99 or thereabouts, and what impact it had or why it grabbed your attention.
Edward Norton: Sure. So I was living in New York; I was a New York actor. I started working in films, but I would always split back home to New York. And I came up with a lot of people in theater and people who are writers and people who are artists. And they’re kind of that, the thing I love about New York is the density of it. It’s not like a company town, like L.A. is.
Tim Ferriss: Right. Right.
Edward Norton: And I think I was at a party in the village and someone I knew who knew Jonathan Lethem, we were talking and she said, “You know Jonathan Lethem?” And I said, “Sure, sure, yeah. He’s that Brooklyn writer who did this and that.” And she said, “Yeah. He’s a friend of mine. And he’s got this new book coming out about a tourettic detective who has obsessive compulsive disorder also, and is trying to solve the murder of his boss in Brooklyn.”
And I literally was like, “Stop. You had me at tourettic.” I was like, I literally said, “Tourettic,” I was in. Tourettic detective, I’m salivating. I have to read it. And so I somehow got connected to Jonathan and I persuaded — I got the book in galley form. It hadn’t been published yet and revealing our age, It was a Xerox. I got a Xerox with a clip binder on it. And for those on the podcast who are young, nerdy tech geeks who don’t know what Xerox is, before PDF, you actually had to print something on a paper, on a copier. And so I had a paperbound Xerox copy of it and I read it in one go. And you know, it’s funny because when I really think about why did it grab me so much, it’s very similar to the experience I had reading Catcher in the Rye for the first time.
Lionel, the character in Motherless Brooklyn, has many of the same emotional hooks that I think Holden Caulfield does. You, by the end of page one, you’re on his side. You know you’re sort of, because he’s narrating his own story to you. Because from the first sentence, he’s telling you, “This is how my head works.” And you can hear the calm, rational mind at the center of the story when he describes this chaotic condition that he has, that he has to spend his life navigating, Jonathan Lethem, he pulls off the thing that we all try to do in books, in art and music, which is the end of page one, you’re emotionally bought in, you’re hooked, you relate to this character, you feel for him, you have empathy, but you’re laughing, you’re sympathetic, you’re impressed. It’s just like, it’s a zero to 60 emotional buy-in that’s very, very rare.
You relate in the most reductive sense. And then from there it becomes this study of the mind and how it works and the fact that his condition is extreme, that he has the physical twitches of Tourette’s, the mental obsessive compulsive components of it, the vocalizations that he can’t control, that are both hilarious and painful and awkward and make life difficult for him. We don’t all have Tourette’s, but I think what Jonathan achieves is everybody sees themselves in it because we all are constantly in a conversation with our own minds. We all have a rational center that deals with our behavior and our noisy voices that tell us to do things we know we don’t want to do. We all relate to being essentially in an argument with ourself and with the impulses that we wish we could control better.
Tourette’s and Lionel, they become a proxy for us and the difficulty we have navigating ourselves and that just nailed me. I was completely entranced by it and honestly as an actor, I just was greedy. I was like, “I want that gig. I want the part.” Not because it was like, “Oh this is instantly showy.” It was more, “This is just hard. How would you do this?” It presents all the meatiest challenges for an actor. It’s paradoxical. It’s actually physically demanding. You have to see the humanity of the character underneath it. And it just was like, this would be a field day. I would really like to play the role.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. So let me hop in for a second here because I really want to underscore a few things that you said that struck me about the book and also about the film. And if I’m misquoting you here — I’m going to quote you quoting someone else, but in one of the interviews I read in prep for this, even though we know each other, I found you referencing a C.S. Lewis line from Shadowlands, “We read to know we’re not alone.” And I think that as you said, Lionel on one hand is such an unusual character, but on the other is very usual in that he represents this schism that we sometimes feel about our outer and inner worlds or perhaps even dueling inner worlds. Right? And I’m not going to give any spoilers in this, but he even references parts of himself as “Bailey.” Right?
Edward Norton: Yeah. Well, and that we kept in the film, it’s one of the details of the book that’s really marvelous where his condition, the part of his head that has the lack of inhibition and the impulse control problems and literally fights his conscious self, fights the attempts to restrain it and calls him Bailey. So it’s such a schism that when he yells, sometimes the voice in his head yells at him and names him Bailey. You think about like the ways we talk in our head, like you think about the number of times that you’ve said quietly in your head, “Oh, you’re such a fucking idiot.”
Think about the critical voice in your head aimed at yourself. It’s literally right out of — and you being a meditator — the noisy mind, right? It’s like the noisy mind literally given name, given form, given voice. It’s like, it’s not just that we can’t stop our thoughts, it’s that we actually have a piece of our head that criticizes the actions that another part of our head is implementing. It’s amazing. It’s an amazing thing that we live with and that most people don’t discuss as openly or actively as a phenomenon, you know?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. It’s also, it meaning the film, I’ll be honest. Initially, even though I know how skilled you are, I was very nervous to see the advanced screening because this book is so dear to me and it’s on top of that in some ways a very hard film to pull off and you not only pulled it off and we’ll certainly spend some time on creative process, which I want to get to in a second, but you made some decisions that I think strengthened, not just the main characters, but the humanity and the drama and the tension and everything that goes into the storyline itself.
So to zoom in on the creative process, which I really know very little about, I don’t know the back story, but if we look at 1999, then we jump forward 10 years, 2009, 10 additional years, 2019 when we’re recording this, when did this catch for you? When did it actually start to happen? Because you, I just want to point out to people, wrote, produced, directed, and starred in this film. That’s a lot of concentrated effort. So what did making this film look like?
Edward Norton: It went in phases and in sum total, there’s no question, it’s the most work I’ve ever put into a film. It’s one of the deepest dives and longest climbs, whatever metaphor you want to use. I’ve worked on this one longer and deeper than any creative piece I’ve worked on.
The initial hook as I said was character. I was then busy for a while. I had a lot of other projects that I knew were literally going to take me a couple of years before I had the bandwidth to really seriously contemplate it. But much like as a function of what we’re discussing, the brain works on things. You’re busy doing other things, but I was noodling on it. It was rattling around in my head. I would reread the book. I would think about the character even when I wasn’t actively trying to write it; I even started to sort of like try to imagine the physicality of it and how do you take something that’s an interior monologue in a book and reduce it down and select pieces of it and what are the best pieces of Lionel? And my brain was kind of cooking on that for years. But when I got around to saying to myself, “All right,” actually what happened was in about 2003 — in 2002, sorry — I did a run of work.
I did a big film. I did Red Dragon with a bunch of great actors and then I did Spike Lee’s The 25th Hour, and then I did a play in New York for the rest of the year. I did Lanford Wilson’s Burn This. It was an amazing year. It was a very notably vital and satisfying year of creative work for me. I worked with amazing people. I worked with heroes of mine, like Spike Lee, I did two films in a row with Phil Hoffman, and then we did plays next door to each other and we had come up together and that was really gratifying. And I kind of got to the end of that year and I felt something very rare for me, which is, I sort of felt satiated. I actually felt like I spent the whole year working in a gear that I’d wanted to work in for a long time and I felt like I’d run a marathon very successfully.
And it was sort of like, “Why run another five miles until it hurts? I feel good. What am I going to do? Do I want to just keep going until something goes badly?” And I got this moment of clarity where I was like, “I need to take a break. I really want to take a substantial break.” And in 2003 I just, I stopped working entirely and I focused on getting my pilot’s license. And I did that for like six or seven months, just did aviation training and got my pilot’s license and it was great. It really cleared my head. It emptied it out and I got to the end of that and I thought, “I’m ready to work on Motherless Brooklyn.” So I had this nice sort of clean slate kind of feeling and when I sat down to look at it again, I realized there were some issues with turning it into a film because it’s this very interior monologue. The whole book is kind of this interior narration and it has a plot, but really it’s like Lionel in his head.
Tim Ferriss: Edward, could I ask you to pause for one second?
Edward Norton: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: You taking that break, and we’re going to come right back to where you left off. But I would imagine that there were people who said, “This is not the time to take a break. You’re red hot. This is when you should commit to A, B, C, D or E.” Perhaps not, but there are many people who fantasize about taking such a break, but never do. They can’t shift out of sixth gear. Was that hard for you?
