Interview: ‘Leaves of Grass’ Star Edward Norton and Director Tim Blake Nelson

By  · Published on March 28th, 2010

During SXSW I sat in with 9 other online film journalists for a roundtable discussion with actor-producer Edward Norton and writer-director-actor-producer Tim Blake Nelson as they discussed their new film Leaves of Grass. We covered an array of topics, including Menander, Zionist Tulsa Jews, why Rounders is a comedy, and noodling with Keri Russell (not what you think). Leaves of Grass is a funny, well-written, touching, and personal film by Nelson, featuring an impressive double performance by Norton. It opens in limited release April 2 from First Look. You can find my review from SXSW here.

My question is about southern characters in film. I grew up in Central Texas, and I’ve noticed that there are a lot of go-to stereotypes and easy laughs when it comes to portraying southern characters in mainstream films. This film seems to have a varied, complex, layered relationship with its southern characters. I especially liked how in Leaves of Grass, southern characters showed an awareness of the stereotypes and often used them to their advantage. As an actor and as a filmmaker involved with films featuring southern characters, do you seek out an involvement with films that act as a corrective to the typical portrayal, or at least feature a more complex, honest portrayal of southerners?

Tim: I certainly do. I grow tired of intelligence having such a limited manifestation in movies ‐ “intelligence” usually meaning coastal, with a certain level of formal education. When I wrote this, I knew immediately that the wisest and smartest two characters in this movie would be the ones who remained in Oklahoma or returned there. So the smartest guy in the movie is Brady ‐ it’s evident and it’s stated by the mother. And the wisest character is Keri Russell’s character. She’s chosen to return and write. She gives the Bill character the wisdom that allows him to move forward in his life as it’s collapsing around him. So, in answer to your question, I was eager to debunk certain stereotypes of the South.

My question is on duality and the suspense of disbelief. How do you [Tim] achieve it through your filmmaking, and how do you [Edward] achieve it through your acting?

Tim: Suspension of disbelief in a story like this is pretty essential. That said, you have to be responsible to your story as a storyteller to make it feasible enough, and I hope this story is feasible enough. There are details peppered throughout that I didn’t want to bang the audience over the head with. A question would be, “Hang on, wouldn’t folks know they were twins,” but the characters didn’t grow up in Idabel. They grew up in another town, Hugo, and Brady has moved to Idabel. These stories are all far-fetched, but the antecedent material for the film ‐ Menander, Plautus, Shakespeare ‐ it’s a retelling of a “twins genre,” and the main character is a classicist. It’s all very intentional and it’s meant to reflect on those earlier works. The character Bill has a translation of a Plautus play, which is a Roman twins play. Suspension of disbelief and that whole question is part of the heart of the movie. And now he [Edward] is going to say, “Thanks for referencing Menander.”

Edward: Any questions I had about whether a redneck from Oklahoma could become a Brown Classical Philosophy professor ended when I met Tim. One conversation with Tim and you realize how believable a character Bill is. There are not only archetypal stories, but going way back to classical genres and stuff like that have certain structures of suspension of disbelief. I thought the two worlds it was trying to straddle was delightful, and I loved it. It was not something I had ever seen before, which is always hard to find. And Tim is so authentically rooted in those worlds. You know when somebody really knows what they’re drawing from and you can feel it when you see the movie. The appeal of it to me was that it was a film that clearly only Tim knew how to make. If there’s a criteria that really gets me interested in a work besides any type of personal interaction with the theme, it’s if I feel like this is the right piece of work for that director at that moment in their career. That’s a big draw. I felt that way with Fincher on Fight Club, that this is the guy to handle this text and he just hit it out of the park. I felt the same way with Spike Lee for 25th Hour and David Jacobs for Down in the Valley. If you feel like someone just knows what this is about to their core, they’re going to have that special confidence in it. The twins never felt like a trick. You stop looking at the seams and they start inhabiting the same space and start interacting with each other in a very extemporaneous way.

Logistically, how did you accomplish this and dichotomize those two performances?

Tim: Remarkably, there’s no green screen in this movie. There is motion control. Technically, there were all sorts of challenges, but really the soul of it is Edward’s talent. You write these characters when you write a movie, and all you can hope for or depend on is that your actors will elevate the material. Screenplays aren’t written to be read, they’re written to be made into movies. What’s so remarkable about Edward that comes through so beautifully in his performance in the movie is that he’s so truthful as an actor that the source material within him is so gorgeously accessed that the dramatic bass notes in the movie are exquisitely rendered, but he’s also able to play the loopy comic moments. So few actors have that sort of bandwith. What Edward also brings to you as a director is his mind. To play these twins was really quite a juggling act ‐ he’s not going to compliment himself, so I’ll just enjoy the floor for a moment ‐ but it takes a mind, a rare mind, to be able to map out a scene for Character A and leave room for Character B and how that character might respond. It’s almost as it were a cubist way of thinking: you’re looking at the scene from all sorts of different angles. He has the ability to do that, and to do it truthfully. I had a huge advantage with Edward because he’s directed a movie before, so one thing he appreciates is how hard my job is, he’s very sensitive to that. We actually ended up finishing this movie a day early.

