- Show Notes
On this week’s Stay Tuned, “House Resolution & Infectious Power,” Preet answers your questions about:
— Key revelations from Ukraine expert Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman’s testimony in the House impeachment inquiry—and the baseless attacks waged against him
— The upcoming House Resolution vote on impeachment
— Finding hope in stressful times
Edward Norton is this week’s guest on Stay Tuned. He is a writer, director, and three-time Academy Award-nominated actor. He joins Preet for a wide-ranging conversation that covers his latest film, Motherless Brooklyn, and today’s political climate.
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As always, tweet your questions to @PreetBharara with hashtag #askpreet, email us at [email protected], or call 699-247-7338 to leave a voicemail.
Preet Bharara: From CAFE, welcome to Stay Tuned. I’m Preet Bharara.
Edward Norton: There’s always a shadow narrative in American life, and we need to pay attention to that narrative if we really want to understand what’s going on here, and stay awake to the ways that power can end up landing in places that we didn’t put it.
Preet Bharara: That’s Edward Norton. He’s a writer, director, producer, and actor who’s been nominated three times for an Academy Award. He plays a detective in his most recent movie Motherless Brooklyn, a film noir murder mystery. It features a fictionalized Robert Moses type builder and gets at something essential about America. Edward Norton and I talked about the infectious nature of power, what infamous Donald Trump line made it into his movie, why it feels good to root for the underdog, and the anchor to an actor’s authenticity. That’s coming up. Stay tuned.
Preet Bharara: This question comes in an email from Cheryl in Sacramento, California, who writes, “Just read A. Vindman’s statement and feel so grateful that he is speaking up. I wish I could sit down with every senator, read it out loud, and discuss” Well, that’s not really a question, but I will take it in the spirit in which it’s meant and maybe discuss a little bit of Vindman’s testimony.
Preet Bharara: Obviously, Cheryl’s referring to what appears to be blockbuster testimony of Lieutenant Colonel Alexander S. Vindman, who is a member of the military and has served, among other things, as member of the staff on the National Security Council in the White House.
Preet Bharara: There are a series of things that are interesting about his testimony, the opening statement having been released publicly. One of those things is how much Vindman, like so many other witnesses who have come before the House committees, makes it a point to describe his public service, military service, uninterrupted selfless service to the country.
Preet Bharara: One reason the people are doing this is to inoculate themselves against what they expect will be inevitable character assassination and attacks from allies of the President. It doesn’t matter who you were, how you came into your position, if you were handpicked by the administration itself, like Ambassador Bill Taylor was, handpicked by Mike Pompeo, you’ll get attacked and you’ll be accused of disloyalty, maybe even treason or treachery, if you speak the truth, which is perhaps why Alexander Vindman, at the beginning of his opening statement, recites his history.
Preet Bharara: He says, “For more than two decades, it has been my honor to serve as an officer in the United States Army.” He’s served multiple overseas tours, including South Korea and Germany, and a deployment to Iraq for combat operations, where, he points out, he was wounded in an IED attack and given the Purple Heart.
Preet Bharara: Another part of his background is also notable. You see, Alexander Vindman is an immigrant. He was born in what was then the Soviet Union in Ukraine. His family fled the Soviet Union for the United States of America when he was only three and a half years old. His father worked multiple jobs to support the family while he learned English at night.
Preet Bharara: He makes it a point, Vindman does, to talk about his deep appreciation for America and for the freedom that America provides. He feels it necessary to say, “I’m a patriot and it is my sacred duty and honor to advance and defend our country irrespective of party or politics.”
Preet Bharara: The other thing that’s interesting about Vindman’s testimony is it gives the lie to a huge talking point of Republicans soon after the whistleblower complaint was released. You’ll recall that Republican after Republican looked into the TV camera and said, “Well, there’s nothing to see here because it’s all secondhand. It’s all hearsay,” as if the [inaudible 00:03:24] of the call between President Trump and President Zelensky didn’t corroborate what the whistleblower said about it. In fact, it does.
Preet Bharara: Nonetheless, people said over and over and over, like a mantra, secondhand, secondhand, secondhand, along the lines of, “Call me when you have something firsthand.” Well, you know what? Alexander Vindman provides firsthand testimony because he was listening to the call and, by the way, speaks the language that President Zelensky was speaking, so understood in real time without the need of an interpreter what was going on on the call.
Preet Bharara: Among other things, he corroborates the conclusion that other people have had about the July 25th phone call, that it was inappropriate, that it raised a red flag because the President of the United States seemed to be conditioning a White House meeting and military aid on an investigation of Donald trump’s political rival, some say his main political rival, Joe Biden, because of his son’s involvement in the company in Ukraine. I imagine he will be one of a number of people who have firsthand knowledge.
Preet Bharara: Beyond that, Vindman also talks about a meeting that occurred a couple of weeks before the July 25th phone call. That’s a meeting that happened in Washington, D.C. between the secretary of the national security and defense counsel for Ukraine and a number of American officials. Those officials included then national security adviser John Bolton, Ambassador Volker and Sondland, and Energy Secretary Rick Perry.
Preet Bharara: Here’s what Vindman writes in his opening statement: “The meeting proceeded well until the Ukrainians broached the subject of a meeting between the two presidents. The Ukrainian saw this meeting as critically important in order to solidify the support of their most important international partner.” Then this is important. Vindman says, “Ambassador Sondland started to speak about Ukraine delivering specific investigations in order to secure the meeting with the President, at which time Ambassador Bolton cut the meeting short.”
Preet Bharara: Then Vindman talks about what happens after that, what the aftermath of that meeting was, because it was a bit untoward. He says, “Following this meeting, there was a scheduled debriefing during which Ambassador Sondland emphasized the importance that Ukraine deliver the investigations into the 2016 election, the Bidens, and Burisma.” That’s Ambassador Sondland, who’s already testified in the House, basically leaking those two things together in what is an obvious quid pro quo.
Preet Bharara: There has been reporting yesterday that Ambassador Sondland has returned to the House to review his transcript, perhaps to withdraw some of his testimony, perhaps to, as lawyers like to say, clarify some of his testimony. But it seems he’s in a bit of trouble because there’s contradictory testimony about what really happened.
Preet Bharara: Vindman goes on to say that after Sondland said these things, “I stated to Ambassador Sondland that his statements were inappropriate, that the request to investigate Biden and his son had nothing to do with national security, and that such investigations were not something the NSC was going to get involved in or push.” Then Vindman’s boss, Fiona Hill, entered the room and “asserted to Ambassador Sondland that his statements were inappropriate”. Then he and Dr. Hill reported the incident to an NSC’s lead counsel, where apparently a record was made.
Preet Bharara: So, Cheryl from Sacramento, I also feel grateful that this soldier is speaking up. I didn’t read all of it aloud, but I read some of it aloud, the important parts, I think, and we’ll get a better sense of what his testimony involved when the deposition is released in its entirety, which I expect will happen at some point sooner rather than later.
Preet Bharara: This question comes in a tweet from listener [Raybird Hill 00:06:30]. “Are closed sessions of congressional hearings and depositions vastly different than the televised sessions? Without an audience or constituents or POTUS, do committee members behave differently? #AskPreet.”
Preet Bharara: Well, yes, they’re quite different. The most difference is between depositions that are done by staff members and the five-minute rounds you see in public, where House members are often speaking more than they’re asking and preening more than they’re listening to truth.
