“Motherless Brooklyn,” Edward Norton‘s long-gestating adaptation of the novel by Jonathan Lethem, was the closing night film at this year’s New York Flim Festival.
The 1950s noir detective story follows Lionel, a private eye with Tourette’s Syndrome, as he works to unravel a murder mystery. In addition to writing and directing, Norton stars as Lionel. His cast includes Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin, Willem Dafoe, Bobby Cannavale, and Bruce Willis.
Just before the closing night festivities, I had the opportunity to talk with producer Rachel Shane and executive producer Adrian Alperovich of MWM Studios about their experiences working with Norton on this film. We hope you enjoy this conversation.
Karen Peterson/Awards Circuit: How and when did you both get involved with “Motherless Brooklyn?”
Rachel Shane: It was actually a couple of years ago that we got involved. Edward’s been working on this film for a very long time, as I’m sure you know. Almost twenty years—I don’t know if that’s the exact amount of time, but I think it was 20 years. We had received the script to come in and help finance a few years ago and just absolutely fell in love with it, and from then on we stuck with it through the process, and here we are today.
Adrien Alperovich: I’ve only been with the company two and a half years and it’s almost the first thing that I worked on when I walked in the door.
KP: For both of you, what was the first thing about the script that really caught your attention?
RS: The thing above all that really attracted me, personally, and our company to the story was the incredible underdog nature of Lionel, who’s completely misunderstood and disregarded. And he actually is this incredible, unlikely hero. That was terrific on first read. There were many other elements, including the humanity of the characters, the drive and through line, but first and foremost it was really Lionel’s persistence that prevailed.
AA: I’ll answer a little differently because I think we should also say that Rachel’s in charge of the creative work at our company, at the studio’s division and I’m on the business and operations side. So one of the things that I really enjoy about our business is that the two cross over a lot. I have a lot to do with creative discussions and Rachel has a lot to do with business decisions and discussions. But I’ll answer it more from the business side of things, which is, as you look at the movie you can see what a tremendous package it is of great actors, great script, and being partnered with Warner Bros on a worldwide basis was really attractive. And then, really, most of all, the fact that Edward himself is really interesting as a director and, as an actor, and I don’t think people get to see him enough. So that makes it even more attractive for audiences.
KP: Given that you do have different roles here, what was it like when you first started meeting with Edward and talking with him about the direction for “Motherless Brooklyn?”
RS: I’ll speak for myself and for Gigi Pritzker, who was a producer on the film as well. It was really exciting! Just as Adrian had said, Edward had not been doing a lot in the film space, and the fact that he had been working on this film for so long and had so much passion and clarity of vision, it was clear that we knew we would get on set and everything would be translated completely from his mind onto screen. It really is completely a representation of how he saw the film when we first started talking about it.
AA: I think Edward was ready to shoot it the first day we even spoke. [laughs] He was ready. He had the whole thing in his head and could articulate every bit and nuance of it. Edward’s also got a very good producing partner in Bill Migliore, which gives us a lot of confidence as partners together producing the film, that it was going to be handled in the best possible way. I think they did an extraordinary job on set and managing the production, along with Michael Bederman, who’s also the line producer and a producer on the film.
KP: How does it feel now that audiences are seeing the movie and reacting to it?
RS: It’s really gratifying. Because our journey on this film was quite long as well. I believe we’ve been involved in it maybe four years? And because of that, there was a definite gestation period. It’s also such a special film in that it’s very well crafted. There’s so many details that went into it that it doesn’t feel like just a piece of product we’re putting out there. There’s something really elevated to the film that. Once audiences start connecting with it, it’s great just to see the work that’s been put in being received in such a positive way.
AA: It’s exciting because it’s the end of a long process and this is the fun part. When the world gets to see what all these people have been working on. It’s kind of an amazing feeling, actually.
KP: With each of you in your particular roles, what was your day to day like with “Motherless Brooklyn?”
AA: I was really connected more primarily with Bill and Michael as producers and on set, and Edward also would get very involved in issues surrounding the budget and how we were going to shoot things. Now, Rachel was also very involved in that as well. We kind of come at it from different angles. Especially in the months leading up to shooting, and during shooting, pretty much on a daily basis, talking to our partners on exactly what was going on. We basically managed the production with other investors, so we’re—I guess you could say—the lead agent in running the movie. Along with other people in our company. Because that’s something we can do that most companies, like Edward’s, don’t have the staff for that. So that’s one of the roles we played and they had other roles.
