An Actor’s Dream: ‘Live by Night’ and ‘Motherless Brooklyn’

An acclaimed novel comes out. A big movie star decides to adapt the novel into a big epic film and add their spin on the genre the novel and movie exist in.

Both Ben Affleck’s Live by Night (2016) and Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn (2019) are examples of this. In both cases, it was the first the actor solely wrote, directed, and starred in the movie. Affleck and Norton also produced both films and Warner Bros. distributed both to poor box office.

The two films had other traits in common. Both told stories about eccentric figures and featured an interracial love story. Jazz and African music also played a prominent role in both stories.

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

Plot Similarities

Besides the Production similarities, there are a few similarities in terms of storytelling too:

  • A story that deals with moral and political corruption.
  • An opening car chase in which a side character immediately crashes the car before continuing to drive.
  • The protagonist steals a press member’s credentials to infiltrate a powerful group of people.
  • A plot revolving around race and tribalism in cities.
  • An interracial romance of sorts between the hero and a woman.
  • An ending where the hero leaves his old life to lead a quieter life.

Though the films have many similarities, Affleck and Norton chose to adapt the projects in fundamentally different ways. Affleck chose to adapt the book with a few major changes to the plot and characters. Norton decided to transpose the lead character into a new story.

‘Live by Night’

1927. After spending some time in jail, gangster Joe Coughlin (Affleck) leaves New York for Tampa. There, his dark past and chaotic present collide in unexpected ways.

Original Book

Live by Night is the second Dennis Lehane novel that Ben Affleck has adapted after Gone Baby Gone (2007). As mentioned before, Affleck wrote the screenplay by himself.

The film and the novel are both structured like an old James Cagney film. In particular, the plot seems similar to Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) and The Roaring Twenties (1939).

  • Those films began with the characters as young. Due to a broken system, Cagney got mixed up with the wrong crowd. There, he meets a more corrupt individual (often played by Humphrey Bogart).
  • Cagney goes into business with Bogart.
  • In The Roaring Twenties, Cagney meets two women: a rough one from the wrong side of the tracks and a nice one. In both cases, they represent different lifestyles of the hero. The rough one represents the protagonist’s corruption. and the nice one represents the protagonist’s possible redemption.
  • When Bogart threatens Cagney’s (and others’) livelihood, Cagney has no choice but to kill Bogart. This leads to Cagney’s ultimate demise.
  • In all cases, Cagney’s character represents a problem in society. In Angels, Cagney is an example of the prison system gone wrong. Roaring Twenties has Cagney as a discouraged veteran.

Whereas the Cagney films would make their lead a tragic example of societal problems, the book portrays it as more of a coming-of-age story. The character of Joe Coughlin does not die at the end of the story. Instead, he is transformed into a better man because of his experiences. These include the death of his virtuous wife.

The Film

Like the novel, Live by Night has a larger scope than any of the Cagney films. It takes place primarily in two major cities: Tampa and Boston. The story spans over a decade. Often big-name stars will show up in the film for a few scenes. The opening thirty minutes of the movie would often be the plot for a normal movie. In this film, it is just a jumping-off point.

With a few big exceptions, Affleck remains fairly faithful to the book but also streamlines it. Characters who play a big part in the book get only passing mentions in the film. In the book, Joe, his father Thomas (Brendan Gleeson), and girlfriend Emma Gould (Sienna Miller) have a conversation that takes place over several meal courses. The film cuts this down to the basic beats of the conversation. This is perhaps one of the film’s great strengths and weaknesses.

The Lead Character

Right off the bat, Affleck makes a major change to the story: the age of lead characters. At the beginning of the novel, Joe Coughlin is about 20 years old. In the film, Joe fought in World War I and came back disillusioned. He is also about 10 years older. This revision changes the story from a coming of age story into a story about a man trying to live a carefree life.

Unlike the Joe Coughlin in the novel, the character in the film bears more resemblance to the lead in W. Somerset Maugham’s novel The Razor’s Edge (1944). In the novel, Larry Darrell returns from World War I and decides to look for inner peace. Coincidentally, that book became a passion project of actor Bill Murray, who appeared in Ghostbusters (1984) to make a movie out of the book. The adaptation (co-written by Murray and director John Byrum) received middling reviews and poor box office.

The World

In Live by Night, almost everything comes across as eccentric, from the gangsters to the law. It includes neat little details that will come back later in the story.

Unlike Michael Corleone in The Godfather (1972), Joe Coughlin is never quite corrupted by the mafia. The film makes a point about whether Affleck is “cruel enough” to be a powerful man. He always seems to be seen as the hero and everyman by Affleck. If Joe threatens a man, the next scene will make a joke about he did not actually have the means to carry out the threat. Like many epics, he serves as a guide through many colorful locations, characters, and stories.

If the film is about anything, it seems to be about bureaucracy. The characters in the film are constantly talking about the divisions and layers of society.