Preet Bharara: A couple of things are at play. One, you take away the TV cameras, you take away a lot of people’s incentive to filibuster and to make a scene. Second, you have the luxury of time in those behind closed doors sessions. It’s much harder for the witness to filibuster. It’s much harder for the witness to evade questions. So you get much closer to truth without a clock ticking than you do, I think, in some of the public sessions.
Preet Bharara: This is not to say that there’s no grandstanding that goes on behind closed doors if members are involved, because in many cases, if not most cases, there’s an expectation that the transcript will become available. It’s not quite as powerful as a video moment, a viral moment that you see on television, but it can still be pretty powerful if there’s a gotcha moment that some members try to engage in and prompt. There’s some amount of that when members are involved.
Preet Bharara: It may also be the case, by the way, that the witness, in some ways, feels more comfortable, less intimidated, and may be more forthcoming because you don’t have the million cameras and reporters in the room with a live audience. That, in some cases, also brings more light than heat.
Preet Bharara: But that’s a good way to segue into something else that’s happening this week, and that is on the day this podcast releases, October 31st, Halloween, it appears that Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House of Representatives, is going to allow a vote on a House resolution that sets forth the terms on which the impeachment inquiry will continue. It’s says a bunch of stuff. I won’t get into all of it here. Anne Milgram and I will have a much lengthier conversation about the House resolution after the vote, when we speak on Monday.
Preet Bharara: But a couple of notable things, further to the question I answered a minute ago. There will be open hearings. Everyone has been complaining that these depositions are going on behind closed doors, but it is with my expectation and most reasonable people’s expectations that we will have open hearings in this House resolution that presumably will pass, maybe in some altered form, but basically in this form, makes provisions for public hearings.
Preet Bharara: Now here’s what’s interesting about those public hearings. The kinds of hearings that I’ve complained about a lot on this program and on television that don’t shed a lot of light and don’t get to a lot of truth because of the time restrictions and the ineptitude of some people who are asking the questions, this resolution makes clear that there are multiple committees that will have involvement in developing the body of evidence that may or may not form the basis of articles of impeachment. No fewer than five committees, the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, the Committee on Financial Services, Foreign Affairs, the Judiciary Committee obviously, Oversight and Reform, and also Ways and Means. So a lot of people are getting in on the act.
Preet Bharara: But this resolution, presumably crafted by the speaker’s office, makes it very clear that the central focus, center court, if you will, will be Adam Schiff’s Intelligence Committee. That’s where a lot of these public hearings will take place. That’s where all this evidence will be developed, after which a report must be delivered from the Intelligence Committee to the Judiciary Committee, which will then do its thing. So the show is really in Adam Schiff’s committee.
Preet Bharara: That said, here’s what’s interesting about how things will unfold in that committee in public hearings, which is a dramatic departure from the kind of circus that you’ve seen before on television that people ask about on this show. One of the things that we’ve complained about is this quick five-minute rounds where you can’t get very far.
Preet Bharara: Well, this resolution authorizes that the chair and ranking member of the Intelligence Committee “shall be permitted to question witnesses for equal specified periods of longer than five minutes”. Huzzah! It goes on further to say, “The time available for each period of questioning under this paragraph shall be equal for the chair and ranking member.” It further says, “Each period of questioning shall not exceed 90 minutes in the aggregate,” which essentially means that the chair and ranking member alone have the opportunity for a total of up to 90 minutes to ask questions of the witnesses in an open hearing.
Preet Bharara: But there’s even more. In specifying that this special privilege of elongated questioning time lives only in the chair and ranking member, the resolution goes on to say, “Or a permanent select committee employee if yielded to by the chair or ranking minority member.” That means, from the outset, you might see Adam Schiff conducting a long line of questioning, but he may also designate a member of his staff, like we saw Barry Berke do in the Judiciary Committee with respect to Corey Lewandowski. In that case, the professional lawyers’ questioning happened at the end. In these cases, I think you’ll see that at the beginning. The ranking member, Devin Nunes, has an equal right and opportunity.
Preet Bharara: Right off the bat, you’re going to see, I think, a focused line of questioning from both the chair and the ranking member, possibly maybe even probably done by professional staff members, many of whom probably have a deeper and closer understanding of the facts because they’re the ones who are doing the questioning behind closed doors, doing the long deposition preparation, and deposition-taking. It should be, I think, a little bit more fruitful from the point of view of shedding light on conduct.
Preet Bharara: Then after that, after the chair and the ranking member get their long opportunity with the witnesses, “The resolution,” says the committee, “shall proceed with questioning under the five-minute rule pursuant to clause 2J, 2A of Rule 11, which means back to the circus.
Elizabeth: Hey, Preet. This is Elizabeth calling from Minneapolis. I am super excited to come to your show here on November 5th. I also recently joined The Insider, so I think I must be a groupie now. You have cured me through some really dark days, my friend, and I’m betting that a bunch of your listeners feel the same way.
Elizabeth: My question for you is this: how do you get through your own dark days? You are such a voice of reason in this insanity, and I love listening to your podcast more than I can say. Thanks a lot. As an aside, my little brother Paul worked with your little brother Vinnie. Pretty cool, huh? Bye.
Preet Bharara: Thanks, Elizabeth, for your call. I was wondering if the disclaimer would come about Paul and Vinnie. Paul also, by the way, your brother, was a law school classmate of mine at Columbia. Thanks for the kind words.
Preet Bharara: Everyone deals with difficulty differently. The way I think about it is I have deep concerns about the country. I have deep concerns about the undermining of the rule of law. I have deep concerns about this president and where he’s taking the country. But then I also have some perspective on these things.
Preet Bharara: It’s been a while, but from time to time I talk about some things that people should focus on outside of politics. George Will and I had a conversation on the Stay Tuned podcast some time ago where he said, “Look, there are other things in life. There’s music, there’s sports, there’s literature, and you need to have a balance between those things.”
Preet Bharara: I have three amazing kids, and I focus on them and my family. I see my parents. I still watch movies, not as many as I used to, and I don’t read as many books as I used to. But there are other things in life to think about other than politics. That’s point one.
Preet Bharara: Point two is I actually have an outlet to talk about this stuff. In the same way that there are people like you who say you derive some comfort in listening to this stuff, I derive some comfort and therapy in talking about it, especially when I have my weekly therapy session on Monday mornings with Anne Milgram on The Insider podcast. It helps me to talk about these issues with people who know about them, who care about them, who think about them. It helps me to know that there are so many thoughtful Americans who are concerned, who want to have some more information about what’s going on. There’s so much good in people.
Preet Bharara: One way I often answer this question is by reference to my old job. With the Southern District of New York, the kinds of things that people see on the criminal side are the worst that humans have to offer, theft, murder, terrorism, arson, the worst kinds of things that people do. At the same time, that was most idealistic and upbeat place I’ve ever been, because there are people who are trying to do something about it.
Preet Bharara: Every time something bad happens, you can focus on that, but you can also focus, I think, more appropriately on all the good people who are coming forward and speaking up and blowing the whistle, and that gives you comfort and that gives you hope and that gives you pride. That’s how I think about it. I’ll see you in Minneapolis with Mayor Jacob Frey on the evening of November 5th. For the few of you who haven’t yet bought tickets, cafe.com/tour.
