The Collider Interview: Noah Baumbach

     October 13, 2005

Posted by Mr. Beaks

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MIA since 1997, Noah Baumbach has finally returned to filmmaking with the cruelest dramatization of divorce since Alan Parker’s Shoot the Moon, though this one’s preferable because it has the good sense to be funny.; That’s not meant to be snide in the least; as anyone lucky enough to have a front seat to marital discord in their youth will tell you, there’s something queasily amusing about the disintegration of one’s family.; Oh, sure, you cry a lot, start listening to The Smiths and, maybe, begin experimenting with drugs, but watching the two people who instilled your moral foundation act like fools is the stuff high comedy.; You have to laugh; the only other option is depression, and you might as well wait until you hit your own adulthood before opting into the great gray.;

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That’s why Gen X-ers are embracing The Squid and the Whale, though firsthand experience with the subject matter certainly isn’t necessary to recognize that Baumbach’s crafted one of this year’s leanest and most honest pieces of cinema.; That the film is set in the mid-1980’s obviously imbues it with an added poignancy if you came of age during the Reagan Revolution, but it’s just too true a human document to be marginalized as simple nostalgia.; Also inarguable is the quality of the performances, all of which – from Jeff Daniels’s glum patriarch to Owen Kline’s alcoholic adolescent – are naturalistic perfection.;

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But the real noteworthy triumph here belongs to Baumbach, who seemed poised to become on of his generation’s best filmmakers before disappearing after the dual disappointment of Mr. Jealousy and Highball.; Was it too much too soon, or simply a case of waiting for the right project?; That’s one of the topics of I brought up with Baumbach when I sat down for a one-on-one interview last Friday at Le Meridien.; Below is the transcript of our kinda wide-ranging discussion that touches on his writing process, the brilliant Jeff Daniels and the psychological brutality of tennis.;


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You’ve been promoting this film since Sundance, and talking about it for the better part of a year.; Have you hit critical mass with it?;

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At Sundance, it was kind of like this fever pitch and then it died down for a little while because we knew we weren’t opening until the fall, so it picked up again in the summer.; It all becomes individual things.; And I learned, too, how to talk about the movie.; At Sundance, I was being asked to articulate a lot of things that I hadn’t really thought through in an analytic way; I had really been more of an emotional or it was very technical in terms of the specifics of the film.; So to suddenly be at a point where I have to analyze the characters’ behavior – things that really, in a way, aren’t that interesting to me – that became the learning curve.; Sundance was good for that – to sort of learn how to talk about things.

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And it’s always in these quick bursts.; It’s not like you’re sitting down to do Hitchcock/Truffaut.

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Exactly.

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And it must’ve been much more intense than what you did for Kicking and Screaming or, after that, Mr. Jealousy, which was 1997.; In between that period, were you writing, or struggling to write, or was this the project you were working on during that time?

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No.; I mean, I started working on this project probably around 2000.; I think it probably started in 2000, and probably by 2001 or 2002 I had a draft that I felt really was close.; In retrospect, at the time, of course, everything I was working on between Mr. Jealousy and The Squid and the Whale I thought was the thing I wanted to make.; And if I had the opportunity to make it, it would’ve been something I made.; But in a lot of cases, now that I look in retrospect, it was a lot of transitional stuff.; A lot of the scripts I kind of value now for how they didn’t work, or one scene or moments or a character that I can kind of see was the direction I was going.; But at the time, you know, you really think this is the thing you’re working on.; And I also wrote a couple of pilots for T.V. that, again, being in a situation where I was given complete freedom – I mean, the pilots didn’t get picked up, but I was given complete freedom to write the pilot.; And I think having to condense a story into such a short period of time – a half-hour or an hour – I think was really helpful, because I think I really improved as a writer.; It helped me focus.

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That’s interesting, because Kicking and Screaming was, in a way, episodic; it just gradually went from incident to incident, though it did eventually acquire a momentum,.; But with Squid and the Whale, I really sensed a greater appreciation for structure.; Was that something that came in later drafts, or was it always there?

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Probably, if I did Kicking and Screaming now, it would go further in that direction than it did at the time.; Although, I like that Kicking and Screaming… that it does take its time.; It’s a movie that’s about hanging out, and the movie kind of hangs out, too.; With this movie, I got more and more into the structure of it the more I worked on it.; It was important for me to initially work more openly and as unconsciously as I could, to really create these characters in as open and raw a way as I could.; But then there comes a point where you have them, and you have to find out what the movie is, what the structure is.; And that was something that I developed throughout the whole thing; throughout the script process, I worked on that.; The shoot, in some ways, enhanced that feeling because it was handheld in Super 16 and it has this kind of immediacy.; Then, when I cut the movie, I even got bolder in that way, not so much restructuring the scenes, but the speed of scenes and the speed of the movie.; I got very interested in this idea of the movie being a kind of experience.; In Kicking and Screaming there are a lot of moments where, like I said, you can kick back and let the movie wash over you.; But with this movie, I think it forces you to engage.

