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AWARDS: 2005 National Board of Review Award Best Screenplay — Original, “The Squid and the Whale”; 2005 Sundance Film Festival Directing Award (Dramatic) and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award, “The Squid and the Whale.” CURRENT CREDIT: Following up his Oscar screenplay nomination in 2006 for “The Squid and the Whale,” Baumbach wrote and directed Paramount Vantage’s drama-comedy “Margot at the Wedding,” starring Nicole Kidman, Jack Black and Baumbach’s wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh, which has a limited opening today. MEMBERSHIPS: Screen Actors Guild, Directors Guild of America, Writers Guild of America. Academy member since: 2006.
The Hollywood Reporter: “Margot at the Wedding” has an unusual structure for a Hollywood film, with characters who never show up and weddings that don’t quite happen. As the writer and director, how did you see the arc of this story?
Noah Baumbach: With this movie, it really was a process of discovery. There was an early draft where Margot’s husband, Jim (John Turturro), didn’t show up, and then I felt that missing. I always liked the idea of other family members that inform the people we’re watching — and maybe haunt the people we’re watching — but who live offscreen. The movie is in a lot of ways about offshoots of family and how those roles develop or fare without the stability of the whole family being there.
THR: The ending, too, doesn’t even come near to being tied in a bow.
Baumbach: Just because the movie isn’t structured in a traditional way doesn’t make it any less enjoyable. The movie in many ways crashes forward as it goes, and the scenes are more about accumulative moments and experience. I think that approximates more real experience than a lot of movies with traditional beginnings, middles and ends do. The movie should almost feel like an interaction you have with real people, which rarely have endings that are satisfying in any obvious way. In many ways, “Margot” is to be experienced and then you take the feelings away with you when you leave. It’s like the way we think of action movies: We don’t want to think, we want to be thrown forward on this ride and then we get off the ride and catch our breath. Why can’t a movie about human interactions not have its own version of that kinetic ride?
THR: Quite a few of your films surf between being funny and being quite serious. Do you consider “Margot” a comedy?
Baumbach: I think it’s funny. I think everything I start is going to be a comedy, and then I’m told differently later.
THR: Do you interpret that to mean you’re not as funny as you think you are?
Baumbach: Maybe that’s it. But I had that experience on (2005’s “The Squid and the Whale”) and now on “Margot,” where some people really see it as comedy and others see it as drama. I’m open to either of them.
THR: You’ve managed to do a good job handling children and teenagers in your films. How do you motivate them?
Baumbach: Well, it’s like anyone — adults, too. In rehearsal period I learn how these people are and how they communicate and what’s the best way to get a performance out of them. So it really depends on the individual. But when you’re making a film and you’ve got to deal with all of the stuff of making a movie — delays, weather, losing the light — that’s hard enough when you’ve got adult actors who know their lines and are incredible. It’s another thing when you have kids who lose attention, are tired, getting distracted easily. There’s a whole other thing in directing kids of creating an atmosphere you think they can work in, and it can be tiring. (Chuckles) It can be tiring.
THR: Why is it important to you to write the films you direct — or direct the scripts you write, depending on how you want to look at it?
Baumbach: I write them to make them. I see it all as one process. There’s the period I write it, the period of putting the movie together, the period of directing, of editing and promoting — and then you start over. That’s just how I approach filmmaking.
THR: Yet you’re able to take a second chair when collaborating with fellow writer-director Wes Anderson; you co-wrote and even appeared in 2004’s “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” which he directed, and you two share writing credits for Fox’s 2009 release “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” which he’ll be directing.
Baumbach: I wrote “Life Aquatic” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox” with Wes, and it was during a period when I was having trouble getting “Squid” made, so I had a lot of free time. It was great to be able to do this stuff with Wes — but it was very much for him to make. Wes and I became friends before we collaborated. We just get a kick out of each other and enjoy being around each other. But in some ways (those projects) were different from things which are originals that came out of me — they’re my stories, and it’s more individual and more personal.
THR: How did getting nominated for your script for “Squid” change your life?
Baumbach: Like most people, I was aware of the Academy Awards at a pretty young age, so to connect to that child — that kid has just got an Oscar nomination — that’s a pretty cool thing. In terms of anything substantive, it’s nice because people hear about it, but in terms of my own life, I didn’t do anything differently. It’s only a positive thing. As for it having an effect, the whole experience of “Squid” made it easier to make this movie, and to have a company like Paramount finance and put out a very personal movie — how great is it to have a company like that go for it and get behind a movie like (“Margot”)? That wouldn’t have happened without “Squid.” (The nomination) was the cherry on top of the sundae.
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