Preet Bharara: My guest this week is Edward Norton. He wrote, produced, directed, and stars in Motherless Brooklyn, a film set in the 1950s that’s based on a true story about a detective afflicted with Tourette’s syndrome, who tries to solve a mystery: the murder of his mentor.
Preet Bharara: The movie, which is out on November 1st, digs into the legacy of power broker Robert Moses, who shaped and impacted more than just the physical layout of New York, but also its history of discrimination and exclusion. The star of canonical films like Primal Fear, Birdman, and American History X, Norton talks about the danger of not knowing who holds power, what he obsesses about when he’s producing films, why actors should approach their work intellectually, not intuitively, and he’d go about making a film about a US attorney’s office. Now we’re finally allowed to talk about Fight Club. That’s coming up. Stay tuned. Edward Norton, thanks for being on the show.
Edward Norton: It’s a pleasure. As you know, but I want to say, I’m a fan, was a fan when you where were our US attorney.
Preet Bharara: [crosstalk 00:15:28].
Edward Norton: I really followed the work you did.
Preet Bharara: You didn’t have to read that exactly [inaudible 00:15:30].
Edward Norton: No, I really did. You know I reached out to you. I really appreciate the way you used that office in the city.
Preet Bharara: Thank you. We have a lot to talk about. Obviously, we’re going to talk about your movie, Motherless Brooklyn, for which I believe you did the writing, you directed it, and you’re one of the stars of it.
Edward Norton: Yeah, I produced it, too.
Preet Bharara: And produced it. Did you also compose the score, did the film editing? What’s your problem? You have to do everything?
Edward Norton: I worked on most components of it, but I have phenomenal collaborators in almost all the mentions of it.
Preet Bharara: Was this the hardest thing you’ve worked on?
Edward Norton: This was the biggest swing I’ve taken in terms of the ambition of the scope of it. Yes, when you commit yourself to all those dimensions of it, it’s consuming. It’s consuming. There are times when it feels like a mountain. You feel sort of like you’re Alex Honnold and you’ve started up El Capitan with no ropes and you’re in the middle of the wall.
Preet Bharara: The famous climber.
Edward Norton: Yeah, and there’s nowhere to go but up. You know what I mean? But it’s starting to look very vertiginous creatively.
Preet Bharara: I always acknowledge when someone uses a big word, so thank you for-
Edward Norton: Vertiginous.
Preet Bharara: In the first two minutes. Vertiginous.
Edward Norton: Vertiginous.
Preet Bharara: Yeah. What, did you go to Yale or something?
Edward Norton: A long time ago.
Preet Bharara: Okay. So the film, I have so many questions about it. One of the reasons you and I spoke about it was there are themes of power, themes of corruption, themes of bullying in the film that are consistent with what we talked about on the show and what I write about and what we care about. Give us quickly the origin of the film in the novel and what you think the movie is about.
Edward Norton: There’s this wonderful novel, Motherless Brooklyn, written by Jonathan Lethem, who was coming up in Brooklyn as a writer when I was coming up as an actor in New York. Someone tipped me off at a party in the Village. They said, “Hey, do you know Jonathan’s got this new book coming out about a Tourettic detective who has to solve the murder of his boss and only friend?” I was like-
Preet Bharara: Happens all the time.
Edward Norton: I was like, “You had me at Tourettic.” Really, I was like … The initial impulse, none of the high-minded things and the deep themes that we’ve been talking about on the side. At the time, it was completely the impulse of a greedy actor going, “That sounds like a gig that I want. That character sounds great.”
Preet Bharara: That’s the thing that drew you in?
Edward Norton: Yes, the character. The novel, which is wonderful because it’s a very deep interior experience of a relationship with this guy and his really wild condition of Tourette’s and obsessive-compulsive disorder, I compare it almost to a Catcher in the Rye because it’s like your relationship with Holden Caulfield. By being intimate with his inner mind, you love him so much that as he trips himself up in his foibles and ticks and condition, you wince and laugh and feel this deep empathy. The plot of the book, even Jonathan would say, is entirely secondary to the experience of the character.
Edward Norton: When I eventually got around to thinking, well, how do you make that cinematic, because it’s wonderful, but it is a very cerebral, literally cerebral experience because you’re inside his mind, I started thinking, number one, that the book has a very know noir detective Raymond Chandler kind of style to it. Though it was set in the ’90s, I said to Jonathan that I felt like the gestalt of the whole thing was actually like a ’50s hard-boiled.
Preet Bharara: The ’90s is not very noirish.
Edward Norton: No, no. Jonathan loves noir and the book has a noir flavor to it. I said, “Look, the film is very literal. If you put up guys in Brooklyn in fedoras in 1999, you could end up feeling like it’s the Blues Brothers, right?” I said, “Look, I feel like your book, it feels like the ’50s. What would you think about putting it in the ’50s?” because no one knows what Tourette’s is. His isolation is real. People can call him a freak show and it’s not like, “Hey, who would be saying that today?” You know what I mean? Jonathan, happily, is not only super self-confident as an author, but he’s a really deep cinephile, very erudite, loves those films, and he got it. He was like, “I get it. Let’s just play it straight.”
Edward Norton: Then once we’d agreed that I was going to transpose it to the ’50s and that there was like an aesthetic upside to making one of those movies we all love, like LA Confidential or Chinatown, it opens up the cinematic scope of it into something more atmospheric and romantic in an old-fashioned movie sense.
Preet Bharara: Why is that important to you? Why is the atmosphere important?
Edward Norton: Well, there’s a couple of things. One is I think that, honestly, I love those movies, running the wide spectrum, Out of Africa, Chariots of Fire, The Godfather, LA Confidential, Unforgiven. You can have movies that are across the genre spectrum in a way, but they do a certain thing to you, which is you enter into them and it’s like someone flicks a switch in your head.
Edward Norton: The photography is visceral and right and the music is great and the costumes are great and the characters, the actors are adults. They’re not people play-acting. Suddenly your brain just goes, “Oh, wow! This is all dead on,” and you go through a portal into a thing that you accept as not play-acting, not a diorama, but the movie magic of being transported to something with big scope and depth.
Edward Norton: I wanted to try for one of those movies, one of those films that’s a big epic adult film that is entertaining, but it also gets at something essential about America. The Godfather’s a very entertaining film, but The Godfather is really about the immigrant experience, the experience of coming to America and becoming fully American. You know what I mean?
Edward Norton: Chinatown is a pretty dark and deep commentary on the shadow narrative that’s under … The LA of American dreams, the west coast, the California dream, and underneath it is theft and corruption at an enormous scale, ripping off the people, and the people who did that also raped their daughters, by the way. You know I mean? It’s an instinct to say, “Hey, there’s always a shadow narrative in American life, and we need to pay attention to that narrative if we really want to understand what’s going on here, and stay awake to the ways that power can end up landing in places that we didn’t put it.”
Edward Norton: That’s where I think noir in particular, when you get away from what I call the Mickey Spillane [crosstalk 00:22:00] version of it, the best of noir, it really is a bracing American tradition of saying, “Hey, the detective is us. He’s not a crusader. He’s just going along in his daily life. But he starts to walk in the shadow and realize there are things going on here that are really starting to irritate that part of all of us that says we don’t really like it when people try to rig the game to our disadvantage. If you get us pissed off enough, we’re going to start getting loud about it.” I think that’s very healthy.
