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SXSW Interview: Tim Blake Nelson And Edward Norton Talk Leaves Of Grass

Tim Blake Nelson may have played his share of buffoons and goobers during his career, but one thing becomes apparent after listening to him talk about his new film, Leaves of Grass: dude is scary smart. Nelson was on hand to premiere the film at South by Southwest last week, and the following day he and the film's star, Edward Norton, sat down with press to chat up the project, both looking very dapper in basic black.

Written and directed by Nelson, Leaves of Grass stars Norton as Ivy league classics professor who returns to his Oklahoma home town after learning of the murder of his pot-dealing identical twin brother, Brady (also Norton). After arriving home Bill discovers his brother is still alive, finds himself entangled in a struggle between Brady and a local drug lord (Richard Dreyfuss), and falls for Keri Russell. Well, not really Keri Russell, but the character played by Keri Russell. With Leaves of Grass, native Oklahoman Nelson puts his spin on the time-honored "twins" genre, equal parts love letter to his home state and to the literature and philosophy he's passionate about.

Tim, as an actor and a filmmaker, do you like to involve yourself as films that act as a corrective to Southern stereotypes or don’t treat Southern characters as easy laughs?

Tim Blake Nelson: Yeah, I certainly do. I do grow tired of intelligence having such limited manifestation in movies, usually meaning coastal and 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 either remained in Oklahoma or returned there. The smartest guy in the movie is Brady. I think that’s evident, and it’s also stated. And the wisest character is Keri Russell’s character, and she’s chosen to return and write in Oklahoma. She gives the Bill character the wisdom that allows him to begin to move forward in his life as it’s crashing around him. In answer to your question, I was eager to debunk certain stereotypes about Southern characters, absolutely.

Obviously, to believe in the duality of [the story and Norton’s roles] you have to have a suspension of disbelief. I’d like to hear how you two achieved it, through acting and filmmaking.

Nelson: Yeah, 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 buried throughout…I didn’t want to bang the audience on the head with it. An obvious question would be, “Hang on, wouldn’t people know they were twins?” But they didn’t grow up in the area. They grew up in another town, and Brady has moved to Idabel. These stories are all far-fetched, but the antecedent material for them, like in Menander and Plautus and Shakespeare, it’s a retelling of a twins genre. The main character in the movie is a classicist, 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. So, suspension of disbelief, and that whole question, is part of the fun of the play. Okay, now Ed is going to say, “Thanks for referencing Menander.”

Edward Norton: No, I was actually going to say, any questions I had of whether a redneck from Oklahoma could actually go on and become a Brown classical philosophy professor were ended when I met Tim. As you can see, one conversation with Tim and you can see Bill was a believable character. But I really agree with that, that there are not just archetypal characters, but there are types of stories going way back to classical drama that have certain structures. For me, I thought the two worlds it was trying to straddle were kind of delightful. It was not something I had ever seen before, which is always hard to find. Tim is so authentically rooted in both of those worlds. You know when you’re being driven by somebody who knows where they’re going. You can feel that when you read a script, and I think you can feel that when you see a movie. That was a big part of the appeal of it for me, that it was clearly a film that only Tim knew how to make, because he owned it all. If there’s a criteria that really tends to get me interested in a piece of work, apart from any kind of personal reaction I have to the themes, it’s if I feel this is the right piece of work for that director at this moment in their career. That’s a big draw. I felt that way with Fincher on Fight Club. I felt that this is the guy to handle this text and really hit it out of the park. I felt that way about Spike Lee on 25th Hour or David Jacobson in Down in the Valley. If you feel like someone really knows what this is about to the core and knows how to bring their personal style to it, it’s gonna have that kind of special confidence in it. For me, the only thing that I really wanted to be careful of was that the twins never felt like a trick, that you stopped looking at the seams and felt that these guys were inhabiting the same space and interacting with each other in a very extemporaneous way.

Tim, how did you, as a director and acting in the movie, economize those two performances so you could buff out the seams and make sure that you were getting enough to make this thing completely believable?

