Oscars: 10 Things to Know About Best Picture Nominee 'Marriage Story'

5:18 PM 2/4/2020

by Christy Piña

Noah Baumbach's Netflix movie about Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson's characters going through a divorce is up for six Academy Awards.

Marriage Story  Still 2 - Netflix Publicity-H 2019

Writer-director Noah Baumbach's beautiful and sad exploration of a couple, played by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, going through a bicoastal divorce with their 8-year-old son caught in the middle is headed to the 2020 Oscars with six nominations.

Netflix's Marriage Story is one of nine films up for best picture at this year's Academy Awards, receiving additional nods for best actor, actress, actress in a supporting role, original screenplay and original score. It also nabbed six Golden Globe noms, three SAG Awards nods and eight mentions from the Critics' Choice Awards — Laura Dern took home the award for best supporting actress at all three.

The film follows theater director Charlie (Driver) and actress Nicole's (Johansson) divorce, when their son, Henry (Azhy Robertson), gets caught in the middle after they decide to involve lawyers and start arguing over custody.

Though, on the surface, it seems like a standard divorce film, Baumbach insists there's more to it than that. "I discovered in doing a story that was, on one level, about divorce could actually be a way to do a love story," he says.

With all the award nominations Marriage Story has racked up, there's no surprise it's the only one of his films Baumbach can actually sit through. "Usually, I don't look at [my films]," the director says. "But I can watch this movie in ways that I have not been able to watch previous ones. Watching the actors feels cathartic for me. It feels outside of me in a great way."

From the cast and crew's personal experiences with divorce to Baumbach's meticulousness and relentlessness to a surprise cameo that's personal to the director, here are 10 behind the scenes facts, including some spoilers, about Marriage Story.  

  • Baumbach and His Stars Drew From Their Personal Experiences With Divorce

    Drawing from life experiences for a movie, song, TV show, etc. is pretty common, but not only did Baumbach draw from his personal experiences with divorce, but his two stars, Driver and Johansson, pulled from their own experiences too.

    In creating Marriage Story, Baumbach took a little inspiration from his 2010 divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh and pulled from his friends and family's stories about love and heartbreak. Baumbach's parents also got divorced when he was a child. The writer-director spent months researching divorce, talking to divorce lawyers, judges and mediators to create his "love story about divorce."

    Driver, one of the first actors cast in the film, though not divorced, is a child of divorce.

    When Baumbach approached Johansson about the part, he wasn't sure she'd be up for it, and he hadn't written the script yet. "It was clear that we would be kind of collaborating and working together," Johansson told The Hollywood Reporter at the New York Film Festival in October. "He wanted to kind of build this character out of something that came from a real place and so we talked a lot about, not just our experience with divorce, but we talked a lot about all kinds of intimate relationships. We talked a lot about our families, our own parents. We talked a lot about our past relationships. Nicole is a sum of all of those parts. She's an amalgamation of all of those things." 

  • It's Not a Divorce Story, It's a Love Story

    When Baumbach finished the script in 2017, he took it to David Heyman, a British producer who made the Harry Potter films and Gravity. They had never worked together, but when Baumbach was in London working on script revisions for Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox, Baumbach and Heyman met.

    "It's a beautiful piece of writing," Heyman said about the Marriage Story script. "What I loved about it was that it was a love story. No matter how hard they went at it, you still never question the love that they have for one another."

    Both Baumbach and Heyman insist that the film is really about love, just told from the circumstances of a couple's divorce.

    The idea that Nicole and Charlie still love each other, even after the grueling yearlong divorce they endured, is part of what makes the film so relatable for people who haven't necessarily gone through a divorce themselves, Heyman told THR. "I think it's finding, through the journey of separation, the redefinition of a relationship and the fondness and the love that remains," he explained.

  • Baumbach is Meticulous and "Relentless"

    Baumbach's meticulousness and relentlessness showed itself in different ways during production. When it came to location scouting, he found the perfect spot for Nicole's sister Cassie (Merritt Wever) to serve Charlie with the divorce papers, but two weeks before shooting, the city didn't let them film there. "I felt it put me in the position that Charlie was in, which was being uncomfortable in a space that I hadn't planned to be," Baumbach said of the last-minute location change.