Preet Bharara: So you take this novel, you move it back to the ’50s, and then you also add some other historical overlay on top. In particular, one of the reasons I wanted to talk to you about the film was there’s a character who is evocative of, maybe an even more powerful word is necessary, of Robert Moses, the builder, planner in New York, about whom we had a great discussion on the show not that long ago with one of his biographers, Robert Caro. We spoke also about Lyndon B. Johnson, but a bit about Robert Caro.
Edward Norton: One of the greatest historian in America, in [crosstalk 00:23:00] America, yeah.
Preet Bharara: Oh, yeah. Amazing. And so, you have a Robert Moses-like character who has all this power in New York City and figures into the plot, I don’t know how much of that you want to get into, and you craftily hide him with the name Moses Randolph.
Edward Norton: Sure.
Preet Bharara: Why’d you put that character in the film and what does it have to do with the message of the movie?
Edward Norton: Well, first off, I think that it’s always better if you’re going to distill essential truths out of the past. The past can be a very great way of looking at the present because it’s hard to know what’s going on in the history that you’re living in. You know some of it, but you can’t see every level.
Edward Norton: Citizen Kane, the character is called Charles Foster Kane, but it’s notionally about William Randolph Hearst, but it’s not. It’s about more than that. It’s about a kind of American, and there’s a value into making it literary because you have freedom to make it an amalgam of different things. Hey, stop, stop. Wait a second.
Speaker 4: Let me go. Are you nuts?
Edward Norton: You said Formosa. What is that?
Speaker 4: What’s Formosa?
Edward Norton: You said working Formosa. What does that mean?
Speaker 4: Jesus, I said they’re all working for Moses, Moses Randolph.
Edward Norton: I called this character Moses Randolph because there are many things about this story, murders, revelations about psychosexual history that have nothing to do with Robert Moses, but I’m-
Preet Bharara: You didn’t want to hear from their estate.
Edward Norton: No, no. No, it’s not that. It’s that I wanted to be free to have him interact with a made-up character like my Tourettic detective, but I also wanted more in it. There’s dimensions of the powerful men who’ve been brought low by the Me Too movement today. There’s very specific dimensions of that that have nothing to do with Robert Moses’ history, and yet, to me, you can create a kind of an essential literary character out of the mashup of many pieces of inspiration.
Edward Norton: But obviously, to me, Moses is significant in so far as he represents, as Willem Dafoe’s character says, the danger of not understanding what’s really going on, the danger of not being clear about who has power …
Preet Bharara: And how it’s being used.
Edward Norton: … and how it’s being used.
Preet Bharara: Because it’s one thing, as Robert Caro excavated, that you have a person who is clearly a genius and clearly has huge work ethic and is trying to do things like make a park or build a bridge, but all the things that are lost and the costs of that, what some people would call heroic building, is lost unless you have some insight into it.
Edward Norton: I would have to say, to me, one of the things that’s almost Shakespearean, that really gets into classical, archetypal, dramatic components of that story is that there’s phases of it in the beginning, the idea that someone is not just that they were brilliant, it’s not just that they were visionary, they actually were in the beginning a Jedi knight. They were an idealist. They were applying their gifts to a legitimate vision of a progressive idea of how to evolve cities, how to make cities better for people.
Edward Norton: Somewhere they change, like Anakin Skywalker. Literally, Robert Moses went to the dark side. Caro chronicles this. He became a Machiavelli. He became obsessed with power.
Preet Bharara: And a narcissist.
Edward Norton: And, in amassing power, lost all interest in the democratic process of getting things done and became, as Willem Dafoe says, addicted to power, addicted to winning, addicted to a unilateral, literally autocratic vision. In that phase, there was enormous cost to the obstinacy and insistence of his autocratic vision.
Edward Norton: He also, again, mashed up with many others like him. He was, I think, almost unequivocally racist, had a discriminatory and exclusionary view of minorities, and baked that discrimination literally into the infrastructure of the city in multiple ways, and [crosstalk 00:26:49].
Preet Bharara: I mean there are examples of it in the movie that we know from real life, if you decide do white people take the bus or do people of color take the bus? Therefore, do we build highways with bridges that have a certain amount of clearance that buses can’t traverse?
Edward Norton: [crosstalk 00:27:01].
Preet Bharara: Was that intentional or was that not intentional?
Edward Norton: Right. You build a great public resource, a beach. You build Jones Beach. You make it literally an egalitarian asset, an asset to help the masses. But then you structurally prevent Latino and black citizens from getting there via the public buses by purposely setting overpasses too low for public buses to clear. This happened.
Edward Norton: You take federal money and you clear stable middle and working class minority neighborhoods by tagging them the slums, raise them, have lots of corrupt people make huge fortunes in that process, and then build the worst slums and poverty traps in the world, The Projects, and you denude New York of its rich community characteristics, build these horrible things that we’re still living with today.
Edward Norton: The problem is that as you get distant, my grandfather used to say this, who was an urban planner and kind of the antithesis of Moses, he was a humanist and a progressive, and people start to look at these things as intrinsic characteristics of a city because a city is a complex place. Instead of understanding that these things were done with intention, they were done with intention.
Edward Norton: This is not African American, Black Lives Matter conspiracy theorizing about structural racism. It happened and it was done with intention, and the results are what was intended. That’s hard for people to confront because New York is supposed to be where democracy works. New York is the melting pot.
Preet Bharara: Really?
Edward Norton: Yeah.
Preet Bharara: Democracy may be the subway now.
Edward Norton: It’s supposed to be emblematic of where things do get done, maybe inefficiently but democratically. The truth is that for nearly 50 years, it was run by a person who was violently antagonistic to the democratic ideal. He was-
Preet Bharara: And that person was not elected.
Edward Norton: Not elected. People didn’t understand or believe that that’s where the power was.
Preet Bharara: Just to be clear, you’re speaking of Robert Moses.
Edward Norton: Yeah, yeah. That’s why when we introduced Alec Baldwin’s character, for a long time, you don’t see his face. We show that there’s an inauguration of a mayor. We show that there’s a lot going on that are the symbols of the democratic process, and there’s someone lurking in the shadows who quite clearly is where the juice really is. Then ultimately we see him take that newly elected leader and roll him like a child. You know what I mean?
Preet Bharara: That was a great scene. Even though the mayor’s just been put into office, it’s the other guy.
Edward Norton: Yeah, the guy [crosstalk 00:29:25] in the shadows-
Preet Bharara: Not just by-
Edward Norton: … whose face you haven’t seen.
Preet Bharara: Right. But also his bearing is one of somebody who believes he’s in charge, not the mayor.
Edward Norton: Yeah, and he’s right. For a long time, in the United States, I don’t think people grasped that these brothers in the oil and energy services industries had essentially taken hold of half the political world in the United States, like what the Koch brothers did. It is the same thing. It’s like there was an amount of power over the political system that if you described it, it sounded like a conspiracy theory, and it’s taken a long time for people to fully grasp the degree to which the GOP is owned in ways that …
Edward Norton: And I’m not saying there’s none of this dimension on the other side of the aisle. But for a long time, I think it took people a long time to grasp the scale and the power of the network created by these people who have no authority from the electorate to have the kind of influence that they’re having.
