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Capone Interviews Noah Baumbach On MARGOT AT THE WEDDING!

Hey, everyone. ”Moriarty” here. Capone’s rocking it for AICN in Chicago, week in and week out, and today, he’s got interviews with the filmmakers behind all three of the big titles hitting theaters today. Noah Baumbach is a slow-motion overnight success, and I’m always curious if he’s involved with something. I have managed to miss every single screening of MARGOT AT THE WEDDING that I was invited to, and it frustrates me silly. I even missed a shot at meeting Baumbach. Capone managed to connect with him, though, and here’s the result:
Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here. I guess I was blissfully ignorant of this fact until recently, but I truly despise the films of Noah Baumbach. I remember being utterly fascinated by his first movie, 1995's KICKING AND SCREAMING, because it reminded me of the endless conversation I used to have with friends about any- and everything. He perfectly captured the eternal dialog that people have with each other that can be picked up weeks or months after they end. I'll admit to not being a big fan of follow-up work MR. JEALOUSY or Wes Anderson's THE LIFE AQUATIC, which Baumbach co-wrote with Anderson. But then along came THE SQUID AND THE WHALE, the Oscar-nominated (for best original screenplay), in which Baumbach threw open a window looking in on the venomous dissolving marriage of a New York couple in the 1980s. The film struck a chord with people (including me), and showed divorce for the ugly and painful thing it can turn into if left unchecked. Of course, million of people know divorce is often terrible, but I've never seen it put on display like this before. And it showed us how deeply fucked up the children of parents like the ones in this film can become during the process. It's one of the most difficult films I've ever experienced, and, and I recommended the brutality to everyone I could. Baumbach's latest is MARGOT AT THE WEDDING, another vitriolic look at New Yorkers (this time the setting is Long Island) who spend most of their energy pushing each other's buttons. Nicole Kidman is Margot, attending her the wedding of her sister (Baumbach's wife Jennifer Jason Leigh) and her fiancée (Jack Black). Bitterness and backbiting ensue, and, once again, children are caught in the middle. The characters in this film seem more mentally damaged than those in SQUID, but the writing is just as stinging and mean. I'd read that Baumbach could be a difficult interview--not angry or defensive, but tough to get a straight answer out of. I guess it depends on who's asking the questions, because I found our conversation a real treat and Baumbach full of dry humor and great insight into his work. Hope you like our talk… Capone: This wasn’t my original first question, but just yesterday, somebody forwarded me a review of MARGOT AT THE WEDDING, and the person who wrote it--and I don’t think he meant it as a compliment--but he said you were like the American Lars von Trier. I don’t know if you heard about this or not? Noah Baumbach: No. Capone: To me, that sounds like a compliment, because I love Lars von Trier [Baumbach laughs], but I think he meant that your films seem to focus on making the people in the film, and therefore, the audience, very uncomfortable at times. I don’t this guy was appreciating it quite as much. Is that a fair assessment--or reduction of your films--of what you’ve been doing with the last couple of films especially? Kind of focusing on that uncomfortable or cruel behavior? NB: I’ll say I don’t set out in any deliberate way to document uncomfortable situations. I am interested in intimate situations and moments between people that I’d suppose are somewhat everyday. Neither movie is really about major events, although, I suppose…I mean, divorce is a major event, certainly in the abstract. But, I think both movies are…and they’re structured this way, too…are kind of accumulated experiences and moments and often in between moments. Not sort of major trial room events. For that reason, I think it can make people uncomfortable, because it’s things that are not, maybe, often thought of as movie scenes. Of course, many of the movies I love also do this. So, to me, it’s just nothing that new. But, I think that’s why people tend to feel uncomfortable, because they feel like, I can’t believe this is in a movie. C: Maybe for some people, it just strikes a little too close to home, too. NB: Right. And, some people love that, because it’s a kind of giddy enjoyment of it, or cathartic, or emotional experience of it. And, other people resist it, because they say, Why do I want this? Life’s hard enough. C: Yeah. When I watched MARGOT, I thought in a more abstract way that this film represented the post-fame version of some of the things that you went through. Someone in the story is accused of writing autobiographically, but maybe that’s not quite accurate. And, that scene in the bookstore with the interview, that’s my worst nightmare, having an interview go that wrong. NB: Yeah. I was inspired to write that scene after one too many THE SQUID AND THE WHALE interviews, but also, it worked integrally into Margot’s character trajectory in the film. It is interesting, I suppose, to look at where writers think they are drawing from, where the people around them think they’re drawing from, what writers are aware and unaware of in their work, but I wouldn’t have put it in if it didn’t feel right for the movie at that point. But, I suppose I was having a little fun with it, too. C: Some great filmmakers and playwrights over the years have focused on the relationship between