    When it comes to directing his actors, Baumbach's attention to every detail and unwavering persistence can be challenging at times. "He just wants every single word that he's written, like 'them' is not 'they' even though in context it would work," Ray Liotta, who plays Charlie's divorce attorney, said. "He is fanatical, but the unbelievable part of it is he's so calm about it. He just does not rattle."

    As expected for someone who is so particular about every camera placement, every word and every step in choreography, Baumbach asks for a lot of takes. "You never know when some things that you would think may be kind of benign, he'll just needle for hours over that — and at some point you are so broken down because you've tried what you imagine as every possible way, but he won't let go," Johansson said about his directing. "I guess it could be perceived as a kind of neurosis, but it's a vision, an artistic vision."

    One of the film's most important scenes is when Charlie and Nicole meet up at his apartment in Los Angeles to try to talk things over, sans lawyers. What starts off as a relatively calm, cool and collected conversation, quickly turns into a screaming match.

    Baumbach, Driver and Johansson rehearsed that scene for days, blocking every single movement. Ultimately, it took two full, long days to film it, pushing everyone to their limits.

    "Noah is relentless," Johansson said. "He got us each a bottle of wine after that scene, which I probably immediately uncorked." Driver called those two days "exhausting," though the actor contributed to the meticulousness as well. "For Adam to say, 'I might try this take and cross my legs,' that's a big thing," Baumbach said. "It changes so much." 

  • 'Marriage Story' is Personal, Not Autobiographical

    In THR's most recent Director Roundtable, Baumbach sat down alongside the directors of some of 2019's biggest movies, who, at the time, were potential Oscar nominees and most of whom ended up getting nominated for this year's Academy Awards.

    Baumbach is constantly asked if his films are autobiographical because a few of them have been modeled after circumstances the writer-director experienced, like coping with divorce as a child or going through a midlife crisis. "I tend to make movies that take place in some version of what we think of as the everyday real world," he told THR.

    "Often when I start writing, I'll take things that are familiar to me," Baumbach explained. "It puts me in a place that feels grounded and then I can fictionalize and go off from there. I like to shoot on streets that have memories from my childhood. So much of what we do is a kind of conversation with the child we were."

    But even with the personal aspects of the film, there were times during filming that didn't go as he had hoped. In the Roundtable, he said shooting some scenes made him have to stop, take walks around the block and "shake it off" in ways he never had to before. 

  • Johansson's Role in 'Marriage Story' Was "Fated"

    Johansson met with Baumbach to discuss the film, not knowing what it was about. At the time, she was going through her second divorce, which Baumbach had no idea about.

    "I probably just blew into the room and ordered a glass of white wine and started complaining, and he was just listening and very attentive," Johansson said of their meeting. "And then he kind of cut it short and said, 'Funny you should mention it.'"

    When Baumbach sat down with Johansson he described the project as something she would either really want to do or really not want to do.

    "It felt sort of fated in a way," Johansson explained. "It was an experience to share with him and have him share with me. And it somehow came at just the right time." 

  • Driver Actually Sings in the Film

    There's a scene toward the end of Marriage Story where Charlie is at a New York piano bar with his theater coworkers when he gets up to sing.

    His solemn rendition of Stephen Sondheim's "Being Alive," from Broadway show Company, adds another level of sadness because its lyrics are so emotional ("Someone to hold me too close / Someone to hurt me too deep").

    Nicole sings in the film, too, but her rendition of "You Could Drive a Person Crazy," also from Company, isn't quite as sad. She sings and dances alongside her sister and mom (Julie Hagerty) during a party at their L.A. home.

    "I kind of half-joked that I reverse engineered the movie so that the two of them could sing those songs," Baumbach said.

    Driver said that he thought where Baumbach put his singing scene in the script "was really beautiful writing." 

  • Laura Dern Took Inspiration From Real-Life Attorneys

    Baumbach's characters may be fictional, but that didn't keep some of the film's actors from drawing from real people for key parts of their roles.

    Award-winning actress Dern took inspiration for Nora Fanshaw, Nicole's cutthroat divorce attorney, from several real divorce attorneys, like Laura Wasser, whose clients include Ryan Reynolds, Christina Aguilera, Johnny Depp and Heidi Klum. 

    "She's one of the great powerhouses," Dern said about Wasser. "Despite empathy and heartfelt intent — and I think Laura is an example of this — the business of divorce is the business of winning for your team."