Preet Bharara: It’s part of the point of the movie, in other words, that you’ve done, to just expose this gap between people’s understanding of result and how it was achieved, or to call people to arms in some way. Do you consider yourself to be an explainer or an exposer, in addition to being an entertainer, or to be an advocate?
Edward Norton: Ken Burns said something to me one time that I thought was really interesting. He said, film documentary or narrative films, filmmakers are chroniclers. That is ultimately what we’re doing. We’re chronicling. At our best, we’re chronicling the experience of living in the times that we’re living in, and I think that that can take a lot of forms.
Edward Norton: Fight club is not chronicling history, but people connect with it because it’s chronicling an existential state of feeling. It’s chronicling the spiritual condition of a generation of people who are feeling a little bit anesthetized by the phenomenon of homogeneity being created around them.
Edward Norton: But the reason that connected was it spoke the language and it had the signifiers. It’s a funny, dark, satirical look at what we’re becoming that we don’t want to become. So people feel really connected. They were in on the joke. People felt like, “Yes.” In much the same way my dad’s generation love The Graduate because it had the nerve to put the middle finger up at the straight world that young people in the ’60s were expected to enter into, that’s how people felt about Fight Club, I think.
Preet Bharara: Are you even allowed to talk about Fight Club, given the first rule of Fight Club? I’m sure that’s an old joke.
Edward Norton: I think we crossed the 20-year threshold two weeks ago.
Preet Bharara: Oh.
Edward Norton: I think, officially, after 20 years-
Preet Bharara: It’s like [crosstalk 00:31:56] or something.
Edward Norton: … unfortunately, you’ve become the adults that you never wanted to be, and you’re allowed to dissect it.
Preet Bharara: I was going to ask you to beat yourself up later, but this is audio, so it’s not that-
Edward Norton: I can’t do that in front of a former federal prosecutor.
Preet Bharara: I can’t do anything anymore.
Edward Norton: I know you’d find a charge. You’d find a charge to slap me with. I know.
Preet Bharara: I haven’t made one citizen’s arrest yet. I should think about it.
Edward Norton: You should.
Preet Bharara: This character, the Moses character, and maybe it’s because Alec Baldwin has this other side gig on Saturday Night Live. Other people have commented that he seems to have some of the bearing of Donald Trump. But you wrote this years before Trump came on the local scene.
Edward Norton: Long before. Yeah, he was a reality show host when I [crosstalk 00:32:30].
Preet Bharara: What do you make of this observation that people have?
Edward Norton: Well, to me, if the clown shoe fits. Let me put it this way. This character is based on … This character is inspired by, I should say, an amalgam of people who I think were dangerous because they brilliantly amassed a kind of a secret power. That’s very different from the many offenses and threats that Trump exemplifies.
Edward Norton: But without giving away the ending, there’s certainly a dimension of the character that is revealed, the ways in which powerful people can become so inured to the idea that they have responsibility to anybody, that they act out on that power in other ways that were also seen a lot of these days.
Edward Norton: Those, I think, people finding echoes of Trump and others who are in what I’d call the web of powerful men treating women as a privilege of power. Certainly, I think there’s connections there. Honestly, I wrote that big speech of Alec’s in the pool, again long before. But, again, the fact that he came along and affirmed it in many ways is …
Edward Norton: That’s what happens with art sometimes. It comes at the moment that it’s right for it. I can’t really speak to it. It wasn’t prescience on my part, it just-
Preet Bharara: If this doesn’t give too much away, there’s a particular turn of phrase in that pool speech. He says, “I moved on her.” That was written before Donald Trump.
Edward Norton: That one wasn’t. That one-
Preet Bharara: Okay. I got you.
Edward Norton: No, no, no.
Preet Bharara: No way.
Edward Norton: But sometimes you look and, again, sometimes you’re not trying to point a sign with an arrow. I’ve been asking around about that. Everyone seems to have a different answer, though.
Speaker 5: [crosstalk 00:34:06].
Edward Norton: This is like more of the meat, it’s like Lionel. What’s your take on it? I obsess on it professionally as my livelihood.
Speaker 5: [crosstalk 00:34:14]. I’m a builder.
Edward Norton: I obsess on the sound of the voices and on turns of phrase and-
Preet Bharara: Well, it’s a touchpoint culturally.
Edward Norton: Well, it’s a touchpoint, but it’s such a strange way of articulating and rationalizing an assault. It’s almost by saying something a certain way, you can turn it into something different from what it was. It’s so insidious in that way. There’s a vulgarity to the pride in the animalistic act, but it also is this weird end run around acknowledging what it is, which is an assault. It’s so rich linguistically that it’s almost like it’s irresistible.
Preet Bharara: You can improve upon it.
Edward Norton: We can improve on it.
Preet Bharara: I was just going to ask [crosstalk 00:34:53].
Edward Norton: I agree. That’s it. You can’t do better than that. It so encapsulates the psychology that it becomes more than the person who said it. It becomes emblematic of these types of people.
Preet Bharara: I mean I wonder as I’m sitting here how someone will write a script for the movie, or one of many movies presumably, in the near future and in the distant future that involve a character based on Donald Trump, that he wrote his own dialogue in a way that’s more credible for who he is than maybe most screenwriters could.
Edward Norton: I think if anyone had written what we’re going through that even laughed out of the room, I think we thought we were into life becoming almost satirical in the George W. Bush administration, it’s like, and that looks like-
Preet Bharara: [inaudible 00:35:38] said, “Hold my beer.”
Edward Norton: It looks like an Olympus of competency compared to where we’re in now. But in a way, you can only earn a stroll through this kind of territory if you create a character who, on a much more fundamental level, earns your empathy. I think that, to me, the political dimensions of this to me ultimately you’ve always got to know what you’re actually trying to say emotionally.
Edward Norton: I think that the beauty of Jonathan’s character is that he calls on your empathy on a human level. You realize when you root for Forrest Gump or Rain Man or Russell Crowe’s character in a Beautiful Mind or Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, or this character, unconsciously you feel like a better person because you’re rooting for an underdog, and that reminds you that it feels good to care about people and to be one of the people who’s on the side of the angels, who’s behind this person.
Edward Norton: When you create that effect, you can take people on a journey in which they’re rooting for this person. They are enjoying watching them navigate the world within their unique kind of … And this character, look, let’s be honest, he’s a hot mess. I mean the part of the movie where Nicholson would hit on the blonde, and you’d be like, “God, I wish I was like that,” it becomes a train wreck for this character. I think it’s fun to invert all the detective cliches with him.
Edward Norton: But, ultimately, at the beginning of this, he said, “What’s it about?” to me, yes, there’s these questions about power and what happens, the danger of when we can’t see where it actually is. But I think as important to me as like, yes, he has Tourette’s, but he has to go on this journey, that I think we all have to go on, of recognizing that his own daily struggles don’t give him a pass on finding the bandwidth to care about other people.
Edward Norton: In Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s character, instead of her being the femme fatale who takes him into cynical destruction, she actually becomes this vision of goodness, this person who despite being a black woman, who everyone diminishes and thinks as his secretary and who experiences casual racism, she’s fighting. She’s on the barricades and she’s fighting. He has to get to the point that he realizes that heroism is people who fight, who care about other people, and, as Willem Dafoe says in the movie, you have to love people to serve people.
