Noah Baumbach Knows What You’re Thinking

Noah Baumbach knows how it looks. The director, 50, has a new movie out, “Marriage Story,” that seems, on the surface, very “Noah Baumbach.” There are the usual Baumbauch-ian characters — artistic, bourgeois, alternately sympathetic and repellent — caught in scenarios that feel naturalistic to the point of suspicion, as if torn from the pages of an unsparing notebook.

In “Kicking and Screaming” (1995), made shortly after he’d graduated from Vassar, his subject was twentysomethings fresh out of an elite college, struggling to accept a world beyond their unbounded egos. In “The Squid and the Whale” (2005), it was an erudite Brooklyn family in the 1980s, mired in the circular firing squad of a bitter divorce. The patriarch, played by Jeff Daniels, wore a sport coat that belonged to Baumbach’s actual father.

With “Marriage Story,” a probable Oscar contender for best picture and original screenplay, available on Netflix Dec. 6, Baumbach has returned to divorce once more. The film captures a marriage as seen in the rearview, as both partners, a New York theater director and an actress with a past and potential future in Hollywood, veer in opposite directions and toward opposite coasts. Its verisimilitude has inspired comparisons to the director’s own marriage, to the Los Angeles-born actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, whom he divorced in 2013.

Baumbach can understand this impulse, up to a point. All of his movies are illuminated in part by the smoldering embers of his personal experience. But do people really not see that no mere notebook, no straight accounting of life’s raw data, would ever be funny, or sad or resonant in the particular ways that “Marriage Story” is each of those things?

Would you believe it if he told you that even though the movie’s central characters, Charlie (played by Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), share biographical details with Baumbach and Leigh, their actual stories don’t have all that much in common?

“I couldn’t write an autobiographical movie if I tried,” Baumbach said when we sat down for a conversation (edited excerpts below) at his favorite Italian bistro in Manhattan’s West Village. He was wearing a dark, wool suit, and a strand of his silver-streaked black hair fell over one eye, framing the dramatic angles of his jaw. “This movie is not autobiographical; it’s personal, and there’s a true distinction in that.”

Can you elaborate on what you see as the difference between autobiographical and personal?

I think when people say autobiographical, they’re assuming it’s one-to-one, which none of my movies are in the slightest. I might use autobiographical details at times, but any extrapolation beyond that has no meaning to the work or to me or anything else.

Why do you think you’re more vulnerable to that sort of extrapolation than other filmmakers?

I guess partly because my movies take place in some version of the real world, so there’s a kind of identification. If you’re watching a David Lynch movie, you’re not like, “Oh, that just happened to me,” when, if you watch “Marriage Story,” you might think, “Oh, I’ve had that experience.”

But there are many filmmakers who, I think, have drawn from stuff that I imagine is personal, or could be true: the Coens, Wes [Anderson], Paul Thomas [Anderson], Scorsese. But the movies wouldn’t be worth a damn if they weren’t inventions.

What kinds of things make you stop and say, “This should be in a movie?”

This is a small one, but I grew up in Brooklyn. At some point, walking out of a subway up to the street, to me, felt like something I wanted to put in a movie. I love the idea of rising out of the earth — something about the way the emotion and the imagery come together for me. Other times, there might be something that feels like fodder for a scene. With [“The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)” from 2017], I had been spending a lot of time in hospitals [his father, the novelist Jonathan Baumbach, died in March] and was thinking of a doctor going on vacation when you need them most, or the nurses switching over and you don’t like the new nurse. That kind of thing can be incredibly frustrating, but it feels alive in some way, like a wire of electricity you can use to activate something else.

Is it ever disruptive to your life when you’re thinking in those terms?

It can be. But to me it’s almost an affectionate response to something. And it doesn’t really take me out of the experience, it’s just a kind of a companion thought to what I’m going through.

How did you go about getting into Charlie and Nicole’s heads?

