Edward Norton playing twins in a movie that’s directed by Tim Blake Nelson? How could that not be great?
And guess what? Leaves Of Grass is great! Edward Norton plays twins Brady and Bill. Brady is a small-time pot grower and Bill is an Ivy league professor. Tim Blake Nelson who also wrote the film plays Brady’s redneck friend Bolger.
I saw the premiere at SXSW and the movie is funny, violent and at times, you have no idea where the story is going to take you, which for me, makes the film.
I’ve been interviewing people for a while now and I have to say, Tim Blake Nelson is truly one of the nicest guys around. The day after this interview, I was in the hotel lobby when Tim and I saw each other. He said, “Hi” and we started to have this 5 minute long conversation. It wasn’t anything about his movie… just a normal conversation… about BBQ. You gotta love SXSW.
Tim, I was wondering as actor and as a filmmaker do you involve yourself with films that act as a corrective and not go straight towards the stereotypical easy laugh?
Tim Blake Nelson: Yeah, I certainly do. I do grow tired of intelligence having such a limited manifestation in movies. And so when I wrote this I knew immediately that the wisest and smartest characters, two characters in the movie in this movie would be the ones who either remained in Oklahoma or returned there. So, the smartest guy in the movie is Brady. I think that’s evident and it’s also stated by the mother. And the wisest character is Keri Russell’s character, and she’s chosen to return and write in Oklahoma, and I think she gives the Bill character the wisdom that allows him to begin 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 about Southern characters in this movie.
This question is for both of you and it has to do with that obviously to believe in the duality of it you have to have this suspension of disbelief, and I’d like to hear from you how you achieved it through filmmaking and how you achieved it through your acting.
Tim: Yeah, suspension of disbelief in a story like this is pretty essential, although that said, I think you have to be responsible to your story as a storyteller. To make it feasible enough, and I hope that this story is feasible enough. There are details peppered throughout that I didn’t want to bang the audience over the head with it. I mean, an obvious question would be well, hang on, wouldn’t folks know they were twins, but they didn’t grow up in Ida Belle, in the Ida Belle, Broken Bow area. They grew up in another town, Hugo. And Brady is moved to Ida Belle. But these stories are all far-fetched, but the antecedent material for the movie, like in Menander and Plautus and Shakespeare, you know, it’s a retelling of a twins genre. And the main character in the movie is a classicist, and so that’s all very intentional. It’s meant to reflect on those earlier works. The character, Bill, has done a translation of Plautus’ play The Menaechmi, which is a Roman twins play. And so suspension of disbelief and that whole question is part of the fun of the movie. Alright and now he’s going got say thanks for referencing Menander (laughter).
Edward Norton: Well, no, actually I was going to say that any questions I had about whether a redneck from Oklahoma could actually go and become a Brown classical philosophy professor were ended when I met Tim because I think as you can see one conversation with Tim and you kind of realize, ‘Oh, Bill is a believable character.’
But I actually really agree with the idea that there are kind of you know there are kind of not just archetypal characters, but there are stories, types of stories that going way back to classical drama and stuff like that that have certain structures of suspending disbelief in them. But for me in this, I thought that the two worlds it was trying to straddle were was kind of delightful. I loved it, and I thought it was not something I had ever seen before, which is always hard to find. And Tim is so authentically rooted in both of those worlds that it really, you know, you know when you’re being driven by someone who knows where they’re going, and you can feel that when you read a script, and I think you can feel it when you see a movie. And I think that was a big part of the appeal of it to me was it was clearly a film that only Tim knew how to make because he owned it all. And That’s something I, like, if there’s something, if there’s a criteria that really tends to get me interested in a piece of work, apart from a personal reaction I have to the themes, if I feel like this is the right piece of work for that director at this moment in their career, that’s a big draw and whether you know like I felt that way with Fincher on Fight club. I felt like this is the guy to handle that text and just hit it out of the park. And I felt that way with Spike Lee on 25th hour or David Jacobson on Down in the Valley. If you feel like someone just knows what this is about to their core and knows how to bring their personal style to it, it’s gonna have that kind of special confidence. For me, the only thing that really I wanted to just be careful of was that the twins never felt like a trick. That you stopped looking at the scenes and you felt that these were guys inhabiting the same space and interacting with each other in a very extemporaneous way. For me that was thing I wanted to make sure you buffed the scenes out on it.
Logistically, Tim how did you do this with your team. Also acting in the movie and your own internal work and physical work how did you economize those two performances so that you could buff out the scenes and make sure you were at least getting enough into the cameras so that in editing or the mocap or the green screen you guys could make this thing completely believable and not just performance but the technical aspects?
Tim: Remarkably there’s not green screen in this movie. There’s motion control. And technically there were all sorts of challenges but really the soul of it is Edward’s talent. You write these characters, but when you write a movie and all you can hope for and depend on is that your actors will elevate the material because screenplays aren’t written to be read, they’re written to be made into movies.