Preet Bharara: Yeah, Robert Moses never seemed to understand that and, very famously, after he built all these things, as Robert Caro describes, he would say to himself wistfully, or maybe not wistfully, “Why aren’t they grateful? Why aren’t they worshiping the greatness of me?”
Edward Norton: Right. The irony being he got so much adulation for so long, he wore this BS mantle of the selfless public servant for decades without anybody realizing that he … Literally, the reason the Dodgers aren’t still in Brooklyn is his capricious F you to the thing.
Preet Bharara: So we’ll get another team.
Edward Norton: Yeah, exactly. It’s funny because he said … Well, Alec, he does this other … Alec is like the Greek symbol for drama, the comedy mask and the tragedy mask. Not a lot of actors really can do both. He’s a masterful comedian, but he’s a great dramatic actor, a really, really great dramatic actor. I don’t look at his satirical chops as, in any way, a diminishment on his capacity to explore the really dark parts of human psychology and all of it. He’s really, really great.
Edward Norton: I had a hard time … There’s a line where he says, “If somebody wants to try to jack me, then the Dodgers can take it on the arches to the coast.” Sometimes you have a certain line and you can’t get it out of your head that there’s an actor that should do that. I look at Alec and I just can’t really think of many people today who have the heft, the capacity for … He has a mastery of language-
Preet Bharara: So does that mean-
Edward Norton: … and yet a physical intimidation that is very, very rare combo.
Preet Bharara: Well, the walk.
Edward Norton: Yeah.
Preet Bharara: His physical presence in the film, you feel very much. When he first walks in the room, the whole-
Edward Norton: Yeah, he’s like the first [crosstalk 00:39:37].
Preet Bharara: Yes. This will come as no surprise. I told you this before. I think you’re one of the greatest actors in America, and you do a lot of different roles. Sometimes even one role requires you to do multiple things. Are there things that you think even a great actor can’t do?
Edward Norton: Absolutely. I got to work with one the greatest film directors, Milos Forman, on my third film. He was an idol of mine, became as close to a mentor in this business. He said something to me one time he thought one of his actual greatest gifts was casting. He said to me once that he felt that roles have plasticity and actors have plasticity. Some roles have more plasticity. They can be interpreted many different ways. Some roles don’t have a lot of plasticity.
Edward Norton: Like Hamlet has great plasticity. You can interpret him in a lot of different ways and it can be very interesting. Patton probably doesn’t have a lot of plasticity. But then actors have more or less plasticity, too. Daniel Day Lewis is one of the greatest chameleonic capacities of any actor.
Preet Bharara: Do you think Daniel Day Lewis could have played Dick Cheney?
Edward Norton: I don’t know. That’s a good question. See, that was Milos’ point. If the plasticity of an actor overlaps the plasticity of a role, it can be great. I actually would not say that I could play the role Alec plays in this film because the role doesn’t have … It has some plasticity, but not that much. It needs someone with Alec’s very unique kind of heft and power and gravitas.
Edward Norton: I could see myself, when I was older, playing the role that Willem Dafoe plays in this movie and I could see Willem having played my role. But I think the two have to stretch over each other. That’s where you get the magic.
Preet Bharara: Do you act in real life? Do you go into meetings and you do other stuff that [crosstalk 00:41:16]?
Edward Norton: Yeah, sure. I mean I think every everybody, to a certain degree, synthesizes certain faces for certain rooms. You know what I mean? I mean you were a trial lawyer, right?
Preet Bharara: Yeah. People would refer to a trial as theater or putting on a play. If you’re the prosecutor, you think of yourself not as the lead actor, but as the director, because you want all the evidence to come in a certain way, you want the story to be told a certain way, and there’s a lot of narrative.
Edward Norton: Yeah.
Preet Bharara: So yeah. But at the same time, I don’t know if this is true from your profession as an actor, the advice we would give people is obviously you need to plan how you tell things, you’ve got to plan how you tell the stories. It’s got to be compelling. You need stories, not just facts and logical argument, but you better be yourself. Otherwise, it’s not going to work.
Edward Norton: Authentic.
Preet Bharara: How do you think about authenticity for an actor who, by definition, is not being themselves?
Edward Norton: I think authenticity has to do with respect that a character, from his point of view, is right. You can’t play a villain from the point of view of his villainy. You have to play the villain from his point of view. There’s a rightness to what he’s doing and to his view of the world.
Preet Bharara: That can change, like in American History X, for example.
Edward Norton: Yeah.
Preet Bharara: You play a villain, you play a white supremacist, who then has some evolution. How do you think about the two aspects of that role?
Edward Norton: Well, you have to look at … And this was David McKenna, his script, and he was my close partner. We worked on it. We talked about the idea of American History X as like an American Othello or an American Macbeth. He’s a general. He’s a person who has enormous capacities. He’s smart, he’s loyal to his family, but he has a real flaw, which is he’s dominated by his rage.
Edward Norton: We really wanted to look at the idea that rage, just anger, can be an incredibly destructive force that when you don’t know where to put your rage and you aim it at the wrong targets, this is what’s underneath very destructive patterns. You have to try to understand what that rage is about and build a story where even the audience can see, even if they don’t agree with it, where they have an understanding of what the underpinnings of this rage are, so that they can see it as a tragedy when this person’s brought low.
Edward Norton: In some measure, there’s different access points for different characters, but it’s not always their emotional history. Sometimes it’s literally their clothes or their physicality or the way they walk or their voice. You can find your way in different ways. Somewhere there’s always got to be an anchor into the authenticity.
Preet Bharara: What is the relationship between intelligence and intellect and good acting?
Edward Norton: When I talk to young actors, one of the things I say is you have to be literate. You can’t float along on the cruise control of thinking that talent is the only thing that good actors have, because, honestly, good actors are a dime a dozen. There are a lot of good actors who aren’t famous actors.
Preet Bharara: I mean you could write, and I mean this as a compliment, you could write a long expository essay on any character you’ve played or that you’ve seen on the screen, with great nuance and historical reference and how it connects to the audience. We’ve been doing some of that today. Does one have to have that to become a great actor?
Edward Norton: Well, I think a certain fluency with the dimensions of your craft. Sometimes I used to roll my eyes. People would say, “Well, Robert De Niro is an intuitive actor. He’s not an intellectual actor,” and I was like, “Have you worked with Robert De Niro? Do you have any idea how he works? What the hell are you talking about? You’ve no idea what you’re talking about.”
Edward Norton: He begins in an analytic framework. I’ve worked with him twice. He begins a newspaper reporter. It’s not intuitive. He begins with notes, with research, with questions, a gazillion questions. He’s famous for investigatory work, analytical work. He’s also a great dramaturgical mind. He looks at the piece. He talks to the director. What’s the shape of the thing? How does it work? He contextualizes things. All of that goes on before the entering in.
Edward Norton: I don’t know a great actor who doesn’t begin analytically before they go into what I’d call the space of trying to get in an intuitive, muscular relationship with the performance. I just don’t know any great actor who doesn’t work from an intellectual frame first.
Preet Bharara: Is that another way of saying that there’s really no such thing as a good intuitive actor?
Edward Norton: I think a lot of times intuition, the ability to act unconsciously within a situation, has to do with this kind of crazy, imaginative act of having so absorbed and assimilated the imaginary world that you own it, that you are literally in your mind almost living within it in all its detail. And so, you get to this point where, you talk about authenticity, you’re just responding out of this deep well of understanding of the whole thing.
