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Edward Norton Discusses the Collaborative Process in Highlights from Locarno Film Festival Panel

Edward Norton Discusses the Collaborative Process in Highlights from Locarno Film Festival Panel

As an actor, Edward Norton is synonymous with modern masterpieces thanks to his list of iconic roles. At the Locarno Film Festival, Norton received the Excellence Award from Moet & Chandon. Following an interview with Indiewire Chief Film Critic Eric Kohn, in which Norton discussed the “monetization” of the Oscars, he participated in a panel discussion. 

Kohn also moderated the panel and questioned Norton on the highlights of his career. Featuring Norton reflecting on his collaborations, the creative process and his various roles, here are all of the highlights from the discussion below. 

“Star Wars” and Spike Lee inspired him.

Norton’s memories of career-inspiring films stuck out in phases. “When I was a child, I was really affected by Disney movies. I was very affected by ‘Star Wars.’ I remember seeing it in a wonderful old cinema in Baltimore where I grew up, one of those old, art deco movie palaces. I went with my little brother and the opening of ‘Star Wars,’ where the ships come down from the top of the screen was, I don’t want to say was a life changing moment, but it really had a huge impact on my sense of awe and what you could see in a movie.” 

“Later, I would say Woody Allen’s films had a really big impact on me because my mother taught English literature. I remember watching ‘Annie Hall’ and ‘Manhattan’ and having a sense, suddenly, that you can tell a story any way you wanted to. I remember asking my mother, “Why is he allowed to do that?” You realize how plastic and how free cinema can be.”

“In my adult life, as I’ve said before, Spike Lee’s film ‘Do the Right Thing’ had a huge, huge, impact on me because I grew up in the 80s in the United States. In the cities, there were all of these simmering cultural tensions. I remember seeing ‘Do the Right Thing’ and it was the first movie I saw in my young adult life, where I saw the movie, walked out, went back to the box office, bought a ticket and went back in to watch it again because it was so provocative. It was one of the first times that I remember seeing a film that set up lots of questions that it didn’t answer. It was the beginning of my preference for movies that challenged you to think about what it was about rather than tell you what it was about.”

Important lessons from the beginning of career. 

When Norton’s career initially launched, it did not take long for him to steal the limelight. His first three films, “Primal Fear” (Gregory Hoblit, 1996), “The People vs. Larry Flynt” (Milos Forman, 1996) and “Everyone Says I Love You” (Allen, 1996), proved to be instrumental. He explained how these early films helped him to understand how the directors actually went about creating the films. He was fascinated by the creative methodology and how it differed with each director. “Milos, in particular, was very generous to me. He was a mentor to me. He had me work on the script with him, but then he let me sit through the editing process with him, watch him, and ask questions.”

“Coming out of theater one of the things I learned was how malleable film is, how differently it can be shaped. As a performer, it made me realize, unlike in the theater, you can experiment more freely with the performance, in some sense. You are not making the film, you are making the raw clay that the director is going to turn into the film later. In some ways it is very liberating because you don’t have to perform perfectly. What you want to do is explore with a director, and give them a lot to work with and that was a real revelation to me.” 

The riskier the role, the better the performance will be. 

Many of his performances leave viewers shell shocked due to his ability to conjure up such ferocity in his characters’ skins. He commented on his experience with the role of Derek in “American History X” (Tony Kaye, 1998). The difficulty of capturing the intense character taught Norton how to be comfortable being uncomfortable. 

“I felt like maybe it should be somebody else. It took me awhile of experimenting with it to convince myself that I should do it. It felt like maybe it was too big of a stretch for me to persuasively represent that or incarnate it. Then, we did it and the experience was really interesting. It was really challenging and the lesson I learned from it was that when I have that sensation, I’m not the right person, or the role frightens me a little, or makes me feel a little bit insecure, that is actually probably something I should do because that sense of insecurity produces a kind of focus and choices that are interesting. I’ve gotten more and more confident about doing parts that I don’t feel confident about.” 

On navigating the transition from fan to part of collaborative process. 

“Film is fundamentally collaborative. I think it was Francis Coppola who said the best thing about making movies is that you collaborate with people and the worst thing about making movies is that you collaborate with people. It’s hard sometimes but it’s great. If you are working with a great director, you have to know their work. To me, the idea that someone would roll into making a film with a filmmaker and have not looked at their work is insane. To me, it is totally irresponsible because you have to know, the tone, and the style in which they work and calibrate yourself so that you can serve it.”

Prior to working with Spike Lee, Norton literally wrote the director fan letters. When he finally collaborated with Lee, it was the shortest schedule he had ever worked around at a mere 28 days. Considering the time frame, it was essential for the actors to come in with a deep and profound understanding of the filmmaker and his style. 

“When you have confidence in the way a director works you can surrender to it more, and make yourself more available to him as an actor. To me, being a fan of a director’s work is always an advantage because in some sense you’ve studied them.” 

Praise for Wes Anderson proves why preparation is key.

Norton had a similar experience with the director Wes Anderson. He said, “Wes makes animated sequences of the film that he gives you before and he does the voices of all the characters. It’s the easiest job in the world because you watch the animation, they’ve set the cameras up in the same way; you are just covering it. When I get lost I say to him, ‘Will you say that line again?’ and he says it. I repeat it and it is the easiest job in the world. It’s all Wes. He is funnier than we are. His line readings are better than ours. It’s like being a marionette.” 

“Joking aside, if you are a fan of his films and really watch them and absorb them, then you know that Wes is the master of finding poignant heartfelt emotion underneath these surfaces of slapstick humor, but you have to know his films. If you don’t know that then you can’t look for those little moments within your own character where it makes that turn into pathos or sadness.” 

“Often there is not enough prior communication. Great directors that I worked with always rehearse. I’ve never worked on a great film with a really great director who didn’t rehearse. Actors who know a directors work are going to serve the work better. It sounds really obvious but preparation is important.” 

Norton gives acting advice. 

Norton revealed, “Actors can be harder to navigate in some ways than a director that you admire.” Citing the film “The Score,” he discussed how he found himself caught up in his own head when working Robert De Niro. His dreams and expectations of what the actor would be like hindered his ability to appreciate what the actor was actually doing. 

“There are many types of work. Surgeons, athletes and writers are better served when you get past your conscious and into the unconscious or the automatic. They’ve shown that athletes perform much better when they are in that zone of acting unconsciously. It is very true for actors. You want to get out of your head and the analytical side of your brain and try and get into a more reactive place.” 

Technology and new formats will influence and change film. 

Norton praised the various changes occurring in the film and television mediums. As television adapts the style of cinema and cinema adapts the timeline of television, storytelling has new possibilities. When it comes to aspiring artists, he pointed out that there is much to look forward to as equipment becomes cheaper and things such as crowdsourcing make the industry more universal. When it comes to film criticism, there are even new doors being opened. A collective and wide variety of reviews shape the decisions of viewers and whether or not a film is worthy of seeing, as opposed to the opinion of a single critic. 

He believes there is potential for change that could spark a cinematic revolution. “Rosselllini, Fellini, Jean-Luc Godard, and Martin Scorsese (the 1960s version) — I think those filmmakers would love what is transpiring now. The neorealism of the next decade is going to come out of these formats. You are not going to find the studio system creating the next wave of technical revolution or stylistic revolution. I think it is going to come from these new things that are starting to open up and it is pretty exciting. There is a lot to get figured out, but I think, more and more, the capacity of artists and audiences to connect with each other directly, without middlemen between it, is growing and growing. I think that is amazing as well.” 

READ MORE: Edward Norton is Fed Up With People Who Think Movies Aren’t What They Used to Be

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