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I always felt it was being honest about a new emotional reality about living in that city



Feature by: Jack Foley

CONTROVERSY has never been something that director, Spike Lee, or actor, Edward Norton, has ever shyed away from, so it seems only natural, therefore, that a collaboration between the two provides plenty to talk about.

25th Hour is worth debating for two reasons - primarily, for its take on New York, post September 11, and, secondly, for the way in which it sets up its central character, drug dealer, Monty Brogan (Norton), as a likeable hero.

But speaking at a recent press conference at London's Dorchester Hotel, both the star of Fight Club and the director of Do The Right Thing, remained unapologetic for tackling such issues head on - and their views make for riveting reading.

Norton, in particular, was extremely eloquent in explaining why it would have been remiss to ignore the events of 9/11, particularly given the nature of the movie, while he compares his character - that of a drug dealer facing up to his final day on the street before a seven year prison stretch - to the likes of Othello, in terms of the tragedy which unfolds.

"The thing about the September 11 thing is that some people have come up and suggested that there is an inherently political context to treating those events, and I disagree; as I think that, with the exception of Barry [Pepper] and Brian Cox, most of the people who worked on this film live in New York...

"Of course, there is a political context to that event, but there's also an emotional context that has nothing to do with politics. It's something that happened and it's part of the fabric of living in that city now.

"I think if I had felt, at any time in the conversation about what we were doing, that we were losing the focus from the story of these human beings, and the individual focus of their sort of moral crisis, and digressing into a sort of political comment on those events, I would have been very uncomfortable with it. Not that you can't make a political comment on those events, but that's not what this story was about.

"But I always thought that what Spike was suggesting was not only appropriate, it was essential. That same summer we made the film, for instance, they were shooting Maid In Manhattan, so you're not going to point the cameras at Ground Zero if you're making Maid In Manhattan, but we were making a film about loss, and the consequences of choices, and of taking things for granted, and to not allow that new emotional reality into the background just seemed like kind of an insane denial, to pretend that it hadn't happened.

"I think you can address an emotional reality without it being a political commentary and watching the film, when Spike first showed it to me, I never felt that there was a political comment.

"I always felt it was being honest about a new emotional reality of living in that city."

It is a point with which Spike Lee concurs, having seen, first-hand, the effects that the events of September 11 had on New York.

"What happened on September 11 'really traumatised Americans," he explains, "and we're still feeling the effects, because we are living in a much different world now, where the threat of terrorism is an everyday occurrence... and so, we wanted to reflect this different world in the film."

Yet both remain confident that world events have not taken over in the film, with the strong emotional pull of the characters still very much to the fore.

Indeed, Norton maintains that the film works so well because it is not afraid to examine the ways in which people fly into moral grey zones - citing his own character's lost potential as a prime example, or the moral dilemmas which beset many of the secondary characters; from Philip Seymour Hoffman's honest teacher, struggling to come to terms with his feelings for a student; to Brian Cox's father, still desperate to make amends for the way in which he feels he has failed his son.

When asked whether he had to think twice about taking on the role of a drug dealer, Norton merely states: "It's not my instinct to sort of judge a character; I try to judge the piece.

"So, does the story as a whole make a statement that I could get behind? In this case, I think that there was never any doubt, in our minds, that Monty was going down for what he did.

"And in that sense, to me, it was a very strong and unequivocal statement about the consequences of not examining the morality of what you're doing.

"I think Monty definitely expresses regret on a number of occasions in the film. He definitely, ultimately, takes responsibility, whether or not he specifically expresses regret for what he was doing to other people.

"To me, though, I'm not looking to make him a thoroughly moral character. I mean, Othello is a likeable character, if you loathed him, then you wouldn't feel terrible when he strangles Desdimona; it's like if tragedy is going to function, you have to be drawn into a human identification with the main character, because it makes the impact of his fall meaningful.

"It allows a message to be delivered through it. And I think David Benioff pulled a very neat trick, in a way a very conscious dramatic trick, because the story doesn't start with a couple of kids buying these drugs off Monty, it starts by showing this guy saving a broken down dog.

"And in that I think David is pulling you into a relationship with this character that is complicated, that is going to put you in a very difficult position, when you realise that he is going down, and that you're going to feel torn."

Norton adds: "I think the film examines the way that people fly into moral grey zones.

"Monty has already done it and you get sort of an implication from the father and from Frank [Pepper] that Monty sort of moved through baby steps, to sort of getting pot for a few friends in High School, to being a full-on heroin dealer, with a couple of kilos in his sofa.

"But he slid into that zone and he's not examined it, because he's been coasting.

"But the film also sticks other people into the midst of that. Frank is in a world in which the ethics are very relative, and Jacob, who's clearly a good person, is seen rationalising himself into a series of steps from knowing that it is wrong, which is what he is thinking and feeling, into the point where he thinks he can kiss this 17-year-old in the bathroom.

"He's not a bad person, but you literally watch him, during the course of the film, slide into that moral grey zone.

"To me, what was compelling about it when I read it, was that, in a way, it was almost like The Deer Hunter, in that it was this depiction of a group of people in a moral crisis; they're all questioning the moral ground they're standing on.

"Frank is feeling guilt, Jacob feels confusion and guilt over what he's feeling for this student, Monty's Dad feels guilt... everybody's wrestling with the morality of the choices that they've made."

25th Hour opens on April 25 and IndieLondon urges you to see it.

 

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