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I think that’s because it’s so scabrous.; I think that, for anyone who’s been through the experience of divorce, it rings painfully true.; I’ve seen you refer to the film as a reinvention, but isn’t it also something of a purgation?

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Yeah.; Once I locked into writing about this experience it’s like I couldn’t stop myself.; I think it took a long time to find the comfort level or the approach, but, once I did, there was no stopping it.

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The cultural things you invoke – Fitzgerald and Tender is the Night to “Run to You” by Bryan Adams – did those carry special significance?

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In each case, it becomes very individual.; With “Run to You”, it’s like Walt and Sophie hanging out at Sophie’s house.; Actually, in an earlier draft – it’s actually in the shooting draft and might be in the published script – they actually pass notes in school, and she wrote down the lyrics to “Run to You”.; I cut that scene.; I didn’t even shoot it, partly for pace and partly because I didn’t really have time; I’d rather spend a little more time than try to get that scene in there.; But I always liked that “Run to You”… even I, at the time, was probably fighting the fact that I liked it.; (Laughs) ;But I really do like that song, so I put it on the radio there.; And, then, Fitzgerald was just stuff that Bernard and Walt talked about.

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Was that stuff that you and your father talked about?

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In come cases.; Not in those specific ways.; In a lot of ways, I did have a sense of books that were better than other books.; I was sort of some ways informed of that before I had a chance to find it out for myself.

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Sort of a second-hand snobbery?

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Right, right.

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But did you ever get busted in that way, where you hadn’t read the book you’d been talking about?

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I don’t think I ever called Kafka “Kafkaesque”, but I definitely would find myself lecturing girlfriends on things that I had no idea about, and, then, often have them come back having read them and, basically, have to shut up.; (Laughs)

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Once you were able to set out and create your own sensibility and find your own likes and passions, did you find they were things your father had been interested in, or did you find yourself becoming a different person artistically?

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I think that both would happen.; I have found that, in some cases, my father valued one filmmaker over another filmmaker, and then I later, after dismissing the filmmaker, watched his movies and, in some cases, found myself thinking, “Yeah, he was right”, but in other cases thinking, “No, this guy’s great.”; Louis Malle is a good example of a filmmaker who, in our family, was always lesser New Wave.; I still don’t like Louis Malle as much as I like Eric Rohmer, but Murmur of the Heart made a huge impact on me when I saw it.

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And Atlantic City is a wonderful film.

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Yeah, it’s terrific.

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While we’re discussing the French New Wave, it’s kind of inescapable that this film feels informed by the New Wave with its use of Super 16.; Were you drawing on Godard or Truffaut or any of their films?

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Not in any deliberate way.; Particularly when I wrote it, I tried not to let other stuff come into it.; I tried to keep it as much its own experience as I could.; It wasn’t even deliberate; I just didn’t want to.; I wasn’t thinking of movies.; I was trying to think of experiences both real and imaginary, but keep it out of other references.; The characters in the movie make references, but I wasn’t making them.; Of course, later, [cinematographer] Bob Yeoman, [production designer] Anne Ross and I would look at lots of movies less for subject matter and more for design.; Like Faye Dunaway’s kitchen in Three Days of the Condor – we used stuff because it was in Brooklyn Heights.; And Redford’s… I think it was his black socks with his brown shoes in All the President’s Men.; These were all things that somehow really resonated with us even though those movies tonally are nothing like what we were doing.; But that’s what’s so fun about it:; when you’re getting something from everywhere.; Then, there were French New Wave movies like early Godard and early Truffaut and Rohmer.; For Godard and Truffaut, I looked at a lot of stuff shot on the street, and the energy of handheld camera on a real street but with actors.; With Rohmer, I looked at My Night at Maud’s – people in an environment, in a room, and spending a lot of time in a room, and how people sit in chairs.; It’s very interesting.; Watching Jean-Louis Trintignant in My Night at Maud’s; his body language when he’s there is just so incredible.; All of that stuff is kind of amorphous; I wasn’t looking at anything too specifically.; And then I was also looking at documentaries, like the Maysles’ Salesman, to see how they shot people in cars.

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Rohmer’s an interesting name to drop in there because, unlike those guys, although he found some acceptance in that era, he doesn’t really do well with American sensibilities.; He tends to hold on to takes much longer.; Was that something you were maybe trying to avoid, or were you okay with letting the scene happen and trusting the actors?

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I didn’t think about it so much that way.; The movie takes its time within scenes, but I did think about the transitions between scenes, to always make them abrupt or continuous, like almost one scene bleeding into another with overlapping dialogue or music or whatever that sort of just keeps taking you forward so that you don’t have time.; I became very aware while cutting the movie or those transition points in movies, when you’re watching them in a theater with people you can feel everyone sort of take a breath or… well, it always annoys me when people talk.; But you kind of understand what they’re reacting to – the movie’s letting you down for a moment before we move into that next part – and I wanted to take all of that out of the movie and not allow you those moments.; Except maybe when Greta sings “Kyrie” in the middle of the movie – that’s sort of the unofficial intermission.

