A born and bred Brooklynite, Noah Baumbach wrote and directed Kicking and Screaming and Mr. Jealousy (we won’t bring up his other film since he doesn’t), and partnered with Wes Anderson on the script for The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Also known for his dog impressions, Gothamist sat down with Noah during a press junket for The Squid and the Whale, a film that won our heart, as well as the hearts of the jurors, at Sundance.
If you missed its screening at the NYFF or BAM, fear not, The Squid and the Whale opens Wednesday, October 5 at the Angelika and Lincoln Plaza cinemas.
What is The Squid and the Whale about?
I guess it’s about family and adolescents, divorce and change…transition. I think what allowed me to write the movie was that I never gave thought to what it was about. I would think about these people, this time and this experience and tell it as much from the inside out as possible. When I was writing I never judged the people or thought of themes in any sort of big way, but rather thought about it from moment to moment.
While this is a work of fiction, it is loosely based on your life and deals with some pretty emotional subject matter. Given that, what was it like to work on this project?
Writing it was a big deal for me. I don’t think I knew it at the time but in retrospect I was struggling. I had made two movies and I was trying to figure out what kind of movies I wanted to make. In some ways my ability to make movies came about before I knew exactly what kind of movies I wanted to make. I guess I am sort of catching up with my career emotionally.
And, I got to a point where I was ready to write about this. It was a big change for me and I was able to be more open and honest. I didn’t censor myself. I really just tried to fully invent this world. I took terrain that was very familiar to me, like the time period, Brooklyn, the kind of family, writers, books... and by doing so, it allowed me to reinvent and fictionalize in a way that was more satisfying than it had been.
How long did it take?
The first draft came fairly quickly because once I locked in on it, it was very freeing. Maybe it was 6 months. But after that it took a year or two to shape the film and figure out exactly what I had. I knew I had all these good scenes and I had this order and I knew roughly how it was going to happen. I would say the first draft is in the spirit of what the movie is, but it took two years of crafting to arrive at the final script.
Your other films were pretty much written from the perspective of someone roughly your age and featured characters roughly your age. This film is written from the viewpoint of children and parents. And given that you’re neither right now, what was that like for you?
It was freeing to do that. I started writing from the perspective of two 30 year old brothers dealing with their parents divorce. I was thirty thinking about my parents divorce, why not write about it that way. But it really wasn’t hard to write from the kids perspectives once I made the jump. Whatever that internal synapse was in my brain, that was big, but once I was there, the writing came quickly.
What is your writing process like?
I usually start with dialogue, that’s what feels most natural to me. With this movie for example, take the scene where Walt and Frank are walking to school and they’re talking about mom getting her story published. Look at the kids talking, how they’re talking, how they relate to each other, older brother/younger brother, how they internalize their parents, they pick up on things but don’t quite know what’s going on in the family…it’s a scene like that, which helps me build off of things. I knew there was going to be a divorce in the movie. I knew there was going to be a joint custody arrangement. I knew certain things, so it wasn’t like I was inventing out of nothing. That’s usually how I write; some ideas are less formed than others. As I get older, I have gotten more comfortable with letting the script become what it’s going to become and not trying to force too many ideas from before on to it. Sometimes that works and other times you realize you thought you were writing one script and you’re writing another one, and that’s ok too.
I wanted to ask you about working with the actors, because you were able to get some truly inspired performances. What’s your method?
Rehearsals were important for us. For any movie rehearsals are kind of tricky because you want to get people up to a certain point but you don’t want to go too far and you don’t want to be recreating the rehearsal on the shoot day. You basically want to get it almost right, stop and then shoot it. We only had 23 days to shoot so I knew I couldn’t leave too much for the set. And, more than anything, it’s about the actors finding the characters; once they do that the scenes take care of themselves. It just becomes more technical.
It was a little different with the kids. It was almost like we were backing into the rehearsal. I’d have them talk and hang out when we weren’t around. When we got together we’d chat a little bit, read a scene, walk around the room…just get them comfortable with it.
For me it’s about feeling your way through it and not being afraid to get it wrong before you get it right. Rehearsal was a lot about learning who the actors are as people, and also for them to learn me. Jeff and I had a moment during rehearsal. First, he was doing an imitation of what he felt I wanted. It was only when he felt comfortable enough to bring himself into it, that it changed for both of us. He reinvented the part and that’s the ideal.
I read that he wore your father’s clothes in the film. How did that affect you? How did that affect him?
