In making “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer,” Joseph Cedar had a modern dilemma.
“If there’s any technology in the film, it marks the date, so if you’re using a phone, the model of that phone will forever be the time when this film is taking place, which I find to be a little scary,” says Cedar, making his American debut after earning an Oscar nomination for his previous film “Footnote” about rival Talmudic scholars in Israel. “If I can, I try to avoid technology for that reason. But here the phone was a very big part of how the story is told and of the character, so we had to commit to a certain phone which said that it’s happening at a certain time, fully aware that 15 years from now this tool that he’s using will seem old and obsolete.”
However, Cedar needn’t be concerned about whether “Norman” will hold up in 15 years, or even 50, since he has succeeded in telling a tale as old as time that nonetheless feels fresh in following the exploits of a shameless political operative looking to move up in the world. Inspired by the plight of the Court Jew, a fixture in stories as early as the Middle Ages who would traffic influence among the powerful but was thought to be easily disposable, the writer/director fashioned a story around a nebbishy wheeler and dealer in Manhattan named Norman Oppenheimer (Richard Gere), who sets his sights on wooing Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi), the Israeli Minister of Trade and Labor, while he spends a few lonely nights in the city during a visit to the U.N. By providing a friendly voice (and a wildly expensive pair of shoes) to the visiting dignitary, Norman places a bet on Eshel that pays off wildly when Eshel’s elevated to Prime Minister three years later, but in attempting to capitalize on this relationship to earn the respect — and future favors — of those who have ignored him in the past, he threatens to lose everything.
With Jun Miyake’s mischievous Klezmer-esque score underlining all of its indefatigable lead’s many machinations and a strong supporting cast adept at both comedy and drama including Steve Buscemi, Michael Sheen, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Harris Yulin, “Norman” leavens the story of an increasingly desperate man with considerable charm and cleverness – both in its title character’s ingenuity in attempting to rise above his circumstances as well as Cedar’s. As he observes Norman forging connections between major movers and shakers, the filmmaker makes even larger ones in illuminating the backchannel dealmaking that can have a global impact and giving a name to the often anonymous hustlers whose unglamorous work leads to actual action for better or worse.
Shortly before the film hits theaters, Cedar spoke about why he was drawn to telling of such a character and how Richard Gere became such a perfect fit for the role, as well as shooting during a brutal New York winter and finding the music in the film, literally and figuratively.
I had to figure out Norman. He’s a significant part of my life. Sometimes I feel I am Norman. I definitely know Normans and I’ve been in Norman situations where people have offered me something I’m not sure I want and still have taken – or I’ve offered someone something with some ulterior motive in the hope of getting into someone’s close circle and gaining something by that proximity. Sometimes I’m embarrassed by these things. Sometimes I’m very proud of them. I think there’s some genius in Norman-ness – in the way he functions. So all these are things in my head that warranted the work that a film requires, just to create a portrait of this character and try to understand something about his operating system.
Since you mention proximity, one of the brilliant things you do is convey visually how the space between who Norman needs to get close to expands and collapses throughout the film as his relationships improve or deteriorate. How did you figure out how you’d show that in something akin to split screens?
What Norman does is invade other people’s space even if he’s not invited. At a certain point in the story, he is essential to some people, and because of his connection to Eshel, some people do allow him in and then once he’s in, he tries to get more in. He’s always pushing himself into a place that he’s not invited to – the phone allows him to do it and we had to find some visual way to express that and each one of those shared screens somehow has a version of that – of Norman pushing his way into someone’s closed space.
Had you actually been thinking an English-language film for a while or was this simply a story that lent itself to that?
The second. I’m happy I had a chance to make a movie in English and I’m hoping I’ll have another one, but the story came first and then the privilege that came with it of shooting with movie stars and English in New York.
There’s a maze-like quality to the places in New York Norman goes, particularly when he’s set to attend a dinner party at the apartment of a well-heeled philanthropist (played by Josh Charles). Did you have some places in mind when developing the story or just a great locations manager?
