Marriage Story: Interview with Director Baumbach–Part 1

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

Meaning of Movie

Noah Baumbach: Sometimes, it’s only when something breaks down that you understand it for the first time. And so it was through the narrative structure of a divorce that I was able to tell the story of a marriage. The legal system of divorce is set up to divide, necessarily. It divides people, family, property and time. It keeps everyone in their own story and obfuscates the other person’s point of view. But I wanted to construct another way of looking at it, a more generous offering. I wanted to find the love story in the breakdown.

Marriage, of course, also continues in divorce — you’re married the whole time you’re doing it. And when a kid is involved, marriage continues, in a sense, after the divorce as well.

Influence of Renoir’s Grand Illusion

NB: I was thinking of the scene at the beginning of The Grand Illusion (1937), Jean Renoir’s great movie about WWI. The French crash in German territory and the Germans invite them to lunch. That civilized aspect of war is what divorce can feel like. You spend the day in mediation or a courtroom, slinging insults at each other through your proxies, and then you go home and discuss your child’s homework.

The movie opens with two stories: His tribute to her and her tribute to him. But as the movie goes on and lawyers get involved, these stories morph, their meanings change. They become legal arguments and truth is distorted. It’s a race to see who gets to define the marriage. As Bert says, “Most people in this business make up the truth to get where they need to go.” After the smoke clears, it’s then up to Nicole and Charlie to find a common story going forward.

Writing Process

NB: There are many hidden genres in the movie: a thriller, a legal procedural, a romantic comedy, a screwball comedy, a tragic love story, even a musical. When you watch a thriller, you’re aware that every little thing is a clue that might come back later. In North by Northwest (1959), Cary Grant grabs the knife after the diplomat has been killed. His prints are on the knife!

Human Missteps

NB: I was exploring how ordinary, human missteps that might go unnoticed are suddenly high-lighted in a divorce. That Charlie didn’t properly install the car seat, that Nicole drank too much wine one evening— these incidents will come back later as legal tools of battle. Charlie has that line in the movie to the evaluator, “Do you ever observe married people?” and she says “No, why would I?” That’s a line I had in my head early on. It’s only because these well-meaning but imperfect people have decided to break up that they come under such scrutiny.

Bicoastal Shoot: N.Y. and L.A

NB: The shoot was 50 days, in LA and NYC. Production designer Jade Healy, cinematographer Robbie Ryan, costume designer Mark Bridges and I maintained the same color palette in both NY and LA, knowing this would have a markedly different effect both because the cities are distinct and, mainly, because the light is so different.

In New York we have the brick red, and concrete gray with dotted green trees and faded blue sky. In LA, we now have the red of the Spanish tiles, the white of those stucco buildings, the gray and green of the palm trees, the deeper blues and pinks. One of the first images of the movie is Nicole rising out of the subway. It’s an image I’ve always wanted to put in a movie: It’s so New York. It’s like you’re coming out of the earth. In LA, as we know, people are in cars, no one’s walking. We were very specific about where we put the camera in the cars when it was Charlie and Henry. Because when you’re driving a kid around, your view is of the road and their view is of the back of your head. They’re funny angles to have when you’re talking to someone because no one can really see the other’s face.

Different Homes

NB: There are the homes, their apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn, which Charlie ends up living in without furniture; Sandra’s house in Hollywood; Nicole’s new home in Echo Park. But many of the locations are necessarily transitional spaces, like offices, rental cars, airports, courtrooms, lobbies, even their rehearsal space. These in-between places tend to be bleak or impersonal in real life, but I wanted to make them beautiful, too, in their way. We had to employ many different shades of white wall! And Mark was always very conscious of the colors and textures of their clothing against these walls.

Influence of Dr. Strangelove

NB: We looked at Dr. Strangelove (1964), another movie that has people in official rooms, behind tables. The seemingly ordinary quality of these spaces can create a sense of menace as well, which Robbie and I accentuated by shooting them often in lower, wider angles. A joke in the movie is that people keep referring to “the space” in Los Angeles, and yet the characters spend most of their time indoors, sometimes without windows. Which is why the movie ends in a big open shot — finally, the space is there.

Visual Style and Camera

NB: I had a really good experience with digital on Frances Ha (2012). It was a Canon 5D, which is a consumer camera, a very specific thing. It was like shooting Super 16 digital. I loved how it looked. But there were about 15 steps in post that we went through to get that movie to look like that. What bothers me about digital now didn’t bother me on that movie. I did two other movies digitally, on the Alexa, and I never felt satisfied.