Nelson: Remarkably, there’s no green screen in this movie. There’s 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 and depend on is that your actors will elevate the material. Because screenplays aren’t written to be read; they’re meant to be turned into movies. What’s so remarkable about Eddie, 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 bass notes in the movie, such as when he’s eulogizing his brother, are just exquisitely rendered. Then, at the same time, he’s able to play the loopy, comic moments. So few actors have that sort of bandwidth. But what Ed also brings to you as director is this incredible mind. To play these twins, it was quite a juggling act, because he has to -- and he’ll talk about this, but he’s not going to compliment himself, so I’ll just enjoy the floor for a moment. It takes 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. It’s almost a cubist way of thinking, looking at the scene from all sorts of different angles. He just has the ability to do that, and to do it truthfully.

And since you had to keep to a schedule, how did you allow him time to find those characters?

Nelson: It was a huge advantage having Edward, because he’s directed a movie before, so one thing he appreciates is how hard my job is. He was always very sensitive to that, and we finished a day early.

Norton: Knowing you have a full schedule, you kind of have a “no room for error” scenario, in terms of, if it’s a day where we’re doing the twins on the porch together, it has to be finished that day. The thing we did the best on this was prep for it, on a given day like that, how, if you answer all the questions like, "We’re going to show up in the morning, I’m going into this character first, we’re doing these shots and these shots and these shots." If you map it, you leave yourself room to play. We had a very, very clear road map of how we were going to handle it technically, and in what order. No sitting around going, “Well, maybe we should try to do X.” That way at least you’ve got a little more breathing room.

With the motion-control team, did you guys work from a base pre-recorded performance for timing?

Nelson: We got Brady down first, set a performance which Edward and I were both happy with. And that was a collaboration. With 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.

Norton: Sometimes we would look at each other and say, “Let’s do one more,” to see if we could juice this or that little moments. Sometimes if I had an idea we both liked, by doing it a couple times, even in something regimented like this, there are fun ways to improvise. When you start playing with what these techniques can do, when you realize there’s not a clean line on the screen past which one character can’t go, sometimes right in the moment I would have a thought to have one character go over and fake-kick the other one.

Like the mirror shot.

Norton: Yeah, actually, the mirror was fun. Originally we had one idea about it, and then we started realizing we could actually have them touch like if we did the angles right. So, sometimes we would throw down some improvisational stuff and see if it would stick. It only takes one or two moments per scene of people overlapping in conversation or interacting in a way that feels really authentically extemporaneous to do the job of taking away the idea of the effect. It’s fun. They do some things now that they didn’t do back in the day, where you can do this kind of stuff with actual moving cameras, and that made a big difference, too.

Either prior to this film or during, did either of you ever try noodling, and how did you get Keri Russell to do it?

Nelson: I’ve done about every 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 get bit by a water moccasin. I’m just too afraid of snakes. Getting Keri Russell to do that was just about the easiest chore I’ve had on this movie. She had a great attitude about it. She and Edward were fantastic together. You dream as an 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 without a cut, and I never had to cut to a close-up. They’re so exquisite together.

Ed, in your career it’s been rare for you to do comedies. What attracted you to the film, and can we expect to see you in more comedies in the future?

Norton: Sure. I don’t tend to go, well, it’s time for another of this or that genre. Things flow to you in a strange way. I knew Danny DeVito and he knew me, so he really wanted me to do Death to Smoochy. I love that stuff, and we had a great time doing it. To me, Fight Club was a comedy. When Fincher sent me the book, I read it, and the first thing I asked him was, “This is a comedy, right?” And he was like, “Oh, 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. I thought Rounders was a comic movie, too. The first time I directed a movie it was a comic movie. I like things that aren’t superficially one thing or another. My favorite comedies are ones that are really smart, too. When I was working on Keeping the Faith, I was looking at a lot of things like The Philadelphia Story, which was hilariously funny but also really, really smart and had a kind of cutting critique in the humor, too. This, when I read it, mainly I was laughing a lot at the lines. I remember reading Brady saying, “Not the Merriam-Webster, either, the motherfucking O.E.D.” For me there’s always a line or two in a script where you decide to do the movie, and that was it. There were a few things like that. You almost do it for the fun of getting to say a line or two like that. So, I don’t have any specific plans. If Seth Rogen calls with a great buddy pic, I’ll be there.

Edward, as an actor, does playing twins change your approach? How do you go about creatying 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?

