Noah Baumbach on Margot at the Wedding


Two years ago, indie filmmaker Noah Baumbach finally made a mark with his 4th film The Squid and the Whale, which won all sorts of awards and accolades, following his collaboration with Wes Anderson as co-writer on The Life Aquatic. His new movie, Margot at the Wedding, also deals with dysfunctional families, but this time in a new setting, and fans of Baumbach’s inimitable style of writing should feel right at home with the edgy interaction between Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Jason Leigh (aka Mrs. Baumbach) as two estranged sisters who reunite at the latter’s beach house for her wedding to Malcolm, a chronic slacker played by Jack Black. As one might expect, dysfunction and in-fighting is the name of the game as Margot tries to cope with her sister’s questionable taste in men, her son Claude’s impending puberty while dealing with her own personal crises.

After bringing the movie to a bunch of festivals, Baumbach held a press conference for the movie in his hometown of New York City last week and was in attendance. What kind of pressure did you have going into this movie after having a hit with “Squid and the Whale,” how did “Margot at the Wedding” come about and would Jennifer Jason Leigh have divorced you if you didn’t cast her in this movie?
Noah Baumbach: That’s a lot of questions. Was “Squid and the Whale” a hit? I’m glad to hear that. I went right into this movie sort of during the release of “Squid” so I didn’t really have any time to think about pressure except for the normal intense pressure you have making a movie, so I just felt relieved by the “Squid” reception. There was another question. The origins of this movie. I was working on another script that I felt like I knew a lot about and I felt like because I knew a lot about it I was having trouble writing it. I had this image of a mom and son on a train and it just popped into my head and something about it just made me want to write that movie. And I put it aside and I kept working on the other thing and I finally just gave in and wrote what became “Margot.” And, would she have divorced me? I don’t think there was any question of me casting anybody else. So fortunately we didn’t have to face that.

CS: Since you tend to write from the inside out starting with dialogue, at one point while writing that did you figure out what the story was going to be? What was the process of writing this like?
Baumbach: It develops. I had a draft of the script before Pauline and Malcolm were even married, or getting married. At one point they were married already and they had been together a little while and I finished a draft and ended up changing it and making it a wedding, so it’s hard to answer that in the sort of abstract. Things change all the time. What I try to do is remain as open as possible in the early drafts, but it creates a lot of contradictory character elements and things I have to later make decisions about.

CS: I understand that Jennifer was reading drafts of the script as you were writing them. Was there any feedback she gave you that took the script in a different direction?
Baumbach: Lots. I mean I would ask her, “Help me solve this?” It wasn’t vague. I would say, “Help me figure this out” and Jennifer is an incredible editor and she is great with character and story so she was invaluable.

CS: Did you always have Nicole Kidman in mind to play Margot and was it difficult getting that first meeting with her? What was the experience with her on the set?
Baumbach: It was incredibly easy. I don’t think I’ll ever have as easy a time meeting and getting an actor to do a movie as I did. I think I’ve been spoiled by Nicole. I had a coffee with her and I gave her the script and then the next morning she called. There was a message on my cell phone saying, “I want to do this movie. Can you do it in this window?” She had another movie coming out so we basically went into pre-production at like two that afternoon and didn’t stop. I mean I think as you can see in the movie, Nicole gives everything to her performance and you can’t ask for more as a director. She just goes there. She can provide something different and unique in every take because she’s feeling her way into it. So it’s really exciting as a director because you get to experience all these different versions of the character from take to take. A movie like this too, where there aren’t major events that sort of change the movie, it’s the little things that can make the movie turn and go in different directions, and she would give me many options depending on which takes I decided to use.

CS: Was she always your first choice for Margot?
Baumbach: Oh, yeah, yeah.

CS: Can you talk about casting Jack Black? He’s not exactly the first person you might think of when making a movie that requires delicacy.
Baumbach: I had met Jack in L.A. And I knew a lot of people who knew Jack. Jack had studied as an actor before Tenacious D and before he had his comic career, and I always wanted Malcolm to be funny. So Jack was the first person that came to mind. I understand from that side it might feel like a strange idea, but there’s a real sensitivity and sweetness to him and I wanted to bring that out, but in a way that he was still also able to be funny. I wasn’t interested in taking Jack and casting him in a dead serious role and just having him frown throughout the movie. I mean I wanted him to be able to bring what he brings, but to bring it within the realm of this film.