And what’s so remarkable about Edward and that I think comes through so beautifully in his performance in the movie is that he’s so truthful as an actor. The source material from within him is so gorgeously accessed that the dramatic base notes in the movie such as when he’s eulogizing his brother are just exquisitely rendered. And then at the same time he’s able to play the loopy comic moments. And so few actors have that sort of bandwith.
And then what Edward also brings to you as a director is this incredible mind. And to play these twins, it really was quite a juggling act because he as to, and he’ll talk about this, but he’s not gonna compliment himself, so I’ll just enjoy the floor for a moment (laughter). It takes a mind, a rare mind, to be able to map out a scene as character A in a way that will leave room for character B and how that character might respond. And so it’s almost as it were a cubist way of thinking. You’re looking at the scene from all sorts of different angles and he’s just got the ability to do that. And to do it truthfully.
And you have to keep the schedule of 36 days – I mean, did those two things, letting him find both characters and explore them –
Tim: Again a huge advantage having Edward because he’s directed a movie before, and so one thing he appreciates is how hard my job is. And he was always very sensitive to that. And we finished this movie a day early.
Edward: There’s a little bit of the dirty dozen in him. Like Donald Duck goes here. I think you have to, knowing you’ve got to pull, you have kind of no room for error kind of scenario in terms of like if there’s a day where we’re doing the twins on the porch together, it has to be finished that day.
I think the thing we did the best on this was prep for it literally like on a given day like that how, if you answer all the questions about…. we’re going to show up in the morning, we’re going into this character first, we’re doing these shots and these shots and these shots, if you map it, then you leave yourself more room to play. But I think what we did well was sort of say like it, you know, we had a very, very, very clear roadmap of how we were gonna handle it technically, and in what order. No sitting around going well maybe we should try to do X. And that way at least you’ve got the room to, you’ve got a little more breathing room.
So with the motion control team, did you guys work from a base previously recorded performance for timing making sure that the conversations –
Tim: We get Brady done first, set a performance with which Edward and I were both happy, and that was a collaboration. You know, it was never, you know but somebody like Edward you don’t want to say, this is the one we’re going with whether you like it or not. It needs to be something we agree on.
Edward: I don’t even think we ever like – we were almost always, if we started laying down stuff, I think we pretty quickly always gravitated toward, ‘Yeah that’s what we’ve got.’ And sometimes we would have something and kind of look at each other and go let’s go one more try to see if we can juice this or that little moment. Or if I, you know, sometimes if I had an idea, you know, we’d have one that we liked, if I had an idea by doing it a couple times, sometimes even if something regimented like this, there’s fun ways to improvise. And when you start playing with what these techniques can do when you start realizing it there’s actually not like a clean line on the screen past which one character can go, when you realize it can shift and stuff like that, sometimes right in the moment, I would have like a thought to have the one character to go over and fake kick the other one.
Tim: Or the mirror shot?
Edward: Yeah, the mirror shot was fun we originally we had one idea about it and then we started realizing we could actually have them touch and stuff like that if we did the angles right. So sometimes we would throw down some improvisational type of stuff and see if it would stick. And I thought some of those things are what actually make you go, huh – like that’s interesting. And that’s what we wanted. We wanted just a couple – it only takes like one or two moments per scene, of people overlapping in conversation or touching or interacting in a way that feels really authentically extemporaneous to do the job of taking away the idea of the effect and it was fun. We also had they do some things now that they didn’t do back in the day with twin things where you know you can do this kind of stuff with actual moving cameras now, and that made a big difference, too, I think.
A much more simple question, through the course of this film or previously, did you guys ever try noodling, and how did you get Keri Russell to play with that?
Tim: I’ve done about every different kind of fishing you can imagine, but I’ve never noodled, and the reason I’ve never noodled is because I don’t want to end up getting bit by a water moccasin. I’m just too afraid of snakes. And getting Keri Russell to do that was about the easiest chore that I had as a director on this movie. She had a great attitude about it. She and Edward were fantastic together.
You know, you dream as a actor’s director of being able to let moments breathe in two-shots. And one of my favorite moments in this movie is just 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. It’s just great.
In your career, it’s been relatively rare for you to do movies that are primarily comedies. Did 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: Sure, I mean I never… I don’t tend to say, ‘Oh you know time for another one of this or that genre.’ Things flow to you in strange way. And why you bump into a certain kind of thing in a certain moment is – and some people know you in a certain way and some people don’t. I mean I – it’s hard to explain. I knew Danny DeVito and he knew me, so he really wanted me to do Death to Smoochy. And I love that stuff and I had a great time doing it. But I don’t actually, I mean to me, Fight Club was a comedy. When Fincher sent me the book and I read it, I called him and the first thing I asked him, this is a comedy, right? And he went, ‘Oh yeah, that’s the whole point.’ And I went, ‘Okay I’m in,’ you know what I mean?