Edward: There’s a bit of Dirty Dozen in it. Donald Duck goes here. You have a no-room-for-error scenario. If there was a day where the twins are on the porch together, it has to be finished that day. The thing we did the best on this was prep. If you map it, then you leave yourself more room to play. We made a very clear roadmap of how to handle it technically. We didn’t say, “or maybe we should try to do x,” which gave us a little bit more breathing room.

Tim: We would get Brady done first until we got a performance that Edward and I both liked. It was a collaboration. With Edward you’d never say, “This is the one we’re going with whether you like it or not.” It has to be agreed upon.

Edward: Once we started laying everything down, we were pretty clear about wanting the same thing. Even in something regimented like this, there are fun ways to improvise. And when you start playing with what these techniques can do when you start realizing there isn’t one clean line on the screen past which one character can’t go, sometimes right in the moment I would have a thought –like to have one character fake kick the other one. The mirror shot was fun, and we realized we could have them touch when the angle was right. Sometimes we would do improvisational stuff and see if it would stick. It only takes one or two moments per scene of people overlapping in conversation or touching in a certain way that makes it feel authentic enough to take away any ideas of gimmicks. You can do things in twin scenes now you couldn’t before. You can implement actual moving cameras.

Have you guys ever tried “noodling”?

Tim: I have tried every type of fishing you can imagine, but I’ve never noodled. And the reason I’ve never noodled is that I didn’t want to get bit by a water moccasin. I’m too afraid of snaked. But getting Keri Russell to do this was about the easiest thing I had top do on this movie. She had a great attitude about it. She and Edward were fantastic together. You dream as an actor’s director of letting moments breathe through two-shots. And one of my favorite moments in this movie is letting the camera sit on Edward and Keri on that porch in a two-shot when he tries to kiss her. It goes on for several minutes and I never had to cut to a close-up. They’re so exquisite together.

Edward, was the fact that this was a comedy attract you to the film, and can we expect to see you in more comedies in the future?

Edward: I don’t tend to say it’s time for one of this or that genre. Things flow to you in a strange way, and why you bump into a certain kind of thing in one moment is…it’s hard to explain. I knew Danny DeVito and he knew me, so he wanted me to try Death to Smoochy. I loved that stuff and had a great time doing it. To me, Fight Club was a comedy. When Fincher sent me the book and I read it, the first thing I asked him was, “This is a comedy, right?” he said, “Yeah, that’s the whole point,” and I said, “Okay, I’m in.” I certainly wasn’t imagining myself as a dramatic actor when I was running around in my underwear in that film. I thought Rounders was a comic movie in its way, too. First time I directed a movie, I wanted to do a comedy. I don’t like things that are superficially one thing or another, mainly. My favorite comedies are really smart, too, and have a lot of levels to them as well. For Keeping the Faith, I looked at Cukor’s old films like The Philadelphia Story, stuff that’s hilariously funny and really smart with a cutting critique in the humor, too. With this, when I read it, I was laughing a lot. I remember reading when Brady said, “Not the Webster’s Dictionary, the motherfucking OED.” For me there’s always a line or two in a script, when you hit it you almost decide to do the whole movie off a line or two. You almost do it for the fun of getting to say a line or two like that. I don’t have any specific plans, you know. I mean, if Seth Rogen calls with a great buddy pic, I’ll be there.

Tell us about your efforts in regard to environmental issues.

Edward: I like to get into a lot of things besides movies. I’ve been very involved with a few specific efforts. We built this park in New York and it’s been a very successful project. It had over two million visitors in its first year. I worked on a conservation project in East Africa. I find to the theme of Tim’s film a balance. Too much of this type of stuff can get you wrapped up in your own work and I love it. We’re not being asked to fight WWII, but I think the consensus among our generation and people younger than us is that we do have a defining challenge in the moment, so I do like being involved in something bigger than the finger-doodling I do in art. It stimulates your brain in certain ways.

In playing twins, how does that change your approach? How do you go about creating both of those characters? And Tim, as an actor does that make your job as director easier or harder?