Edward Norton: It was a little bit. It was a little bit, but I’ve had good examples in my life. My dad is an incredibly accomplished person in multiple dimensions. He’s a scholar and a Marine veteran and a lawyer. He was a corporate litigator. He was a US attorney. He was federal prosecutor for Maryland. He was an environmental litigator. He was an environmental organization builder. He’s worked at a private equity firm. It’s like he’s had a remarkably rich tapestry in his career. There’s a connectivity through all of it. There’s an intellectual connectivity, there’s a values, mission driven kind of thread to everything he’s done. But I’ve really watched my dad over the years very fearlessly pull the video game cartridge out and put another one in. He really has. You remember when we were kids and you had your Atari cartridges?
Tim Ferriss: I remember for sure.
Edward Norton: And you were like, “Am I going to play tanks or am I going to play –” What was it? Combat. It was called Combat, right? Or were you going to play Pong or whatever. I’ve seen him have what I would call the pleasures of staying very feeling challenged, fresh, invigorated about what he was doing through phases of his adult life. And I learned to view those changes as not as risky but as refreshing. You know what I mean?
Tim Ferriss: Right.
Edward Norton: Even as a kid, you absorb when your parent is turned on by what they’re doing. You know? And I literally remember the new spring in his step, his enthusiasm, him being charged up. And I think as you get older and you have kids yourself, you forget almost how important it is, how much a child perceives about whether their parents are happy. You know what I mean?
Tim Ferriss: Definitely.
Edward Norton: It sounds like the most obvious thing in the world. But I had an awareness that my dad’s happiness was often pegged to making bold shifts in the way he was spending his time. And I felt like I’m one of the luckiest people in the world because I get to do work or make a livelihood out of something that is play for me. And the last thing I wanted to do when I kind of meditated on it was why do I want to turn this into a career?
You know what I mean? Why would I turn this into something where it’s exhausting me or it’s — what am I chasing? If I’m satiated or if I’ve just achieved the things I wanted to, what a waste it would be if I make myself like a careerist copper top. You know what I mean?
Tim Ferriss: Right.
Edward Norton: And what a waste if I don’t seize while I’m 30 years old and the freedom, too, that comes with this gig, the freedom to get a pilot’s license. You know what I mean? And those were dreams I had too. I dreamed my whole life of getting my pilot’s license and I was like, “I’ve got the money now. I’ve got the time. What’s my reason for not doing it? I don’t have one.” So and then we get back to the voices in the head because the voices come in the head, voices of insecurity, voices of competitiveness, voices of aspiration, ambition maybe more than aspiration, like ambition for ongoing plaudits, affirmation, applause like the hunger for achievement.
They come in the head and not to mention there’s the voices from outside, but really the truth is the ones that master you are the ones inside. They’re the ones that are saying, “You need to get more of this.” And I think it comes in. But piloting was really good for me. It was really good to take a break and just go on vacation or lounge around because I replaced the consumption in my work with like the consumption in learning. Piloting was one of the hardest things I ever took on.
It honestly made the work I’d been doing feel kind of like play acting, which weirdly it is. It’s like, oh, making up stories and playing dress up for a living or like hurling myself into the sky by myself in a plane with ultimate consequences to screwing it up. You know what I mean? It’s like creative risk and risk of botching a landing are not actually equivalent. And it’s really a great perspective too. You know what I mean? Because I’ve always found, I get some of my best — I think we talked about this the first time I did your show. I think we talked about the things that are meditative that are not sitting with your legs crossed trying to clear your mind. You know what I mean?
Tim Ferriss: We did, because we were sitting on a pier looking at surfers and we were talking about the role that it’s played in your life.
Edward Norton: That’s right. Yeah. So, piloting is a great meditation for me. It absolutely eradicates everything but the present moment. It’s very, very, very difficult to be out of the present moment. And there’s a function in it that’s really interesting, which is take off and landing in particular, I’m sure there’s a metaphor in this somewhere, but taking off and landing are extremely, extremely focused things, even for a modern airline pilot in a plane that basically flies itself. You are seriously on deck when you’re taking off and landing that plane. And I think that experience is so intense. It almost does what sometimes it takes me 45 minutes of meditation to get anywhere near, which is it obliterates atomizes distraction, right? Because you must deal with that moment and in which there’s very little margin for error if something goes wrong and it sort of atomizes your distraction, then you get yourself up into the sky and you’re floating and somehow that atomization sustains. I don’t find myself stressing once I’m on autopilot and I’m floating along. I looked down at the landscape going by, I think about — it’s real Daniel Kahneman Thinking, Fast and Slow. Once I’m up in the air and I’m ahead of the plane, I get into a very slow gear and a very meditative gear just watching the landscape go by, and it’s wonderful. It’s really, really, really wonderful for me. And I think I get that surfing, I get that scuba diving, but it’s amazing how quickly piloting straightens you out, straightens your head out.
Tim Ferriss: So you finished this incredibly productive sprint with acting. You take this sabbatical of sorts to focus on piloting, which sounds very therapeutic and holding you in the present tense for much of the practice. You come out with a clear mind and you take another look at Motherless Brooklyn. And you’re realizing there’s some challenges. As you mentioned, one of them translating an internal dialogue and words on a page into something cinematic. What else were you pondering, turning over in your head as you re-examined Motherless Brooklyn? Because it is not an easy book to turn into a film.
Edward Norton: No. Sometimes I think people don’t even realize the degree to which the sound mix and the music are make or break for a film. You can have a film that’s cut — the same film that won the Academy Award for best picture with a bad sound mix will seem like a piece of shit. It is astonishing how important that layer of varnish is on the whole thing. And you can’t adapt a book into a film. A book is not a film, it’s just not. It functions in the mind of the reader in a totally different way because you are activating imagery in your head in a much, much more surreal way than when you’re receiving the sensory, being encompassed by visual and sound in a film. And you can’t think about — I think faithful adaptations almost never work. If you’re trying to literally transliterate the book into a verbatim, as close to a verbatim thing, those are the worst film adaptations.
The very best ones, I think, are literally they’re transposing a piano concerto for guitar. You have to just completely change the wave form of it. And my favorites are ones where, like Out of Africa, which is a film by a truly great director, Sydney Pollack, with one of the great performances by an actress ever. And it really holds up. It really, really holds up when you watch it. Not only technically, but also thematically in terms of being a film about loss and the desire to hold on to things and possess them and coming to an acceptance of loss and impermanence. It’s a really, really, really beautiful film. And it’s based on, in theory, Isak Dinesen’s memoirs Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass. There’s none of the narrative plot that’s in the film is embedded within the book. Those are memoirs. The whole romance, the things, these are all suppositional. They springboarded from the essence of her spiritual observations and meditations on impermanence and they created a story from whole cloth. And that’s why it’s a great film. They understood what the essence was and they turned it into a narrative and cinematic experience that’s totally its own thing.
And Jonathan Letham not only loves films and he’s very erudite, he really holds that belief that it’s better to springboard and create something new unto itself. So when I said to him, “Look, I think you’ve got to deal with certain structural challenges in this.” And one of them is that Motherless Brooklyn has a slightly surreal tone in the sense that it’s about guys in the modern world who feel like they’re living in a pocket of Brooklyn that has never moved from 1957. And they speak and act almost like Raymond Chandler’s gumshoe detectives. But if you slap that onto the screen and have guys in fedoras talking that way with Priuses floating by, you have immediately put yourself in an ironic mode. Right? You’re essentially saying, “We’re being tongue in cheek here. Nothing needs to be taken seriously.”
And if you go in that gear, then Lionel doesn’t have to be taken seriously either, and his Tourette’s is now a gag, not a complex person. It’s a wink, wink kind of a gag, because the rest of the thing is a wink, wink gag. And I didn’t want to do Motherless Brooklyn like The Blues Brothers. You know what I mean? Which is a great movie, that’s just not what I thought it had within it. I wanted to play Lionel straight and I wanted him to be a rich, complex, sometimes poignant and effecting and a human being whose loneliness is real, whose isolation is real alongside his humor and stuff. And if we played it ironically, that wasn’t going to be there.