Norton: It’s the same as always, just twice. I hear people talk about some actors being intellectual actors, some people being instinctual actors, and I always think it’s kind of crap. I think anybody who knows anything about it knows that good actors do inside-out work and they do outside-in work. You can’t not do both. In something like this, Tim’s provided a lot of good work on the inside-out. He’s given you a lot about who these characters are emotionally. You’ve got a great road map to that. With these guys, there was a little more outside-in, not in an intellectual sense, but just in a tactile sense: what do they wear and how do they sound? Finding the skin of them. In terms of the twins in particular, the only thing I thought was interesting was, I poked around about twins a lot, and what was interesting was that it was very difficult to find anybody who was an identical twin who didn’t focus on how much they were alike. Identical twins are endemically alike in many ways. That brought up interesting conversations between us, because the script is emphasizing their differences, but then we started talking about all the ways they’re the same. We added the line where Bill says, “You’re still using vinyl,” and Brady says, “I don’t go for digital. You can’t improve on the classics.” He’s really the same as Bill. He’s just as committed to a set of classical values. His just happen to be Little Feat and Townes Van Zandt.

Nelson: I’ve never acted in a movie I’ve directed before. This just 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 have a great time pulling off this feat. It made 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 who is just around to help both characters with certain problems.

Norton: He tried to punk out, but we, the producers, wouldn’t let him. We were trying to imagine a better face for Bolger and we couldn’t come up with one.

Nelson: But it was a lot of fun.

Norton: Mainly he just wanted to wear a dew rag.

When you came up with this movie, did you expect it to go along the lines of just being a good comedy or did you expect it to fall into the sub-genre of stoner comedy?

Nelson: We definitely didn’t want it to be just a stoner comedy. In fact, I never even considered that genre, either as something to embrace or move away from. Ultimately, that didn’t even enter into my mind. I know it’s being marketed in that way to some degree, and that’s great. Really, life is full of contradictions. Life is messy. That’s what Bill, the character, learns. What we were setting 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 both poignant and funny, and then suddenly turn violent. To have a character utterly side-swiped and to learn that life is about balance.

Norton: If you want to talk about the southwest, we begged them to push the release until after South by Southwest. Last night was just so great, because I really can’t imagine a place where you’d get a huge laugh about the noodling, hear people cheer when Townes Van Zandt song comes on, and then get a huge laugh about “You’ve neatly described academia” or the O.E.D. Everybody laughed at the epistemology-solving-problems joke. It was like, we’re in heaven! We’re in the place that this film was made for. Austin, and this whole community, I can’t think of a place that straddles the worlds this film straddles more than this place does. Unfortunately in today’s world, there aren’t the kinds of theaters there are in New York and Austin, there aren’t as many in Oklahoma and Louisiana and places people would really enjoy this film. The only way it will penetrate into the cineplexes is if it does really well in places like Austin and New York City. That’s why when they asked, “Should we platform this in New York and L.A.?” we said, “No, let’s definitely not do it in L.A. Let’s do it in Dallas.” Hopefully, if we can get people out to it on the first weekend, we’ll have a chance to get it into the rest of the southwest.

The Richard Dreyfuss scene takes place during the Sabbath, and he charges both Brady and Bolger with the menorah. Are you worried that some audiences might misinterpret it?

Norton: We haven’t had that experience. Peter Travers from Rolling Stone showed it to a huge crowd at his screening series at Paramus, New Jersey, and --

Nelson: I’d say about seventy percent of the audience was Jewish.

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

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

Norton: At the same time, when you’ve got a pipe salesman that’s called Maccabee Pipes, I’d say you’ve got your tongue planted firmly in your cheek.

Nelson: I won’t name the company, but there’s a company that has a biblical name in Tulsa that it’s based on. I mean, it’s real!

Tim, this movie was your baby. What did it mean for you to make this movie?

Nelson: This movie has everything I love in it. Classics, my home state, philosophy, literature--

Norton: Orthodontists.

Nelson: [laughs] Even my wife and two of my children are in it as actors. Because I love the source material so much, it was really easy to write and an utter delight 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.

Norton: It’s all downhill from here.

Nelson: It was a lot of fun. I’d love to sit here and say it was some sort of rigorous, poignant, and debilitating struggle, but it wasn’t. It was just great.

Norton: It’ll never be this good again.

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