Edward: For me, it’s the same as always, just twice. I hear about actors being exterior actors and actors being instinctual actors and I always think it’s crap. Anybody who knows anything about it knows that good actors do both ‐ they do inside-outward and they do outside-inward. You can’t not do both. For this, Tim’s provided a lot of work from the inside out. He’s provided a lot emotionally. So for these guys there was a lot from the outside in. Not just in an emotional sense but in a tactile sense: what they wear and how they sound. In terms of the twins in particular, I poked around about twins a lot and what was interesting was that its’ very hard to find anybody that’s an identical twin and didn’t focus on how much they were alike. It really seemed to powerfully assert that identical twins are endemically alike in many ways and that brought up an interesting conversation with us because the script highlights their apparent differences, but we always kept talking about they ways in which they’re exactly the same. There are a lot of fun details in that. We added the line that Bill says, “you’re still using vinyl” and Brady says, “I don’t use digital. You can’t improve on the classics.” He’s really the same as Bill, he also is dedicated to a set of classical values.

Tim: I’ve never acted before in a movie I’ve directed. This felt like the time to do it just because the movie itself is so much of a platform for the lead actor. It’s really written for an exciting performance and it really depends on the audience watching an extraordinary actor having a great time pulling off this feat. It makes sense to me as a director to act in support of that. Being around as a sidekick doesn’t say much, but it’s bound to help both characters out of certain problems.

Edward: Mainly, you just wanted to wear a doo-rag.

Did you expect this film to be a comedy, or be a part of this subgenre of stoner comedies?

Tim: It’s definitely meant to be more than just a stoner comedy. I never even considered that genre as something to embrace or move away from. Ultimately, that didn’t even enter into my mind. I know it’s being marketed to a degree in that way, and I think that’s great. Y’know, that’s fine. But really, life is full of contradictions, and life is messy. And that’s what Bill’s character learns. So what we set out to do with this movie was to create something that was funny and serious and had large tonal ambitions. A movie that could be poignant and funny, and suddenly quite violent. To have a character utterly sideswiped, and to learn that life is about balance.

Edward: We begged them to push the release until after SXSW. I really can’t imagine a place where you’d get such a huge laugh about the noodling, or cheer when a Townes Van Zant song comes on, and get a huge laugh when you’ve described academia or the OED ‐ the epistemology “solving problems” joke. We were in heaven here. We’re in the place this film was made for. I can’t think of a place that straddles the world that this movie straddles better than Austin and this whole community. Unfortunately, in today’s world, there aren’t the type of theaters that there are in New York and Austin, and there aren’t many in Oklahoma and Louisiana and the places that would really enjoy this film. The only way it will penetrate into the cinemaplex is if it does well in Austin or New York, so when they wanted to do the premiere in LA, we said we wanted to do Austin and Dallas and hopefully we can get people to it the first weekend.

The Richard Dreyfuss scene takes place during the Sabbath, and he charges your characters with a menorah. Are you worried that some audiences might misinterpret the violence in this scene?

Edward: We haven’t had that experience. Peter Travers from Rolling Stone showed it to a crowd in his screening series in Paramus, New Jersey.

Tim: I’d say about 70% of their audience was Jewish.

Edward: And they went crazy for it, they just loved it.

Tim: I’m a Tulsa Jew and I have a religious upbringing. And, again, the movie is about contradictions and balance. The Zionist Tulsa Jew who’s pugnacious is a reality. I grew up around it. And I think it’s really, really funny and surprising and unlikely. And drama and comedy to me are about being surprising, coherent, and true all at once. What more could you ask for than a Zionist yokel who ‐ and, again, I grew up around this. You’d go into the offices of these guys, and most of them were in the oil business and were really successful, and there would be pictures of them with world leaders of both parties.

Edward: And when you have a pipe salesman with a business called Macabee Pipes, I’d say you’ve got your tongue planted firmly in your cheek.

Tim: I won’t name the company, but there’s a company in Tulsa that has a biblical name. It’s real!

Since this movie was such a homecoming for you, and you were ingrained in every aspect of production, what did the making of this movie mean to you?

Tim: This movie has everything I love in it: classics, my home state, philosophy, literature…

Edward: Orthodontists.

Tim: …Orthodontia. Even my wife and two of my children are in this film. Because I love the source material so much, it was really easy to write and an utter delight to get to direct because I had people like Edward elevating the material and surprising me in their interpretations of all of this stuff that’s so close to me.

Edward: And it’s all downhill from here…

Tim: It was really a lot of fun. I’d like to say it was a rigorous, poignant, and debilitating struggle, but it wasn’t. It was great.

Edward: You should say, “It’ll never be this good, again.”

Tim: Yeah…Yeah, maybe.

Click here for more from SXSW 2010