Edward Norton: Then, of course, there’s just those things, the instrument of an actor’s voice, the expressions. Those things are ephemeral, individual magic. But, legitimately, I don’t know. The idea that an actor wouldn’t read plays, see films, understand different things that have different style, and they call on different tool sets, you can’t stroll into a Coen brothers movie and bring the same approach that you would bring to doing a film like American History X. They’d fire you. You know what I mean? They need people who understand the language of their types of films.
Edward Norton: It’d be like coming to build a table with having the wrong screwdriver. You know what I mean? You’ve got to be, I think, somewhat nimble. You’ve got to be a craftsman.
Preet Bharara: You said something else about the new movie Motherless Brooklyn that I want to ask you about. You said you can experience viscerally what we lost when we let corrupt people move unchecked. You asked the question: what is our core national character? Are we going to make heroes out of bullies and prioritize the achievements of power, or are we going to assert that heroism means having empathy for people’s struggles? You talk about that a little bit. Is that the central issue of our day?
Edward Norton: I think it’s pretty close these days. I think we have this huge overarching issue. The global community has this gigantic, monolithic challenge of our generation, which is environmental sustainability. I think we’re deep into a crisis of our own making that, though acknowledged, I think, by the majority, is still not being acted on by the powerful minority. To me, that almost supersedes everything because it’s like all our geopolitical and cultural conversations are people having an argument at a dinner table while the house burns and collapses on their head. It’s pretty stupid.
Edward Norton: But I think in a US domestic framework, and also, by the way, in Europe, in Latin America, it’s like the median line of history that we thought we had moved away from certain very base things. We went through the 20th century and dealt with imperialistic wars and dealt with huge wars against fascism and totalitarianism. It’s like our grandparents, our parents would say, well, the one thing we’re not going to ever do again is romance autocratic bullies. We’re not going to fall in love with Mussolini again or people like that, and we’re doing it.
Edward Norton: A large percentage of our populace, for whatever reasons, are affecting their sense of fear, resentment, we talked about anger, marginalization. The bully has play again, and this is rather remarkable. It’s rather remarkable to live in a moment of feeling ourselves snap back to that median line of really base impulses that we thought we had left behind.
Preet Bharara: Is the solution in part to push back on the bully and to bully back the bully or to unmask the bully or those certain things?
Edward Norton: Unmask, certainly. I mean unmask, push back. I got a really lovely letter about this film from Tony Kushner, who I revere, I think is one of, if not the great dramatic writer in modern American theater and film. If this film flops, I’ll still have this letter from Tony Kushner.
Preet Bharara: And you’ll have this podcast.
Edward Norton: Yeah, I’ll have this podcast. No doubt. They will be next to each other in a desk drawer for when I’m feeling low. But he saw something that I was delighted, in which it’s simply that the form, like the urban noir, which I think really does have in it this capacity that’s … Like as much as art can ever contribute, I think this impulse to say, “Hey, we’re Americans. We’ll go along for a while, but we know there’s stuff going on. If it starts to get out of bounds, you’re going to hear from us about it.”
Edward Norton: But a lot of noir goes into a very cynical place. Chinatown, she ends up with a bullet in her eye and he’s muttering to himself, “Do as little as possible. Do as little as possible.” That’s not the only response. Cynicism and an acceptance of the idea that there is power that we cannot contend with is not what we need right now. I think I like the idea, if an afflicted, lonely Tourettic detective can get off his ass and lift his head out of his own very legitimate struggle and be inspired to stand up against [inaudible 00:50:02], then what’s our excuse? Look, it’s not like people in America haven’t been tested before.
Preet Bharara: But it’s a different kind of test.
Edward Norton: Yeah.
Preet Bharara: Not all tests are the same.
Edward Norton: No, definitely not.
Preet Bharara: Can you engage me and indulge me in a quick thought experiment?
Edward Norton: Yeah.
Preet Bharara: If we were to make a movie or a series about the US attorney’s office and ask this, not only in your capacity as a writer, director, actor, your father was an assistant US attorney, federal prosecutor, how would you think about making such a thing?
Edward Norton: That’s a really good question.
Preet Bharara: Asking for a friend.
Edward Norton: No, no, no. I mean there have been some compelling dissections of what I call the world of law and litigation. I mean the hook of all great milieu storytelling is that there’s a rich bed of great variation and stories and stuff like that. By definition, I mean if I think back to the years my dad was a prosecutor in the US attorney’s office, I can name a dozen cases that are so memorable that I remember them from being between eight and 12 years old and that I still ask him about.
Edward Norton: He solved cases in a dream, literally. He had people fake heart attacks on the stand. He had so many things happen that that’s the core of it, is I think it’s stories. I think stories that unveil aspects of the way that people behave that are hard to believe. You should do it.
Preet Bharara: Are you in? Are you in?
Edward Norton: I’m sitting here and I’m thinking like, “Wait a second. Billions has done really well, and it’s just about d-bag financiers. What about actual fighter pilots?”
Preet Bharara: Well, have your people call my people.
Edward Norton: I think of federal prosecutors as fighter pilots. I think that is my dad’s era as a wing leader in a fighter squadron. It was that intense and thrilling.
Preet Bharara: Yeah, I know. It’s quite a thing.
Edward Norton: It’s quite a thing. I think that the people who are real public servants and really devoted to law enforcement in that particular part of our system are right now a really important part of the ball cork that we have against encroachment into the rule of law being decimated to the point that we have people acting like we’re in a banana republic and there’s no accountability.
Edward Norton: My biggest fear is that there won’t be what I would call per-block-level accountability for crimes. I think if it gets a pass, if deals get cut, you have the same problem you have. To me, the biggest failing of the tarp at the end of the financial crisis was that there was no adjustment to the risk modeling because they gave him 100 cents on the dollar, and even people in finance will say it was stupid not to make the banks take a haircut. They were like, “Well, why not do it again, because we got everything out of it?”
Edward Norton: I think, in this situation, we have serious assaults going on against the rule of law. If we let it have an [Exonian 00:52:49] like, “Just go over here and be quiet and we’ll forget all about this,” I think that’s not acceptable right now. I think we need some accountability because we got people flagrantly violating the law.
Preet Bharara: Here’s a question that I’ve asked a lot of people and that I’ve thought about as a lawyer and a prosecutor, someone who worked for a member of Congress, and I think it’s really important in the country, and that is how do you persuade people to a different point of view?
Preet Bharara: As I mentioned before, in trial, obviously you have facts, you have logic, but you also have stories. Some things change in the country very quickly. Comparatively speaking, people’s views about same-sex marriage and marriage equality change relatively quickly, and it was not through argument about the constitution. I think it was a little bit through people getting to know folks who are not like themselves. How do you think about it both as someone who I think is a well-read, intellectual, but also someone who puts stories on the screen? What is your understanding based on your acting experience as to how you make people change their minds or evolve?
Edward Norton: A component of it is like … It’s almost like Malcolm Gladwell’s theory that expertise comes from 10,000 hours or whatever. I think younger and younger generations are living with what I would call a healthy level of exposure. They’re more broad- minded. They’re more broad-minded, younger. That learning, that learning that comes from exposure and familiarity, creates comfort and creates a sense of the commonality as opposed to … It’s harder to manipulate those people into calling something alien that they know isn’t alien.