And so I said to Jonathan, “In the book, people call him Freakshow. Would people really even do that in 1999? What this feels like is maybe let’s set it in the hard-boiled world of the books you love, the films we love, and let it be a ’50s thing.” And amazingly, Jonathan was like, “I dig that idea.” No, he really was, he wasn’t, for one second, he — think about that. You write a book, people say they love it, and then someone comes along and says, “Hey, what if we were to transform it? Literally set it in a different time.” And therefore have to come up with a different mystery plot. Because the book is about the Yakuza and the Japanese sea urchin trade and Zendos and all these things that are highly contemporary, even though there’s an old school feeling to the noir sort of vernacular of it. And he was like, “I love it.” He’s like, “I love it. Let’s treat him like Marlowe and send Lionel into another mystery.” And he was like, “I get it. I think it’s a cool idea.” I can’t really overstate how rare it is for someone to be that broadminded about their own piece of work.
Tim Ferriss: When did you have that conversation with him, roughly? Was that —
Edward Norton: Yeah, somewhere almost like five years after he published the book.
Tim Ferriss: I got it. So this would’ve been after you’ve revisited it, after the piloting, 2004, 2005 period.
Edward Norton: Yeah. And, honestly, somewhere in flying around over Southern California trying to do things. I had this clarity that the way around what was feeling like a tone problem was just simply to set it in the ’50s. And once that thing sort of settled in me and I knew Jonathan was okay with it, then something really interesting happened, which is something else that I had been chewing on for a long time totally unrelated to Motherless Brooklyn was my fascination with what happened in New York in the mid ’50s, this really dark part of New York’s social history that I was really, really interested in. And in one person in particular, this guy named Robert Moses.
Tim Ferriss: Robert Moses. Yes.
Edward Norton: And I had always thought to myself, “How do you approach that? How do you approach this? How do you approach the density of what was going on?” And I had sometimes thought it’s kind of the way that Chinatown is about L.A. being built on stolen water. I always thought what happened in New York under Robert Moses is its own original sin, its dark history in the 20th century. But yeah, it’s too dense though. It’s all this urban planning stuff and blah blah blah. And I had this moment where I suddenly went, “That’s what Lionel can be the conveyance into. We can take Jonathon’s phenomenal detective and we can send him in a movie, which has to be bigger, it has to have bigger scope, we can send him into this. He can become the conveyance into this very dense and complex thing that I was also interested in.” And suddenly I had this mashup, this idea of mashing up these two things.
Tim Ferriss: So Robert Moses, for people, we don’t need to spend a ton of time on Robert Moses, but as I watched Motherless Brooklyn, I wondered, it had to be in a way, right, how could it not be a Robert Moses incarnate in this film played by Alec Baldwin. And for those who might have some passing familiarity of the name, Robert Moses is the subject of a book called The Power Broker, also a very, very, very good book by Robert Caro.
Edward Norton: There’s a whole chapter on him too in the Burns documentary called New York. There’s a big section. Which, that was my first encounter with the story of Moses, was in the documentary, New York. But, yeah, and he was, titularly, he was the parks commissioner, but secretly he was essentially Darth Vader of New York in the 20th century. He held an almost uncontested imperial power over New York City, above any mayor, any governor. He ran New York City like an autocratic Caesar and made almost all of the significant decisions about how New York evolved from being a 19th century city into being a modern city. The whole physical landscape of New York’s transformation in that era was directed by him.
Tim Ferriss: Speaking of directing, as I mentioned earlier, you wrote, produced, directed, and starred in this film. Did you want to do, from the outset, all of those things? Or was that a byproduct of challenges you ran into, or is there some other origin story? I’m just wondering how it came together.
Edward Norton: No, directing, I wanted to — like I said, I’m not really totally joking. It was a greedy actor impulse to grab a great role. I really thought this is a really memorable character and it’s a great challenge. It’s everything I love to try to take on. And it was like, “I just want to play this part.” Then I was turned on by the challenge of adapting it. And then I went through this process that we’ve talked about, and when suddenly I had this, what was for me, exciting idea about the mashup, and I had Jonathan’s hall pass to be that freewheeling in it. I’d spent a lot of time then researching and working on how to make a literary mashup, not between books, but really just of Motherless Brooklyn, but conveying it into sort of a literary version of this history.
And once I was finished with that, which took me a long time, a number of years, because I went through writer’s block and I got hung up on the plotting and I got distracted by other projects. But when I finally got it done, it took a solid eight years, I would say, for me to get to where I was happy with it, then I reached a point where I was in my own mind going to shop it around to directors that I admired. But someone did something good for me. A studio executive that I was friends with actually sat me down in a bar in New York on 12th Street and was like, “Dude, you need to direct this.” And I was like, “Oh, but the part is really challenging.” And he literally said to me, “Look, think about the movies that we came up on that mattered to us. Do the right thing.” Reds, Warren Beatty’s great film about American socialists, Dances with Wolves, and Unforgiven. He kept citing all these examples of sometimes an actor is really right for a role, it’s really in their wheelhouse, and they’ve come up with a story and they just do it, they take that big swing.
And he said to me, “Why wouldn’t you do this? Why wouldn’t you? This mashup is yours, you don’t want to sit over someone’s shoulder.” And he just was like, “You can do this.” And I did have that moment where I went, “You know what? Yeah, why wouldn’t I? I do love those films. They have meant a lot to me.” Some of them were defining films for me. And it was like he urged me across the line into getting excited about just owning it.
Tim Ferriss: I don’t mean to obsess on the timeline, but I’m so curious to get an idea of the timeline since this is such a longitudinal project. Right? So when did you have that meeting with this executive who gave you the talking to related to directing the film, roughly?
Edward Norton: So, if I was —
Tim Ferriss: Because normally I — sorry to jump in.
Edward Norton: No.
Tim Ferriss: But normally what happens to me, and I’m sure it’s happened to a lot of people, is they have this backburner set of projects. But by and large, in my case, I never come back to them. So I’m fascinated by someone as busy as you are and certainly not just with film, you have many, many hats that you wear, much like your dad in a sense, very multifaceted, how this remained a project. Roughly, when did you have this conversation?
Edward Norton: I probably started, actually not probably, I started actively writing it the summer of 2003. And I wrote 60 or 70 pages of what became 150 page script. And they were good. They were good. They were the beginning of the movie as it is now. And people really liked it. They were like, “This is really, really cool.” And then I got horribly blocked. It wasn’t distractedness. I had it framed out and I had the things, but I couldn’t in my mind just puzzle out a compelling way to get lost in the murk but emerge from it. You know what I mean?
Tim Ferriss: I do, especially with this, if I could call it genre, right, is the getting lost in the murk is important.
Edward Norton: Absolutely, it happens. No, anybody who watches Chinatown and tells me the first time that they have any idea what’s going on until about 20 minutes before the end of the movie is lying. You have no idea what’s going on in that movie. Zero. In fact, I’ve tracked it. There’s a very specific scene where he’s in the car with Faye Dunaway where he finally narrates his read of what he thinks is going on. And there’s only about 20 minutes left in the movie. And, by the way, he’s wrong. He thinks that what’s going on is all about the water, and of course it’s about incest. Right? You know with these films that it’s not about comprehension, that getting lost in deep convolution is actually part of the point, which is an important point, which is that it’s hard to know what’s taking place around you. It literally, existentially, noir at its best is about how difficult it is to see where the dangers are around you and where power is and who’s got the power. That’s what they’re thematically, I think, is their strength, is they really do remind us there are things going on in the shadows that are antagonistic to us, and that if we don’t figure out what’s going on, damage is going to get done.
But I wanted the puzzle to make sense even — you have to get lost, but you have to know underneath it what’s really going on so that you can emerge from it or bring people out of it in a way that it all is satisfying and it does make sense in the end, to some degree. And so I got hung up. And then I did that terrible thing, which is I put it in the drawer. Right to your point. I put it in the drawer and I was like, “I just need a break.” And then, literally, I got sent a really weird, cool script called Down in the Valley, and I decided I’m going to do that and I’ll do it quick. I was like, “I’m going to do that one really quick. It’s a little independent film, I’m going to do out one quick and then I’m coming right back to this.” Right?