sisters, everyone from Bergman to Woody Allen. You can go back to Shakespeare and Chekhov. What makes that relationship more interesting than brotherly ties? What goes on between women that makes that more interesting? NB: I don’t know that I feel it’s more interesting. I didn’t set out deliberately to write about sisters. It came rather organically in my finding this movie and finding my way into this movie, because I started with Margot, and then I figured she was visiting her sister, so it…whether I wanted to or not, it became a movie about sister relationships. I mean, I do find sisters very interesting. I agree with you, and I’ve known lots of sisters, and I think once I found myself there, it was something I realized I had a lot of things to draw on and I had a lot of interest in it. I think if I had come at it saying, announcing one day at the dinner table, I’m going to write a movie about sisters, I may have had a harder time finding that. What tends to work for me is that if I come at it from the characters, then these sort of bigger relationships take care of themselves. C: The film is filled with these broken or fractured people, and then in the middle of this is this sweet kid that we pray won’t be too damaged by all this venom-slinging around him. Is there hope for Claude [Margot's son, played by Zane Pais]? I’m not going to talk about the ending, but is there hope for him in the end? Or, is he going to be like the rest of people in his family? NB: I think there’s hope for him, definitely. And, I also think there’s hope for Pauline and Malcolm, and there could even be some hope for Margot, in a funny way. Claude certainly wouldn’t be the first child to have complicated parents to develop a healthy life, having had complicated parents. You read the biographies of some of the most interesting people in public life, and they come from crazy, abusive families much worse, I think, than probably Claude has. You also see Claude’s father [John Turturro] as a very kind, gentle man. And, I think also, the movie leaves it open. We’re seeing a more extreme version of Margot and Claude’s bond than probably has existed in the past. I think Margot is in a crisis when we meet her. On one hand, I always feel like when the movie ends, that’s all I know. But, I do have hope for him. C: Is it important to you that an audience like Margot? Or, is it enough just to have some clear understanding of her? It is truly difficult to like her. NB: Yeah, yeah. I’ve found with…this is true of SQUID also and this movie…I get so many radically variant opinions and reactions that I’m kind of open to most of them, most of them that are positive. [Laughs] Some people find them much funnier as experiences, and other people find them much tougher. And, I’m open to either. Yeah, I’d say, ultimately, I just want people to understand Margot. But, I think it’s possible to like her a little bit. Not all the time. You can be angry at her, but I think it’s possible to like her too. C: You give a lot of weight to characters that we never actually see--the third sister, the mother, Claude has a brother. And, I love how people in the house sort of speak for these people on occasion. Had it always been your intention to have these characters that weren’t there, but their presence was brought to light every so often by these comments, like someone says, “Becky can’t stand you” to Margot. NB: Right. The sisters, Margot and Pauline, bond early in the movie by laughing about Becky’s misfortune, and then, of course, later Pauline uses Becky against Margot. I was always interested in the notion of family members…I mean, the movie begins with two family members leaving home and leaving the rest of the family unit behind. And then, they come across other family. And, I think all the characters in the movie, to some degree, or most of them, struggle with this notion of what is your family and where are your allegiances. And, if Pauline is marrying Malcolm, they’re becoming family. But, of course, once Margot arrives, Malcolm feels like an outsider, because he’s not part of the initial family. Since I tend to write coming at the characters from a psychological standpoint, it always circles back to family. And, I was interested in how these people haunt the present in some way. I mean, the parents haunt the sisters, while at the same time, we’re seeing Margot’s influence on Claude. You asked about Claude’s future, in your previous question, and how she’s going to haunt him in some way, and how the other sister becomes a sort of, with her absence and presence, she’s there and not there. And, the mother’s there and not there, and the father’s there and not there. None of these people ever made it into any drafts, because I think the movie was always about offshoots of family and how those become the family. C: You actually answered my next question, which was about how the non-blood relatives in this family are treated like invaders, almost. I’m guessing a lot of spouses or significant others sort of feel that way sometimes when they’re in the presence of the other person’s family. I’ve been there, I definitely know that. NB: [laughs] Pauline has that line, “It’s hard to find people in the world you love more than your family.” And, she’s talking about the family she grew up with, her parents and her sisters. But, of course, you could use that line meaning her and Malcolm also. But, I mean, it’s so the way this family looks at the world. That’s how they were brought up to look at the world. C: I do want to come back to MARGOT, but I want to make sure I get this question in before they cut us off. Just a couple weeks ago, I was talking with Wes Anderson about THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX [which Anderson and Baumbach adapted from a book by Roald Dahl]. And, this sounds wonderful. How did you two decide to sort of tackle this story and this book. It’s not a long book, so I’m kind of curious how you filled in the plot. Can you talk a little bit about that? NB: Yeah, well, we had to invent a lot, because, like you say. I think even if we'd just transcribed the book, we’d have probably about eight pages of screenplay, once you take out the pictures. But, we actually finished it about two years ago. It was after we finished THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU. He had already had the rights to the book, and so he asked if I wanted to do that. LIFE AQUATIC was a pretty focused writing period. We really wrote that straight through. With FANTASTIC MR. FOX, we were interrupted, first by him making LIFE AQUATIC, and then when I made THE SQUID AND THE WHALE. So, it was more about when we found time. But, yeah, he’s making it now, so it’ll be interesting to see what it becomes. C: Have you been involved at all in the visual aspects of this film, because the way he described it, it sounded like one of these great stop-motion things that Tim Burton’s been putting out. NB: Yeah, I think it will be; I’m sure it will look great. I’ve seen some drawings of things, but I’m not directly involved in the animation. C: I’m guessing a few dark corners of farm living are exposed here. NB: [laughs] Yeah, we’re going to show you what it’s really like. C: Back to MARGOT now, I get a sense that it’s more than just one or two bad marriages that have turned MARGOT into the person that she is in this film. Did you talk to Nicole Kidman at all about the character’s past and what has made her the person that she is when we meet her? NB: We talked about, we certainly came at that character from all directions, and we talked about the history of the character and things, but I mean, in some ways, we get little snippets of what their father was like and their upbringing--in the movie, too--but the movie in a lot of ways is very much in the present tense. I think it goes to your earlier question…and about how the present is so influenced by the past, from a psychological standpoint. So, I don’t know, I guess I never felt her past was that important, certainly that…I don’t really think that Margot’s that extreme, that there’s any kind of major events or anything that made her what she is. I think a lot of people are like that. C: I think we know Nicole and Jennifer Jason Leigh can handle this kind of material. I think people are going to be really surprised to see Jack Black pull this high drama off. He’s kind of the wild card here. I think people might come in thinking it’s going to be a little funnier because he’s in it. And, it does have a lot of humor in it, but to watch him a couple times just really break down is so unexpected. How did you get hooked up with him? NB: Well, it’s interesting. He had gotten in touch with me after he saw SQUID, and we had lunch. I just really connected to him. In person, he’s…I mean, he’s this way in his work, too, but there’s something, a real sensitivity and grounded quality about him. And, I was probably working on the script at that time, but I wasn’t thinking about casting yet. And, so when it came time to cast Malcolm, I just had the feeling he’d be good. Like you say, I wanted it to be funny, too. I wanted whoever played Malcolm to be funny, and so, it never felt really like a leap to me. I understand, I suppose…now, looking at it from the outside, people say, “This seems unexpected.” But, it just seemed like the right fit to me. C: Let me just follow up with that because, obviously, when you hire someone like Jack Black, you get a certain personality that can’t help but inject itself into the role. How do you balance that? I get a sense that you don’t really want people to stray from your written word that much, but at the same time, you’re hiring these actors that you know bring a certain something, a bit of personality to the role. How do you strike that balance between saying what’s written, yet adding a little color to it? NB: Yeah, as Jack would say, “Too much sauce?” Well, even in your question, you seem to understand. For me, that’s what it’s about. It’s about trying…I mean, I come into the work hearing it in my head a certain way. And, working with the actors, in some way, I’m trying to hear it…I want to hear it back through them, and I want it to sound right. But, it can only really sound right if they interpret it in a personal way, in a way that is somehow close to them. Because if they imitate, I mean, if I give them a line reading and they imitate that, it’s going to feel artificial. It might be, like, technically kind of how I want the line to sound, but it won’t have any life. So, I feel like there’s something in that space. There’s something in that space between them doing the line as I’ve written it, how I want it, and them humanizing it and personalizing it, where it happens. And, that’s true whether it’s someone like Jack or the kids or Nicole or Jennifer. And, it’s interesting, because in a way, what I want to hear is something that I hear it in my head, but I can’t do anything about that. It’ll only click when they do it right. So, in some ways, it’s trying to sort of find that moment. And, it usually clicks. With these actors, who are all so good, it clicks at some point in rehearsal. There will be a moment where they’ll find it, and they’ll walk in. And, they might lose it, and we need to find it again, but those are the really exciting parts of working with actors and making movies. Capone

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