Edward Norton — On Creative Process, Creative Struggle, and Motherless Brooklyn (#393)

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.” — Edward Norton

Edward Norton (@EdwardNorton) is 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.

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.

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.

Edward seems to do it all. In this wide-ranging conversation, we go deep into his creative process and 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 at tim.blog/edward. And take my word for it and go see Motherless Brooklyn in theaters. It’s absolutely outstanding.

You can find the transcript of this episode here. Transcripts of all episodes can be found here.

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, StitcherCastbox, Google Podcasts, or on your favorite podcast platform.

#393: Edward Norton — On Creative Process, Creative Struggle, and Motherless Brooklyn


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Want to hear Edward’s previous appearance on this podcast?Listen in on our pier-side conversation about the importance of surfing, early mentors, what separates good actors from mediocre ones, favorite books and movies, and much more. (Stream below or right-click here to download):

#133: Edward Norton on Mastery, Must-Read Books, and The Future of Crowdfunding


QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode? Please let me know in the comments.




  • Connect with Edward Norton:

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  • We each share how we first became fans of Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem when it was first published in ’99. [08:23]
  • Who is “Bailey,” and what does he represent? [15:21]
  • As the person who wrote, produced, directed, and starred in this film, what did its creation look like from Edward’s perspective? How did it go from favorite book to active project? [18:12]
  • Edward’s self-talk when he decided to take a break from acting and get his pilot’s license, why his father was a particularly good role model to guide him toward this decision, and how flying a plane is like meditation. [23:21]
  • Edward’s considerations when trying to wrap his head around how he could possibly adapt a book like Motherless Brooklyn into a movie, and why such an adaptation — when done well — is a bit like transposing a piano concerto for guitar. [31:59]
  • How did Jonathan Lethem feel about Edward’s proposed changes from his original work — including setting it in the era when Robert Moses ruled New York City like an autocratic Caesar? [35:27]
  • The conversation that convinced an initially reluctant Edward to wear the hat of Motherless Brooklyn‘s director on top of producer, star, and writer — once the writer’s block was conquered. [42:28]
  • In which movie would you rather invest millions of dollars: a cross between Chinatown and Rain Man, or a cross between L.A. Confidential and Forrest Gump? [54:10]
  • What was Edward’s writing approach upon returning to the Motherless Brooklyn script that had been set aside to gather dust in his desk drawer for so long? [57:57]
  • The pros and cons of allowing the creative process to get competitive (even if it’s just in your own head), the confidence gained by learning new skills (even if you don’t have to use them), and the looming dread of an unfinished project (even when the thing that holds it up turns out to have an easy solution). [1:02:35]
  • By the time the Motherless Brooklyn project was ready for its producorial phase, was Edward still having doubts, or was he confident it would gain the necessary support to get made? [1:12:33]
  • A little insight into the world of film financing and hedging risks when big names are involved and millions of dollars are at stake — and how Motherless Brooklyn‘s financing is unique and probably non-replicable, but created deep bonds between Edward and the people who believed in the project. [1:18:53]
  • On Motherless Brooklyn‘s one-of-a-kind soundtrack and the deliberate thought and care that was put into its musical selections. [1:25:51]
  • What did documentary filmmaking legend (and recent guest of this show) Ken Burns think of Motherless Brooklyn, and how has Edward taken such an assessment from one of his heroes? What effect does Edward hope for this film to have on the rest of us? [1:32:18]
  • On gestation of art, why Edward is happier with the timing of Motherless Brooklyn coming out in 2019 instead of 2003, and why the world doesn’t need anyone putting a sexy stamp on the idea of nihilism right now. [1:45:13]
  • Why my wholehearted recommendation to see Motherless Brooklyn on the big screen (along with any recommendation I give) is sincere. [1:50:26]
  • Selective remembrance and final thoughts. [1:51:16]