  • The Production Designer Showed Divorce Through the Film's Sets

    Jade Healy, the Marriage Story production designer, used things that seem relatively small but accurately show divorce to portray the sort of emptiness and loss that someone may feel when going through one.

    Before Nicole and Henry move to L.A., the family's Prospect Park, Brooklyn, pre-war apartment is filled with toys, pictures, plants, books, etc., all the things that make an apartment feel lived in.

    When Charlie flies out to L.A. to visit Nicole and Henry, he's served with divorce papers, and only upon his return to New York, does the audience realize that his apartment seems empty. Charlie "starts to lose a bit of himself," Healy said. "The apartment is no longer what it was. It's a poignant moment when he is sitting on the couch, and the pictures are gone."

    In order to make the film as authentic as possible, Baumbach chose to shoot in L.A. and New York. So, that meant there were a lot of filming locations on both coasts.

    Later in the film, Charlie decides to get an apartment in L.A. as per his lawyer's suggestion, but because he really doesn't want to be there, Charlie refuses to decorate the apartment in any way. It's bare, with empty walls and practically no furniture.

    The purpose of this, according to Healy, was to show the audience that everything was missing from his life. "We wanted something bland and immediately sad when you saw it," Healy said. "We wanted to keep everything neutral — beige carpet, beige walls. The color in his life has been drained from him. So, he's in a sterile environment."

    Toward the end of the film, Charlie starts to make his L.A. apartment more home-y for his son and for himself. "He hangs the drawings that Henry has made," Healy pointed out. "And there are elements of New York in Henry's room — the sheets, toys, sports memorabilia — to make it feel more like a home." 

  • Editor Jennifer Lame Said She Focused on the Whole Film, "Rather Than Spending Time on the Micro"

    Marriage Story marks the fifth film Baumbach and editor Jennifer Lame have worked on together. In this project, Lame's biggest struggle was making sure the scenes with Nicole and Charlie were balanced because the couple is apart for the majority of the movie. "On this film, more than any others, it was about watching it from start to finish a lot, rather than spending time on the micro," she said.

    One of the editor's favorite scenes in the film is when Charlie gets to L.A. for the first time, and Nicole's sister serves him with divorce papers. Before getting the papers, there's a comedic back-and-forth between Nicole and her sister, which Lame thoroughly enjoyed watching them film.

    "You watch the dailies and you laugh, and then you cut it together for the first time, and you're like, 'Oh, it's not funny anymore,'" Lame explained. "So then I was so obsessed with making that part funny, and then once he gets served and Nicole walks in, I was like, 'Oh, wait, this is also heartbreaking.'"

    The concept of balance came up again with that scene, but the focus was then on the balance between comedy and tragedy.

    "What I found was I didn't have to pull back on it too much," Lame said. "Adam was so good in that scene, I found as long as I held on him for the whole time — I didn't cut away from him after he got served, and you just see this devastation on his face — it didn't matter how funny I made the previous scene. I could really just go for it. It could be as funny as I could make it, because Adam is so good, he just puts the brakes on everything." 

  • Baumbach's Agent Has a Cameo in the Film

    Jeremy Barber has been Baumbach's agent since his first divorce film, The Squid and the Whale (2005). Barber joins Driver as one of the people who have been in three of Baumbach's films — Greenberg, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), Marriage Story.

    In Baumbach's most recent film, Barber plays an attorney consoling a client in a hallway outside of a courtroom toward the end of the movie. "I have to say he was very well cast in Marriage Story because he's playing a peacemaker," Baumbach said of Barber. "There's a couple fighting in the hallway, and he's trying to calm it down. That's sort of what he does as an agent."

    Barber's surname is also used at one point in the film when Liotta, who plays Charlie's attorney, says, "Get me the Barber file." Barber told THR, "Noah asked if I would be OK if my surname was used. I would lend Noah whatever he wants for his art including my person."

    As an actor in the film, Barber was not immune to anything, especially a lot of takes. "I got to experience his precision," the agent explained, adding that the movie fits in with the larger narrative arc of Baumbach's career. "There's something that feels culminating … and there's a hopefulness in this movie that is more present.”

    Barber feels that, at some level, Baumbach allowing his agent to be in his film shows that he's allowing Barber to be a collaborator in his career, as well as a representative for it.