The mysteries of a New York fixer
Joseph Cedar talks about the enigmatic character at the center of ‘Norman,’ his first English-language movie
“Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer” is set in the Manhattan business world, and yet it has the flavor of Washington. The title character, played by Richard Gere, is a grating yet dogged go-between, shuttling from politician to banker to diplomat to religious leader and other muckety-mucks. It’s the first English-language film from Joseph Cedar, the Israeli-born, U.S.trained director of the 2011 Oscarnominated comedy “Footnote,” and Cedar says he moved to New York while writing and filming so he could better understand his American milieu.
“I came to New York to work on this film, not knowing what this film would be,” Cedar said during a recent interview while in Washington to promote the movie. “It evolved from the things that I absorbed while I was there.”
The 48-year-old filmmaker, now living in Tel Aviv again, calls “Norman” a character study of a quintessential American type: the sometimes sad but always fascinating middleman who makes a living by bringing people together, even if his methodology isn’t always clear — or ethical. Cedar spoke about why that role fascinates him.
Q: “Norman” is partly set in Washington and the world of politics. How familiar are you with that world? A: There was one event that I was invited to. It was a research trip for me, but it turned into a key to understanding something about Norman. I came to the National Prayer Breakfast a few years ago, which blew my mind when I learned what it actually is.
Q: And what is it? A: There’s a spiritual agenda, which brings people from both sides of any political question together around some form of prayer. But it’s also an excuse to get many other people — who are not necessarily there for the prayer — under the same roof with politicians, diplomats, businesspeople who otherwise would have a hard time being in the same room. It’s that kind of situation where someone like Norman flourishes. Where the function of getting the right people to speak about something that both sides have an interest in . . . creates a need for someone like Norman. On the one hand, it’s a prayer breakfast. On the other, it’s a national convention of Normans.
Q: Norman is what in Yiddish would be called a “macher” — someone who makes things happen — although the term may not be universally familiar. Why did you change it to “fixer”? A: I suggested “macher.” The word “fixer” came up for the reason you just gave. Anyone who knows that word knows that “fixer” is a substitute, just like “New York” is a substitute for “Jewish.”
Q: Wasn’t the character of Norman also inspired by the anti-Semitic caricature of the historical court Jew, the Jewish banker to royalty? A: The court Jew isn’t itself an anti-Semitic caricature. The court Jew is a real thing that served actual needs, and in many ways modernized Europe. If it weren’t for the anti-Semitic angle on it, it would be seen as a very positive function. Part of what drew me to this function in the world is to try to correct that anti-Semitic spin. People who have character traits that would make them a good macher — some of them are not positive, but a lot of them are.
Q: Are there real-life Normans? I was grateful when Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character, the prosecutor Alex, asks Norman to explain exactly what he does. Like her, I just didn’t get his business model. A: That was my experience, too. There are a lot of people around me who do something that is hard to explain.
Q: People in the film business? A: In any business. People who are in the middle of two sides: the person with the idea and the person with the money. It’s complicated. There’s a mantra
that I’ve taken from “Norman.” Toward the end of the film, someone asks him, “Why isn’t anything ever simple with you?” and he says, “Who says simple is good?” Some of the best things that I enjoy in life are extremely complicated.
Q: Such as? A: Human needs are not simple.
Q: Complexity makes a better story. A: I see why there’s beauty in something simple. In farming. you plant a seed. It grows into fruit. You eat that fruit, and that’s your life. But then there’s a whole other side of experiencing life that’s extremely complicated, and around that one seed are 50 people who are trying to find the same hole in the ground to put in different seeds.
Q: Is Norman homeless? We never see where he lives, and in one scene, he’s eating herring out of a jar on a Ritz cracker. Yet he wears a nice camel-hair coat and carries an iPhone. A: I can answer any biographical question about Norman.
