‘People have had very emotional responses’ – Marriage Story director Noah Baumbach talks marriage, divorce, and awards

‘I’d been thinking of telling a love story, but I wanted to find a new way of doing it.” New York film-maker Noah Baumbach has certainly achieved that in Marriage Story, an intense but oddly uplifting relationship drama that was released in cinemas last month, on Netflix last week, and is currently leading the charge in the awards race. It’s a powerful film, emotional and sometimes funny, which lulls you into a false sense of security.

In the opening scenes, you might suspect you’re about to be treated to a lush romance, as Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) detail, in calm and reflective voiceovers, the reasons why they love each other. Then we find out that they were asked to compile these lists by a divorce counsellor.

He’s an avant-garde theatre director, she his lead actress, and they have an eight-year-old son called Henry (Azhy Robertson), who’s about to be put through the wringer. Nicole gave up her Hollywood film career to move to New York to be with Charlie. Now, she announces with quiet determination, she intends to move back there.

He refuses to accept the reality of what’s happening, then the lawyers get involved, unleashing a ghastly legal death dance neither party will be able to control. And one of the most interesting things about Marriage Story is the way it treats Charlie and Nicole equally, trying to present the situation from both their perspectives and refusing to take sides.

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“It’s built into our experience of watching movies that you take the side of the protagonist,” Baumbach explains, “and you go with what you’re presented with, and so I felt like moving between perspectives was a way for the audience to honestly and naturally arrive at the realisation that neither person is more, or less worthy of our sympathy.”

Driver and Johansson are extraordinarily good in the demanding lead roles, and both are frontrunners for Golden Globes and Oscars. Baumbach and Driver have become regular collaborators in recent years: this is their fourth film together, and they tend to work up ideas in each other’s company.

“Adam and I have been talking about this movie since before we knew what this movie was yet, and when we talked about who would play Nicole, Scarlett was our first choice. So I reached out to her and I was just very lucky that she and Laura [Dern], Alan [Alda] and Ray [Liotta]; all these people were not only available and interested but also up for the ride of it and to be a part of it.

“I mean with Laura, Adam and Scarlett, I would meet periodically [them] while I was writing it, and I would just sort of talk to them and bounce it off them. It was almost a way of us rehearsing before we had a script to rehearse.”

Marriage Story emerged from a crowded field to become an Oscar favourite after receiving six nominations for the Golden Globes this week. When I ask him if awards hype matters, he shrugs and talks instead about how ordinary punters have been reacting to his film.

“You know we’ve been talking about this film since we premiered it at Venice in August, and what’s been really gratifying has been chatting to people about the movie after screenings and Q&As, because people bring so much of themselves to it, and they’ve had very emotional responses, and it actually reflects the movie back on me. I mean it’s a difficult thing to talk about a movie right after you’ve made it – ideally we’d all be doing press for these movies like 10 years later! By that point you’d understand better what you’d made.”

Most reviews of Marriage Story have mentioned a possible autobiographical element: Baumbach went through an intense divorce himself less than a decade ago, when he and Hollywood actress Jennifer Jason Leigh separated. They have a son together. But such literal interpretations of his work seem wide of the mark: Charlie, he told The Guardian recently, “is not me any more than Nicole is.”

The theme of divorce, though, looms large in his work, and in fact his career was kick-started by a hit drama inspired by his parents’ separation. Noah’s father, Jonathan Baumbach, was a novelist, his mother, Georgia Brown, a movie critic, and the pair split in voluble fashion when he was in his early teens. This colourful psycho-drama was the foundation for The Squid and the Whale, an insightful and funny 2005 film starring Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney as an artsy couple who fail to shield their two sons from the impact of their separation.

Prior to that, Baumbach had collaborated as a writer with his friend Wes Anderson, but after The Squid and the Whale, he blossomed as a film-maker in such sharp and witty production as Margot at the Wedding (2007) and Greenberg (2010). It was on the latter film that he first met Greta Gerwig, the Californian actress, writer and director who has since become his partner. Her film Little Women will also be in the awards season mix. “It’s such a great movie,” he says, “I’m really excited that people are starting to see it now too, and I’m very excited for Greta.”

He and Gerwig collaborated on the films Frances Ha and Mistress America, which cleverly paid homage to great screwball comedies of Preston Sturges and others. But films like Baumbach’s are getting harder to finance, and in 2017 he teamed up with Netflix to make The Meyerowitz Stories, an ensemble comic drama starring Ben Stiller, Elizabeth Marvel and Adam Sandler as the complexed children of Dustin Hoffman’s epically selfish New York artist. Netflix also backed Marriage Story: how has he found working with them, and do they leave him to his own devices creatively speaking?

“They absolutely do,” he says. “The thing about Netflix is that in some ways it’s a studio, and in others is an independent film company. It’s been very gratifying working with them because with my movies, which like you say are maybe unclassifiable in terms of genre, I feel like when I’ve needed it, they’ve supported me as a film-maker – but they’ve also been hugely supportive from a studio perspective in just promoting the movie and putting it out in the world.” The streaming service has also become less antagonistic to the notion of cinema release: while The Meyerowitz Stories was released in cinemas and on Netflix simultaneously, Marriage Story was given three to four weeks in cinemas before streaming.

He is, he thinks, happy with the film overall. “A friend of mine said that the movie gets divorced so you don’t have to!”

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