Squid and the Whale: Baumbach’s 2005 Film Still his Best

Baumbach on Squid and Whale

Writer-director Noah Baumbach earned the 2005 Best Dramatic Directing Award as well as the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival for “The Squid and the Whale,” his emotionally honest and extremely touching portrait of a family splintered by divorce.

Inspiration for Writing the Film

I had started writing a script about two brothers who were older, in their thirties, dealing retroactively with their parents’ divorce. Then, by chance, I caught a screening of Louis Malle’s “Murmur of the Heart,” which Id never seen before and watching a movie from the kids’ perspective made me realize that I was dancing around what was really interesting — that I needed to go directly to that time in my life and tell the story from there.

New Direction

It was a significant creative change for me. It freed me up in a lot of ways. By starting at a very raw and real place, I was able to fictionalize in a much more effective way. The first draft came pretty quickly and fluidly and as I started to rework it I began to understand the parents better and to write from their point of view.

Autobiographical Elements

While it’s true that I did grow up in Brooklyn and my parents did divorce People will come up to God and say to me, It must be hard putting everything so nakedly out there. But it doesn’t feel that way to me because it’s been so reinvented. What’s real is the emotion.

Ensemble Film

This was such an exciting cast to work with. Everyone dove right in and took the parts over. Jeff inhabited Bernard so thoroughly I started to experience psychological transference with him and looked up to him the way Walt looks up to Bernard. That was eerie.

Jeff Daniels

Jeff Daniels was an actor I always loved. I loved him in “Purple Rose of Cairo” and “Something Wild” and more recently in movies like “The Hours” and “Blood Work.” He can be really funny but he’s so simple and authentic as an actor. The character is funny, but there’s also a lot of sadness there and a lot of pain. Jeff always seems to be doing so little, he’s a bit like Spencer Tracy. He makes it seem effortless.”
Rehearsing Daniels was especially rewarding. It was the most exciting experience I’ve had with an actor. He really thought about what I said to him and he had the confidence to try things that didn’t always work. It was a great experience to watch an actor get the character the way Jeff did. It was really thrilling. Jeff never worried about redemption or whether Bernard was a good or bad guy. He just played him. I think that’s really hard for an actor to do. You have to kind of chuck all vanity out the window and just do it. I feel indebted to him for that.”

Laura Linney

Finding the perfect actress to play Joan Berkman may have been the easiest part of the casting process. Laura Linney was the first person cast and remained with the project through what proved to be a lengthy pre-production period. I showed the script to Laura very early on. It took a long time to get the movie made and Laura was attached to it for the whole time. It made me feel very good through that hard process of raising money to know I always had Laura.

Casting the Young Characters

One of my main concerns, since the film was so dependent on the performance of young actors, was to find kids who felt fresh and authentic. The producers cast a wide net in search of new talent, and with the help of casting director Douglas Aibel held open casting sessions at schools around the Metropolitan New York area. The filmmakers had already decided that they preferred not to use identifiable famous child actors. So hundreds of unknowns were brought in and put on tape.

I’d bring audition tapes home and show them to my girlfriend and we’d talk about them. A lot of kids were good but not great, and she’d say to me You really need someone like Owen,’ who is the son of friends of ours. She said, ‘he’s so bright and creative and great but completely unaffected, he’s so much himself.’ So we were at dinner with our friends and I got up the guts to ask Owen’s parents and they agreed. He came in and read and got the part of twelve-year-old Frank Berkman. What’s great about him is that he has real skill as an actor and at the same time he brings so much of what’s genuine about him to the part.

The part of Walt, Frank’s sixteen-year-old older brother, was equally tricky to cast. There are a lot of shades to that character. I had to audition a ton of people because some of the actors would do well early on and then in different scenes that showed other aspects of the character, not as well. One actor that stuck in my mind was Jesse Eisenberg, who was the young star of “Roger Dodger.” He fit very well with a person who speaks with confidence, intelligence and wit, but who doesn’t know what he’s really saying half the time. There’s an insecurity that exists in Walt that can’t be indicated.

Rehearsal

With the cast in place, I started a lengthy and productive rehearsal period. I find that really helpful to understand who the actors are. Some actors want more direct psychological direction and some don’t. Often I want something very specific and I have to find a way to communicate it to them that they can use.

As for preparing the kids, I didn’t find the process any different than working with adults. A lot of it is just reading the scenes over and over and talking about the action and getting them to feel comfortable with what they were saying and what was really going on.

Film’s Lived-in Quality

Well for one thing we shot on Super 16, which I wanted to do for a few reasons. I wanted to handhold the whole movie, but steadily, so it wouldn’t feel rocky for the viewer. There’s just a hint of movement which I think works on the audience subconsciously. Because it’s a smaller camera it was easier for us to get in close and move with the actors. Also the grainier texture reminded me of movies I loved when I was in high school in the 1980s — the Coen brothers and Jim Jarmusch and Spike Lee. Some of those movies were shot on Super 16, and the look reminded me of that period in independent film. What I like about Super 16 is that it does feel lived-in, there’s something kind of tactile about it, and at the same time it looks like an instantly older movie.

