Noah Baumbach is in Middleburg, Virginia where his latest film Marriage Story just opened the film festival. We’re sitting in a meeting room the day after, talking about the film. Where Baumbach’s 2005 film The Squid and The Whale looks at a child going through his parents’ divorce, Marriage Story looks at a couple going through divorce and all the factors that come into play; the people and the questions.
We talk about the color palette, his visuals and working with Randy Newman. Baumbach also talks about the research and going back to friends who had been through a divorce.
Read our chat below:
Noah, you destroyed me. I just wanted you to know that.
Where did Marriage Story begin?
I was looking for a way to make a love story. I wanted to find a new way in. It was such a general idea. It was in telling the story of divorce; I felt I could tell the story of a marriage. It came from this love story notion.
I’m in my 40s, and have friends who are divorced. The way they describe it is like a death. I know you did a lot of research to really nail that aspect of the story?
I did. I have – unfortunately, or maybe fortunately in some cases – many friends who have gone through divorces. I spoke to many of them again, even the ones that I had been present for. I spoke to them. I spoke to friends who had gone through it with me and I divorce. I went back to them and interviewed them in a more formalized way. I wanted to hear it again. It was just so interesting to talk to both men and women, sometimes both had been in a marriage together. It was interesting to hear the perspectives and to hear how things had changed. I talked about how they felt then versus how they felt now. In some cases, things had really changed dramatically.
People often feel a lot of shame when it’s going on, so it’s hard to talk about it when you’re in it. It also revealed a lot to me about things that had gone on back then.
I love how you bring in the mother-in-law, the sharks and all the other characters and striking the balance.
What’s also really kind of absurd, but a reality of divorce is that many people get dragged into it. You have a legal system that brings in lawyers, judges, evaluators and mediators. There are all these professional that suddenly become part of your professional experience. Then family gets brought into it because it’s a rewriting of your marriage. So everyone who was involved in your marriage in some ways becomes a part of the divorce narrative. It gave an opportunity to create these characters which was great. To bring in Nicole’s family, her mom and her sister. The lawyers too. They were a natural part of the story for those reasons.
I love your color palette and how you shot New York, but also the colors with how you shot Los Angeles?
One thing we decided early on with Robbie Ryan our DP and Mark Bridges (who did the costumes) was that because New York and LA are such different environments, to look at the lighting. I can recognize a movie shot in LA before they tell you it’s shot in LA because the light is so distinct. We maintained the same palette because we knew it would shift and look different. The faded red brick, the charcoal grey of concrete, with little dots of green trees and whatever sky you can see in New York. It becomes the white stucco, the Spanish tile, the rich blue sky and the rich rich green. LA has pinks and so it was fun in that way. We could do it almost just by being true to the real environment.
What conversations did you have with Randy about scoring the film?
Randy and I worked on my last movie. We had a relationship and so we had become friendly. I actually sent him a draft of the script and told him I’d love to work on it. Unlike, Meyerowitz where he’s playing piano and it’s somewhat spare, off the beat. I wanted a real orchestra. I wanted a real movie score, one that was romantic and complex. I wanted the music to embrace the characters because they go through so much. It was a way for me to take care of them in a way I couldn’t do within the narrative because they had to go through this story.
He read the script, and he wrote me this really nice note. He attached a piece of him, just playing the piano. It was something he’d thought about while reading it. It was so beautiful. Just him on an iPhone at home and you can hear the birds in the background. It was so beautiful. That piece is one of the big themes of the movie.
Your visual choices are where you strike us because you’re right up there with the emotions. What were the influences behind that?
I knew we were going to do a lot of closeups. One thing we did was we narrowed the aspect ratio. Normally, we shoot in 1.85 or widescreen. This was in 1.66 and the borders are even narrow. I thought it was really beautiful. Another part of the story is that these people lose control of their own narrative, and they lose their voice at a certain point because the lawyers take over for them. I thought so much can be told in the interior life of these people for all the words and dialogue so much can be told in these spaces. With Adam and Scarlett as the faces- what great faces.
One movie that Robbie and I looked at was Bergman’s Persona. I loved the use of closeups in that movie. I loved how they are used to individuate, but also connect the two characters. I also knew we’d have some great wides because the environment is a big part of showing what’s at stake in the movie- New York and LA.
It was playing that balance.
There are so many scenes that punch you, but the Adam Driver scene is one that strikes every single time. What was it like as a filmmaker watching that?
It was intense. It was the only time in my career that I felt drawn into the scene in a way that was difficult. To keep myself as a director became more difficult. What we did that was crucial, and that scene was technically set in advance, we had real parameters to how it would play out. That was so important because it gave them the safety to let go; knowing when we were going to be in closeup, wide and which mark to hit. On one hand, that’s even more difficult for an actor because they’re doing that and they’re letting go emotionally. For them, I think it gave them room to really do it.
Your casting is incredible from Adam to Scarlett to your ensemble. How did you bring together the perfect cast?
In many of the roles, they’re actors who I’ve always wanted to work with. Alan and Ray; casting those two. Doug Abel and Francine Maisler are my great casting directors; they’re so great at finding people for me.
Was it always going to be called Marriage Story?
It was the title I had from the beginning. It took me a long time to fully commit to it. It’s interesting about the movie; it didn’t take a poetic title. It always felt like Marriage Story was the right thing, in some ways, it’s both specific and generic at the same time. Also, the narrative of marriage; What is a marriage? Who gets to tell the story of a marriage? Is a marriage a marriage if it’s over? All these questions are embedded in that title.
Marriage Story is in theaters November 6 and on Netflix from December 6