Margot at the Wedding's Baumbach

Noah Baumbach's follow-up to his Oscar-nominated The Squid and the Whale, is a daringly funny and bracingly honest exploration of the tender, absurd and sometimes excruciating relationship between siblings and the fallout for those in their wake: children, husbands and lovers.

Margot Zeller (Nicole Kidman), a savagely bright short-story writer who creates chaos wherever she goes, sets off on a surprise journey to the wedding of her estranged, free-spirited sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh). As soon as Margot arrives with her maturing son Claude (Zane Pais) in tow, she begins to raise doubts about Pauline's fianc, the unemployed artist Malcolm (Jack Black). In his wry, unique vision, Baumbach lays bare an aspect of human comedy in all its confounding, sustaining essence. Bringing the Zeller family's world to life is an accomplished team that includes director of photography Harris Savides, editor Carol Littleton, production designer Anne Ross, and costume designer Ann Roth

In 2005, Baumbach made a splash with the intimate, emotionally turbulent, and heartbreaking film about a disintegrating marriage, The Squid and the Whale, which garnered widespread acclaim as writer/director and Oscar nomination for Original Screenplay. With Margot at the Wedding, Baumbach turns his lacerating wit and keen observations towards a different sort of family, one whose disparate members are trying to get closer to one another, even if it means disaster. Full of raw veracity and searing humor, Baumbach blows open a window into a distinctively complicated family's moment of transformation.

Inspiration

The inspiration for the story of the Zeller's crises in the midst of matrimony sprang from a single, enigmatic image that came to Baumbach almost like a dream: that of a mother and her son sitting on a train. It was in this fleeting, unconscious, way that the indelible character of Margot first comes alive in Baumbach's imagination, in turn sparking the creation of her sister and familial alter-ego Pauline, on-the-verge-of-adolescence son Claude and unwanted brother-in-law to-be, Malcolm.

It's typical of the way Baumbach tends to work–writing his scripts from the inside out, starting with the most barebones, instinctual flashes of character and emotions and moving from the center outward, like a detective, to uncover the mysteries and human comedy of their relationships.

“After 'The Squid and the Whale,' I started working on other ideas, but nothing was clicking,” explains Baumbach. “Then I had this image of a mother and son riding a train. I didn't know yet who this mother and son were; I didn't know where they were going; I just knew I wanted to write about it. I've discovered that it's better for things to remain fairly mysterious as I go along. I feel my way around in the dark, and as things come together, then they become much more fine-tuned. That's when the more analytical part of the process comes in.”

Push-and-Pull Forces

As Baumbach began to write about Margot he started with the mother-son relationship, fascinated by the push-and-pull that occurs between a woman and a child who are both on the brink–one of ending her marriage the other of diving headlong, perhaps past his mother, into adolescence.

“Margot and Claude are like a couple in many ways. We're meeting them at a point where Claude is starting to outgrow his mother and Margot is starting to look outside the marriage. These individual changes are a threat to their otherwise tight bond. But when Margot and Claude's destination turned out to be a family wedding, and Pauline came into the picture, Baumbach realized he was also delving into one of the most mystery-laden and difficult to nail of all relationships: that between adult sisters, especially those who share a tumultuous family history. In Margot and Pauline's crisp, tart, fraught interactions, Baumbach found himself in a whirlpool of envy, need, adoration, secrecy, anger, resentment, self-possession, hope, fear and love–sometimes all happening simultaneously–which is just the kind of territory in which he flourishes.”

Volcanic Energy

Beneath their lovely and intelligent surfaces, volcanic forces are at work inside Margot and Pauline, especially when hypercritical Margot meets, and witheringly dismisses, Pauline's fianc as unworthy on the eve of their nuptials, forcing both sisters to reconcile with what they want from each other, and themselves. “Margot and Pauline are holding onto this idea that they're best friends- each other's closest confidante, but the events in this movie really put that to the test,” says Baumbach.

The appeal of Margot at the Wedding emerges from Baumbach's skill at tapping directly into that familiar feeling of a family reunion verging ever close to calamity, one small wreck at time. “The characters in Margot are all going through transitions that are scary and new: Claude is going through puberty, Margot is leaving her husband, Pauline and Malcolm are getting married–all of these things can make you feel out of control,” comments Baumbach.
With such bitingly humorous and movingly flawed characters, Baumbach would now begin to assemble a cast of actors capable of nuanced performances. He notes that he never thinks in terms of specific actors while he's in the midst of writing a screenplay–preferring to allow the characters their own organic life in his mind's eye. Once the screenplay was completed, the director turned his focus to finding performers who could breathe raw life into them with subtlety and verve.

Casting the Film

At the core of Margot at the Wedding is Margot herself, an alternately hot and cold storm of a woman with a whip of a tongue, an urge to diagnose everyone and a brutally honest opinion about everything. Though she brings her ability to unconsciously spread emotional wreckage to Pauline's impending wedding ceremony, it is Margot whose life is on the verge of falling apart. To play her at full tilt, Noah Baumbach knew he would need an actress who would relish the dive into major emotional risks.

