Noah Baumbach gets up close and personal with his ‘Marriage Story’ actors
Though the films he’s written and directed have been most comfortable on the art house circuit rather than at big multiplexes, Noah Baumbach has always been able to attract major talent to be in his small, intimate productions. Among many others, he’s directed Nicole Kidman, Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Sandler, Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson.
Constantly on the look for new talent, Baumbach also hired then wet-behind-the-ears actor Adam Driver for a part in his 2012 film “Frances Ha,” and now has him starring (with Scarlett Johansson) in their fourth collaboration, “Marriage Story,” which traces the dissolution of what once appeared to be a happy marriage. Baumbach, 50, recently got together with a group of journalists in New York City to chat about the film.
Q: “Marriage Story” is filled with really long takes, and there’s a lot of the camera staring at the actors. Was that the plan from the start?
A: Yeah, it was so much about performance, so I have nothing to hide behind. The actors are my special effect in a way. And when you have actors like this, you have the luxury, I find, to let them exist in the space. I found it was a way visually, on one hand, to let the actors really have their own rhythm and momentum. We rehearsed these scenes exhaustively, and they’re all very blocked out. But when you do cut, or when you go into a closeup after being sort of in the room and letting them breathe, I find that it has a different meaning. If you’re cutting throughout a scene, that’s fine. It might be right for some scenes. But when you have these actors in these spaces and this internal life that they’re bringing, it’s one of those things where a closeup can feel like the most interesting, greatest shot in a movie, ever. And you know, it’s just somebody’s face.
Q: The opening sequences work as something like a couple of movies-within-a-movie. It was an interesting way to meet the two main characters.
A: That’s a good way to describe it. And we shot it differently than we shot the rest of the movie. That portion of it is all hand-held. I think part of our feeling was that it’s these sort of ordinary moments that often go unnoticed during a day. What makes them extraordinary here is that somebody who loves you is pointing them out. And what it also set up is that these ordinary moments don’t go away even though the circumstances change. It’s still our days and it’s still true of these people, no matter what. So, when I was writing it and then when we shot it, it provided a lot for the movie. It not only told you about the characters, it told you, kind of in an introductory way, about the marriage. So, it really did give us a lot of opportunity and story and character that was going to continue for the rest of the movie.
Q: The casting is impeccable, not only with Adam and Scarlett, but also with the two lawyers, played by Laura Dern and Alan Alda. When you were writing, did you have these actors in mind?
A: Well, this is the fourth movie together for Adam and me, and we’re always in a conversation. We were always talking about what we might do next. So, when I was kind of circling what became this movie, Adam and I were already talking about it. And he was very much inside it for me and from the beginning. I knew Scarlett a little bit, and I reached out to her and said I think maybe this is something we could do together, and we had lunch. The first thing she said to me was, “I’m sorry I’m late. I was on the phone with my lawyer because I’m getting a divorce.” And I immediately thought who else could we go to. But to Scarlett’s credit, it was a reason (for her) to do the movie. And you can see it. You see that what she’s doing is so honest and close to her. As far as Laura, I’ve known her and I think it came as a surprise to us that we hadn’t worked together before. I brought her this idea and this character and she was just a great friend and collaborator and sounding board for ideas and things. I had actually never seen Alan in anything before. This was a total discovery for me. But I think he’s got a future. (laughs) No, Alan is exactly who you would hope he would be. I mean, whatever I projected onto him through the years of watching him and what I hoped he was, he is that and more, as an actor and as a person.
“Marriage Story” opens on Nov. 22.
Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at email@example.com.