SXSW: Edward Norton delves into ‘Leaves of Grass’
BY SEAN O’CONNELL
Edward Norton stars alongside Keri Russell, Richard Dreyfuss, Susan Sarandon and … well, Edward Norton in Tim Blake Nelson’s “Leaves of Grass,” a twisty concoction of drug comedy and true-crime dramatics that blows the lid off of the drug-trading practices of Oklahoma’s Jewish community. As if you expected anything streamlined from Nelson, director of “O” and “The Grey Zone” and a frequent collaborator with Joel and Ethan Coen.
Norton and his writer-director met with a handful of journalists at the Four Seasons in downtown Austin to talk motion-capture technology, the draw of Oklahoma’s intelligent citizens, how “Fight Club” is a comedy, and the fine art of noodling. (A method of fishing with your bare hands.)
Hollywood News: There are a lot of Southern characters in film who are one-dimensional, stereotypical and go for the easy laugh. This film has a more layered, complex approach to its portrayal of Southern characters. As an actor and a filmmaker, do you seek out (material) that avoids these stereotypes?
Tim Blake Nelson: Yeah, I certainly do. I do grow tired of intelligence having such a limited manifestation in movies. And so when I wrote this, I knew immediately that the wisest and smartest characters in this movie would be the ones who either remained in Oklahoma or returned there. The smartest guy in the movie is Brady (played by Norton). I think that’s evident but it’s also stated by the mother. And the wisest character is Keri Russell’s character. She has chosen to return and to write in Oklahoma, and I think she gives the Bill character (also played by Norton) the wisdom that allows him to begin to move forward in his life as it’s collapsing around him. In answer to your question, I was eager to debunk certain stereotypes about Southern characters in this movie.
Hollywood News: To believe in the duality of the characters, you have to have a suspension of disbelief. I’d like to know how you achieved it through both your filmmaking and your acting.
Nelson: Suspension of disbelief in a story like this is essential. That said, I think you have to be responsible to your story, as a storyteller, to make it feasible enough. And I hope that this story is feasible enough. There are details peppered throughout that, you know, I didn’t want to bang the audience over the head with it. An obvious question would be, “Well, wouldn’t we all know they were twins? But they didn’t grow up in (the same place).” These stories are all far-fetched. But there’s antecedent material for the movie, like (the Greek dramatist) Menander, Plautus and Shakespeare, so that this is a retelling of the “twins” genre. And the main character in the movie is a Classicist. And so that’s all very intentional. it’s meant to reflect on those earlier works. … So suspension of disbelief and that whole question is part of the fun of the movie. And now (Ed’s) going to say, “Thanks for referencing Menander.”
Edward Norton: Actually, I was going to say that any questions I had about whether a redneck from Oklahoma could actually go and become a Brown philosophy professor ended when I met Tim, because like you can see (after) one conversation with Tim, Bill is a believable character.
I really agree with the idea that there are not just archetypal characters, but there are types of stories that … have certain structures. For me, I thought that the two worlds it was trying to straddle was delightful. I didn’t think it was something I had ever seen before, which is always hard to find.
And Tim is so authentically rooted in both of those worlds. You know when you are being driven by someone who knows where they are going. You can feel that when you read a script (or) see a movie. That was a big part of the appeal for this for me. It was clearly a film that only Tim knew how to make because he owned it all. If there’s a criteria that really tends to get me interested in a piece of work apart from any kind of personal reaction I have to the themes, if I feel like this is the right piece of work for that director at this moment in their career, that’s a big draw. I felt that way with (David) Fincher on “Fight Club.” This is the guy to handle this text. And I felt that way with Spike Lee on “The 25th Hour” and David Jacobson on “Down In the Valley.” If you feel like someone just know what this is about down to their core and knows how to bring their personal style to it, it’s going to have a special confidence to it, and that’s strong.
For me, the only thing that I wanted us to be careful of was that the twins never felt like a trick, that you stopped looking at the seams and you felt like these were guys inhabiting the same space and interacting with each other in an extemporaneous way. For me, that was the thing I wanted, to make sure you buffed out the seams.
Hollywood News: To that end, how did you go about “buffing out those seams” when filming both of your scenes?
