Marriage Story: Interview with Director Baumbach–Part 2

Noah Baumbach’s new movie, Marriage Story, starring Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, world premieres at the 2019 Venice Film Fest tonight.

Notions of Family and Home

NB: It’s a big thing for Charlie to be back in a house that he used to be a part of and for him to suddenly feel like an outsider
sider. The story plays with different notions of family and home. Charlie no longer belongs here, but this is still his son’s home, his son’s family. That’s another crushing aspect of divorce: Not only is Charlie losing his partner but he’s
potentially losing a relationship with Nicole’s family, their friends. Or at least losing the way things were. And they’re
losing him.

Azhy Robertson as Henry (Boy in the Middle)

Noah Baumbach: He auditioned a few times and then Adam came and read with him. That was really key. When they were reading, we crushed a piece of paper like a ball and they threw it back and forth while they did the scene. Azhy forgot what he was doing, but he was still on book and I remember thinking, This is special.

At times Henry’s being accommodating and at others he’s pushing back. It’s very moving to me how kids tend to
deal with difficult situations when they don’t have the language for it yet. He’s playing with his dolls while asking,
“Why aren’t you here more?” With Henry, you feel the divorce even when he’s silent or talking about something else. You always sense his world changing.

Three Lawyers

NB: Each lawyer gets considerable screen time: Nora, Bert and Jay. Bert is the odd man out, the one with the most compassion. Why was it essential to include his perspective? Despite their connection, why does Charlie ultimately fire Bert?

I felt that the contrast between Bert and Jay said a lot about the divorce system. Bert’s view is much more sympathet-
ic, but then he’s eaten alive in a negotiation. Jay’s approach is aggressive, but more effective.

At the beginning of the movie, Nicole and Charlie don’t want to hurt each other, they don’t want to spend too much
money, everyone wants to protect Henry. It’s a really hard reckoning for them to realize there’s no reward for good
behavior, as Nora says at one point. And once the legal fight begins, it’s nearly impossible to stop or even to slow
down. As they say, the only way out is through. Charlie is catching up to the idea of his marriage ending, and what steps he has to take next. From the beginning, Nicole knows she’s leaving. Her story is, in a sense, one of building herself up, and his is one of breaking down.

Laura Dern’s Nora: Nicole’s Lawyer

Laura Dern’s Nora is such a shapeshifter in this movie–she somehow makes herself into exactly the confidante each individual wants. You had known Laura for a long time but never worked together. What was directing her like?

Laura and I have been friends for a while–I think it was a surprise even to us that this was our first movie together. What’s exciting about how Laura plays the part is that Nora’s intentions remain opaque throughout. Nora’s obviously very good at her job: Is she really complimenting Charlie or is that strategy? I don’t even know. And Laura just understood that intuitively.

Dern’s Physicality

I love her physicality in the part. As soon as we see her, she’s striding across her office. How she removes her jacket in the courtroom. Ordering lunch! Sitting on Nicole’s counter drinking champagne! When I showed her the speech about how a good father was only created 30 years ago, and how God was the absent father when Mary had Jesus, she added the line, “He didn’t even do the fucking.” I could watch her say those lines all day.

Lawyers Not as Villains

NB: The lawyers are not villainous even in their moments of most contentious negotiating. Everybody is just doing their job, playing their role. The legal process produces its own needs, and the lawyers fulfill these needs. Would Nicole have gotten what she wanted if she hadn’t hired Nora? The answer is probably no. At the same time, both Nicole and Charlie lose their voices, too.

We see this in the conference room when Nora and Bert begin mediation. We shot the beginning of the scene as if it was a conversation between Nicole and Charlie, cutting back and forth between them. But they’re not saying anything — we’re hearing the lawyers. After this, it’s harder for them to express themselves. They lose sight of what it is they want, what it is they feel.

Positive Atmosphere on Set

NB: In the past, I’ve generally been able to retain some distance as a director; it’s a necessary part of the job. But on this one, because the actors were revealing so much every day, I couldn’t be unaffected. The scene in Charlie’s apartment, where they fight, we shot over two days. We were all worn out by the end. It was tightly choreographed and shot-listed,  rehearsed exhaustively, but still, we’d all have to take breaks and walk around the block.

Editing

NB: The impact of that scene remained in the editing room. Jennifer Lame and I would sit in the cutting room, going through the takes, and we could only do it for so long without having to clear our heads. And again, during the mix, Chris Scarabosio, Jen and I would go for a while and then need to stop. But I love the scene and find it very cathartic to watch. Of all the things I’ve done, in any movie, there’s something about that scene that I felt accomplished everything we all set out to do.

From Distance to Close Intimacy

NB: It’s a scene that when you’re shooting, you can’t really pick up in the middle. It’s about momentum as much as any-
thing, so we’d need to start each take at the beginning. They did it over and over again, almost from start to finish each time. And you can’t fake the emotion. It’s scripted that Charlie breaks down at a very specific point, right in the middle of what he’s saying. I wrote that because I knew Adam would be performing it. Adam’s vulnerability in that moment is combined with incredible precision and calibration. It’s astonishing.

Everything was very particular, technically. In the close-ups, there were specific movements for every line, where they had to turn at the right moment or lunge forward — these were all moments that I knew I would cut on. So, in effect, you’re telling them to lose themselves entirely, but also to turn their head to the left when they do it.

Influence of The Last Picture Show (1971)

NB: There’s a fight in The Last Picture Show (1971) that was in my head for those close-ups. It’s when Jeff Bridges and
Timothy Bottoms are fighting around the car and it builds to Bridges smashing the bottle on Bottoms’ head. Director Bogdanovich cuts back and forth within the lines, so it’s very quick and kinetic. I love in movies when the impact of a scene is naturalistic — you feel like you’re watching a moment right out real life — but when you break it down it’s precisely constructed and totally cinematic.

Mike Nichols used to call MGM Telephone

NB: That was what Mike Nichols used to call “MGM Telephone.” He had worked with an actor that was an MGM contract player, and Mike asked him what classes they had him taking at the studio. There were the usuals–Movement, Singing, Dancing, what you would assume, but one was “Telephone.” The actor said, “If you’re doing a scene and the phone rings, and it’s going to be good news, you answer in a depressed voice. And conversely, when you’re getting bad news, you answer in a really happy voice — that way you always have a place to go in the scene.”

Mike, in his way of crystallizing everything so beautifully, said, “That’s really what every scene should be, in a way: MGM Telephone.” So, I thought, What’s the Telephone here? Charlie is getting bad news, let’s give him something so that he enters on a high. And from Nicole’s perspective, she’s about to deliver bad news, but now she’s genuinely happy for someone that she’s about to wreck. Again, the films’ part thriller, part screwball comedy.

Opening Montage: Meeting Nicole and Charlie?

The opening sequence was so important, because it gave me a base for everything. I could explore, in little snap-shots, all these moments in their marriage that might be both mundane but also extraordinary in the way that all our lives are extraordinary. We shot those episodes handheld as opposed to the rest of the movie, which is much more constructed, with very precise framing and pans and dollies.

This was my second movie with Robbie, who had been working in a more improvisational way when we met. On
Meyerowitz and now this, we explored a more formalized way of shooting, which he really took to. But with the
opening New York sequence, I thought, This should be Robbie Ryan in his element: We should feel that intimacy of
handheld, which is also how I shot Squid. I felt it would give the start of Marriage Story some casualness that
the rest of the movie wasn’t going to necessarily have.

 

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