Great Are the Myths
Tim Blake Nelson and Edward Norton on homegrown, highbrow comedy 'Leaves of Grass'
Little Feat. Lots and lots of Little Feat. If you're of a certain age and inclination and spent all or part of your youth in the central plains of this great nation, odds are you clocked some of those hours in a haze, listening to Lowell George & Co. on someone's Goodwill couch or porch or dorm room floor.
That's the kind of detail Leaves of Grass nails – unearthing the specifics of buried memory, things you think you forgot about until someone puts them out there, right in front of you, and the whole sense of an experience comes flooding back. It's an unexpected but pleasurable side effect of Tim Blake Nelson's movie, in which Edward Norton plays identical twins: one a brilliant pot grower (Brady) who still lives in their Oklahoma hometown and one a brilliant classics professor (Bill) who returns there when he receives news of his brother's death.
Inspired by Nelson's upbringing and Tom Petty's hairstyles of the late Seventies, Leaves of Grass is less a stoner comedy than a meditation on identity set inside a rural crime story – by turns dark, funny, and sweet. Written and directed by Nelson (who also plays a pivotal supporting role) with Norton (whose Class 5 Films produced) in mind, the film screened at South by Southwest 2010 to a sold-out Alamo Drafthouse; the duo made themselves available the next day at the Four Seasons, where the following interview took place.
Austin Chronicle: Being from Texas, I'm often aware of the dual impulses of wanting to identify with where I'm from and to run away from it. Obviously that kind of duality is played out in the film. It seems really hard not to be condescending in a movie like this, even if you're from the area, sometimes more so if you are. I'm wondering how you avoided that.
Tim Blake Nelson: Because I love where I'm from. I'm also struggling with these issues, but there was no way that we were going to make a movie that would condescend. In fact, I tire of manifestations of intelligence in movies that predictablyidentify characters with certain schooling and institutions and coastal upbringing.
We didn't want do that in this movie. I certainly never want to be a part of movies that do that. When I end up playing Southern characters as an actor, even if they're not smart, I think you can also make positive choices. Even with a character like Delmar in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, it wasn't that he was stupid – we decided that he was innocent of knowledge [laughs].
Edward's so great because he radiates intelligence. In the Brady character, we were very much in lockstep about allowing him to be the smarter of the two brothers. And for that to be apparent even without Susan [Sarandon]'s character, the mother, saying "You have a high IQ." I put that line in there just to make sure, but I think that Edward's performance made that not even necessary.
Edward Norton: And he wrote into the movie, "Don't you talk down on Oklahoma!"
TBN: We could do a DVD extra just of Edward's different readings of that line.
EN: We burned an inexcusable amount of a day. We were like, "Shouldn't we do just one more?" And then we were, "Let's just do a series." At one point I just stood and did about seven. We did some that were literally incomprehensible, like, "Dnytdwnohm!"
AC: Maybe you should try to pitch that phrase to the chamber of commerce, or tourism board or whatever, as a state slogan.
EN: [laughs] That would be such a funny state slogan. "Don't insult us."
TBN: Well, you know what the license plate says – it says, "Oklahoma is OK."
AC: It's OK. It's not great, but it's OK.
TBN: Written by two guys who'd never been to the state.
TBN: Yeah, Rodgers and Hammerstein never went to Oklahoma.
AC: It seems like Bill, at the beginning of the movie, is pretty much devoid of charisma.
EN: My view of Bill is that the only time he's really animated and in any way charismatic is when he's full of the passion of his beliefs. Other than that, he's a very impacted kind of a person. It takes him getting high in Oklahoma to really have any charm. Until he gets stoned, he doesn't really let go and have any kind of interaction with anyone that's warm. I guess I would use the word – he's certainly not neutered, because he's got this fierce brain – but his ability to relax and kind of have improvisational joy is limited.
AC: Though Brady is instantly charming, and Bill becomes more that way.
EN: Tim always said, and I definitely agree, that it's Bill's story. Some playwright I worked with, I think, once said, "The definition of a good story is that something happens, as a result of which something changes." I think that if that's the definition, then Bill is the person that the story's about. Something happens to Bill that changes him. More than Brady, I think. Brady kind of is more of the thing that happens to him.