CS: What films inspired you to make “Margot at the Wedding” or did you reference when you started making it?
Baumbach: It wasn’t a film that inspired me to make “Margot,” but I was thinking about Eric Rohmer movies and particularly movies where people go on vacations, thinking about like “Claire’s Knee” and “Pauline at the Beach”. And also movies that Ingmar Bergman made in the 60’s that also take place on an island. I like that feeling of isolation. But also there’s something about getting people, you’re both isolated, but there’s also a coziness to being separated from everyone. I had spent summers on islands as a kid so I connected to that and brought that to “Margot.” Movies like “The Passion of Anna” and “Shame” that he made. But I love movies. I watch movies all the time so it’s hard to pick certain specific directors that have inspired me in the aggregate. I think that any movie I like seeps in some how.

CS: Did you always know that you wanted to make a movie about sisters?
Baumbach: I didn’t start out thinking I’d write a movie about sisters. As I was building the script it happened that Margot would be visiting her sister so it became a movie about sisters, so I just went with it. Now that it’s over I think I’d be intimidated if I thought to myself, “I’m going to start writing about sisters.” I’d psyche myself out of it. But letting it unfold the way it did was a way for me to come at it from seeing these people from the inside out, so it became that and I let it become that.

CS: Was it a challenge for you to write about women?
Baumbach: No, I think if you are inside of your characters it doesn’t matter if they are male or female.

CS: Did you speak to any siblings about the destructiveness of sibling rivalry and did Nicole and Jennifer improvise any of their scenes?
Baumbach: I didn’t talk to anyone in particular. I have siblings, but it’s also just my observations of people I’ve known, sisters I’ve known and just whatever I’ve dreamed up. They didn’t improvise at all. The movie is really the script. I mean, I cut things in the editing. We rehearsed for two weeks, but it was all about finding themselves in the script.

CS: Anthony Hopkins has said that he’d rather shoot himself in the head than do rehearsals for a movie, but you did two weeks for this. What did you get out of that time spent rehearsing and do you feel there’s a chance of losing the spontaneity by over-rehearsing?
Baumbach: Okay. Good to know that. I don’t want to be responsible for Anthony Hopkins’ suicide. I know what he means in a way. I think rehearsal for me is really about talking about the movie and about learning about each other. For me, it’s not so much about getting the scenes great. I like to hear them read it and hear them say it. There’s always a point when you can see them find it and that’s when I stop working on it, but I think it’s important because often, not always, I think it takes a couple days for actors to find their way in and I want them to feel comfortable to get things wrong and not be so great. There is that point where I think if you rehearse a scene to death and then shoot it, you really risk repeating what you did in your apartment two weeks ago and losing something. So I try to just sort of work it up to a point and then quit. With kids though, I think it’s very important. So the kids are kind of live wires always, so I want them to be really comfortable with the lines, and I need to know how I can talk to these people. I didn’t train in directing, I talk to actors the way I talk to anybody. I tend to interrupt myself in the middle of a sentence and change direction in the middle of what I’m talking about, so they need to get used to me also. So it’s really about us kind of feeling each other out so that when we’re there on set and the clock is ticking and we’re losing light that we can find this thing.

CS: Does Margot’s son Claude represent any part of yourself?
Baumbach: I probably identify more with Margot than Claude. There’s certainly I’m sure things of me in Claude, but it’s not a depiction of me as a kid.

CS: Why do you say you identify more with Margot?
Baumbach: I can feel pretty critical of people, and I understand that sort of feeling of when you’re going through something that’s painful, taking it out on the world and projecting onto other people, finding faults with other people because it’s harder to find faults in yourself.

CS: Margot seems almost irredeemable, so did you ever have thoughts about softening her up or trying to redeem her behavior to the viewer?
Baumbach: I don’t agree that she is irredeemable. I think she is complicated and you may not like her, but I had a lot of empathy for her. I never thought of it that way. I don’t look at the movie as about, “Well, should I soften this person here or there?” I just try to keep them true to what I see is going on in their lives at that moment. Margot is in crisis and I think people who are having breakdowns aren’t always their best selves. And I also know a lot of people like Margot and to me Margot is a real person. She is a fictional character, but I think she feels very human to me, and sometimes being human is not being a great person.

CS: Was there ever a point where you wanted to take the story further than where it ends?
Baumbach: I don’t know. In my experience I don’t know when the crisis ends. I don’t that anybody that’s gone through a breakdown says, “Okay. Nervous breakdown over.” So in a way, the movie approximates that experience and that feeling. I think people like Pauline, it’s still open-ended but have more conclusive endings maybe in more traditional ways. I think there’s more hope in her conversation with Malcolm on the phone, and I think there’s hope with Margo and Pauline’s conversation they have in bed together. I think the movie’s about not being able to escape your family and how this stuff keeps happening and keeps going. So to slam an ending on it and say, “Margot’s better now.” I don’t know.