And then I did The Illusionist and then a film I had been working on for years to pull together, came together, The Painted Veil. Naomi Watts got free and she wanted to do it and suddenly it was like I’m making a film for six months in Prague and then I’m making a film for six months in China. And time just starts to roll by and your mind gets further and further from the thing you’re working on. And it’s just one thing after another kept coming in. And then that thing in the drawer that you haven’t figured out becomes more and more and more of a block of lead. It’s just like it’s not an active thing.
And I think the same person who later helped me embrace that I should direct it, at a certain point, called me and was like, “Hey, there’s other people who are interested in this. I think maybe should we let someone else take a crack at it?” And I don’t even know if that was true. I have a feeling he might have just been sticking a fork in me. But it worked. And actually, this friend of mine, he was the studio executive who, at that time, was running New Line. And he actually did something that I laugh at in retrospect, which is he cited a specific director to me who I think he knew the idea of giving up my project to that person specifically was going to make my skin crawl. And whether it was conscious or not, he hit me with exactly the right piece of information for my resolve to get very, very strong again.
And I took it out and he did kind of put a deadline on me. He was like, “Look, we’ve been sitting on this thing a long time and this person wants to do it.” And I was like, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no.” And he was like, “How about we just agree you’ll get it done by Christmas or we’ll start having a real conversation about letting someone else take a crack at it.” And it was great. I literally knuckled down and I pulled it out, I looked at it, I talked to some other writers with some focus who I respect, puzzled it out, cracked it, and finished it really aggressively. Like I wrote my college thesis, I wrote the large bulk of the rest of it in two or three weeks of long, deep nights of just powering it through, and then it was done.
Tim Ferriss: That’s a very helpful friend, the anonymous executive.
Edward Norton: No, it’s not anonymous. Toby Emmerich. He’s the head of Warner Brothers now.
Tim Ferriss: Very, very clever. Maybe accidentally, but very helpful.
Edward Norton: Clever, helpful, but also Hollywood and the business of movies is sort of like inside baseball. And honestly, I sometimes think it’s probably very boring to most people. But I do think it’s always good to highlight when there’s exceptions to the reductive cliche about something. And people in this day and age are constantly talking about how studios, it’s impossible to get original adult stuff made and everything. But I’ve had this champion, Toby Emmerich’s been this incredible stalwart champion of my project for over a decade, a really long time, encouraging me, pushing me along, helping me actually get through these mental block moments. And then when I actually got it done, starting to try to figure out with me how to get it made. And he didn’t have the collateral to get it made.
And then we went through this next period, which was five years of really struggling to — it was like the producorial struggle. The writer’s struggle was over, but the producorial struggle was at least five years of both of us hammering on it and trying every equation of casting and financing and everything to get it made. And all thwarted throughout, we were constantly thwarted.
Tim Ferriss: Let’s dig into thwart for a second here, because I would imagine that many people listening on some level are thinking, “You’re Edward fricking Norton. Why on earth would you hit these roadblocks?” What were the types of feedback or the pushback that you experienced? And I’m not saying that I doubt you had it, I just think it’d be helpful. And I’m curious to hear more about —
Edward Norton: Honestly, I think no one can ever take for granted that someone should just hand you money to make a film. I never, no — it doesn’t matter if you’ve been nominated for 10 Academy Awards. It doesn’t matter. It’s risky. It’s risky. And when someone’s coming at you with, “I’m going to do a big scale 1950s period film about a dense Chinatown story about New York City and its urban development. Oh, and at the middle of it is a guy with Tourette’s syndrome and obsessive compulsive disorder. It’s sort of Rain Man meets Chinatown.” People’s eyes start crossing, and you go, “Okay, not Chinatown, L.A. Confidential.” That one was much more accessible. You know what it is? It’s not Rain Man. He’s got full on autism. It’s Forrest Gump meets L.A. Confidential. You start going, “It’s not Rain Man meets Chinatown. That’s too tough. It’s Forrest Gump meets L.A. Confidential.” The more accessible version of both.
But people’s eyes are just like, “You got your chocolate in my peanut butter, or my peanut butter in your chocolate.” They’re like, “What the hell are you talking about?” You’re definitely describing something. In the trade, to say that it’s execution dependent is an understatement. Mostly people are like, “Please bring us the next one.” You know what I mean?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Edward Norton: And when you’re saying to people, “Will you give me tens of millions of dollars to make this?” You can’t walk around in a huff like, “How can this be so tough?” I understood why it was tough. I understood why it was tough. And also, the upsides of not pursuing, let’s call it a careerist, pursuing projects where my agenda was, “Will this be one of the biggest movies ever?” is that you can make a lot of really excellent films that you’re proud of and that people end up not only loving, but seeing as maybe almost like essential zeitgeisty movies, like Fight Club or 25th Hour or American History X. But none of those movies were financially successful. So it’s not like I was walking around like some actor on a run of gigantic hits who’s considered like, “Oh, this guy’s going to open the movie at 20 million, so we’ll do anything he wants to do.” You know what I mean?
Tim Ferriss: Right.
Edward Norton: It’s just not the same. And, unfortunately, you can’t collateralize artistic credibility into any number. You just can’t. You can do it in some measure. And if I’d been able to make Motherless Brooklyn the way I wanted to for 15 million bucks of budget, I could’ve done it the next day. You know what I mean? But I needed slightly more than that, and so it was tricky. It was just tricky.
Tim Ferriss: I want to continue on the hunt for producers and production budget. But may I ask you a question about writing process?
Edward Norton: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: So you pull out this dusty, bound pile of paper that’s been sitting in your desk. What does the first day of writing look like? Do you just start spitting out anything that comes to mind in hopes that something good lands on the page? Or do you use a different strategy? I, as someone who’s put stuff on the shelf, and I find writing very, very difficult.
Edward Norton: Me too.
Tim Ferriss: And so if I let something sit for a long time, I might be able to go back and edit what I’ve done very quickly. But the thing that struck fear in my heart, that murky part that I couldn’t quite find my way through may have been turned into a mountain in the meantime. Right? I’ve developed all these stories around why it was hard, how hard it was. What did the first day or the first few days of working on that look like and feel like for you?
Edward Norton: Well, the really interesting thing was that when I read what I had written, I forgot some of what I had written and I liked it, like I was reading it as if someone else had written it and it was making me laugh. I kind of had this reinvigoration of the pleasure of it, ironically, because procrastination does a really weird thing to your head. When you push something off, it starts to become monolithic.
Tim Ferriss: Definitely.
Edward Norton: I don’t know what that is, but it becomes monolithic and then it just intensifies your desire to avoid it. And it was fascinating to read it and have the sensation of like, “This is so much fun. This is such fun language. The characteristic, why did I put that? Why did I give up on this?” And then, in a funny way, I went back to my cards because my issue wasn’t a character issue, it wasn’t a language. It was just a plotting issue. And I looked at my cards.
Tim Ferriss: Cards, you mean literally index cards for scenes?
Edward Norton: Yeah, index cards. Totally. Yeah. And I sat down on a huge rug and I mapped them all out, and I looked at the node that was like, this was the problem. And like I said, I had a couple conversations, I brought some people in that I trust, and I was like, “Really, I’m hung up on this whole thing over this.” I did almost just some Rubik’s cubing with some people. And I was like, “Oh, wait a second, I’m overthinking this. This gets easily solved by just doing X, right?” And then suddenly it was like, “Holy crap. That really wasn’t that big a deal at all.” I just needed a few people in a room brainstorming. And I did it with Brian Koppelman and David Levien.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, nice.