Nelson: Remarkably, there is no green screen in this movie. There is motion control. Technically there were all kinds of challenges. But really, the soul of it is Edward’s talent. You write these characters, and all you can hope for and depend on is that your actors will elevate the material. Screenplays aren’t written to be read. They are written to be made into movies. What’s so remarkable about Edward, that I think comes through so beautifully, is that he’s so truthful as an actor. The source material from within him is so gorgeously accessed that the dramatic base notes in the movie … are just exquisitely rendered. And then at the same time, he’s able to play the loopy comic moments. So few actors have that sort of bandwidth.
What Edward also brings to you as a director is this incredible mind. To play these twins, it really was quite a juggling act. He’ll talk about this, but he’s not going to compliment himself so I will just enjoy the floor for a moment. It takes a rare mind to be able to map out a scene as Character A iun a way that will leave room for Character B and how that character might respond. It’s almost a cubist way of thinking. You are looking at the scene from all sorts of different angles. He’s just got the ability to do that, and do it truthfully.
Edward Norton: There’s a little bit of the “Dirty Dozen” in it, you know? Donald Duck goes here. And knowing you have a “no room for error” kind of scenario … like, if there is a day where we are doing the twins on the porch together, it has to be finished that day. I think the thing we did the best on (“Leaves”) was prep. If you answer all of the questions about (production) and map it, then you leave yourself more room to play.
Hollywood News: Here’s a much easier question. Have you ever tried noodling before? And how did you get Keri Russell to play along with that?
Nelson: I’ve done about every different kind of fishing you can imagine, but I’ve never noodled. And the reason I’ve never noodled is because I don’t want to end up getting bit by a water moccasin. I’m just too afraid of snakes.
And getting Keri to do that was about the easiest chore as a director that I had on this movie. She had a great attitude about it. She and Edward were fantastic together.
You dream, as an actor’s director, of being able to let moments breathe in two-shots. And one of my favorite moments in this movie is just letting the camera sit on Edward and Keri on that porch in a two shot when he tries to kiss her. It goes on for several minutes, and I never had to cut to a close up. They’re so exquisite together. It’s just great.
Hollywood News: Edward, you seem to pick and choose your comedic properties. Did “Leaves” attract you because it was a comedy? And do you think we’ll see more comedies from you in the future?
Norton: Sure. I don’t tend to say, “OK, time for another one of this or that genre.” Things flow to you in a strange way. Some people know you in a certain way, and some people don’t. It’s hard to explain. I knew Danny DeVito, and he knew me. He really wanted me to do “Death to Smoochy.” I love that stuff and had a great time doing it. To me, “Fight Club” was a comedy. When Fincher sent me the book and I read it, the first thing I asked him was, “This is a comedy, right?” And he said, “Oh yeah. That’s the whole point!” And I said, “OK, I’m in.” … I thought “Rounders” was a comedic movie in its own way. The first time I directed a movie (“Keeping the Faith”), it was a comedy. I like things that aren’t, superficially, one thing or another. My favorite comedies are ones that are smart, too. That have a whole second level to them. When we worked on “Keeping the Faith,” I was looking at a lot of (George) Cukor’s old films. Things like “The Philadelphia Story.” Stuff that is hilariously funny but is also really, really smart.
Hollywood News: Can you guys just discuss some of the preparation for these unique roles?
Norton: For me, it’s the same as always. Just twice. I hear people talk about being intellectual actors versus being instinctual actors. I think it’s kind of crap. I always think that anybody who knows anything about it knows that good actors do both. They do inside-out work (and) they do outside-in work. You can’t not do both.
In something like this, Tim provided lots of work on the inside-out. He has given you lots of material, a lot about who these characters are emotionally, and you don’t really have to think. You have a great road map to these guys.
Nelson: I’ve never acted in a movie I’ve directed. This felt like the time to do it, just because the movie itself is a platform for the lead actor. It’s written for an exciting performance and it depends on the audience watching an extraordinary actor have a great time pulling off this feat. And it made sense to me, as the director, to act in support of that. To be around as a sidekick who doesn’t say much, but is just around to help both characters out of certain problems.
Norton: He tried to punk out on it. But we wouldn’t let him. We, the producers, were trying to imagine a better face for Bolger (Nelson’s character), and it was hard to come up with one. Mainly he just wanted to wear a doo rag.