Influences on the Film

Probably for the first time when I was writing, I wasn’t looking at anything else for reference. In pre-production that changes. I never wanted it to specifically feel like a documentary in any real way but I did look at the direct cinema of the 70s—Maysles, Pennebaker and Wiseman—and think about how those narratives are constructed and the editing style, the camera work. And the French New Wave was also something I thought about because a lot of that stuff was just captured on the street. I wanted this film to have that feeling. We stole shots as much as we could, filming in Brooklyn using real atmosphere — like the scenes on the subway, we just went on the subway without permits.

Balancing Humor with a Sad Story

Ive never really thought about that. It’s my sensibility, I guess. I’ve heard “The Squid and the Whale” referred to as a comedy and I’ve heard it referred to as a drama.

Pink Floyd’s Song

I loved Pink Floyd as a kid and I love them now. I didn’t, however, anticipate using “Hey You” in the film as much as I did. I thought Walt would play it a couple of times and we would hear it when the teacher plays it for his parents, but I brought it back a third time because the more I lived with that song and the movie, the more I started to think of them together, suddenly it started to feel like it was written for the film. Songs from both the kids’ and the parents’ generation contribute to the feel of the film. Pink Floyd’s “Hey You” plays a major role. It’s a song that triggers a lot of specific memories for certain people.

Artistic Distance from Personal Story

While you’re shooting, it’s very easy to keep a distance — there’s too much to think about. But there would be smells or colors that would suddenly give me a connection to things in my childhood in a way that I can’t really describe. I would always take it as a good sign when I had those reactions — it felt like I was on the right track in some way.

Working with Kids and Animals

There’s a scene where Frank gives Walt the cat and Walt drops it and the cat runs down the stairs and escapes. When we shot this, every time Jesse dropped the cat, the animal would just sit down and purr. It was the only time during the shoot that I really felt panicked — I honestly didn’t know what we were going to do. Then the cat wrangler said, “Well, I do have a running cat that looks exactly the same.” To this day, I still don’t understand why we were using a sitting cat to do a running cat’s job. Once the running cat came out of his carrier, the scene went off fine.

Biggest Challenge

We only had 23 days to shoot. So there were some days when wed come to a point late in the day and I’d think, this was an arduous. There were some days when wed come to a point late in the day and I’d think, We did pretty well today, this was a really good day’s work,’ and then Id look at the schedule and there’d be two more major scenes to shoot. Even if it’s only 23 days, by the end of the movie it feels like you’ve shot for a hundred.

Point of View

I initially toyed with writing about two brothers in their 30s who were dealing retroactively with their parents divorce, but the script took shape when he began thinking about the story from a younger kid’s perspective. It was a significant change for me and it freed me up in a lot of ways allowed me to connect more directly. Later, I started to rework it and write from the parents’ point of view. Suddenly it was a movie about the family.

Shooting at Home

When shooting began in the summer of 2004, I returned to familiar ground, shooting among the turn-of-the-century brownstones in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn where he grew up in the 1980’s. Several scenes were also filmed at Midwood High School, his alma mater. The chairman of the English department when I was there is now the principal and he was excited to have me back. It was nice to have that kind of good will and cooperation.

Several of the Brooklyn locations were provided by my friends or acquaintances, including the Berkman residence where much of the action takes place. The house we shot in belonged to my childhood friend Ben and his wife Molly, they were really generous to let us transform their place and relocate while we filmed. Shooting in places that had real meaning to me helped me connect with the material both on a visceral and creative level.

Production Design

In the Park Slope brownstone where the family initially lives together we used a lot of browns and blues, old rugs, a corduroy couch. The original detail–the wood, the moldings from those houses is really warm and beautiful. The house Bernard moves into was influenced some by Lucian Freud paintings. We used faded greens and yellows — the color of old, dying plants.

16mm Camera

Shooting in Super 16 rather than digital video, I wanted to give the film an authentic 1980’s feel. The truth is I didn’t want to use technology that didn’t exist at the time.

Using Interns

Aside from the experienced department heads, the rest of the crew was basically made up of interns. There was hardly any middle management on the film. We were asking interns to do a lot of things. It’s the only way we could have made this film. I taught a class at Vassar and I recruited the class for free help.

Editing and Rhythm

In the editing room, my editor Tim Streeto and I found a surprising rhythm to the footage.
Once we cut the tennis scene that opens the film I realized how immediately the audience is thrown into the action of the film and I wanted to keep this feeling going. The more I cut the film, the more I experimented with that, and I pushed it in ways that I initially thought wouldn’t work. It’s a short movie running time wise but it feels packed. There’s usually time during a movie–transition moments like the sun rising or setting over a city –where people in the theater seem to think it is okay to talk. It’s a time to catch your breath. I didn’t want any of that. The movie doesn’t let up and in the end it leaves you with a feeling of a suspension — I want it to take the air out of you.

Experiencing the Squid and the Whale

That diorama was something I was very taken with as a kid. It drew me in and it terrified me. I really loved torturing myself by getting closer to it.

Shooting at the Museum of Natural History

When I wrote the script I wasn’t thinking practically at all. So I don’t know what we would have done if it didn’t work out, I really don’t. I was told at one point, don’t even bother approaching the museum, they don’t allow people to shoot there, or they charge a lot of money—”Spiderman 2″ had shot there. But they were really cooperative and great. We were lucky because there was absolutely no alternative it’s essential to the movie.