A lot of the pleasure of making movies for me is related to my childhood self, who loved movies and wanted to make them. That kid only saw movies on film. I have such a strong emotional reaction to images on film that I don’t have to digital. On digital it became more difficult for me to judge my own work because I didn’t have an intuitive connection to the way it looked. Film, for me, is immersive. I love hearing it go through the camera.

Influence of Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) 

NB: I love Kramer vs. Kramer. It was absolutely an influence, but there are other touchstones, too. Robbie and I looked at Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) because of the portraiture in that film, and the amazing ways he frames those
two characters.

There’s a keen sense of people’s physical relationships to each other in a room, and then also their individual relationships to their environment. I knew that close-ups would be very important for our movie. Scarlett and/or Adam are in every scene, and they both have such beautiful, expressive faces. We shot in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio because it frames the face really beautifully.

In a strange and challenging way, I also reflected back on my own work with The Squid and the Whale (2005), examining the ways in which divorce is both different and similar from the points of view of children and adults.

Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson as Stars and Collaborators

NB: Adam Driver and I had been talking about this movie for some time, way before we knew what this movie even was! I met with Adam, Scarlett and Laura Dern before I began the script. It was important to me to have these actors in my head while I was writing. It gave me confidence to push scenes in various ways, because I could imagine these particular actors playing these moments. I interviewed them all for the story as much as for their characters.

Scarlett and Laura Dern both have been through divorce, so they had their own stories to tell. Adam was instrumental in making the Barbers people who work in the theater.

Drawing from Personal Experience
I came at it from a personal place, for sure, as I’m the child of divorce and I’ve been through a divorce as an adult. But divorce is something so many families go through, and I thought it would be an important and interesting topic to explore in an expansive way.

Research for Movie
NB: I did a lot of research for the movie. I spoke to lawyers and mediators, and I’d present scenarios and ask, “What would you do in a case like this? “What would a judge say here?” I spoke with friends of mine, many of whom were omen, about their experiences with divorce. These conversations were often revelatory and helped shape the story.

Intimacy on Screen

NB: The real answer is that they’re both just so good. We prepared a lot, rehearsed the whole movie in advance, and I like to do a lot of takes when shooting so we can get as much out of the material as possible. But if you don’t have two actors like Scarlett and Adam, it’s meaningless. They came at this material from a really honest and personal place. There are scenes that require so much from them, and in every instance they gave it. I’m in awe of moments of theirs in the movie. Adam breaking down in their fight, the look on Scarlett’s face when he tells her he’s taking a job in LA, there are so many moments.

Fourth Project with Adam Driver

NB: I first met Adam when he auditioned for Frances Ha. He’s the best version of everything I would want in an actor. There’s total preparation. He will call me months before we shoot with questions or ideas. He knows every line from the beginning of rehearsal forward, and at the same time is totally present and ready to see what it’s going to be on the day. He described acting once as “a benign rebellion” and with him, that is accurate. He’s the best collaborator you could hope for; there’s always something in him pushing. He might alter the rhythm of a line or change his physicality, all in search for a truer moment. And once he’s arrived there, he can live in that space for a while, take further direction, refine it. It’s conscious and unconscious simultaneously. It’s my favorite way to work.

Nicole’s Family

and, especially, Sandra (Julie Hagerty) facilitate and complicate

Merritt Weaver is fantastic. We worked together on Greenberg (2010) and ever since I’ve always wanted to find another thing to do together. Julie Hagerty I love, of course from movies, but have also seen on stage in Wally Shawn’s plays. I wanted the audience to understand why this family is great– why Charlie and Sandra always hit it off, why he gets such a kick out of her.

I approached those scenes almost like we were shooting a screwball comedy. Robbie and I looked at Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942) and Howard Hawks’ Twentieth Century (1934), both of which portray actors and couples.
I love scenes with complicated choreography, overlapping dialogue. I got into a screwball vibe a bit in the second half of Mistress America (2015) and I wondered, Could this be integrated in a movie that’s essentially realistic? There’s
some of it in Meyerowitz, too–lots of people running after one another. In Marriage Story, it helps that they’re showbusiness people because it gives the theatricality context in a funny way.