I certainly wasn’t imagining myself as a dramatic actor when I was running around in my underwear and Florsheim shoes, you know what I mean? I thought Rounders was a comic movie in its way, too. The first time I directed a movie I wanted to do a comedy. I like things that aren’t sort of superficially one thing or another. I think you know my favorite comedies are ones that are really smart, too. And I thinkhave a whole second level in them. When we worked on Keeping the Faith, I think I was looking at a lot of Kukor’s old films and things like the Philadelphia Story and stuff that’s hilariously funny but really, really, really smart and cutting critique in the humor, too. And this when I read it, I mean, mainly I was laughing a lot at the lines.
I remember reading Brady saying, “not the Merriam Webster, either the motherfucking OED” (laughter).” For me there’s always a line or two in a script, you hit it and you go, you kind of almost decide to do the movie off of a line or two. And that was it. A few of the things like that in this for me, I was like that’s too funny. You almost do it for the fun of getting to say a line or two like that. I don’t have any specific plans. I guess if maybe Seth Rogan calls with a great buddy pic, I’ll be there (laughter).
Edward, playing twins, as an actor, how do you go about creating both those characters who are the same but different. And Tim, being the writer and director, as an actor, does that make your job easier or harder?
Edward: For me, it’s the same as always. Just twice. And I think in this case, I hear people talk about it like some actors being intellectual actors, some actors being instinctual actors. I always think it’s kind of crap. I always think that anybody who knows anything about it knows that good actors sort of do both. They do inside out work and they outside in work. And you can’t not do both.
So, in something like this, Tim provided a lot of good work on the inside out. He’s given you in a script like this a lot about who these characters are emotionally, and you don’t really have to, you’ve got a great road map to that. So for me, with these guys it was a little bit more outside in. Not in an intellectual sense, but in a just tactile sense. Like what do they wear and how do they sound and finding the skin of them. But in terms of the twins in particular, the only thing that I thought was interesting was I poked around about twins a lot and what was interesting was it was very hard to find anybody who was an identical twin who didn’t focus on how much they were alike. And really seemed powerfully to assert that identical twins are endemically alike in many ways. And that brought up interesting conversations with us because the script is emphasizing their apparent differences but then what we started doing was talking about all ways that they’re actually the same. And that made it a lot of fun. There were a lot of fun details in that.
We even added the line that Bill says, “you’re still using vinyl.” And Brady says, “I don’t go for digital, you can’t improve on the classics.” Because he’s really the same as Bill. He’s just as committed to a set of classical values. His just happen to be Little Feet and Townes Van Zandt.
Tim: Acting, you know I’ve never acted before in one of the movies 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, and it’s really written for an exciting performance. And it really depends on the audience watching an extraordinary to have a great time pulling off this feat. And it makes sense to me as the director to act in support of that. And to be around as a sidekick who doesn’t say much. But is just around to help both characters out of certain problems. And I just loved doing it –
Edward: You tried to punk out on it. But we wouldn’t let him. We, the producers, made him. We were trying to imagine a better face for Bolger, and it was hard to come up with.
Tim: But it was great, it was really fun. And I don’t regret it.
Edward: Mainly he just wanted to wear a do-rag (laughter).
This movie is basically your baby. You wrote, directed, co-produced and acted in it. And it was also a homecoming for you, doing it based in the place where you’re from. So I wanted to know, what it meant for you to make this movie because you were just so ingrained in it.
Tim: This movie has everything I love in it. Classics, my home state, philosophy, literature –
Tim: Orthodontia (laughter). And you know, even my wife and two of my children are in it as actors. Because I love the material, 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: It’s all downhill from here.
Tim: This was really a lot of fun. I’d love to sit here and say that it was some sort of rigorous, poignant and debilitating struggle, but it wasn’t. It was great.
Edward: You should just say it will never be this good again.
I love Edward Norton and I love “Leaves of Grass” by Walt Whitman… It appears from your article that they have nothing to do with each other or this movie in this case, but this movie looks cool! What a great opportunity you had in SXSW. This article rules! Thanks.- J
ps. Your site looks great these days too!
Thank you for this excellent interview of a brilliant film and two of my favorite actors. Director Tim Blake Nelson is a rare genius, truly deserving of an academy award. “Leaves of Grass” is a film my husband and I are still discussing over a week later and are ready to watch again. We both genuinely LOVED this philosophical MASTERPIECE. Having family in the South and also being a lover of the fun and futility of philosophy, I got it. Brilliant! I agree: . “Leaves of Grass” crosses genres and lines, true to life, and the main characters are brought to life by one the best actors of all time: Ed Norton.
This is a film that has it ALL–a classic, close to perfection. May we all rise above the “nauseam of nothingness”, and be content to weather the storms. May we all find meaning and connection somewhere between the parallel lines. (No one paid me to write this.:) Only the best, always!
Yeah, it has nothing to do with Walt Whitman. It’s all about pot, twins and mistaken identity. Great movie though!
Thanks for the comment 🙂
Yeah, it’s a great movie. I hope it finds its audience on DVD.