Tim Blake Nelson wrote and directed Leaves of Grass, which is screening at SXSW this year. He also stars in the film, alongside not one but two Edward Nortons. Norton plays twin brothers Billy and Brady in this movie, which he says is pure Tim Blake Nelson. He's Jewish and from Tulsa, and like Billy, he's classically trained and intellectual, but like Brady, he's familiar with the world of pot growers and under the table deals. The film also stars Keri Russell, Richard Dreyfuss, Susan Sarandon, and a very creepy-looking Steve Earle.
We spoke to Norton and Nelson about the film, which is highly recommended, if not for Norton's portrayal of Brady alone. What starts out of a light comedy takes a 90 degree turn and winds up somewhere unexpected, and is well worth your time. Head on through the break to find out how the film started, where Norton developed his Oklahoma accent, what Nelson thinks about the turn and more.
Cinematical: So tell me the genesis of the project. How did it come together and when did you guys first meet?
Tim Blake Nelson: I had written a script called Seasons of Dust that I asked Edward to play the lead in. And he was so gracious in declining that he stayed in my mind. And I was in pre-production making that movie and it fell apart, which was pretty devastating and left a lot of ... it was just a devastating summer for me professionally. I turned down No Country for Old Men, a role in that, to go and make this movie, and then it fell apart literally on location. Our financing just evaporated. And I came back to New York licking my wounds and started writing this script about a guy whose life gets sideswiped, the character of Bill in the movie. And as soon as I started the identical twin character of Brady, it was Edward's movie. And I finished it and sent it to him, and he agreed to do it. And we agreed that we should produce it together, and then off we went.
Cinematical: Edward, the notes say you were sort of taking a break when he wanted to send you this. How did get you to take a break from your break and take a look?
Edward Norton: Well, you know, I will always read something if I respect someone's work and stuff, so I read it. And really, it was just that it was so unusual, and it was very original and it was a very unique kind of challenge, acting wise, that I hadn't, you know, particularly run into. I think any actor is tempted by one good role. And if you give him two, you are hitting a sweet spot. You know what I mean? But I also felt our company ... we had really set up our company with the idea of trying to not just produce movies, because it is so much work to do that, we kind of had said to ourselves, "Let's do it when we feel like we can assist in a real filmmaker getting stuff that matters to them done."
And that is why we had been doing films like Down in the Valley and The Painted Veil. We had really been trying to help shepherd pieces that we thought needed it. And when I read it, I thought this is really original and it is very, you know ... clearly, this is something Tim is particularly ready to make. And so we also thought it would be a good film to produce.
Cinematical: Edward, last night you were saying that this film is who Tim Blake Nelson is. The film kind of represents him as a character, the two halves of Brady and Bill. Do you feel that way, Tim? You are from Oklahoma, you're Jewish, you went to Brown. You are classically trained in theater. You are definitely a thinking man. How does that dichotomy work? How did it work in this film?
Nelson: I just started putting everything I love ... [laughs] I mean not that I love violence, and the movie has real violence in it. But so much of what I love is in the script. And it just became extremely appealing to me, while I was writing it, to address all this seeming dichotomies with which I was raised. And I think that we all have unlikely aspects of ourselves, and I just feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to put it all out there within a single script, and then to get a performer like Edward to elevate it and explore it as an actor.
So yeah, all of it is very personal, as outlandish as that seems, given the material in the movie. Life is surprising and messy to me. And I think what we are trying to do in this movie, if anything, is to explore all those places where you end up going in your life, in which, you know, at one moment there can be humor, and the next poignancy, then humor again, and then sudden violence. And it is that very unlikely essence to it all that we are trying to explore.
Cinematical: Was it hard nailing that accent or did you get it pretty quickly?
Norton: You know, I feel pretty comfortable in southern sort of dialects and regional differences between things. It is definitely not ... you know, Oklahoma is not the same as sort of the genteel aristocratic South. But dialects and things like that are always something I have enjoyed and had an ear for, I think. And at the end of the day, I always think there is no great science to it. You have to go there and talk to people and immerse yourself in it. In other instances, I have gotten people to read the lines into a recorder or something and listen to them. But in this case, I didn't really feel like doing that. I really just talked to people. Because actually, I didn't kind of want to... We pulled things in the script-phrases and things-off of things we heard people saying. We tried to milk what we got off of other people. And, you know, it is just something you have to invest the time in and have a little bit of an ear for. And fortunately, not only was Tim doing the same thing, but he knows it really well and he knows Oklahoma particularly. So it was nice to have someone to catch you on a certain word or something like that.
