“I always thought of it as a love story,” writer-director Noah Baumbach said of his Oscar-nominated film Marriage Story (2019). Baumbach talked to lawyers, judges, and couples - both longtime, happy couples and divorced ones - in researching the project.
Marriage Story opened a five-film retrospective of Baumbach’s work at the Aero Theatre on January 18 and 19, 2020. Baumbach appeared in person both days for Q&As.
When he first began discussing the project with actor Adam Driver, Baumbach described it as “a love story, maybe a divorce.” Later, when Baumbach got to the point where “this is what I am writing now” with Marriage Story, he started asking questions like “what would be a good occupation?” The choice of theater director was perfect for Driver’s lead character because “everything becomes a performance” as the story develops. The lawyers are performers and the couples take on relationship personas as they communicate more and more through the legal system. Driver’s character finds himself in the end through performance - singing Sondheim’s “Being Alive.”
Scarlett Johansson told Baumbach she was currently going through a divorce before she knew what Marriage Story was about. “She was immediately engaged with the character and story,” Baumbach recalled of their lunch meeting.
Baumbach was friends with Laura Dern, whose portrayal of a divorce lawyer earned multiple awards, before Marriage Story. “She’s just such a great collaborator,” Baumbach said of Dern. “She had so many ideas about her character.” Both Laura and her parents went through divorces, so it was as personal for her as for Johansson and Baumbach. Marriage Story is informed by how people experience divorce, because “it’s something that happens to so many families,” Baumbach concluded.
“When I felt I could write the movie, I thought it should be a two-hander so we get to know who both of the people are,” Baumbach recalled. He opened the movie with two monologues to show the love the main characters had for each other. Both characters are in each other’s monologue - one as subject and the other as voice-over narrator. This “prologue of sorts,” Baumbach feels, reveals a marriage where there is so much unsaid. The relationship is so intimate, yet there is a lot each doesn’t know about the other.
Dern’s character also has a monologue. Baumbach explained that this lawyer entered her profession for all the right reasons, but the system changed her. That’s what the monologue reveals.
Including a young child in the story makes it a triangle. For the adults, there is a struggle for individuation within the marriage, but with their son, they are both driven to protect him and spend time with him. “They love their child more than anything, but the process makes even simple things so hard,” Baumbach explained.
“It’s about communication—the couple, the lawyers, the child,” Baumbach said regarding themes in the movie. Marriage Story also explores the notion of home, which the characters are transforming all of the time. Baumbach sees relevance to our contemporary political culture as well. “People with totally opposing opinions need to find compromise.” With Marriage Story, Baumbach raises the question “How do people find compromise, bridge an unbridgeable gap?”
Marriage Story is Baumbach’s second collaboration with cinematographer Robbie Ryan. He and Ryan visited all of the locations in both New York and Los Angeles. “I felt he saw it,” Baumbach concluded about Ryan’s work on the film.
Baumbach wanted his cast to know all of their lines before coming on the set for Marriage Story. He rehearsed a lot and wanted them to be able to concentrate on learning blocking and then, when the camera rolls, to just rely on “muscle memory.” He didn’t want them thinking about “what’s my character’s motivation?” or working on lines. He was looking for a cast who was “just excited and eager to say it.”
Asked what movies influenced Marriage Story, Baumbach thought about how to shoot couples in conversation. He mentioned Dr. Strangelove (1964), which had an absurdist tone that influenced Baumbach’s portrayal of the absurdities in the divorce process, especially the set design of the lawyer’s offices and their dialogue. Baumbach’s favorite gangster films reminded him that he wanted the audience to be engaged with the characters and not judge them or their actions.
Other screenings in the retrospective included Baumbach’s first film Kicking and Screaming (1995) and The Squid and the Whale (2005), for which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Two films he made with current partner Greta Gerwig as star and co-writer, Frances Ha (2012) and Mistress America (2015), screened together.
Baumbach was just 24 when he made Kicking and Screaming. “I would do something totally different now,” he commented. He observed that there are “also some things that only the me I was at that time could do. There are some things you know when you’re young that you don’t when you’re older.”
After Kicking and Screaming and his second film Mr. Jealousy (1997), Baumbach went into a seven-year period he described as like Frances Ha. He made no films, but really focused on himself. “During that period, I grew up a lot,” he explained. When he started writing The Squid and the Whale (2005), he wrote in a way he hadn’t before. “I discovered the filmmaker I was.”
“There’s a kind of honesty in this writing that I hadn’t been able to achieve before,” Baumbach said of The Squid and the Whale. He also described a sense of urgency, of all-or-nothing. He had only twenty-three days to shoot the film and he was turned down by many actors for the male lead role. He had always loved Jeff Daniels’ acting and was happy when he accepted the role. But the first rehearsal didn’t seem like a total fit. Jeff was all he had, so Baumbach was worried. Daniels came back to the set on Monday and told Baumbach he had been thinking about his part a lot. Jeff said he had to be more honest about the way he played his character “and that turned it around,” concluded Baumbach.
Baumbach received the best advice he’s ever gotten while working on The Squid and the Whale. It came from Ethan Coen. Baumbach told Coen about the movie he was making and mentioned using a friend’s cat. “Hire a professional cat,” urged Coen. So he did. There’s a scene where the cat must run down a flight of stairs and under a car. The first professional cat just sat there. “You need the other cat, the running cat,” the cat wrangler told him. The “running cat” did the scene just fine and it is pivotal to the story.
Judith Resell is a volunteer with the American Cinematheque.
Photos by Silvia Schablows