AC: How influenced are you by the Coen brothers? And how influenced are they by you?
TBN: Joel is one of my best friends, and I'm very close with Ethan as well. I'm heavily influenced by them; I'm heavily influenced by all the directors with whom I've worked. I have a particular affinity with Joel and Ethan because they're such disciplined filmmakers; their sense of control over the medium is in its own way unrivaled. Certainly another director I've worked with, Steven Spielberg, knows more about the medium and has a lot more technical acuity and technical innovation, even, to bring to it. What's astonishing about Joel and Ethan is that their understanding of their aesthetic, and their ability to move the medium toward that in such a particular and legible way, is unrivaled. They use the medium to accomplish their goals better than anyone I know of.
That said, when I become too much like that myself as a filmmaker, it makes my movies not as good. What you see in Leaves of Grass is more sentimentality than they would probably allow into one of their movies. Also, and this is intentional, the movie is messier than a Coen Brothers movie. Joel and Ethan meticulously examine every single inch of a frame: You could take any Coen Brothers movie, divide into its single frames, and each frame would be like a cartoon set. It's formalism.
When I veer toward that, I'm not as good. I need to be messier. Other filmmakers – Terrence Malick, for example, I've had the privilege of working with him – make their movies a little messier, so I've taken that from him. I guess one needs to continue to grow and nourish one's strengths and be aware of one's weaknesses. So my relationship with what Joel and Ethan do and how they do it is a careful one. How I influence them, you know, I'm very lucky to be in a position with them where we now watch one another's cuts while we're working. We read each other's scripts before we make them. It astonishes me that I'm in that relationship with them and that it's a healthy one.
AC: [to Norton] What made you want to get involved in producing it?
EN: Tim literally had written the script and gave it to me, and we talked about my acting in it. It didn't really have any producers on it, and he didn't have any money for it; it started with just us talking about it. We could have said, "Sure, let's do it – tell me if you can get it together." But my partner [in production company Class 5 Films] Bill [Migliore] and I, when we decided to make a little production section, we decided we were going to do it only when we saw opportunities to shepherd filmmakers with a particular thing where we could leverage me in ways that would get something personal, or filmmaker-driven, done that would have a hard time getting done otherwise. I gave it to Bill, and he responded really strongly to it, too. So we proposed to Tim that we all partner up on it and do it ourselves.
We had a year of sort of ups and downs that are the now-familiar vicissitudes of trying to get movies financed independently. Or at all. It took us about a year of work at that, and we found ourselves in a pretty decent situation, and we got it done. So it was fun. We've been thoroughly on all of this together, Bill and Tim and I, sort of soup to nuts; we really did it all together, and it's a fun way to do it. Because you can manage more parts of the machinery. You can make sure that most of the folks you're working with are your folks and you've got track records with them and you can rely on them, so you minimize the number of opinions you have to listen to or bend to. You get to make your own film.
AC: Where did the story come from, aside from the twin conceit?
TBN: The story came first, actually. I only realized about 10 pages in that I was going to write it for Edward. I had been making this movie that imploded in preproduction. I was very upset, and I came home and thought, "I want to write about a guy who just gets sideswiped in life." Then I came up with the idea of an identical twin. It spun out from there, really from these two monologues: the opening monologue on Plato, and then Brady's manifesto about only wanting to grow hydroponic pot. Then it was Edward's movie, as an actor. I just started to spin the story out from there.
AC: As a classics major from Brown [Nelson] and a guy from Yale [Norton], what classics would you say it references?
TBN: It's a long list. There are references embedded all over the place. The very notion of a twin story goes back to Greek comedies and also the street comedy of Plautus. [Norton's] character Bill has just done a translation of The Menaechmi, which is referenced in the scene at Harvard. And then there's a reference to Shakespeare, the Shylock line –
EN: Which nobody gets because they're laughing too hard – or, you know, in Austin I feel like they heard it –
TBN: – "You prick me, motherfucker, I'm sure as shit gonna bleed!"
Leaves of Grass opens in Austin on Friday, Sept. 24. Norton will be in attendance at the 8pm screening at Alamo Drafthouse at the Ritz on opening night to take audience questions before the screening and to introduce the film. See Film Listings, for review.