We did have a great locations manager – Sascha Springer. And shooting in New York is at once extremely exciting, but tricky because it’s expensive and it’s not easy capturing the city. You think if you’re shooting a contemporary film in New York, you get the city. But it’s not that simple. We also shot in a freezing winter, and I wanted it to be cold, but some of these days were just physically almost impossible. We were shooting at minus 20 degrees and it affected the acting and the pace of how people worked. This was a new experience for me coming from the Middle East and even for a lot of the New Yorkers, this was a rough winter we shot in.
And if you’re shooting with a movie star and the kind of footprint that this movie has, sometimes it felt a little frustrating, like we wanted to get more of the city and it’s hard to make the city cooperate. But other times, it’s the opposite. These miraculous things happen in the city where you have two very recognizable actors play out this dramatic scene with thousands of bypassers just walking by, not caring and becoming part of your movie. It doesn’t always happen, but when it does, you get this energy that New York has that obviously no other city in the world has.
Richard Gere is an interesting choice for Norman because while the character requires charisma, which he has in spades, he also is lonely, which you normally don’t associate him with. How did he come to play the part?
I’ve heard that, but I would argue with that assumption that Richard is not an obvious choice. No actor is naturally Norman, but there is a Norman in most of us and a good actor has to find a way to bring that out. Richard has so much experience, but the characters that he’s played have been a certain type and this gave him a chance to play with things in him that were fascinating and deep, and that he hasn’t done [something like this] in the past was exciting for me.
We spent a number of months discussing the character and finding a way for Richard to feel comfortable with the Norman he’s creating. Sometimes an actor has to gain a lot of weight for a role or learn this special skill – or train for this one specific kind of stunt. Here, an actor had to find a way to completely lose his natural position in the world, someone who is willing to humiliate himself, who’s desperate to matter to someone. All these things are far from movie stars, so this is what Richard had to do over the course of six or seven months – find the body language of someone who is so, so far away from his daily life.
We experimented with a few things. It’s tricky – I wanted Richard to look different from what people are used to seeing, so we had to find something that was subtle enough that it doesn’t call attention and at the same time, changes Richard’s persona. So we did something with his hair, we played around a little bit with his ears and we dressed him in suits, and we’ve seen Richard Gere wear suits in almost every movie he’s done, but this suit is different. It doesn’t sit on him the same way Armani suits sat on him his entire life. There’s [also] something about his body language that is not only different from other characters, but the wardrobe and the costumes that shaped the way this man is telling the world that he’s closed off, that he’s unknowable. He’s always with this coat on. He’s wearing a bag. He’s keeping people at a distance because if people get close to him, they’ll reveal his lies. So all these things have to do with finding the right costume, the right makeup, the right hair, and the right body language.
You’ll often allow the music to take over a scene in a way that’s also so expressive of what the characters are feeling. Does that come fairly early in the process?
Yeah, every film has its tone and requirements. I found out that I like music presenting itself without making believe it’s not there. It’s hard to justify sometimes because an audience wants to be drawn into a story and forget that you’re watching a movie. But I found I like when music is a character in itself or is at least an expression of a character, not in an invisible way, but in a present way, and I chose a composer who created something that is that. Not everyone likes it, but it has become part of the language that I like playing with.
You try to communicate a certain tone in the screenplay, but it’s never easy to articulate. You start out having a hunch of what the movie should be and you direct the movie with that in mind, but then it only really presents itself when the movie’s already shot in the editing [where] somehow you’re able to determine what works and what doesn’t. And not everything works. To a large degree, tone is music and until I find a music that feels right, I usually try a few different tracks and that affects the way the movie’s edited, it affects the pacing. There’s something about a performance that if taken too serious suddenly collapses or if taken too humorously, it suddenly has no weight. Finding the exact tone is a big part of what editing is.
“Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer” opens on April 14th in Los Angeles and New York.