The Supporting Cast

Live by Night has many characters and plots. It has so many, that not all of them made the final cut. A great example of this is the character of Daniel Coughlin, Joe’s brother. In the final cut, he is mentioned in passing. Affleck originally cast Scott Eastwood in the role but cut all his scenes. Many of the early trailers still bear Eastwood’s name in their heading.

One pivotal, but quickly discarded character is Joe’s father Thomas, a Boston police captain. He provides the quasi moral to the story: “Whatever you put out into this world will always come back to you, but it never comes back how you predict.”

Throughout the story, Dion Bartolo (Chris Messina) serves beside Joe. In the film, Dion serves two purposes: to provide comedy relief and exposit the characters Joe is about to meet. He acts as a sidekick until Joe promotes him as his replacement.

The Love Interest(s)

Like The Roaring Twenties, there are two women in this film: Emma Gould and Graciela Corrales (Zoe Saldana). Both represent parts of Joe’s life. Emma represents Joe’s descent into the gang world. Graciela represents Joe’s ultimate redemption.

At the beginning of the film, Joe has hooked up with Emma Gould, Irish gang leader Albert White’s (Robert Glenister) mole. They talk about going away together to California and Joe decides to do one last job so they can get there. The job goes wrong and Emma betrays Joe to White, which ultimately lands him in prison. After hearing that Emma died, Joe vows revenge against White, which ultimately leads him to join Italian mob leader Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) and going to Tampa.

There he meets Graciela, the sister of a local rum runner. They quickly fall in love, but Graciela has some apprehensions about Joe’s lifestyle and business (she says the “cruel enough” line). Over the course of the story, her moral qualms will make Joe question his past choices and current profession.

While in Tampa, Joe sees a picture of Emma alive in a Miami brothel. After killing both White and Pescatore in a gun battle, Joe goes to visit Emma and learns that their relationship meant a lot less to her than it did to him. With that, he returns to Tampa and to Graciela. Together, they have a son named after Joe’s father. They live a happy life until Joe’s past comes back to haunt him.

The Antagonists

There is no one villain in the film. The Villains include the Italian mafia, the Irish mafia, the Ku Klux Klan, religious fundamentalism, and Tampa Police Chief Figgis (Chris Cooper). Besides Figgis, almost every villain is played by an actor who is experienced yet relatively unknown to American audiences. This makes it less likely that the audience will relate to the character due to the actor playing the role.

Probably the closest character to a primary antagonist is Chief Figgis. At the beginning of the film, Figgis tells Joe that he is a pure incorruptible man. After he says this, his daughter Loretta (Elle Fanning) walks in the room and reveals herself as Figgis’s biggest weakness.

The Chief announces that she is going to Hollywood. When Joe needs permission to rub out Figgis’s brother-in-law, he finds lewd photos of Loretta and shows them to Figgis. He refuses to reveal where Loretta is until he comes out of the meeting alive. While the film has a whole plotline of her own, this revelation ultimately leads to the deeply religious Chief Figgis to fall apart and blame Joe for his problems.

After vanquishing the other villains, Joe decides to retire to a quiet life. Figgis decides to shoot up Joe’s house. While Joe survives, the attack ultimately kills Graciela.

The Style

Along with the change in story comes a change in style. Lehane chooses to tell the novel in third person. Affleck adds a voiceover narration that explains Coughlin’s emotions and decisions.

Affleck also chooses a style that highlights performances as well as scale. Oftentimes Affleck favors long tracking shots in the film, where plot points play out almost entirely in one shot. In the scene where Chief Figgis shoots up Joe’s house and kills his wife, Affleck does the whole scene in a long tracking shot. It is a quick burst of violence that leads to a slow mourning. In the book, the scene is longer and more detailed. Joe actually has a conversation with Figgis and tries to talk him down.

The Release

When Live by Night got released, Affleck had made three very financially and critically successful films. All three had been nominated for the Academy Award in some category. His previous film Argo (2012) had won best picture. Live by Night broke that streak. Besides receiving poor reviews, it ended up losing Warner Bros. 75 million dollars.

When released in 2016, it was seen as a bit of a throwback. On the Graham Norton Show, it was presented alongside La La Land. Both brought back an old genre. While Live by Night recreated the Gangster film, La La Land recreated the old-fashioned musical.

‘Motherless Brooklyn’

Detective Lionel Essrog (Norton) sets out to solve his mentor Frank Minna’s (Bruce Willis) murder. However, his journey takes him into a web of corruption that will reveal many dark secrets.

Original Book

The original novel takes place in the 1990s and does not feature any of the 1950’s material added by Norton.

Norton’s initial attraction to the novel was the lead character of Lionel, an investigator suffering from Tourette’s. He also delivers the novel’s story in first person. The book primarily plays out in Lionel’s descriptions and plays more with the character’s voice than the movie does. The first 100 pages of the book around setting up the story, the character, and his world.

