Noah Baumbach on MARRIAGE STORY, Perspectives and Writing Women

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Noah Baumbach’s films are all about the tangles and untangling of relationships and, while they aren’t written entirely from a female perspective, they always present complex and compelling female characters with strong and well-defined objectives.

From his Own male perspective, Baumbach writes female characters with convincing authenticity. At a recent meeting with Baumbach, I had the opportunity to ask him how he finds his female characters, and their voices. We were speaking specifically about Marriage Story, Baumbach’s second film about divorce.

In Marriage Story, Baumbach dramatizes the disintegrating relationship between a successful playwright, Charlie, and Nicole, his equally successful actress wife. Baumbach’s well publicized divorce from Jennifer Jason Leigh might have fueled his interest in the subject, but the film has its own compelling arc and characters. The story is presented from the male’s perspective, as presented in Adam Driver’s very engaging performance. But the female point of view is forcefully brought to life by Scarlett Johansson’s deft negotiation of some tricky and difficult emotional situations.

Here’s how our conversation unfolded:

Merin: The female characters that you write are equistically cimplex and authentic, their voices are real. You’ve said that you draw on friends as sourves for your characters, by observing how they relate to things and their specific dialogue. But how do you draw all of this inside yourself and speak for your characters. Where do your female characters come from inside of you?

Baumbach: All the characters I write are…you know, it’s a little bit like play acting. I find I might have observed something in life – from someone’s life – that helps me create a line of dialogue or something that’s said in a life situation might help me create a line of dialogue. And sometimes I just have conversations in my head and I write them down. After a while people start to form, to take on language and points of view? And that helps me to be able to write those parts as soon as ideas for characters turn into people.

Merin: How did that work on Marriage Story.

Baumbach: On Marriage Story, I had Scarlett in mind. I knew her a bit and I reached out to her and said I think maybe this is something we could do together and we had lunch. And the first thing she said to me is “I’m sorry, I’m late. I was on the phone with my lawyer because I’m getting a divorce.” And I thought shit. And immediately started thinking about who else could we go to? And then….to Scarlett’s credit, she found it was a reason to do the movie. And you see it. You see what she’s –what she’s doing is so honest and close to her. And I had Laura Dern in mind for Nora, her lawyer. I’ve known Laura for a while and I think it even came as a surprise to us that we hadn’t worked together before. And I brought her this story idea and the idea for her character and she was just a great friend and collaborator and sounding board for ideas and things. Really, with all the actors, we talked about our lives and everything that didn’t even have to do with divorce necessarily, just with relationships, with love.

Merin: Charlie is the main protagonist in Marriage Story but, as a character with less screen time, Nicole is established as a strong match to Charlie. How did you achieve that balance?

Baumbach: I was very conscious of it being even handed. And part of the way we approached the shooting of it, Robbie Ryan, my cinematographer and I, were very aware of perspective and the notion of perspective. Because it’s always from Nicole and Charlie’s perspective, the whole movie, where they are. In the beginning, we’re more with Nicole. When she goes back to Los Angeles, Charlie is sort of not in the movie for a little while and we’re very much in Nicole’s experience of waking up at home. She’s back with her mom and her sister. She’s on the TV getting her hair and makeup test. It’s all very much with her and in her experience through Nora up until she serves Charlie. When Charlie arrives, in a sense, he’s almost a character in her day. And when Charlie, after they read Stuart Little and Charlie comes out on the landing, we always saw the movie as working in an unconscious way, not in any kind of overt way. Then we sort of moved with Charlie –now he’s trying to find a lawyer. He’s trying to direct his play. He’s trying to be the best dad he can be. And I felt like it would be natural for the audience and understandable too, while you’re watching, it’s what movies do. You’re with the character you’re with. And so that you would maybe lean slightly towards Nicole. And then when we’re with Charlie, slightly towards Charlie. So that when we end up in the conference room with the lawyers, Bert and Nora, we’re now with Charlie and Nicole equally. And our feeling was that then the audience could honestly arrive at this sort of place of –that nobody is more right or wrong. And everything is true, and nothing is true. These are two well meaning individuals, imperfect humans who are trying to do the best they can and trying to be the best parents they can be and trying to get through this situation that has kind of overtaken them. And so that at that point forward, I felt it was an opportunity in a sense for the audience to go on a kind of slight unconscious journey and arrive at a place while we’re still in the movie.

Merin: Marriage Story is the second film you’ve made about divorce, and both of reflect, at lease to some extent, your own life experiences. In Marriage Story, the arc is a resolution between adults. In The Squid and the Whale, the arc follows the Emotional impact divorce has on children. Squid was released in 2005. Can you tell me how your work and your perspective as a filmmaker havev evolved during the interim?

Baumbach: It’’s hard for me to say how my perspective has evolved because I’m living it in real time. I have to leave it to other people to access that. I think I can say tho that as I was making this movie, and I’ve really been thinking about this, — not necessarily as I was thinking about the characters in Squid, but thinking about my parents who divorced and that I now have a different kind of empathy with them in a way. Different friom what we had in Squid because I was in some ways revisiting their story, too. This time from their perspectives because Squid was so much from the child’s perspective.

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