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Saturday, Nov. 11, 2000

Norton has faith in directorial skills

Underplay was the operative word for actor Edward Norton at the recent Tokyo press conference for "Keeping the Faith," his directorial debut. During his four-year acting career Norton has already been nominated twice for an Academy Award and now he's become a filmmaker too -- a feat which he seemed to shrug off and . . . underplay.

Edward Norton

Said Norton: "I've worked with some of the best directors in American film, and they've always said that if I ever wanted to direct, I should grab that chance when it came. So it came, and I grabbed it." (Read "No big deal.")

In person, Norton is neat, camera-shy, polite. And he speaks nihongo! "I was in Osaka 10 years ago working for an aquarium on the bay," he explained in near-perfect Japanese. The press was delighted and only professional restraint saved them from asking questions like: "How big was your apartment?" and "What was it like to work with the Japanese?" Though someone did slip in a question about his favorite karaoke number, to which he answered: "Mostly Billy Joel. I was working with someone called Mr. Takamatsu and his favorite song was 'Honesty.' I heard that one over and over." (There you are, Mr. Takamatsu. You're famous now.)

All this Norton delivered in a flat, casual way as if he were used to speaking the local language at press gatherings across the world, used to working with only the finest directors and was now flexing his well-toned muscles to make pictures of his own. "Keeping the Faith," which picked up the Best Screenplay award at the recent Tokyo International Film Festival, is a fun, foamy comedy about best friends (Ben Stiller and Norton) in New York, rekindling an old elementary school friendship with another friend, Anna (Jenna Elfman), who has just flown in from California.

The two guys, one of whom is a Catholic priest and the other a rabbi, immediately fall for the stunning Anna. The movie takes it from there to a predictably feel-good ending. No surprises or twists, but sweet and smart and relaxed -- perhaps a side to Norton that he had been longing to air.

"It was very different from what I always do," said Norton. "My friend Stuart Blumberg (producer-screenwriter) and I had wanted to make a film in New York for many years, and this project came right after 'The Fight Club,' which was a very dark film. It was a nice change of pace for me."

Were you inspired by Woody Allen (for whom Norton stars in "Everybody Says I Love You") in any way?

"I've always liked the way Woody presents New York. It's totally different from the way people who don't live in the city shoot the city. They just don't step back and let the city come forward. They shoot the characters and they shoot the landmarks and that's it, you know. So I tried to avoid that, to make this just as much about New York as it is about a love story."

Norton didn't limit himself to Allen. For "Keeping the Faith," he borrowed techniques and skills from each of the directors he had worked with and admired. From David Fincher ("Fight Club"), he "learned how to get the most out of a single working day. Fincher is an extremely effective manager of resources and people."

When working with Milos Foreman ("The People vs. Larry Flint"), he spent a lot of time in the editing room and learned Foreman's technique. Foreman, by the way, appears in Norton's movie in the role of an older priest and was made to do "a lot of takes."

Norton laughed as he said, "Milos is famous for making actors go through many, many takes. This was a nice kind of revenge for me."

On working with his cast and crew, Norton said the experience was "wonderful, all the way." From the start, he had Ben Stiller in mind as the costar.

"Ben's good because he acts in his own films and has a great instinct for comedy. To have him on the spot was invaluable because he always knew exactly what was going on."

Jenna Elfman was described as "like one of those old movie actresses, a kind of Carole Lombard."

As far as first-time directing projects go, Norton said this one was "very dreamy." He was working with his best friend in a city they both love. When they were shooting near Ben Stiller's childhood home, his mother would "come down in the evening with sandwiches because she was worried we weren't eating." And it was summertime in New York. "The Knicks were in the play-offs and I could walk to work every day."

There's a line in the movie that goes: "People who've never lived in New York have never really lived." This is probably Norton's feeling exactly.

"Keeping the Faith" will open in the spring of 2001.

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