The following article initially appeared on the Filmmaker magazine website on November 16, 2007 to coincide with the release of Noah Baumbach's film Margot at the Wedding.
If you believe what you read, Noah Baumbach's films — sharp, witty, poignant and sometimes devastating — are drawn directly from his life. The son of Village Voice film critic Georgia Brown and novelist and film critic Jonathan Baumbach, Baumbach debuted as a writer-director in 1995 with his acclaimed Kicking and Screaming, the first of a number of films made during his twenties about New Yorkers in their twenties. After his second film, Mr Jealousy (1997), Baumbach admits that he got "derailed" and ended up making Highball (1997) pseudonymously then scripted a TV movie, Thirty (2000), neither of which he considers to be his best work. However, his career was re-energized by his association with Wes Anderson: he brought Baumbach on board to co-write The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), and then produced Baumbach's triumphant The Squid and the Whale (2005), a semi-autobiographical film about the disintegration of a bohemian Brooklyn family which left the world in no doubt about Baumbach's skills as both writer and director. (In addition, Anderson and Baumbach recently adapted Roald Dahl's The Fantastic Mr. Fox, which will be released in 2009.)
Margot at the Wedding is the perfect companion piece to The Squid and the Whale: like its predecessor it shows us a world of callous but creative individuals from the perspective of teenagers who probably have more insight into human behavior than their parents. Set over the course of a few days, it chronicles the return of novelist Margot (Nicole Kidman), with her son Claude (Zane Pais) in tow, to her old childhood home for the wedding of her formerly estranged sister, Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh, who is Baumbach's wife). That Margot disapproves of the groom, Malcolm (Jack Black), that she is having an affair and is planning to leave her husband, Jim (John Turturro), that Pauline is secretly pregnant and Margot can't keep her mouth shut about that (or anything else for that matter), all adds to an already complicated situation. Channeling the 70s in its look and soundtrack, Margot at the Wedding is a beautifully written and deeply human drama. Very funny despite, and sometimes because of, its neuroses and emotional upheavals, Baumbach's film is a smart, classy and highly satisfying piece of cinema.
Filmmaker spoke to Baumbach about the autobiographical aspects of his work, his love of Yellow Submarine, and the legendary director he and Wes Anderson call "Pop."
Filmmaker: Margot at the Wedding really looks a ‘70s film, despite the fact that it is set in the present day. What was the reason behind you having that anachronistic quality?
Baumbach: We thought about this a lot with the design of the house: those homes that still have all the things from over the years, the old records and books, and things only get replaced when they break. In those kind of houses, somebody always comes and stays and leaves the book they were reading, so it becomes part of the shelf. I think of the movie as very contemporary, but when you’re returning to your family home there can be a feeling of stopped time.
Filmmaker: The way characters are dressed is also very redolent of the ‘70s.
Baumbach: I guess so. I hadn’t thought so specifically the ‘70s, but [they were] styles that felt right for the people and they happened not to be the most contemporary. It wasn’t as deliberate as thinking about linking things to the ’70s as it was about being true to the anthropology of these people.
Filmmaker: Did you have trips to secluded New England summer houses, like the one in the movie, in your own childhood?
Baumbach: I didn’t have anything like this specific situation, but I spent a couple of summers on islands: Shelter Island, an island in Maine, and also an island near Seattle. From a kid’s perspective, it always felt like an adventure if you were going to an island, and there was a great feeling of seclusion and remove and coziness, but also it’s kind of scary. There’s that feeling of isolation, and “What if something happens? Can we get back to civilization?” And then learning that Manhattan was an island threw me off further! It seemed like such a strange thing to be true. So there were those feelings from my childhood. I grew up in Brooklyn in an urban environment and when we would go to the country there was always something intriguing, exciting and scary to me because it felt so different from my life.
Filmmaker: With The Squid and the Whale, there was a lot of speculation about just how autobiographical the film was. In Margot, there is a scene where you seem to address that issue, when Margot is asked about how real life is echoed in her work.
Baumbach: I did write that scene after one too many Squid and the Whale interviews and I was having some fun with it. I also meant for that scene to show the pointlessness of [autobiographical aspects] in terms of the work. I mean, I understand people’s interest in it but I think it is a reductive way to talk about any kind of art.
Filmmaker: You’ve said previously that you viewed all of your life as potential material for a movie. In retrospect, do you regret saying that?
Baumbach: The thing is that it’s a like a recipe: you take all these things and you invent off of them and you change them. The way I write, I write as openly as I can in the early stages, and then I construct and change and cut and move things around and combine characters, and when it’s all over it’s this complete mishmash of things. What gets me in trouble is that I tend to use elements from my life or friends of mine’s names or things that I have a personal connection to. It makes me feel comfortable when I’m working, but it’s not as easy as saying, “Oh, [he] used that name, that’s that person.” Or, “[He] used that chair so the person that sits in that chair is [him].” But I do write very personally, and so if someone wants to go through it and find things and link them, they’re probably going to be able to do that in some kind of superficial way, but it has nothing to do with the substance of what the work is.
Filmmaker: Some of the characters in your films are monsters, or at least do and say monstrous things. What is the process of the writing like for you, when you channel and live with these people?
Baumbach: When I’m writing about people, I don’t think of what they’re doing as monstrous. I don’t think the characters in the movies are monstrous or even do monstrous things, I think this is how people are. [laughs] It doesn’t mean that’s how everyone is, it doesn’t mean they’re like this the whole time. This is reflective of how I see the world, so I’m not going into some horribly dark place to do it, I’m just connecting to what’s out there.
