Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Willem Dafoe and Edward Norton (Photo: Daniel Maurer)

There’s a scene in Edward Norton’s adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn where Moses Randolph, a not-so-subtle stand-in for New York’s master builder Robert Moses, describes following a party server into a supply room and having his way with her.

“You raped her,” says Lionel, the Tourette’s-afflicted detective who is played by Norton.

“I moved on her,” Moses corrects.

If those words sound familiar, they sound even more familiar in the mouth of Alec Baldwin, who plays Moses here and, of course, plays Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live. You’ll recall Trump bragging “I moved on her like a bitch” in the Access Hollywood tape, before he went on to say, “When you’re a star, they let you do it… grab ’em by the pussy.”

Moses continues in a similar vein: “Power is feeling– knowing– that you can do whatever you want and not one fucking person can stop you.”

At a press conference ahead of Motherless Brooklyn‘s local premiere at the New York Film Festival, Willem Dafoe, who plays an engineer caught up in Moses Randolph’s power machinations, said the Moses character is a “composite.” His palatial office is littered with sketches that, at a glance, are identical to the plans for Robert Moses’s never-completed Lower Manhattan Roadway. But then, at a gala, he tells the crowd that it’s the doers, not the hand-wringing intellectuals, that “make this country great.” Clearly there’s also some Trump in this crooked, power-crazed, megalomaniacal demagogue.  

This is interesting, because in August of last year, after he had signed on to Motherless Brooklyn, it was reported that Alec Baldwin would play another heartless power fiend, Thomas Wayne, in Joker, and that the character would be “in the mold of a 1980s Donald Trump.” After the obligatory Twitter ridicule, Baldwin announced that due to a scheduling conflict, he wasn’t doing the film after all; he tweeted that he had not “been hired to play a role in Todd Phillips’ JOKER as some Donald Trump manque.”

Moses Randolph is certainly more Moses than Trump. Even his racism is mostly specific to the Master Builder: the idea that he might have designed bridges with low clearance in order to discourage public transportation, for instance, is taken directly from Robert Caro’s The Power Broker. There’s a running joke about how few people have finished the 1,300-page Moses biography; even actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who plays an activist trying to stop Moses and his cronies from razing a swathe of Fort Greene for a high-rise development, admitted that she only had a “brief look” at it when Norton recommended it to her. If you have finished the book, then you know the rape scene is fictitious (though eerily similar to the rape Trump was accused of committing in a dressing room at Bergdorf Goodman).

Maybe you never got around to finishing Motherless Brooklyn, either. Still, you might be wondering: Wasn’t Lethem’s novel set in the 1990s? Wasn’t Robert Moses long dead by then? And what’s with the community organizer in cat-eye glasses who leads rallies in Washington Square Park (which, of course, was almost destroyed for Moses’s aforementioned Lower Manhattan Roadway) and is clearly a stand-in for Jane Jacobs?

Alec Baldwin and Edward Norton in Motherless Brooklyn.

Today, Norton explained that when he read a Xerox of the pre-publication galleys of Motherless Brooklyn back in the late 1990s, he immediately clicked with the Lionel character, a “hot mess of paradoxes.” But he wasn’t sure the “meta surrealism in the book” would translate to film. While the novel is set in the ’90s, the private investigators at the center of it are an old-school, frozen-in-time clique who favor ’50s vernacular. After telling Lethem that a faithful adaptation “could feel like Reservoir Dogs or Blues Brothers, you know: guys in fedoras with a Prius going by,” Norton came up with a better idea: “I said, ‘I think the only way to play it straight, as it’s written, is to do it in the ’50s.'”

Lethem was on board with the period switch, but the project would be an ambitious one. (Bruce Willis’s role as detective Frank Minna reminds us of Bonfire of the Vanities, and how easy it is to fall on one’s face while attempting an epic cinematic indictment of New York power players. A more favorable comparison would be Chinatown.) Thanks in part to numerous outdoor scenes set in Harlem and Brooklyn, the shoot ended up requiring six weeks on location in New York City, four weeks on stage, and “680-something effects shots,” according to Norton. There’s even a climactic scene in the old Pennsylvania Station, meticulously reconstructed via a combination of set building and special effects. The director acknowledged that it would have been cheaper to set that scene in, say, a bus station, but he wanted to convey “the experience of realizing that you lost a transcendent space and it’s never coming back, and that that’s the cost of not minding the store, people not paying attention to what people in power are doing for reasons that are not for our benefit.”

The period setting also allowed Norton to inflect the soundtrack and the plot with jazz. In Lethem’s novel, Lionel says that “Prince’s music calmed me as much as masturbation or a cheeseburger.” Here, Lionel’s Rain Man-esque case of Tourette’s lends itself to scatting along with a cocky, flamboyant, hard-living trumpeter, played by Michael K. Williams. He’s clearly a stand-in for Miles Davis, right down to the croaky voice. (Again, this adaptation is not big on subtlety.)

Norton said he created the character to show that “the discriminatory forces excluding many people from the vision of the city were being end-run by people like Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie who were essentially becoming iconic, highly potent artists that the world was acknowledging.” For the Miles character’s trumpet parts, Norton (also a producer) got a current-day icon, Wynton Marsalis, to play horn underneath Williams’s acting. Marsalis ended up playing horn on the entire score (composed by Daniel Pemberton). And he had the idea of taking “Daily Battles,” a song contributed by Thom Yorke of Radiohead (the only glaring anachronism in the film), and repurposing it as a jazz instrumental, “as if Miles was playing it,” Norton said.

Despite the 1950s setting, this adaptation feels plenty timely, and not just because the Robert Moses character speaks to our president’s flagrant abuses of power. While “slum clearance” is no longer in the political lexicon, current-day New Yorkers will relate to the fights against landlord harassment and against out-of-scale, gentrification-spurring development. And the Dafoe character’s statement that “cars are a cancer” could’ve come right out of the mouth of our City Council speaker, who wants to “break car culture” in New York.

Motherless Brooklyn should hit especially close to home if you’re seeing it during this final night of the New York Film Festival. After all, the area where Lincoln Center now sits was once a thriving neighborhood of tenements inhabited mostly by black and Puerto Rican people (in fact, it’s where Thelonius Monk pioneered the bebop style featured in the film). More than 7,000 families were displaced by the area’s redevelopment, under false assurances of relocation assistance. The project was spearheaded by, you guessed it, Robert Moses.