Edward Norton: I also just think … Unfortunately, I think one of things that’s happened is a certain amount of people have had their fears stoked. They’re being talked down to. This is part of what gets raised in my film is that the painful charade of heroes of the public who actually hate people.
Edward Norton: I think this is not as broad-minded as where you’re getting. It’s a little bit more of a toothy response. But I think that people need … They need it pointed out to them that they’re getting played, that the people that they’re conferring a kind of a heroic value on actually despise them and are using them. They’re being manipulated and distracted with a lot of things that don’t affect their lives while the things that do affect their lives are being dismantled around them for the benefit of corporate interest, basically.
Edward Norton: Sometimes I think we don’t do a good enough job. That human empathy that you’re talking about, reaching out to people and making them know that they’re heard, it is important, but I think it’s also really important to point out that the people who are actually that they should be scared of, the people that they ought to be scared of are the ones above them who are playing them, and highlight the ways that they’re being manipulated and laughed at, in essence treated like copper tops, mined for their votes while they’re fed the cheap synthetic drug of alignment with their anger.
Edward Norton: Sometimes I think when you talk about being unmasked, I don’t think we’ve done a good enough job at unmasking really without fear, unmasking and calling out what these things are. Now we’re sitting within the fallout of being too tolerant for too long.
Preet Bharara: We’re getting there on film, in writing, journalists, whistleblowers inside, so hopefully some of that will take place.
Edward Norton: I agree. I think, first and foremost, this film, I really did set out to make one of those characters that’s memorable that I loved growing up. I set out to make one of those films that’s a romantic experience that to me it’s like worth going to the cinema to see, because, like I said, it’s like, “Wow! I’ve really been taken through a portal.” There’s a level of craft here that is just-
Preet Bharara: Beautiful to watch.
Edward Norton: … hitting me on a grown up level. My grown up mind goes, “I can’t believe what I’m looking at,” and the music is hypnotizing and great. I got Thom Yorke and Wynton Marsalis to play together, and it is a really, really great score.
Preet Bharara: They’re great singers in the jazz club.
Edward Norton: Yeah, but I also do, I’m always happiest when I’m working on anything that I feel has some kind of resonance with the times that we’re living in, and I hope this one does.
Preet Bharara: Edward Norton, thank you for making the time. Congratulations on the film. I’ve been a fan for years and years and years, so this was a special treat for me.
Edward Norton: Total pleasure. I love the discussion you’re having here. I think they’re important.
Preet Bharara: Thank you, sir.
Edward Norton: Yeah.
Preet Bharara: The conversation continues for members of the CAFE Insider community. To hear the Stay Tuned bonus with Edward Norton and get the exclusive weekly CAFE Insider podcast, go to CAFE.com/Insider. Right now you can try a CAFE Insider membership free for two weeks at CAFE.com/Insider.
Preet Bharara: So I went in the program this week and talk about the show a little bit. The three-week period ending with the last interview has, I think, yielded more input, more commentary, more emails about the nature of the interviews and the nature of the guests, the identity of the guests, than any other three-week period going back to the beginning of the show.
Preet Bharara: We had George Conway, who everyone knows and has become famous for being a fierce critic of the president, married to Kellyanne Conway. Then we had on Anand Giridharadas, who writes some provocative things about the elite and about the rich in this country and about the dramatic limitations of charity. Then last week, we had Cameron Douglas, son of Michael Douglas, grandson of Kirk Douglas, who my office prosecuted for a drug trafficking crime.
Preet Bharara: With respect to each of those people, we heard a lot from all of you, and it’s encouraging, even though some people liked the interviews and liked the selection of guests and some people didn’t. It’s part of, I think, the show growing a little bit by bringing folks to you who I don’t fully agree with and that are maybe a little bit more provocative, but who I think have important things to say.
Preet Bharara: With respect to the Cameron Douglas interview, he’s been on a pretty wide publicity tour. Maybe you saw him being interviewed by Diane Sawyer and in other places. But what I felt he brought to this show was a perspective on being someone who went through the system.
Preet Bharara: Some people really enjoyed the interview. I think, overall, most people did. It resonated with them. Listener Brian Farley tweeted, “I wasn’t going to listen to the interview. Too caught up in everything else. So glad I did. Without a doubt, one of the best episodes. I think what drew me in was his voice. So raw and real. Thanks for one of your best episodes ever. Good luck, Cameron.”
Preet Bharara: Other people, I think, were annoyed that he was given an hour-long platform on the podcast. Rich white kid who messed up, deserved what he got. Maybe was treated better because he was a person of privilege. Other people commented that they didn’t see contrition in his attitude, that he seemed kind of smug. All those points of view are fair.
Preet Bharara: Some people said they were surprised that I was as friendly as I was with him. I don’t think I was particularly friendly with him, but the point was not to slap him down as the former US attorney whose office was responsible for sending him to prison in the first place.
Preet Bharara: What I try to do here is to bring people on. If I disagree with them, I press them and I let them say what they have to say, and it largely speaks for itself. I think that’s tended to work. It’s part also of my deeply held belief that we don’t talk enough to people who are not like us. And what could be more different from a former federal prosecutor talking to the person on whose indictment was my own name? I’ll give you another example of my trying to adhere to this principle.
Preet Bharara: This past Sunday, I was a guest on the podcast and YouTube interview show of a person that probably a lot of people who listen to this show don’t like very much and don’t agree with very much because he’s on the other side of the ideological spectrum from them, and his name is Ben Shapiro.
Preet Bharara: Some people are probably wondering why would I go on Ben Shapiro’s show. The reason I went in Ben Shapiro’s show, a, he invited me. B, I felt like, you know what? He’s got a lot of listeners. He’s got more listeners than Stay Tuned does. Why should those listeners only hear from conservatives? Why shouldn’t those listeners also hear from people with a different perspective? Why shouldn’t I also be reaching out to people talking about the rule of law, talking about issues of justice with huge vast audiences who may not tune in to Stay Tuned or may not watch me on CNN or may not read my book?
Preet Bharara: I think that’s a good thing. I think people should expand their horizons and think about all the kinds of ways you can communicate with people who disagree with you, because that’s the only way to persuade people who disagree with you.
Preet Bharara: Maybe I persuaded a couple of people. Maybe some people had their eyes opened by Cameron Douglas, maybe some people had their views confirmed about the world and about the system by Cameron Douglas, but that’s all well and good. Conversation is good. Happy Halloween.
Preet Bharara: Well, that’s it for this episode of Stay Tuned. Thanks again to my guest Edward Norton. If you like what we do, rate and review the show on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. Every positive review helps new listeners find the show. Send me your questions about news, politics, and justice. Tweet them to me, @PreetBharara, with #AskPreet. Or you can call and leave a message at 669-247-7338. That’s 669-24-PREET. Or you can send an email to [email protected]
Preet Bharara: Stay Tuned is presented by CAFE. The executive producer is Tamara Sepper, the senior producer is Aaron Dalton, the audio producer is David Tatasciore, and the CAFE team is Carla Pierini, Julia Doyle, Calvin Lord, David Kurlander, and Geoff Isenman. Our music is by Andrew Dost. I’m Preet Bharara. Stay Tuned.