I met Noah Baumbach at the afterparty for the LA premiere of Margot at the Wedding. I hadn’t seen the movie – the theater had been filled to capacity and I had been turned away – but I still introduced myself anyway, like a doofus. Baumbach wasn’t impressed with the guy at his party who hadn’t even seen his movie.
A couple of weeks later I did see the movie, and I really liked it. It’s harder than The Squid and the Whale (my number one film for 2005), and it’s less accessible, but nobody writes characters and dialogue like Baumbach. I suspect that many of the aspiring filmmakers in the audience would like to make movies in the style of Peter Jackson or Steven Spielberg; if I was interested in making movies I would like to make ones about smart, funny people who are very fucked up. I’d want to make Noah Baumbach movies.
A week after seeing the film I got the chance to talk to Baumbach on the phone. Still smarting from coming across like a jackass at the party (which I am sure he doesn’t even remotely remember), I think I may have gone overboard in the asskissing. There was a guy in New York, a guy who writes for another website, who I would make fun of because all of his questions at junkets would be like, ‘When you were being so great in this role, were you aware of how great you were being?’ In this interview I’m that guy.
Do you believe in happy families?
Well, I’m guessing the premise of your question is that you feel that the families I depict are unhappy. Is that correct?
It’s hard to say. I was just telling the publicist that I was considering suing you because you keep making movies about my family. Maybe unhappy isn’t the exact right word to use, but families in conflict is what you’re specializing in these days.
You’re right. The last two films I’ve made are about families in conflict and at points of anxiety and change and transition. It doesn’t mean I don’t think these families have been happy at times, or that there are not great things about these families. Even though these movies are in some way documents of family collapses, I also see them as celebrations of family in a funny way. It’s just celebrating maybe the darker aspects.
Squid and the Whale was my favorite film of 2005. Margot is also a film that works for me and resonates with me, but there are people who are left cold by both movies. The criticism that a lot of these folks have is that your films have unlikable characters. Do you understand that criticism?
It’s not that I don’t understand it, I don’t see it. I don’t agree with it. I don’t necessarily… for me it’s not that interesting an interpretation. People are a lot of things, and I think these movies show that to some degree. I don’t agree with that assessment, I guess I would say. I have sympathy for these characters.
One of the interesting things about Margot at the Wedding is the relationship between Malcolm (Jack Black) and Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh). They’re an odd couple – do you think they’re right for each other or do you agree with Margot that their wedding is a mistake?
We didn’t put it as them being right for each other, but there’s hope for them. Being where they are in their lives, it’s a good match. I think there’s a lot that they appreciate about each other.
Your scripts are so precisely written. Jack Black is the kind of guy who comes in to a movie and brings his own energy and can bring his own take on a character and a scene. Did you give him room to go improv, or did he work off the script.
He works off the script. I think that’s actually a misinterpretation of Jack. The thing about Jack isn’t that he can’t improvise brilliantly, but even in his comic stuff he’s doing the script. He’s just doing it with such energy that it feels like he made it up on the day. I was interested in that energy, bringing him into the world of this movie and seeing what the clash of those energies brought. I felt strongly that he could be great in this movie and be funny and use his comic gift and what makes him special, but in the realm of the movie as I saw it.
I read that the way you wrote this script is that you started with the image of the mother and son on the train and you kept exploring it from there. Is that the usual way you approach a script? Do you start with just that spark and find your way through the writing process?
Yeah, but it doesn’t mean that every spark becomes a full script, and it doesn’t mean that every entree into the script is as specific as it was with this movie. With Squid I couldn’t tell you… I was writing about older brothers, I was writing flashbacks, then I realized I should be writing about younger people. It wasn’t as specific as an image, and the squid and the whale image didn’t come until later and didn’t become the title until much later. The idea of starting a movie in motion was interesting to me, and two people who are very bonded cast out into the world, how does that bond fare when they’re out of their comfort zone? But I’ll have ideas of a relationship, dialogue, conversation. It could be a location – those could be things that will make me start writing. But like I said, sometimes it gets folded into something else or gets put aside. The don’t always become a movie.
You’ve mentioned Malles’ Murmurs of the Heart as an influence on Squid and the Whale. Eric Rohmer seems to have influenced Margot. What are some other movies that you feel influenced this one?