Filmmaker: The casting of Jack Black seems very out of keeping with the kind of people you’ve had in your films. Was this an intentional ploy to show how much of an outsider his character was?
Baumbach: Jack was my first idea and I always wanted whoever played Malcolm to be funny. I’d met Jack and I knew Jack could act, and I think Jack’s really good even in School of Rock and movies he’s done where it’s a comic performance. It always felt very grounded to me. I talked to Jack about doing the part, and he was joking, “I’ll have to bring my A-game to work with Nicole and Jennifer.” I said, “Well, think of yourself as the outsider in that group, so use that feeling.” I was saying it just to convince him to do it, but maybe it was helpful.
Filmmaker: And what was it like working with your wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh, on this film?
Baumbach: I understand the potential pitfalls to working with your wife, but it was only easy. It felt just like an extension of our relationship. It was great to be able to go to work together and have the same project to talk about, and our intimacy only helped our ability to work together. I wanted her to play something that felt closer to her. Not that the character is literally like her in any way, but that the performance would come from a place that was closer to her and [it would] be less of a character that she took on. Because I know her so well, I was able to work with her that way.
Filmmaker: Did you write the part for her?
Baumbach: I don’t really think of actors when I’m writing, but certainly at a fairly early point I thought she should play it. I don’t remember when I told her that.
Filmmaker: How quickly did you call her agent?
Baumbach: [laughs] Right, right! I figured I’d bypass the agent in this case. [laughs]
Filmmaker: The resurgence of your career seems to have stemmed from your association with Wes Anderson. How much of an impact did he have on what you’re doing at the moment?
Baumbach: In a very specific way, he brought me on to write The Life Aquatic when I was struggling to get The Squid and the Whale made and basically a year that I would have spent waiting for the phone to ring I instead spent working on that script with him, which was a real pleasure. And he also produced The Squid and the Whale, which gave the movie a bit of a boost. It took five years to make; maybe it would have taken eight without Wes. [laughs] He’s a great friend, and it’s always a funny question: how do you talk about your friends as public figures? [laughs] In a way, Wes was an inspiration too because he just continues to do his thing and do it exactly his way and on his terms. I think I got derailed in my career after my second movie, and being around him and seeing how he was doing things and how he took control of his career was great. I learned a lot, thinking “If I get back in…”, how I was going to do things, and do things on my terms.
Filmmaker: In the first part of your career you seemed to be making films from a twentysomething perspective, whereas with your latter two films it’s very much from an adolescent point of view.
Baumbach: In my twenties, I was making films almost chronicling what was actually happening at the time and probably as I got older and became an adult and my scope broadened artistically, I looked more inward and I became more open to my life as a whole. And so, of course, that involves thinking about childhood and adolescence, and also thinking forward and to my parents’ generation and people older than me. For whatever reason, these are more the stories that were interesting to me.
Filmmaker: At the core of these two recent films there has been a mother-son relationship. Is that dynamic particularly interesting to you?
Baumbach: I’m very close with my parents and I’m very interested in adults and kids and how they occupy the same space and how the space between them blurs and how kids pick up on things and how adults see kids as allies. If you approach a character as I do from the psychological standpoint and really think about the real psychology of their behavior, it’s always going to connect to childhood, whether you actually see their childhood or not in the movie.
Filmmaker: You cast Peter Bogdanovich in a number of your early movies. How did your friendship with him affect you as a filmmaker?
Baumbach: It had a real impact on me. I cast him in Mr Jealousy — incidentally before The Sopranos — as a therapist [laughs], and we became friends during that. I was a huge fan of his. When Wes and I became friends, soon after that he met Peter separately so the three of us often get together. I call him “Pop” and he calls us his sons and it’s a sort of a cinema family. [laughs] Peter‘s a great resource: I show him scripts and early cuts of things, he had some really good things to say about Margot and Squid. He’s lived through so much of it, he’s a great, wise voice about the movie business and about movies, and I love so many of the movies that he [made] and the filmmakers that he spoke to and hung out with. It’s really great to have a friend like that who has done it all.
Filmmaker: Your movies seem very novelistic. Have you ever considered actually writing a novel?
Baumbach: I think of things in terms of movies, so my feeling is why can’t movies have the subject matter and the quality of novels or short stories? So many of the movies I love — the Truffaut movies, Rohmer movies and Bergman movies and Renoir movies — you could say the same thing about them, but they’re so cinematic. The simple way to say it is I want to make cinematic versions of human stories.
Filmmaker: What was the first film you ever saw?
Baumbach: Yellow Submarine. It was a great first movie to have because it’s sophisticated but it’s also colorful and a cartoon, so it prepares you for the future but it’s good for you right then and there.
Filmmaker: Do you always try and get into the theater early enough to watch the previews?
Baumbach: I used to, yes, but now with all the commercials, and some theaters have this thing called The Ten, where it’s like 10 minutes of garbage they throw at you and video game commercials… It’s awful. So now it’s less important to me, [but] I used to love that.
Filmmaker: Finally, should a director always take risks?
Baumbach: I don’t think any director can not take a risk. There’s too many things that are uncontrollable on a movie set, so I think even if you’re trying to control everything, even if you’re Stanley Kubrick and trying to micromanage the whole situation, there’s just risk in making a film, period.