While he changes much of the book, Norton keeps some of the original parts from the book. For example, the opening from the book exists in the film, with some minor changes. In that opening sequence, Frank gets shot. When they pull up at the hospital with the dying Frank, a man tells them they cannot park in the spot they parked in. What changes is who the man is. In the movie, it’s a white guard. In the book, it’s a dreadlocked Rastafarian guard. Presumably, this and many of the other changes in the book’s opening come with the change in the time period.

The Film

In Norton’s own words, he transposed the character of Lionel into a 1950s Chinatown (1974) story. While Chinatown focused on control over water in Los Angeles, Motherless Brooklyn focuses on controlling real estate and construction in New York City. The main antagonist has constructed most of the bridges leading off of the island of Manhattan and wants to demolish black neighborhoods for his own construction projects.

Although it takes place over a shorter period of time, Norton’s film is longer. It clocks in at 144 minutes long.

The Lead Character

Unlike Affleck, Norton is more of a character actor in leading man’s clothing. Two of his three Oscar nominations have come from supporting roles. At the time Norton acquired Motherless Brooklyn, he had become known for playing outsiders. Unlike his role in this film, Norton had spent most of the 2010s playing supporting roles.

As the lead, Norton takes the ticks of the character in the book and puts them in the film. While Norton likes the character, he also sees the character as a vehicle for exploring his other interests.

The World

While Lionel acts as a guide through the world, he is presented as more of a comedic lead than the Everyman at the center of Live by Night. Many scenes with Lionel have him carrying on an investigation, but having his ticks getting in the way. Norton also chooses to populate Essrog’s normal everyday world with actors known for comedy, while filling other roles with dramatic actors. In Essrog’s normal life at the cab company, the audience sees the likes of Bobby Canavale, Leslie Mann, and Ethan Suplee.

Motherless Brooklyn takes place in a world that always looks somewhat overcast. It is filled with washed-out greens, blues, and greys. Oftentimes, one sees red in only a few places. Often these places are connected to passion and clarity. Oftentimes it will appear in bars and clubs. Essrog has a red light in his apartment while he reflects on his loving mother.

The Supporting Cast

In the making-of featurette, Norton says that he cast the movie with thespians more than method actors because he needed people who could go along with him both directing and acting.

The Love Interest

Through his investigation, Essrog meets black rights activist Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Ultimately, she will hold the key to his case. Over the course of the film, they form a Romantic relationship of sorts.

Laura provides a comfort to the constantly jittery Lionel. In narration, Lionel says that his mother provided him some comfort as a child from his Tourette’s. Over the course of the story, Laura provides Lionel with the same kind of relief. She also finds a certain security in Lionel.

The Antagonist

For the film, Norton invents an antagonist: Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin), based on New York City Planner Robert Moses. The film portrays Randolph as a sociopath willing to betray anybody around him to maintain power. This includes his own brother Paul Randolph (Willem Dafoe) and daughter Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).

At the beginning of the film, Laura Rose thinks that Paul is her father. He has paid for her to go to law school and has been really involved in her life from a distance.

Paul Randolph has lived a meager existence since before the stock market crash. It turns out that his brother destroyed him when Paul insisted he take care of his illegitimate daughter. Paul does not see his brother as evil, but rather as somebody who power corrupted.

The Style

Norton tells the story mostly through Lionel’s eyes. This includes everything down to POV shots.

The film breaks perspective when it comes to Moses Randolph. Norton first presents Randolph as being associated with water. After swimming in a pool, he comes outside in the rain. He seems more like a presence or sea creature than a full person. The audience does not even see his face much until he makes a demand of political power from the New York Mayor.

Norton contrasts Randolph with his presentation of Jazz in the movie. Norton personally contacted Radiohead’s Thom Yorke to write a song for the movie. He then had Wynton Marsalis rearrange it. When Norton and cinematographer Dick Pope film Jazz Musicians, they tend to bathe them in light, which makes them seem more angelic.

The Release

At the time of the film’s release, Norton had directed one film, Keeping the Faith (2000). Like Motherless Brooklyn, it takes place in New York. Unlike the second film, it is a romantic comedy written by somebody else. Norton also played one of the male leads in that film.

The film also experienced a tragedy during its production. During filming, a fire broke out on set. One of the firefighters died in the blaze. Multiple lawsuits were filed, including one against Norton’s production company, Class 5 Films.

As the main champion of the project for many years, Norton spent a lot of time selling it. Norton appeared at the roast of Bruce Willis and described working with him on the film. In interviews, Norton appears more than any other performer in the film, although many of his cast members do show up.

While the film was a flop, it had cost only 26 million dollars to make.


In both films, actors create a large world for many actors to play around in. Scope and scale matter a lot in these films. These are large epics about corruption in humanity.