I think it was much less for him than it was for me. First, aesthetically it was what I wanted. I was looking at pictures of my family and other families from the 80’s and it is just how I saw the part. I thought well, if my dad still has those clothes we might as well use them. I don’t even know if it helped Jeff. I think he was sort of like whatever you want.
For me, I feel like it can get misconstrued because people think I was just recreating my dad. But it’s more about bringing stuff that I have an emotional connection with into the frame to make myself feel at home. I used my family’s real books and my grandfather’s painting is on the wall. It’s like when people go to work and they bring pictures from home, in the middle of the day they feel like they can connect with something.
You mentioned the books and both parents are writers. What was your thinking behind having the title of the father's book be Underwater?
It’s funny actually. It’s things like that, which I think about too…what could that be about? It’s one of those things that when I was writing it just came out as the title, so I just wrote it down. If it hadn’t stayed with me it would have gotten changed, but it just felt like the name of the book he would have written.
The film has a great soundtrack. How did the music come together?
I looked at the music from the characters perspective. Hey You was chosen because I thought what was a song that I liked from that time that would be funny for a 16 year old to have claimed to have written. Or in Lili’s room, what would she be listening to. She’s in graduate school so maybe she’s into The Feelies. Joan is listening to the McGarrrigle sisters. Frank is listening to the Risky Business soundtrack. Then there is this 70’s singer/songerwriter folk sound that gets across the sound of the movie.
Let’s talk about the use of Brooklyn in the film. Do you still live in Brooklyn?
No, I grew up there but I live in Manhattan.
What is your relationship like with Brooklyn?
It’s complicated. I love Brooklyn. I have so many memories, I had to shoot there. It’s like using my dad’s clothes…being on the streets where I spent years of my childhood definitely stirred up stuff. I loved growing up there and some of my closest friends are people that grew up across the street or around the block. But then there was always the side that if you could live in Manhattan you would live in Manhattan. Nobody would ever really choose to live in Brooklyn…it’s always the second choice. Now I have a lot of friends that have chosen to live in Brooklyn. When I was shooting there I realized how beautiful it is and if I hadn’t grown up there I could definitely see myself living there, but there is still that kid inside me that says if he could live in Manhattan he would.
I read that you recently got married. How did this project affect your views of marriage? Were you trying to make a statement?
I really just tried to make it what it was. If I ever stopped and thought about it from the outside, it would have been hard and I would have become self-conscious about it. And now to look at it as a finished film…I am aware from an outside perspective of the irony of getting married right before my divorce movie comes out but I never thought about it at all. I have been with my girlfriend for 4 years.
It didn’t feel like an exorcism of sorts?
Maybe. Certainly I’ve gone through changes in my own life. I didn’t want to get married 5 years ago, but now it’s something I wanted to do. Personally, I change all the time. For me it just feels separate. The subject matter of the movie has no bearing on how I live my life.
Your film screened in the Dramatic Competition at Sundance which is a section historically dominated by first time filmmakers. How did you feel about that placement? Do you think Sundance recognized a rebirth in your career and that’s why they placed you in that section?
I didn’t actually think about it that way. Steven Buscemi was in there and that was his third film too. I felt honored to be there. And, in a way I did feel like I was starting my career, or I was making my first film. I feel connected to this movie in a way I never did about the other movies. This movie felt like a breakthrough and that was really exciting. I never had the Sundance experience before, so why not have it now. And my thinking is if people think this is my first film and discovery me with this movie, that’s fine. Or if they are excited to see my third film, that’s great too.
You’ve collaborated with Wes Anderson on your last few projects. He was a producer on this film. What sort of contribution do you think he's made to your work and vice versa.
Our collaboration comes from our friendship. In some ways it’s hard for either of us to quantify what it is we’ve done for the other. It’s so integrated. We spent a bunch of years hanging out talking about movies before we officially collaborated.
I will say Wes has incredible discipline. He never lets himself get comfortable with what he has. No matter how good something feels, he keeps going back to it and keeps questioning things. He’s not afraid of failing in anyway. In the past I often thought to acknowledge a flaw in a scene is bad because it means then you have to fix it. It means you did something wrong. Whereas Wes never cared about that, if there was a flaw in a scene he would be like, “how do we fix it?” That’s a great way to look at it and I think that sense of persistence is one of the many things I’ve gotten from Wes.
And what has he learned from you?
I don’t know. You’d have to ask him I guess. With the Life Aquatic it’s different, even the way we wrote that, we wrote it always together. Even a line of dialogue would feel mutual. It wouldn’t feel like, oh that’s my line, that’s his line. I’m sure there’s something but it would be easier for him to tell you.