Setting out to solve both the harrowing murder case they’re working on, as well as their own perplexing origins, can be a daunting process for detectives who are determined to uncover the truth in all aspects of life. That’s certainly true for film auteur Edward Norton’s character, detective Lionel Essrog, in the new neo-noir crime drama, ‘Motherless Brooklyn.’ The troubled protagonist ventures to not only solve the murder of his mentor, who took him in when he was a young orphan, but also figure out where he belongs in the world. While Lionel’s circumstances are largely unique, his determination to find answers about his mentor’s death, and how it further influences his life’s unprecedented journey, is universally relevant.
Based on the 1999 novel of the same name by Jonathan Lethem, ‘Motherless Brooklyn’ follows Lionel and his three closest friends as they were taken under the wing of Frank Minna (Bruce Willis) as young orphans. Minna would send the boys on enigmatic errands, imbuing them with street smarts, attitude and a sense of purpose.
When they get older, the four boys become the Minna Men, an ersatz detective agency and limo service. When Minna is shot and left for dead, Lionel determines to solve the crime, which plunges him into a Brooklyn underworld riddled with colorful characters, including some possibly enemies who are passing as old friends. As his quest for truth leads him further up New York’s ladder of power, Lionel’s investigation is complicated by his Tourette syndrome, which leaves him prone to compulsive behavioral tics and inappropriate verbal outbursts.
In addition to starring in the film adaptation, Norton also wrote, directed and served as a producer on the screen version of ‘Motherless Brooklyn.’ Rachel Shane and Adrian Alperovich also served as producers on the movie, which had its international premiere at this fall’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), following its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival over the summer. The drama was then officially distributed in American theaters on November 1 by Warner Bros. Pictures. It will next be unveiled on Digital on January 14, before being released on Blu-ray on January 28.
Shane and Alperovich generously took the time to sit down at the InterContinental Toronto Centre Hotel for an exclusive interview’ during TIFF to talk about producing ‘Motherless Brooklyn.’ Among other things, the producers discussed how Norton’s a bright, interesting filmmaker, who completely immersed himself in the process of writing, directing, producing and starring in the movie. Shane and Alperovich also shared their appreciation of being able to bring the drama to TIFF.
ShockYa (SY): Rachel, you produced, and Adrian, you executive produced, the crime drama, ‘Motherless Brooklyn.’ What inspired you both to not only produce this film, but become involved in producing overall?
Adrian Alperovich (AA): After I graduated from college, I realized that I wanted to be in the entertainment industry, and I had no idea why. I was very much interested in the power of creative storytelling, and how it influences culture around the world. I think film is such a powerful medium for telling this type of narrative.
Rachel Shane (RS): I was also culturally and politically motivated to get into theater and film. They’re great ways to tell stories and share perspectives that haven’t been seen or told. I think being able to empathize with a character translates into human beings being able to empathize with other human beings.
In terms of ‘Motherless Brooklyn,’ Gigi Pritzker, who’s another producer on the film, and also owns the company that we work for, MWM (Madison Wells Media) Studios, was approached by Edward about the project. We were incredibly excited to read it. Once we did, the story of Lionel Essrog as an underdog, as well as his brilliance, which comes from unexpected places, was something that we were all completely drawn to, and it was something that we felt we needed to do.
SY: As producers, what’s the process of setting up projects, and determining what movies you both want to work on?
RS: I’m the Chief Creative Officer of MWM Studios,.and I’m always looking for voices and stories that are told outside of the box by terrific storytellers. I start with finding a great script, and go from there.
AA: I’ve grown up in the industry, on the business side of things. So my main focus is on the operating issues of MWM Studios, including producing, financing and helping distribute films.
So as partners, we specifically focus on the creative and business side of things. The two overlap a lot, so as partners, we have clear creative visions. One of the fun parts of this industry is that the creative and business sides are very interwove. I like that it’s a creative business.
SY: As film producers, how involved are you in working with the director in the casting process?
RS: It’s one of the best and fun parts of the job. You really get to work with your director, and narrow down who the best actor will be to portray a certain character. I have a ton of respect for casting directors; I think someone who can put an ensemble together in a way that everyone’s confident in each other, and that every performance can be elevated to its best, is a real skill and art.
SY: ‘Motherless Brooklyn’ was written, directed and produced by Edward Norton, like you mentioned earlier. What was the experience of collaborating with him on developing the feature?
AA: I loved the experience. Edward’s an incredibly bright, interesting person, with an amazing view of the world. I’ve worked very closely with his producing partner, Bill Migliore, before. But I’ve told Edward that I’ve never worked so closely with an actor who’s also the director and a producer, who’s also so involved in the financial conversation. He understands all of it, so the process has been eye-opening.
SY: ‘The movie’s set in the 1950s. How did making a period neo-nor piece influence the production?
RS: I think you have to be very aware of the environments, especially when you’re shooting exteriors. Trying to block off New York City streets isn’t easy.
AA: Yes, dressing the set isn’t easy!
RS: It’s obviously more expensive and challenging, but there is a huge opportunity to be able to create a past that doesn’t exist now.
SY: The film is set throughout New York City, like you just mentioned. What was the process of securing the locations for the movie, and working with production designer, Beth Mickle, to create the look of each location?
RS: Well, New York’s a very specific place to shoot. I think an interesting thing about shooting a period piece in New York is that there are pre-existing structures, buildings and environments that you can work with that aren’t completely familiar to audiences.
SY: In addition to Edward, ‘Motherless Brooklyn’ also stars Bruce Willis, Bobby Cannavale, Leslie Mann, Alec Baldwin and Willem Dafoe. Going back to the casting, how involved were you both in the casting process for this movie?
RS: The majority of the cast came on board because of Edward. The majority of them were people he already knew, had worked with or had wanted to work with. Everyone was there for the movie itself, so it was a great collaborative endeavor.
SY: The drama has a bit of action sequences and stuntwork. What’s the process like, as producers, of working on a crime and mystery-driven film?
RS: Well, I also worked on ‘Hell or High Water,’ which was also very action-driven and oriented. So it’s an arena that I’m familiar with, as a producer. I also worked on ‘Divergent’ and ‘Lawless‘…I love that masculine world. It’s a thrilling environment to play in.
RS: People will often ask us, ‘What kind of movie are you looking for?’ Our answer is that we look for elevated genres. We want to see high-quality, great stories, and very thoughtful incarnations, across any genre. The fact that it’s an action movie doesn’t mean that it can’t also be a really great, thought-provoking movie.
SY: ‘Motherless Brooklyn’ is having its international premiere here at the Toronto International Film Festival. What has the experience of premiering the feature at the festival?
RS: Adrian loves TIFF!
AA: Yes, I love everything about TIFF! But it’s a different experience when you come with a movie you’ve worked on; there’s a whole different side to the festival. I’ve been to many festivals over the years, during which I’ve bought films as a distributor. But it’s special when you bring a movie, and you know you’re going to show it to the world.