Bergman movies in the 60s. Passion of Anna. Shame. Hour of the Wolf. Persona to some degree. Not that it was anything specific about those movies, it’s just that there’s something about the way those movies feel, and they tend to be sophisticated people in country settings. They also tend to be on islands, many of those. Also people going through turmoil. Five Easy Pieces was something I thought about; I always liked how that movie feels like they made it up as they went along – in the best possible sense. That could be a criticism of a film, but here it feels like each scene was a discovery for the filmmakers, as it is to the audience. Those are a few. I’m sure there are plenty of other ones. A lot of influence comes from weird directions.
When we talk about influence on you, are you the kind of filmmaker who will immerse himself in a certain kind of movie to get the mood or are you the kind of filmmaker that has just picked up that influence over years of watching films?
It’s more the latter. I’m watching movies all the time, so a lot of that influence just seeps in. Also it’s different at different moments. When I’m writing something might come up and I’ll think ‘Oh I should look at that Eric Rohmer movie because it has people in similar situations,’ looking for how did this person handle a comparable situation in a movie. Then it’s different later working with the cinematographer and my production designer because then it will be looking at movies with similar locations because what did they look like. There were movies where we saw swimming shot in interesting ways. It becomes more specific. With the writing it’s osmosis and when shooting movies become the same as paintings or family photographs or anything that might somehow be relevant to the look and the feel of the movie in a practical way.
Earlier this week I was talking to Todd Haynes about I’m Not There and he said that his films test terribly, but that it’s all about how they’re regarded later. I have to imagine that Margot wouldn’t play that well in front of a Pasadena mall crowd – did you test this at all?
No. We had some screenings we controlled, but no we don’t test the movies in any filling out cards way.
Like Haynes you’re making films that are not obviously commercial movies. When you’re coming off of Squid and the Whale, which was a success, does it make it easier for you to do what you want with Margot or does the idea of replicating that success mean the financial types give you a hard time?
With Squid we were just under the radar. Nobody cared when we made it. With this movie I did have Paramount behind it and they were completely supportive. Having made Squid meant they could see, they could trust that what might seem like the rougher edges would fold in. That when the movie was finished it would all work together. They were completely supportive of the movie. The only issues are about budget, and I’m as vested in that as they are. I don’t want to spend too much money on a movie like this, I want them to make their money back. As long as I can bring it in for an amount money they’re comfortable with, they’re supportive.
Is the Emperor’s Children your first adaptation?
No. I’ve adapted other things, it’s just the first adaptation where the announcement was on the front of Variety.
What is the adaptation process like for you, versus doing something original?
For me it’s almost like a side project or something. It’s like my techno album I’m doing on the side. I enjoy adaptations because in a way I feel like it connects me to when I was a kid – every movie that I saw that I loved I would sort of fantasize making the movie myself. It would be living vicariously through my favorite filmmakers and actors and imagine how I would make that movie. When I would read books I would always imagine making movies of the books, and I would talk to my parents about it and we would come up with casts. In a way this is doing it in a practical manner and getting paid for it. Just to have that feeling of reading a book and thinking, ‘I’d like to see the movie of that. You know what? I’ll write that movie.’ It’s enjoyable, and it is a different process. I feel like it’s a different workout than writing my own stuff.
There’s a running bit in Margot where Pauline is angry at her sister for taking aspects of her life for her work. A lot of people were interested in what was autobiographical and what was fictional in Squid. In this case, how much of that is autobiographical, that people you know are looking at you and wondering if you’re using their lives for your art?
I’ve always found that the people who think you’ve used things from their life are usually the people you weren’t thinking about at all. It’s always the people you think are the obvious ones that have no idea. Jennifer always asks me what I’m writing when I take out my notebook; I see how that can be annoying. I try to be more subtle and go into the other room. But no, I can’t think of any conflicts with people over writing down what they’re doing. I think people are flattered when you write down what they’re doing.
How much do you take from life? All of these characters ring so true – how much is based on people you know?
It’s all whipped up into a puree of things. I couldn’t tell you ‘Oh this is this person I know, this is this person I know.’ In the early stages of writing I’ll feel my way into a character and I might be thinking deliberately, ‘The thing this person said the other day, I’m interested in that,’ or in this trait this person has, but once the character starts to gel they become their own thing. Once the story starts to develop in the script it’s all in the realm of fiction, and the character will behave in a way that’s relevant to what’s happening in the story. There’s no way to know anymore. I was likening it the other day to someone cooking you a meal and you pick out all the ingredients: ‘Was this a carrot? Did you use flour in this?’ There is some recipe somewhere, but you don’t know what you did.