Edward Norton: Yep. Who were great pals, great writers, wrote Rounders, produced The Illusionist. And it was like I ran them through it. They’re obviously terrific on this stuff. And really they let me use them as a sounding board. I threw ideas around. I feel like I remember David Levien saying at some point, I said something and David Levien goes, “Wait. What’s wrong with that?” He was like, “You’ve just said it. What’s wrong with it? What’s wrong with that? That’s great.” And I was like, “Oh, is it that simple?” They helped me crack my own blockage in a way.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, such good guys. Just to take a second for that. They’re two really skilled and really, really just good human beings. Also co-creators along with Andrew Ross Sorkin of Billions.
Edward Norton: Billions. Yeah, yeah, that’s their show. And they’re great. Those guys, they’re like serious trade craft pros. They really are like, they’re writers in the old school mode and they were great, helped me. So they helped me punch through it. And then I went and like I said, I wrote the rest of it in kind of almost like a blitz and it was great. It’s the funny thing, like I was actually thinking about as we’ve been talking about this, sometimes I think guys don’t acknowledge, men especially — maybe women experience this, too, I don’t know, but I certainly see it in a lot of my guy friends — is like, it’s so stupid to be competitive about some things, but in what we’ve been talking about, I can actually kind of recognize if I’m honest, that two things happened.
One is that when Toby at one point said to me, “I’m going to give someone else a crack at this,” it really was actually like the flaring of a very like, low, a very low kind of primitive kind of competitive aggro sensation in me that galvanized me. I kind of was like, “You’re not giving it to that guy. No, no way. No way.” Like, “This is mine.” And I’m like, it was like it did kind of push me, right? And that’s not necessarily like a quality — that’s a quality I would say in general that I try to de-emphasize or cultivate out of myself. Like, competitive attitude within creative work. It’s really stupid and I think it can be really counterproductive. I also think like around the culture of movies with award shows and all this shit, there’s so much absurd, like construct of competitiveness that is beyond inauthentic to anything to do with this kind of work.
You know what I mean? It’s even more inauthentic to creative work than it is in figure skating, where it’s like subjectively scoring a figure skating routine. It’s like the idea that the culture would construct like a competitive matrix around any kind of a creative form with awards and all this stuff is really like sort of mortifying in some ways. But at the same time, like, it galvanized me. And it’s funny because we were talking about flying. There’s an interesting kind of component of that too, which is say like, oh, well your insecurities come in. “I’m not working and are people going to forget about me?” Just stupid stuff comes in your head. But there’s an interesting thing about doing something like getting good at flying or getting good at surfing, which is like it drops through you into this kind of confidence. And there’s a component of that that’s competitive too, because in a weird way you go in your head as a guy, I think you sort of go, “Yeah, but I can do this.” Right?
It’s like having a black belt. It’s like you’re listening to someone blather on about something and in the back of your head going, “Can you take off a plane and land it?” You know what I mean? I’m serious.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, I get it. I get it. I totally got it.
Edward Norton: Again, not the highest order of motivation, but it — when you say like a lot of people don’t do that or a lot of people wouldn’t take that break. Sometimes, I think if what you’re doing is you’re sort of, I don’t know, exercising your muscles or developing a musculature that you’re proud of, right. If it’s like a component of yourself that you — it’s almost like you have a secret, you have some secret skill or you have a thing. It’s interesting the way that it dials down the volume on insecurities in general. You know what I mean?
Tim Ferriss: I do. Yeah. I mean it’s really hinges, it seems to me, on the stories you tell yourself, which create the lenses of your reality in the sense that they mold your perception of what you’re doing, right? Like —
Edward Norton: Yeah. I mean you’ve done — like when you famously like with the — when you like worked on kickboxing.
Tim Ferriss: Right, yeah.
Edward Norton: You know what I mean?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, yeah, for sure.
Edward Norton: Or when you do any of the things you’ve done to sort of demonstrate that with — that you can do things within body transformation or learning to speed read or anything, right? Don’t you on some meta level come away from it saying, “I have a capability now that I carry within me whether other people see it or not.” That gives me like a kind of a confidence.
Tim Ferriss: 100 percent. 100 percent, which is why I often recommend to people even if they never have the opportunity, hopefully never have the opportunity to use kickboxing or Brazilian jiu jitsu or some martial art outside of a practice environment that they should train because the way they will carry themselves through the world — male, female, it doesn’t matter; age doesn’t matter — will be different and there will be a certain quiet confidence that I think can be built and added to with many different skills that demonstrate an ability, demonstrate to yourself an ability to learn, be self sufficient, survive, whatever it might be.
So it makes perfect sense to me. And also the motivation that you’re talking about or the motivations, be they good or bad. Somewhere in between putting aside the value judgment they are, meaning they exist. And in the examples that you’ve, a few of the examples you’ve given, you’ve been able to utilize them, right? Harness them ultimately to, as one example, get the script done, right? So I was listening to someone not long ago talk about how they’ve shifted from looking at things on a value scale of good to bad as an experiment to one of beautiful or not beautiful.
Like how can you take whatever this motivation is, whatever this opportunity is, and turn it into something beautiful? It doesn’t mean you ignore morality or good or bad, but as a thought experiment, looking at things through that lens. So you’re able to take what might be looked at as a base primitive urge — this drive — and transmute it into, oddly enough, I mean at the end product, like something that looks very deeply at impulses and human nature.
Edward Norton: Yeah, that’s true. I also think, I don’t know, there’s frustration at not being able to achieve some goal. It’s never pleasant, right? We don’t associate it. It’s just not a pleasant feeling. Because you sort of want what you want. And especially if you think you’ve got high-minded or only positive motivations, you’re sort of like, “Hmm, it’s frustrating not to get to do this.” And with this project, I definitely, you know, there was a period where it was always hovering. It had a kind of an albatrossy kind of effect on me in the sense that it was — I wanted to do it and I felt I had a good vision for it and that it could be unique and actually like, be the kind of hypnotic movie experience that really reminds people, “This is why we go to movies.”
You know what I mean? And I really had all that conviction, but then I was like, bending my life. It was like this shadow force. It was like a dark matter force in my life because it had this gravitational pull that it would affect my decisions. I would sort of go, “Well, I could take another year off.” Or you’re at a point, where don’t have kids and you’re in a really great new relationship, and you say, “Oh, well, let’s just take our surfboards and go.” But it’s like, “Oh, but this might, you know, I got to keep pressing on this because it might happen this year.” And it sort of, it throws like those old models of the universe where the black hole is taking the time space fabric and bending it. That’s how this was for me. It was like bending the space time fabric of my life even though it was not happening, right?
And there’s this point where you have to kind of keep reassessing. It’s like, “How long am I going to let this mirage — is this a mirage or is it a thing that I just have to persevere? And how long am I going to chase the mirage,” you know?
Tim Ferriss: And when you were shopping, I’m not sure if that’s the right term, but when you were engaging in the producorial, is that the word?
Edward Norton: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Tim Ferriss: Challenges and pursuing that, at that point, were you confident that you could get it made and that it was going to get made? Or was it more of a test run to see or a fishing trip to see what type of feedback you would get? At that point, how convinced were you it would happen or how committed were you to sort of willing it to happen?
Edward Norton: I had many moments where I thought, “This is not going to work out the way I want it to. I don’t have the cards to win this hand.” And I went through — I went to a couple things where I was like, well, maybe I will just direct this now and go to another actor who I think we can get this movie made instantly and I think would be really great But that kind of broke my heart a little bit. Selfishly. I really felt connected to this character of Lionel and I could kind of see my way into that, but I just couldn’t bite the bullet and make those phone calls.
I had a moment of — this all went on so long that Netflix became a big force in the landscape of ways you could get this stuff done. And I could have walked over to those guys, who I think are awesome and I think gotten this done in probably one conversation. And I didn’t have — I wasn’t negative on that. It was probably the thing I would have — it was before they had really started making some commitments to putting things in the theater the way they did with Roma. The way they are doing with Noah Baumbach’s terrific movie Marriage Story and others. And I didn’t want to get hung up on sort of the, like, almost like the pretension of saying, “I want to see this in the theater,” but I did. I just, I wasn’t quite willing at that point to surrender to the idea of making it only for a streaming presentation. Like they did with Roma, I’d have done it in a heartbeat. I’m not one of the ones who’s negative on the way they’re approaching this stuff. I think it’s really — I think there’s a lot of really, really new and diverse voices are getting a platform to tell stories because of their model, you know?