It was a lot of research. Talking to friends, and then to friends of friends, and then to the lawyers and mediators of friends. I would talk to both the women and the men to get all of the different perspectives, which helped externalize things. The actors were incredibly helpful, as well, Adam and Scarlett. I brought in Scarlett and Laura [Dern, who plays Nicole’s high-powered lawyer] early on, and they would talk about their experiences in relationships, and divorce, and career, and just being human beings.

I also live with Greta [Gerwig, the actress and director, who co-wrote “Frances Ha” (2013) and “Mistress America” (2015) with Baumbach] and she and I are very involved in each other’s projects, so I often would show her things to read, or talk it out with her and get ideas.

When you’re writing characters who are inspired by people in your life, do you think about the moment when they’ll see it? What do you see as your responsibility in that situation?

Well, the characters are always a kind of stew, not a one-to-one stand-in for a real person. But if I use a specific detail from someone, I’ll definitely ask their permission. But really the only times people have come up to me and said, “Hey, you based this thing on me,” were times when I didn’t.

Did you get feedback from your ex-wife?

Well I showed her the script and I showed her the movie, just so she would know what it is.

You weren’t seeking notes?

No, but I could’ve still made changes. But I didn’t have any concerns about it, and she really liked it, because it isn’t about our marriage. That’s not to say that there aren’t emotional connections, things that happened to me emotionally that are going to be translated in some way into this story, but I think that’s true for every writer who’s gone through breakups or been in love.

How does it feel when people assume that it’s about the two of you?

Well people have been doing that, in some way, with every movie I’ve done. Sometimes I think it’s a compliment that people are engaged or interested, that it must feel true because it provokes this feeling of wanting to know where something came from. It doesn’t bother me, but it’s also not something I can even answer to. It’s a work of fiction, but it is extremely personal at the same time.

Looking back at your work, there’s that stretch — “The Squid and the Whale,” “Margot at the Wedding” and “Greenberg” — where you were writing particularly biting, unkind or narcissistic characters. Critics at the time often wrote about the movies themselves in similar terms. I wonder if you see a link between those movies, or if, in hindsight, you think they’re reflective of a particular phase in your life.

No, I don’t. I think it happens when you make a few movies, people start linking things up. I probably do it too with other people’s movies. But I don’t think of them that way. For me, it’s just sort of a clash of ideas, or an actor, or things I was interested in then.

“Squid” makes me very emotional, because it reminds me of the time I was writing it and feeling like it was my last chance after having struggled for a bit. [When the film was released, in 2005, Baumbach hadn’t made a feature in eight years.] And I have a lot of affection for Margot and Greenberg. What made those characters so empathetic to me was that they were their own worst enemies. I don’t know, do you see a connection between them?

I see a few connections. But I think, certainly from “Frances Ha” onward, there started to be more lightness, or heart, or optimism in the work. I’m curious whether you attribute that shift — if you acknowledge a shift — to any particular change in your life or your thinking.

Well, I’m sure there must be something to why I make the movie I make at the time that I make it. There must be something to that. But I don’t analyze it. I don’t think about it, really. “Greenberg” came up the other day with Greta, and we were talking about what we saw in it, how lonely those two characters were. I don’t think I would make that movie now, but I’m glad I made it then.

How do you think working with Greta has affected your outlook?

I mean, she’s a singular influence on me, as a creative person and as a person. Even when she was an actor in “Greenberg,” I recognized a familiarity to the way she played the part. Adam is that way, too — they’re in the language in a way that feels like they wrote it, even though they didn’t. When Greta and I started actually writing together, it felt like a similar kind of natural extension. I think I’ve always recognized something in her — the way that I would like to be, both as a person and, now, as a filmmaker.

How so?

I think I grew up in a way where there was this idea that you shouldn’t celebrate. “Don’t celebrate because it all might just fall apart anyway.” Or “Don’t celebrate because something better will come and that’ll be the thing you’ll celebrate.” Of course, that just leads to death [laughs]. Greta knows how to celebrate. She is so enthusiastic and engages so much with the present that it helps me kind of appreciate what’s going on in a way. I haven’t always been good at enjoying everything, but I think I enjoy more now because of her.

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