Cinematical: When you do research like that, do you go as yourself or do you, you know, put a hat on and sunglasses and ask for directions at a café or something?
Norton: Yeah, a little of both. But, you know, I don't ... when you go places where people are, a) not necessarily expecting to run into you, and, b) if you go away from sort of the Cineplex world ... not that people obviously aren't watching their videos and things like that, but I find it is not that tough to slide around. But, I don't know. You know, in Oklahoma ... I mean sometimes you don't want to be known to people just because you want to listen to what they are saying. But I found that was pretty easy. I have certain ways of doing that. And then other times, it is fine.
You know, I went to a bar and somebody recognized me, like a bartender or something, or some young guys sitting at the bar. But they want to talk, you know. People are usually pretty grounded, and I was there to talk to people, so getting them talking and asking them questions, I think it actually ... when you start asking people questions about themselves, people get very grounded, and it is a great opportunity to hear people's voices and things like that. I don't really make some great effort to, you know, put on a mustache and fake teeth or something.
Cinematical: Last night we were talking about the movie, and we all felt like it really takes a big turn at a certain moment, and you are definitely not expecting it. Was that your intent from the outset?
Nelson: I like that. I mean, I think that when a movie can do that, or a narrative can do that, it is really exciting. And I think if you are not willing to take wild risks, why do this? You know, I am not ... none of us who make indie films, in particular, are in this to be ... you know, simply to be as popular as possible. You want that to happen, but it is not your aim. You are trying to take chances. And in certain cases, like this one, if I may say so, you are trying to take the sorts of chances that you want to encounter when you go to the movies.
We always wanted that to be this utterly unexpected turn. I have, when I am writing, and when I am acting, and when I am directing, three words that are really important to me that a movie has to achieve. You have to be truthful, cohere, and surprise. And you have got to have all three. This is a surprising moment. I think life doesn't take on a single tone. Life is a lot of different ones. You get sideswiped in life. And our ambition for this film is to reflect that. So we are pretty darn proud of that moment.
Norton: Oh yeah. I mean if The Blind Side is not your version of the American South ...
Norton: ... then it is fun to make something that is. But, you know what, this isn't a critique, but I have found, we have found watching this movie, that journalists have asked us questions about tonal shift a lot more than audiences seem to have focused on it. We have shown it at Toronto Film Festival. We showed it here last night. Were you at it last night?
Norton: Yeah. Peter Travers from Rolling Stone showed it at a big screening thing in New Jersey with a very middle-aged cineplex audience. And Peter had raised that with us too, and then came up to us afterwards, and he goes, "People were just right with it. They just seemed to completely enjoy it." So I feel like audiences ... I think it is a misread to think that audiences can't handle those kinds of swings, or that they even don't want them. I saw a film the other day. It is a documentary. It is a documentary called Catfish. Have you heard about it?
Cinematical: Yes, at Sundance.
Norton: Did you see it?
Norton: Yeah. I thought it was one of the most surprising movies I have seen in a long time, where it went. I mean that movie shifted tones three times, it was hilarious, and then it was truly terrifying, and then it was really profound and moving. And it just kept changing. I walked out of it thinking, "That is what you aspire to do in a movie." I thought it was one of the most unpredictable rides that I have seen in a film in a while. And I think it is something to go for and not worry about.
Cinematical: Yeah, the press notes for that film were sealed with red tape. It was like, "Do not open these if you have not seen the movie."
Norton: I think that film ... I know the guys putting it out now, and I said, "This should be like the Crying Game. You should say nothing more than ... just don't say a word about what this is about!" I mean literally, the whole campaign should be, "Do not tell." You know, because the experience of seeing that without knowing anything about what it is about is just marvelous. I thought it was so great. And I think it really speaks to the point that people hate ... I hate getting ahead of a film. You know what I mean? And I love it when you really go, "Wow! This is where we are going now." This film, Leaves of Grass, I think this film gives you all kinds of things. In the beginning, someone hears that their brother had been murdered with a crossbow, it is sort of like Chekov. If you are going to say that, you know...
Cinematical: You better show it later.
Norton: Yeah, you better show it later.
Cinematical: The last thing I was going to ask or touch on briefly was other projects. Is Motherless Brooklyn still on hold with you?
Norton: Well, It is not on hold. It is just one of those things ... I have got to finish writing it.
Cinematical: When The Incredible Hulk came out, you were both signed on for the sequel. Is that happening?
Norton: I don't think so. I think it has got more to do with what Marvel is doing. I get the sense they have this grand vision of unspooling a lot of their characters and then starting to put them together. I think they can only do so many at a time. Obviously, they are doing Iron Man 2 and then getting some of the new ones out.