Howard Hawks warns Peter Parker after clash with Nick Fury!

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Norton acquired the rights to Motherless Brooklyn before it was even published in 1999. With Lethem’s blessing, he air-lifted the characters from their original setting and deposited them into a sort of noir-film fantasia version of 1950s New York City. It comes complete with its own thinly veiled version of Robert Moses, the famed urban developer and old-world political boss, who is played with Trumpian relish by Alec Baldwin. Norton’s change is audacious: “Setting it in the ’50s opened the door into a deeper narrative about the social history of New York.”

The changes did not bother Lethem, though he does note one thing with a laugh: “I had my own vision of what Lionel looked like—and he was closer, at the time, to Brendan Fraser. So when Ed expressed interest, I remember thinking, ‘Well, you’re very famous and important, but that’s not right!’” Remarkably, the author never read any version of the script and had only seen the film once when we spoke. “I don’t take a lot of pleasure in the kinds of movies that result when people are slavishly obedient to a book,” Lethem says. “What I wanted is what [director] Howard Hawks did with Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not: Keep the title, keep the boat, and then make a really good Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart movie.”

When it came time to soundtrack and score the film, Norton turned to what he called a “team of three authentic geniuses” to help him realize his vision. First, he sent the script to Thom Yorke. “I’ve always felt like, as a writer, Thom understands fracture and dissonance, but his songs also have this emotional longing,” Norton says. “He’s also written a lot about how the world and the powers that be are oppressive. To me, Lionel’s head sounds more like Thom’s longing than like hard-bop chaos. I had this middle-of-the-night idea to ask Thom to write a ballad that felt like it was out of the past, something like the Chinatown theme. Ten days later, he sent it back to me.”

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