But it was a timing thing and I felt very low about it at times. Yeah. Very, very, not defeated, but just very discouraged and thought that it might be one of those things I just had to sort of sigh and make a big pivot on or let go of. And then a weird set of things started becoming emergent to me post-2016. Toby Emmerich became head of Warner and he said to me, like, “Look, I’m not going to have this job and not make a couple of movies I really want to make. And it’s Warner Brothers. And we’ve got to make those movies. That’s part of our tradition. And yours is one of the ones I want to get done and I’m going to figure out the absolute best deal I can give you to get it done. And you’re going to have to find some of the money — or a lot of the money — but I will create a way that we can get this done.” Which is amazing.
Tim Ferriss: That is amazing.
Edward Norton: No, no, no, his — there’s a lot of people who have that job who don’t have — who don’t say, “Now that I’ve got this job, I’m not going to tighten up.” You know what I mean? “I’m not going to play to be here forever. I’m going to use the position to do some of the things that made me want to get into this in the first place.” And he did immediately. He did it with Bradley Cooper on A Star is Born, and he did it with me. He literally said, like, “Part of the tradition at Warner Brothers is we make like autre-driven stuff,” and all Clint Eastwood’s films were done there and they made L.A. Confidential.
And so that was a shift. And then also I got Bruce Willis stepped in and stepped up for the movie and that made a difference. And I called in a lot of chips and figured out some very clever ways to pull together the co-financing alongside Warner Brothers that we needed and suddenly it started to tumble.
Tim Ferriss: I have to — yeah, go ahead. Go ahead. I have a followup question.
Edward Norton: The other thing was, post-2016 — you’ve seen the film — and even though I had written it essentially the way it is by 2012, there was a lot about what changed after 2016 that suddenly — Toby was ringing me up and saying, “Man, a lot of what is embedded in this script is staggeringly on point right now in a way that it was not in 2014,” and I think that maybe that was part of why, when I was giving it to all these terrific actors and saying, “I don’t have any money for this; I have to have everybody defer fees and just work for love of the project,” but it felt toothy to people. It felt like of its moment more than it had a few years before. And I think it exerted more of a gravitational pull on this incredible cast of actors. And that helped me get it made too.
Tim Ferriss: You have an incredibly star-studded cast you have in front of the camera. You also have — I did a fair amount of research prior to our conversation — you also have a lot of talent behind the cameras and working on the film in other capacities who are involved. You talked about differing fees or having actors willing to defer payment in some fashion. You used, I think, the phrase “creative co-financing” or “found creative ways to co-finance,” something along those lines. Feel free to not answer if that’s the best move, but could you give even a hint as to what that means? Because —
Edward Norton: You really can’t hedge off the risk of an individual film. The only way you can do that is if like the way that Steven Soderbergh and Channing Tatum really brilliantly with Magic Mike realized, like, “We can make this film for under six million bucks and we can presale the foreign for more than the budget. And then we can own it.” You know what I mean? So like, we can start shooting the film knowing that we are in the black on it and therefore literally finance it ourselves and own it. You can literally de-risk a film if you can make it for less than what you can pre-sell the foreign on. That’s the only way to literally hedge off all risk on a single film. Right.
Which is why like most co-financing companies are the ones with big bankrolls, like Legendary, that can do big slate financing with the studio because you’re essentially playing the portfolio, right? And historically, studio returns have delivered a return, like a positive return, right? So if you’re going to people and saying, “Hey, will you put some money in my film?” you can talk till you’re blue in the face about why it’s going to work, but the bottom line is the numbers don’t lie. You’re taking just a massive singular risk if you invest in one film, right?
But I did a deal with some of my co-financiers around; basically I had access to the secondary trading on a company, a technology company that I was an original investor in and strategic advisor too. And I had a fund, a little boutique fund that was doing secondary trading in that company. And I basically set up a situation where some of the investors in my film had been looking at acquiring that company through their private equity firm. They couldn’t, but I was able to essentially do a deal with where they could be my LP, as in buy a stake through a secondary deal in this company that they were very interested in.
And we all felt that the likely returns on that were such a sure thing that they considered it. I basically told them, “I’ll get you access to this deal if you’ll finance my film too.” And so I set up like a pair trade. I set up sort of like a pair trade on my film and a position in this company.
Tim Ferriss: This is also a great example of where swapping cartridges in the video game, that is the timeline, your multifaceted career paid off in a really tangible way, right?
Edward Norton: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: Because you had been exercising other interests and developing other capabilities and knowledge in a seemingly completely unrelated sector. That then allowed you in some ways to get done a project in what many people would view as your primary career over a period of 20 years to finally get it done. That’s remarkable.
Edward Norton: No, there’s no question that my kind of parallel life outside of my creative filmmaking life — this whole other dimension of my professional life that is just not a public facing component in my life — 100 percent that ended up unlocking the way to get this passion project done. There’s no doubt about it.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Wow.
Edward Norton: And I think I can say that no film has ever been financed off of this specific type of deal that we did for this one. It’s not replicable either for me; it was a very, very, very unique situation. And I wouldn’t even want to go through the headache of trying to replicate what we did on this because I think it was a little bit like Alex Honnold. I felt like I was going up a pitch without a rope and that if I didn’t get each and every handhold perfect, it was going to be a complete and utter, you know, it was going to be a complete fail. Like it was sort of like I was either going to get to the top or the whole thing was going to crash and burn completely. There really was not —
Tim Ferriss: An in between.
Edward Norton: Yeah, there really wasn’t an in between. And the bet paid off in every way. And the beautiful thing about it was actually in a funny way, the alliances I formed with people to get this done are thick now. It’s like, I really feel like a deep kind of alliance with the people who helped me achieve this long-held dream. And I’ve been able to reciprocate. There have been ripple effects to finally getting it done that were as meaningful as the thing itself, which is great.
Tim Ferriss: How cool. The tour of duty that was put in to get it made is no joke. And you mentioned theatrical run and putting the film into theaters, and I could make an argument — and I texted you this right after I saw the film — that even if the projector ceased to work and one were only able to listen to the movie through a proper sound system, like some of the sound systems in theaters, that it would be worth much more than the cost of admission. Could you speak to the soundtrack and the music and anything that you think makes it noteworthy? Because I am not an audiophile. I’m not a musician, I appreciate music, I enjoy it, but I don’t know the first thing about music theory or sound quality or anything like that. And yet the audio experience was so different for this film compared to the last, let’s just call it dozen films I’ve seen in theaters. Why is that?
Edward Norton: Well, I think that music and sound in many films is approached as what I would call an emotional accelerator or just an emotional enhancement of what is already taking place within the text. So the moment is obviously dramatic and the music reflects that drama. It’s violent and the music reflects the violence. It’s sad, and the music reflects the sadness, right? And sometimes you get what I would call a very reductive kind of mirroring effect. And what that does, I think, is it makes the music disappear, right? It makes the music become a pad of embellishment underneath the other aspects of the film as opposed to like a unique element in its own right. That is almost taking on a primary role in communicating emotion or character or narrative or whatever. Right. And I think a lot of my favorite films have, I think, not even mine, everybody’s favorite films usually have music that’s more transcendent than that. And I don’t mean transcendent, literally, that it transcends the text. It’s not solely there as kind of a subtle embellishment. It’s kind of more boldly used as its own primary piece of the experience, of the hypnosis that the film’s working on you.
Jazz was going to be a part of this film because of the era. It was also, to me, if there’s a kind of music that’s tourettic, it’s jazz in the era of Bob [Moses].
Tim Ferriss: It’s true, it’s true.
Edward Norton: And I think it’s a completely a tourettic type of music, not just in its like sort of explosive sort of — but because literally it’s about taking melodic forms and twisting them round and round and round and doing variations on a melody. Variations on a melody, variations on a melody. And so I knew I wanted that a little bit. And on the jazz component of it, I went initially to basically a genius, Wynton Marsalis. Who helped me curate and think through some of the key music that was being played in a club in the film.