RS: Yeah, we have a lot of experience, obviously, being a producer/financier on films and I was very involved also on the budget level because we were the keeper of that. But I was also on set for the majority of the film and working alongside Bill and Michael as a producer and really making sure that Edward’s vision was being translated the way he needed it to be and the way that we could fit within our budget. It was really fun! It was really fun to be around all those actors, I have to say. From Gugu to Willem to Alec, it was kind of the dream team cast.
KP: It is a great cast and something about the film, too, the production quality of it—it’s beautiful. The colors are beautiful, it’s got this sort of dreamlike quality to it in some ways. What was it like being on that set, watching all of this unfold—not just with the cast but with the amazing crafts team too?
RS: Yeah, our production designer, our costume designer, our cinematographer Dick Pope, they’re at the top of their game, and you can see it in the film. You know, translating and transforming—I think it was 2018 it was shot—into 1950s New York was really incredible! And it was transformative. We had people who lived in the neighborhood coming by and walking by the old cars and taking pictures and just being transformed themselves. It was really spectacular because you didn’t only feel that the actors on the set were in that world. You yourself started to believe you were living in that world behind the camera. So it was really fun.
AA: The vast majority of it was shot on location, so this was really shot in and around New York.
AA: When I say around, I mean other boroughs. Not outside the city.
RS: And we did shoot in Brooklyn, too.
KP: It would be kind of weird if you didn’t shoot “Motherless Brooklyn” in Brooklyn at all!
RS and AA: [laugh]
RS: Then I wouldn’t be talking about it, that’s right!
KP: And now it’s closing out the New York Film Festival. How does that feel?
AA: I think it’s just a testament to the movie itself. I think it’s been very well received. We also played at a couple of other festivals, but this was always the one we talked about, in terms of being a New York story and wanting to be at the New York Film Festival. So this was the first thing we talked about and it was always in our plan and we were very gratified and honored to get in. Today’s a really special day, in particular for Edward, who’s lived for many years in New York and is a New Yorker. It’s just a culmination of what we had dreamed of from the beginning.
KP: It seems like such a perfect choice to close out NYFF, really.
AA: We thought so too. I’m just glad they agreed with us!
KP: For both of you, when you have gotten to watch the film with an audience, what has been the most satisfying part of that experience?
RS: For me, personally, it’s been finding the moments of humor—unexpected humor where maybe I thought it was funny or witty in my reading and making of the film. But actually seeing that play out in the audience and just all the moments where you can tell the audience is truly connected to the mystery and they’re really engaged in that. That’s quite gratifying as well.
AA: Very similar, in terms of watching an audience get drawn into a story that I think is layered and deep and gripping. This movie operates on more than one level, and on the level of it being a very exciting mystery/thriller. That’s the part that really attracted me with audiences.
KP: I think one of the things that’s interesting is that, like you’re saying, Adrian, it’s this mystery and thriller, but there is unexpected humor in certain places and I think it’s interesting to see how Edward is able to balance those tones.
AA: It’s pretty amazing. While he’s directing.
KP: And starring!
AA: His performance is amazing. The other thing with the audience is how they’re drawn to his character, like Rachel was saying. He’s an underdog. He’s so interesting and unlikely and I think audiences will love him.
KP: I know your company has a lot of other things going on too. What is your next big project after “Motherless Brooklyn?”
RS: We have another film coming out November 22. It’s called “21 Bridges,” starring Chadwick Boseman. Produced by the Russo Brothers, directed by Brian Kirk. It’s something we’re, again, really excited by. Also set in New York. But it follows an embattled NYPD detective—played by Chadwick Boseman—who’s forced into this citywide manhunt and he basically uncovers a massive conspiracy in so doing. What’s terrific about this as well is the cast, the performances. It’s really fascinating to see in a large cop thriller that has a lot of action that could be B-movie level, you have these incredible performances from Stephan James, and Chadwick, and JK Simmons, and Sienna Miller, and Taylor Kitsch. It’s a fun ride and the performances are quite spectacular.
AA: And the title refers to—the story contains such an extreme manhunt that they close the entire island of Manhattan to try to find these alleged culprits. So they close all the bridges in and out of New York, and all the tunnels. There’s this massive city event that happens overnight. In some ways not unlike “Motherless Brooklyn,” I think for our company we’re always drawn to great stories and great partners. And certainly this fits the bill.
Awards Circuit would like to thank Rachel Shane and Adrian Alperovich for speaking with us.
“Motherless Brooklyn” is distributed by Warner Bros and will be in theaters on November 1.