CS: You movie seems to be set in a very Hamptons-like location, but it’s not the Hamptons of Woody Allen’s “Debutante” but it’s more like Hamptons by way of “Deliverance” particularly with their neighbors. Can you talk about what they represent in the overall story?
Baumbach: Well, the movie doesn’t take place in the Hamptons, even though I don’t know where it takes place exactly. The neighbors, I mean I find in a lot of country areas there are people of different economic backgrounds who live near each other and don’t necessarily come in contact with each other except when there are disputes over things, or people you run into in town and there can be resentment that goes back and forth. I initially brought them in thinking about the anthropology of the area, but also the movie for me is a lot about the inner world and the outer world and how your emotional state affects how you see things and how the world appears to you. Because I was starting with a boy who was just starting puberty and I think the world starts to change rapidly for a kid at that age, and a woman who is now thinking about maybe abandoning her family and changing her life and going through a real emotional crisis, the world also is going to be affected by what is going on in her head. In a lot of ways, when Claude looks through the slabs in the fence and he sees naked people during a crochet match, and when Margot goes over there, she sees a sort of brutality, and later, it’s just people eating a pig, I think it’s unclear in a lot of ways who the neighbors are. I was interested in them some ways as being projections of the main family. I mean at the end when Claude is on the ferry, he sees the mother and son cuddling in their car together, so I feel like we don’t know who they are. They may be “Deliverance” type people, they may just be a lower income family that lives nearby.

CS: I saw the tree as a symbol of what Margot was going through. Was it an important part of the movie for that reason?
Baumbach: I’m happy with that. It’s funny, I’m very analytical in my real life, but in terms of my films I try to not analyze them at all and let things just go into them and let them be what they are. I mean, people ask me to this day what “The Squid and the Whale” stood for and I have no idea except that it’s an exhibit in the Natural History Museum. I put the tree in initially because I had the idea that Margot climbed trees as a kid and I thought it would be funny if she had to climb it again as an adult. But after I put it in, I did become aware of this sort of, “Well, it’s a tree, it’s a family tree, symbolism.” I almost took it out for that reason, but I still wanted to have her to climb it, so I went with it knowing that I was going to be stuck with having some sort of symbolic tree in the movie. That I probably couldn’t avoid. I like hearing people’s interpretations of the movie because it’s stuff I try to stay out of.

CS: It looks like you shot the movie similarly to “Squid and the Whale,” using a lot of natural light ala the Dogme style of filmmaking. Could you talk about the decision to do that especially in this different environment?
Baumbach: Well, “The Squid in the Whale” was shot in Super 16, so it always maintained that kind of grain, when you blow up the Super 16 to 35 it becomes grainy which I liked, I wanted it to have that, to feel the film in it. With this movie, we shot in 35, but we shot with these old lenses from the ’70s which are just not as sharp as modern lenses and it creates a more diffused look to it. You’re right. We also used a lot of natural light. I wanted the movie to feel like my eyes sees things, and when you’re indoors in the day and you don’t turn on lights, everyone falls into shadow, and when you get up in the middle of the night and you don’t turn on a light, it’s dark. I wanted to keep that feeling in a kind of natural way. I also think the movie speaks to the neighbors, too. I think the movie is about peeking and looking into things and the things in the movie with the people looking through the fence and listening outside doors, it allows the audience to participate in that, because also in watching a movie, you have to look into it. It’s not lit there for you it’s something and in some ways it requires you to participate.

CS: How did you know what it would like before developing the film?
Baumbach: We did tests and things. We had professionals working on this thing.

CS: “Entertainment Weekly” recently posted early Oscar predictions that mentioned both Jennifer and Nicole. Do you pay attention to that kind of stuff?
Baumbach: The Oscars? What is that? I don’t even know. Anything good is good.

CS: Do you read what’s written about your movies?
Baumbach: Well, if there’s something printed in “Entertainment Weekly”, it’s hard for me not to see it. I don’t patrol the internet looking for things about myself, or about the movie, but you hope for the best. You want it to do well. You want people to make their money back and all those things. Of course you want it to do great. But it’s so out of your control.

CS: Do you know what you’re doing next?
Baumbach: I’m just finishing a script that I just started to make.

CS: The one that you started before?
Baumbach: No.

Margot at the Wedding opens in select cities on Friday, November 16, and you can read our interview with its star Nicole Kidman here.