But I also wanted to weave in, honestly, I don’t know why I was so into mashups on this, mashups of sort of like, you know a tourettic character with an old-fashioned noir, I wanted to mash up sort of jazz with Radiohead in a way. The things I love and I got Thom Yorke to write a beautiful song for the film that we work into the film, not only in his performance of it, but also in a ’50s-style, Miles Davis-like arrangement of it. And again, it was one of those things that a lot of people kind of looked at me a little bit cross-eyed. They were like, it’s going to feel weird to bring his voicing into a film in that era or to try to bring a modernist sensibility of dissonance and electronic kind of components into a jazz score. But I didn’t think that was true because I knew that Thom really like has an appreciation of jazz, especially like Charles Mingus and other jazz artists who explored the kind of dissonance that I think Thom has explored in his own music on records like Kid A and Amnesiac and his own solo stuff.
And I knew there was more synergy than people were recognizing on paper and I thought we could do something really interesting mashing these things up. And we did and I think this trifecta of Thom and Wynton Marsalis and this incredible, incredible young composer in London named Daniel Pemberton. And everybody’s been reacting to it. And I agree with you that I’ve been working on this for a number of years and I am still not tired of listening to the music on the film. I have the soundtrack, it actually, the soundtrack just came out this past Friday. We released the soundtrack and the score last week on the streaming services and —
Tim Ferriss: Smart, very smart.
Edward Norton: They are wonderful. You can listen to them without having seen a frame of the film. And it is really, really beautiful stuff. Really beautiful stuff.
Tim Ferriss: Kudos for the dance scene as well. We don’t have to give any spoilers, but what a fantastic, fantastic scene. People who watch it will know what I’m referring to and I want to hop to, of reference to, I dare call it a review, but I don’t think review is quite the right word. So I’ve had Ken Burns on this podcast. He’s one of the — for people who don’t recognize the names or the name, one of the most legendary, if not the most legendary, well-respected documentarian of ever possibly in the United States. It means just a prolific, prodigious talent. And he wrote a piece.
Edward Norton: Yeah, I would say he bent the genre. I’d say there’s a — he redefined the genre. I think there was never long form. You could even argue that the whole embrace of long form storytelling that’s now ubiquitous on what we call binge TV watching started with The Civil War. You know what I mean? Ken’s film, The Civil War, was the most audacious, long form film in American history at that time and he basically said — he was one of the first people to say — “People will not only sit for this, they will devour it. They want rich, nuanced, long stories about these seminal events in our history that are still defining who we are.” He reinvigorated, reshaped the entire form of not just documentary, but I literally think, of filmed storytelling.
Tim Ferriss: He did. He has, and I’ll probably get some of these numbers wrong, but since we’re just doing a quick, deep dive on Ken, there are film effects named after Ken Burns, mostly related to his treatment of still photographs, embedded within and named after him in some of those popular software programs currently being used. And, The Civil War, one must keep in mind, was on broadcast television and it was somewhere between 14 and 20 hours of total content. At the time, I want to say within a year or so, between 30 and 40 million people had watched The Civil War. If you just let that sink in for a second, considering that it’s appointment viewing, it’s absolutely incredible. So he writes this piece on Medium, which I only very recently read, and I’m going to read the last paragraph. It’s absolutely worth reading and I’ll link to it in the show notes for people at tim.blog/podcast and you can find Edward, just search Norton or Edward Norton, and then we’ll have a link to this. But the last paragraph is one that really strikes me: “If a lonely orphan, burdened by society’s heartless response to his Tourette Syndrome, can rise above his daily struggles and battle against jaded Masters of the Universe types, then what excuse do the rest of us have for our own apathy? Motherless Brooklyn answers with a resounding: none!”
That’s a hell of an ending to a hell of a piece about the film, about you, about society, also. We could talk about that, but the question I’d love to hear your thoughts on eventually is what would you hope this film to do? What effect, if any, do you want it to have on people or the larger picture, if any? I’m curious what you’d like the impact to be on individuals who watch it or otherwise.
Edward Norton: I think to stick with Ken, Ken’s affirmation of the film was just like, it was about as meaningful a compliment as I’ve ever gotten on my own work. It’s like he’s one of the druids in my matrix of people who have really mattered in filmmaking. He’s one of the giants and he also, in particular, he has clearly got this unparalleled commitment to dissecting the American character. He really — he’s committed his whole creative career to trying to understand who we are through the past. I can’t overstate my admiration for the work he’s done, so to have him actually take the time to write this piece that he wrote about the film was — I had tears in my eyes when I read it the first time.
Tim Ferriss: I’ll just pause for a quick second, I’m sorry, because people may not realize just how effusive and direct his commentary is in this piece. I’ve never seen anything like it, so I’ll just give one more quote, which is “…”, so I’m not going to read the entire paragraph but, “an instantly classic lead character in a career-best performance by one of our finest actors, scene after scene of memorably smart and funny dialogue delivered by a brilliant ensemble cast, gripping action with a gorgeous jazz score that’s the best I’ve heard in years. It’s nothing less than a modern masterpiece.”
I know you just said it, it could bring a tear to your eye, but how did you feel after 20 years of hoping to make this, to read something like that from none other than the legendary Ken Burns? What happened? Were you dumbstruck?
Edward Norton: Yeah, it’s a funny thing when you finish a thing, you go through these — you start to sort of amass data points on how is it actually landing and you show it to people you respect, and you show it to some friends, and you — I was starting to get a happy sense of slow confidence that it was working as a film, that it was doing what I wanted it to do, and that people were at least engaged with the character in some measure of the way that I had been engaged with him. I think my first, my very, very, very, very first thing that I really was holding my breath on was, in a way, did I do Lionel justice? Did I do Lethem’s great character a basic, honorable reinterpretation? That seemed to me to be working and Jonathon, I was very, very nervous showing the film to Jonathon, and when he was really exuberant about it, that set me into what I’d call a happy relief.
But I think that what Ken gets at a deeper level of satisfaction is that he — it’s more what you read in the beginning. At a certain point you kind of — there’s the hope that you can craft something in a way that works a kind of magic on people just as a piece of cinema, whatever. I think the things that have meant the most to me as an audience member were things that had a transparency to them where you could feel, you felt like it was really hitting the nerve of your own experience or, even better, the collective experience. For me, Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing had a seismic impact on me. It was this guy writing, and directing, and starring in his own film about his own neighborhood and it was wildly entertaining. It was visually original and dynamic, but then it was about America. It was about the toughest, thorniest questions about race, and how we deal with each other, and what’s the correct response to the tensions that we feel about living all together? It was just so, so rich, sophisticated, and most importantly it put it so squarely in the audience’s lap. It didn’t give a cheap homily at the end. It didn’t give a cheap, redemptive reassurance in the end. It basically insisted that you deal with the question yourself.
I think a lot of us, it changed almost like the aspirational goal for what you’re going for, what you can do with a movie, and on some level the thing I’ve had the most ambition to do is find things that in some way or another instigate that same kind of activation. We get so much stuff that’s essentially engineered to make us passive. There’s just so much in the culture that literally wants us to be a passive recipient of downloaded, cheap nutrition, mostly I think trying to put us in a mode where we’re inclined to buy shit. You know what I mean?
I think the stuff that activates people, the stuff that really gets them engaged is rare and it’s really cool when you feel it, when you have that sensation that reminds you that you can get actually provoked emotionally, or provoked ethically, or provoked as a citizen. That’s pretty cool and I think it doesn’t mean that it’s got to be academic, or intellectual, or that it’s going to be — I don’t know what the right word is, a screed, or — it can be art. It’s like Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan doesn’t explain to you. He refused to explain to you what a lot of what he did was about, but you knew. You knew. You know people in his generation, they knew what he was writing about and they knew what he was getting at and he doesn’t have to say it and it galvanized people. It really galvanized people to participate in their generation’s causes, and all of it.
I think in some measure, that’s the highest aspiration. If you can get people to think about their own participation in the world around them, that’s pretty fantastic.