Q: So then why don’t you, in the film? A: Because the people who encounter Norman don’t know those details about him and are afraid to ask. Because he’s forced to lie in almost every encounter and relationship he has. Most people don’t ever want to get close enough to Norman to confront him with his lies and ask for the truth. I know people around me who are like that. I don’t understand exactly how they make a living. They’re alone in the world. I’m pretty sure they’re okay. I’m not positive. I don't know where they go to at night. They go somewhere. Alex is the one person who asks Norman, who wants to know. And once he realizes that she’s aware of him lying, it creates a closeness he doesn’t have with anyone.
Q: What did you do to Richard Gere’s ears? A: We’re not going to reveal exactly what we did, but we were looking for something that would change how he looks, without being too intrusive. We changed the way his face is shaped, in some subtle ways. We played around with his hair. It’s very difficult to disguise Richard. There are actors who give themselves to extreme makeup, like Daniel Day Lewis. But there’s something about Richard that anything too aggressive suddenly calls attention to itself. The primary effect of it is how the actor sees himself. There’s something a little goofy about his look in this film.
Q: Is your curiosity about Norman anthropological or personal? A: Something about Norman says something about my identity. I’m embarrassed by Norman at times, and many times I feel real pride in what I think is his genius. The embarrassment comes from Norman’s actions that are things I find myself doing. Norman is an extreme version, almost a fairy-tale version of this character trait.
Q: Things you have to do as a filmmaker? A: Absolutely. Raising money for a movie can never be taken for granted.
Q: This film and “Footnote” explore the theme of the outsider seeking access to closed systems. What is it about this that fascinates you? A: It definitely does. I’m not sure I can explain why. When I see someone who feels absolutely comfortable in a certain place that I don’t have access to, that’s a mystery to me. I don’t feel that way almost anywhere.
Q: Not even in the film industry? A: Every time I do, I immediately question whether I should or not. Many Israelis, for instance, feel that. If you’re embraced by the establishment, on the one hand, it’s extremely nice, and it allows you to do things you couldn’t otherwise do. At the same time, you don’t really want to be that person who’s embraced by the establishment.
Q: It’s the old joke about not wanting to join a club that would have you as a member. What did you mean when you said, in an interview, that American cinema is in a crisis? A: I don’t know what the context of that comment was. But it’s the studio system. I’ve heard Richard speak about it, and he’s been working in the studio system his entire life. The kind of movies he’s always done are no longer being made by the system.
“Someone asks [Norman], ‘Why isn’t anything ever simple with you?’ and he says, ‘Who says simple is good?’ ” Joseph Cedar, director of “Norman”
Q: It was in the context of criticizing the 2017 Oscar best picture nominees “Hell or High Water” and “La La Land.” You said, “I’d rather re-watch ‘Singin’ in the Rain.’ “A: (Laughing) Oh, okay. That was an interview in Hebrew. Okay. I did say that. This is true.
Q: Have your words come back to haunt you? A: I stand behind them. The standard that I think existed a few years ago — or before I was at a point where I am as critical as I am now — was much higher than it is now.
Q: Talk about the political themes of “Norman.” The idea of a secret middleman — someone who sets up meetings and trades favors — is especially timely. Is that an evergreen function of government and business? A: I think so. State leaders have a type that makes them vulnerable to certain temptations. Businesspeople have certain desires that are beyond their bottom line, having to do with power. That has always been the way the world is. If people exchange favors, I might as well use it to my advantage. The result of this isn’t always bad. In return for that favor, maybe something good will happen.
Q: Such as peace in the Middle East, as happens in the film. Is it still a good thing if peace is brokered by a corrupt politician? A: Israelis have had this dilemma the last 10 years or so: Are we willing to live with a politician who apparently is in the gray area of corruption, but forwarding a policy that some of us think is good?
Q: What’s the answer? A: I don't have an answer. That’s what makes a story worth investigating.
Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer (R, 117 minutes). At area theaters.
ABOVE: Richard Gere, left, as Norman Oppenheimer and Lior Ashkenazi as Micha Eshel in “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer.”
LEFT: The movie’s director, Joseph Cedar, promoting “Norman” at a film festival in Barcelona on April 21.