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(Laughing); If you’re going to an intermission, why not Mr. Mister?; But I really love that approach.; You get us by the throat and just hold us there; it’s kind of unremitting.; Also, I couldn’t stop laughing throughout the movie even though I was laughing mostly out of recognition, especially because of tennis.; I played tennis very competitively when I was growing up, and it is the worst sport for someone battling with their self-esteem.

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Yeah, it is.

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Were you playing tennis at that time?

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Yeah.; And I had those very problems.; I had a friend who I’m still very good friends with.; He was always a little better than me, but we always played together.; On any given day, I could beat him, but he would always throw a fit when he started to lose, and I would always feel bad and throw the game.; I mean, not deliberately throw it, but psyche myself out of it.; After awhile, that just became too much to go through.

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I found that I always played to the level of my competition.; I would lose to the people I was supposed to beat, and beat the people that were a bit better than me, and just plateau.; That didn’t work out.

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It’s interesting about tennis, because it’s long.; Even if you’re up, if you start to think too much, it just seems like such a long way to get to six games.; And then if you’re down, it just seems like, “Oh, god, I’ve got to come all the way back!”; Also, if you’re prone to it, it gives you so much time in your own head to psych yourself out of any given situation.; There’s nothing like a second serve to psych yourself out.

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Right.; And I think for creative minds, that’s the worst thing.; If you’re whimsical, you can really find ways to take yourself out of a game and go to some really awful places.

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I always found it very interesting with people like John McEnroe, and this was true of my friend:; the fit empowers them.; Not because they’re relying on you to fall apart, but, by the release, they’re psyching themselves back into it, and that was so not my psychology.

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The father’s collapse near the end of the film:; was that always part of the story?

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I’m trying to think.; It has been for a while.; There are probably early drafts where it’s not there.; I’m not even sure if those drafts were fully finished, or where I was at that point, but as far back as I can remember it’s been there.

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Because at that point of the film, it feels like the story wants something that momentous to happen.; We’re trained to be waiting for that because the tension is just too much, and someone’s got to fall apart.; It’s interesting, because, up until that point, I kept wondering where was that going to happen in this film.

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In a way, because Bernard is carrying as much tension as probably the viewer is, Bernard is having the collapse so you don’t have to.; Also, the collapse comes because he’s getting a ticket.; It’s the little indignity that causes him to break.

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I’m going to assume that you’re probably a Woody Allen fan, and, therefore, a Purple Rose of Cairo fan.

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Yeah.

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We don’t often get to see Jeff Daniels in roles like this.; Was he your choice all along?

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I had different actors in mind at different times.; It was also the nature of the financing of the movie that, when we thought we might have more money – at a certain point, there was a $6 million version of this film that was a possibility.; But with that, only certain actors could be considered.; The hard thing was, “Well, now we only have a million-and-a-half to make the movie”; the great thing was the freeing of it.; It was sort of like, “Now you can choose from the entire pool of male actors”.; I had heard that Jeff was interested, and I had always really liked Jeff.; Purple Rose of Cairo and Something Wild were, for me, when I was in high school and discovering filmmakers firsthand, going to the movies and seeing Jarmusch and the Coens and David Lynch and Spike Lee and Jonathan Demme.; And Woody Allen, although Woody Allen was a little bit of a holdover.; But Jeff Daniels was in two of my favorites of those movies, so when I heard Jeff was interested, I was like, “That’s sort of nice, because I was such a fan of his at that time”.; Not that I wasn’t still, but it was different then.; And when I met him, I just had a sort of intuition; he’s got those sad eyes.; I always wanted someone who I knew could be funny, but wasn’t a comic and who could really act, and Jeff fit that perfectly.

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Finally, Kicking and Screaming came out [on video] right when I was ending my senior year in college and facing down a fifth year.; For me, it was definitely the right movie at the right time.; And the end of that film is one of those ineffable… I don’t know why it ends that way, but I couldn’t imagine it ending any other way.; How did you find that ending?

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It was always structured to end that way.; I had modeled the flashbacks, in a way, on [Harold Pinter’s] Betrayal, because he plays it all backwards, and that’s, of course, become fashionable now.; But back in ’95 when no one had discovered Nick Drake yet, and I had him in a movie and I was telling a story in reverse.; No… I think it’s one of those things.; I liked that there was always this other story that was sort of going on; there was the present action of these guys stuck in school, but there was this ghosting of this past relationship that kept going on simultaneously.; And that was always there from a very early point.; And, if I remember correctly, I think I even wrote the ending, the bit where Josh [Hamilton] said “If we were an old couple”… I think I wrote that.; It’s one of those things where you have a document, and then you have the end down here, and you’re just waiting to keep filling it so you can get to it.; But it was always going to end the movie.; And the nice thing about it, beyond what I did, was Olivia [d’Abo]… we held the take really long, and I think she started to get uncomfortable that the take was going on.; Josh was sort of cracking up a little bit, and she sort of had this “What’s so funny?” look on her face, and there was just something about that that you couldn’t have planned.; And when I cut it, it seemed that that should end it.

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And that’s an interview that was over too soon.; The Squid and the Whale is currently playing in limited release.; Don’t miss it.

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