Tim Ferriss: I think you nailed it, man. I sent you a message right after walking out of the theater. I saw it here in Austin at the Violet Crown, really nice, small theater, fantastic sound, good luminosity, which is a whole separate conversation, but they project properly. It really does, it brings up a lot and it communicates a lot without doing it in a heavy handed, too on the nose, literal, prescriptive way, and it, as you said, doesn’t offer neat, pithy, unrealistic, simple solutions to complex situations, but it, in not doing that, in presenting the story, and the characters, and the universal struggles, and challenges, and desires in a very artful, powerful way, I think does a much greater service. It’s a fun watch, but it’s also a meaningful watch, and that’s really hard to do.
Edward Norton: Thanks! It’s funny. There’s the poet, Rilke, who’s — I love his poetry and his work — but there’s that famous collection of letters that he wrote to a young poet. There’s a bit in it that I think about a lot where he says, “10 years is nothing to an artist; gestation is everything.” It’s kind of one of those things that you put over your desk when you’re in college and you, because it just sounds — it’s sexy to think that you know what it means in a weird way. Do you know what I mean?
Tim Ferriss: I totally do.
Edward Norton: It’s the kind of thing you — I latched onto when I was young because you imagine yourself with that, the romantic struggle of, but then the reality of it is it’s not so pleasant sometimes. You know what I mean?
But I think that for me the gestation on this affected what I wanted to say and my capacity to even understand what I wanted to say a lot. I think if I had been able to make this in 2003, a whole bunch of things wouldn’t have happened. I think I would have, at that time in my life, had more romance for the idea of the cynicism that’s in the noir genre. I think I might have embraced in an almost showy way that I could be as dark and cynical as any noir movie before.
At my age, the phase of life I’m in, with what I see going on in the country now, I really felt differently by the time I made this film. I did not want Faye Dunaway to end up with a bullet in the eye and the detective saying, “Do as little as possible,” because as I think that is not what this country needs right now and I am not super keen on things that are artistically rich but ultimately really nihilistic. I don’t think we need nihilism romanced right now, at all. I think we’ve got nihilistic — we’ve got nihilistics walking into classrooms with AR-15s and blowing kids away, like way, way, way too often to be casually putting a sexy stamp on the idea of nihilism.
I think — and I wouldn’t have felt that strongly about that if I had made this 10 years ago, let alone 20 years ago — it would have changed the — what Ken wrote about this and the propulsive message of it, or I wouldn’t have been the person trying to put that message across if I’d made this before, and so I’m glad in a way. I really am genuinely glad that it took a long time, because I think I feel more spirituality determined that it goes in the direction it goes in at the end instead of into what I’d call something that’s sexy.
It’s funny, because Fight Club, some people say Fight Club‘s nihilistic and a lot people cite that, but I never felt that about that movie. I always felt one of the things I liked about it was that Fincher, for all his crusty exterior, like that’s very much about what we’re talking about. I think it’s about a person who goes into a romance with a nihilistic thing but absolutely comes out of it like, absolutely recognizes the destructive freight train that he’s set in motion, and moves to derail it and moves to grab hands with a woman and say no to that and yes to linking up with another human being and making a connection. You know what I mean?
I think the violence in that film is to reduce the film’s message to the exploration of the nihilism is a pretty weak sauce read of it, in my view. I think the message of evolution and growth in it is there and I kind of feel that way about this.
I think that this, making Motherless Brooklyn now, it’s gotten more of what I’d want to say as a father even in it than I would have been capable of earlier. I also couldn’t have made this movie with the budget that I had and on the schedule that I had to make it if I hadn’t worked with Spike Lee, and Wes Anderson, and Alejandro Iñárritu. I wouldn’t have had the chops to do it. Those guys made me realize how much you can do, within limitations, and I think marinating in their work with them had a really, really big impact on my capacity to do this logistically.
Tim Ferriss: I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: kudos to you, man; it’s a great film and I wholeheartedly urge everyone to check it out. I do not take saying that lightly because I recognize one careless recommendation and people are like, “Fuck that Tim Ferriss.”
Edward Norton: “Really interesting in talking about personal self-transformation. As an artistic benchmark, we don’t trust him ever again.”
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, exactly, exactly right. But I do feel comfortable recommending this. It’s great, and see it in the theater. That’s definitely a recommendation. It’ll be great when it comes out on other platforms, but it’s really one of those films you want to see in a proper environment.
Tim Ferriss: We have been talking for a while. I know you’re a busy man these days and I think this is a good place to wrap up, but people can say hello on Twitter @EdwardNorton, Instagram @EdwardNortonofficial, Facebook, officialEdwardNorton. I’ll link to all these in the show notes. Everything we talked about I’ll link to in the show notes per usual at tim.blog/podcast but, Edward, is there anything else you’d like to say? Any parting comments, suggestions, anything else that I’m missing?
Edward Norton: No, it was interesting to talk through this like that because it’s one of the things I dig about your show. I think you, as you know, I and as everybody knows, you hack the process better than anybody and I think that I’ve been talking about the thing itself in reductive ways that are necessary when you become a cog in the marketing machinery or on your own project. But I do think it’s very interesting to actually think back through the process of a thing with actual consideration because the truth is it’s amazing how much you tell yourself. You start to discount phases of it. You know what I mean?
It’s amazing how much the — maybe this is why the mind also eliminates the pain of a workout. You know what I mean? It’s like if you remembered pain viscerally, you might not ever do anything again. You know what I mean? But, it’s funny, isn’t it, that the function of the head has a tendency to focus on the positive in some measure?
Tim Ferriss: Well, for sure, yeah, the selective remembrance.
Edward Norton: Yeah, the selective remembrance and it starts to turn things into a story. I must say, you know what I think I would say is a wrap up on it, is when I was thinking about doing this, I talked to Warren Beatty one time about making Reds, which is his own, incredible, three-hour long movie about American socialists and it’s one of the really great films of that whole decade about America, and about the American character. It’s also emotional. It’s about relationships and all these things. It’s a masterwork, and he told me that everyone told him that he was going to flush all his chips on that bet and that no one wanted to see a three-hour movie about socialists with documentary footage from people who actually lived through the era. He just went and did it anyway.
The thing is that when you grow up on the film and then you see it got nominated for awards, and it’s affirmed and everything, you discount the fact that in truth, for him, it was a very, very, very out-on-a-limb experience and probably felt very half-baked a lot of the time. I think it’s good for people — it’s good for people at any phase of life — certainly I think it’s good for young people to hear people who get a thing done say, “It doesn’t feel good at many phases along the way.” It feels entirely half-baked. You feel entirely behind the eight ball, and discouraged, and this is an intrinsic part of it. It isn’t all fun, even when you’re already, like you were saying, you’re like, “Well, but you’ve had success in this thing. It should be easier.” It doesn’t get easier. Anything that’s worth — a thing that’s got any actual merit in it — is going to be hard, and the hard part isn’t romantic when it’s hard. You know what I mean?
Tim Ferriss: I do.
Edward Norton: It’s romantic later. It’s romantic later, but it really —
Tim Ferriss: When you selectively remember it.
Edward Norton: Yeah, it’s romantic later, but it really doesn’t feel good along the way. I think sometimes 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.
Tim Ferriss: Absolutely. And when in doubt, find a friend like Toby Emerick to call you up and threaten to give it to somebody else.
Edward Norton: I think people, your tribe, the people you trust, like sounding boards, it’s like nobody gets anything like this done alone. It’s just — it’s almost like when, in the back of your book, you see an author. They thank — and it’s names, but when you look at it as a block and you realize what that really is, that’s a tribe. You know what I mean? Around an author, nobody — what’s more solitary than writing a book? But you look at the network that’s around an author and it makes them feel compelled to say, “I could not have gotten this done without these people.” There’s not many things that are truly done in solitude.
Tim Ferriss: Agreed, and a lot of things worth doing, not in solitude, also. To have companions on the path and I am, could not be happier for you and it means a lot to have you back on. I hope we get a chance to hang again soon.
Edward Norton: Ditto.
Tim Ferriss: Thanks so much for the time.
Edward Norton: Thanks for another great conversation.
Tim Ferriss: For sure.
Posted on: November 12, 2019.
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