Nicole Kidman

“Margot had to be played in an uncompromised manner,” Baumbach comments. “She can be destructive, but she's also very fragile. She's a character whom I find sympathetic; perhaps because, although she can be critical of people, she finds tremendous fault in herself as well. And I needed someone who wasn't afraid to be that open.”

He found that spirit and that level of devotion in Nicole Kidman, who has demonstrated a remarkable diversity, winning the Oscar for her portrait of the writer Virginia Woolf in The Hours, and starring in celebrated roles ranging from the musical Moulin Rouge to the psychological thriller The Others. Kidman is no stranger to sly comedy either, having garnered widespread acclaim in Gus Van Sant's black comedy To Die For with her wickedly funny portrait of a woman obsessed with becoming a winning TV personality.

Once on the set, Kidman brought the ruthless honesty which Baumbach was seeking and gave the character an arresting quality of realism that set the tone for the entire production. “What Nicole revealed while we were filming is that Margot is always more sympathetic the truer she is to herself,” Baumbach comments. “The character would have felt dishonest if Nicole had pulled any punches. Nicole really understood that about her–she doesn't ask for sympathy with this performance, but you understand her completely. Margot comes into this movie a bit like a wrecking ball, and I needed somebody who both had that kind of dynamism but, at the same time, could also really feel like a believable part of this family. And Nicole brought both. She's also very funny in the movie.”
Jennifer Jason Leigh

When it came to casting Pauline, the sister who Margot once tried to bake in the oven but now with whom Margot yearns to be close, Baumbach was struck by the idea that the role was a great match for his wife, actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, though he did not write it specifically for her. “Jennifer read every draft of the script as I worked on it and had great feedback,” he explains. “Maybe I was inspired to write about these sisters because semi-consciously I wanted to work with Jennifer.”

Leigh has won awards and accolades for key performances in a sweeping variety of film styles ranging from the gritty Last Exit To Brooklyn to the stylish thriller Miami Blues, from the narc drama Rush to the Coen Brothers' classic The Hudsucker Proxy, from Mrs. Parker And The Vicious Circle in which she played literary legend Dorothy Parker and Robert Altman's Oscar-nominated Short Cuts to the chilling Stephen King adaptation Dolores Claiborne and Sam Mendes' Road To Perdition as Tom Hanks' doomed wife. But she has never played a character quite like Pauline–the sister who simultaneously yearns for and is sent reeling by Margot's pointed affections.

Jack Black

Jack Black plays Malcolm, the hapless interloper in the Zeller sisters' fiercely competitive and unnervingly impenetrable relationship. Black, better known for his outrageous roles in such comedy hits as School of Rock and the Peter Jackson action-adventure King Kong, might be unexpected casting, but with Malcolm he gets a chance to disarm audiences with a more restrained, low-key, yet still devastatingly funny performance. In Black's hands, Malcolm becomes a veritable underdog, trying in vain to charm Margot, who sees him primarily as a serious waste of space.

“Jack was really open and committed to doing something that would honor the script and he knew he could do it,” says Baumbach. “Malcolm has forged this bond with Pauline and then suddenly once Margot arrives he feels like an outsider.”

Rounding out the Zeller family are two rising young actors as Margot and Pauline's respective children–promising newcomer Zane Pais as Margot's son Claude, and Flora Cross, who recently starred with Richard Gere and Juliette Binoche in Bee Season, as Pauline's daughter from a previous marriage, Ingrid.

Finding the right young actor to play Claude, the funny, awkward boy who is finding the tables turned as he increasingly has to parent his own mother, was no easy bill to fill. So Baumbach began an extensive nationwide search. Meanwhile, Zane Pais auditioned for the part on a lark. His mother, actress Lisa Emery, already knew Jason Leigh from having recently appeared with her in the play “Abigail's Party,”–and it was Leigh who suggested to Baumbach that Pais might have that very rare, unaffected, naturalistic quality that he was seeking.

“I'd already auditioned a lot of kids, but we brought Zane to our apartment–he got the more ideal audition treatment–and gave him some sides,” recalls the director. “And he was amazing right away. Zane, like Claude, was very much on the cusp of adolescence, right at the point where you become more interested in the outside world beyond your parents. Zane really connected to what's going on with Claude and we knew very quickly he was the right person.” On the set, Flora Cross became so close with Jennifer Jason Leigh, she even sent her a Mother's Day present.

Completing the main cast are John Turturro as Margot's embattled husband Jim, Ciarn Hinds as Margot's writing partner and lover Dick and Halley Feiffer as Dick's teen-aged daughter Maisy whose babysitting job for Pauline has disastrous consequences.

For Baumbach, the mix was as volatile and electric as the Zeller family themselves. “The movie is about the family you have and the family you choose and the clumsy, strange ways that people define themselves in the world,” he says, “and to have the cast embrace the challenge–to feel invigorated by it–was amazing. It made each scene feel truly alive.”