By Iain Blair
Writer/director Noah Baumbach first made a name for himself with The Squid and the Whale, his 2005 semi-autobiographical, bittersweet story about his childhood and his parents’ divorce. It launched his career, scoring him an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
His latest film, Marriage Story, is also about the disintegration of a marriage — and the ugly mechanics of divorce. Detailed and emotionally complex, the film stars Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver as the doomed couple.
In all, Marriage Story scooped up six Oscar nominations — Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Screenplay and Best Original Score. Laura Dern walked away with a statue for her supporting role.
The film co-stars Dern, Alan Alda and Ray Liotta. The behind-the-scenes team includes director of photography Robbie Ryan, editor Jennifer Lame and composer Randy Newman.
Just a few days before the Oscars, Baumbach — whose credits also include The Meyerwitz Stories, Frances Ha and Margot at the Wedding — talked to me about making the film and his workflow.
What sort of film did you set out to make?
It’s obviously about a marriage and divorce, but I never really think about a project in specific terms, like a genre or a tone. In the past, I may have started a project thinking it was a comedy but then it morphs into something else. With this, I just tried to tell the story as I initially conceived it, and then as I discovered it along the way. While I didn’t think about tone in any general sense, I became aware as I worked on it that it had all these different tones and genre elements. It had this flexibility, and I just stayed open to all those and followed them.
I heard that you were discussing this with Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson as you wrote the script. Is that true?
Yes, but it wasn’t daily. I’d reached out to both of them before I began writing it, and luckily they were both enthusiastic and wanted to do it, so I had them as an inspiration and guide as I wrote. Periodically, we’d get together and discuss it and I’d show them some pages to keep them in the loop. They were very generous with conversations about their own lives, their characters. My hope was that when I gave them the finished script it would feel both new and familiar.
What did they bring to the roles?
They were so prepared and helped push for the truth in every scene. Their involvement from the very start did influence how I wrote their roles. Nicole has that long monologue and I don’t know if I’d have written it without Scarlett’s input and knowing it was her. Adam singing “Being Alive” came out of some conversations with him. They’re very specific elements that come from knowing them as people.
You reunited with Irish DP Robbie Ryan, who shot The Meyerowitz Stories. Talk about how you collaborated on the look and why you shot on film?
I grew up with film and feel it’s just the right medium for me. We shot The Meyerowitz Stories on Super 16, and we shot this on 35mm, and we had to deal with all these office spaces and white rooms, so we knew there’d be all these variations on white. So there was a lot of discussion about shades and the palette, along with the production and costume designers, and also how we were going to shoot these confined spaces, because it was what the story required.
You shot on location in New York and LA. How tough was the shoot?
It was challenging, but mainly because of the sheer length of many of the scenes. There’s a lot of choreography in them, and some are quite emotional, so everyone had to really be up for the day, every day. There was no taking it easy one day. Every day felt important for the movie.
Where did you do the post?
All in New York. I have an office in the Village where I cut my last two films, and we edited there again. We mixed on the Warner stage, where I’ve mixed most of my movies. We recorded the music and orchestra in LA.
Do you like the post process?
I really love it. It’s the most fun and the most civilized part of the whole process. You go to work and work on the film all day, have dinner and go home. Writing is always a big challenge, as you’re making it up as you go along, and it can be quite agonizing. Shooting can be fun, but it’s also very stressful trying to get everything you need. I love working with the actors and crew, but you need a high level of energy and endurance to get through it. So then post is where you can finally relax, and while problems and challenges always arise, you can take time to solve them. I love editing, the whole rhythm of it, the logic of it.
Talk about editing with Jennifer Lame. How did that work?
We work so well together, and our process really starts in the script stage. I’ll give her an early draft to get her feedback and, basically, we start editing the script. We’ll go through it and take out anything we know we’re not going to use. Then during the shoot she’ll sometimes come to the set, and we’ll also talk twice a day. We’ll discuss the day’s work before I start, and then at lunch we’ll go over the previous day’s dailies. So by the time we sit down to edit, we’re really in sync about the whole movie. I don’t work off an assembly, so she’ll put together stuff for herself to let me know a scene is working the way we designed it. If there’s a problem, she’ll let me know what we need.
What were the big editing challenges?
Besides the general challenges of getting a scene right, I think for some of the longer ones it was all about finding the right rhythm and pacing. And it was particularly true of this film that the pace of something early on could really affect something later. Then you have to fix the earlier bit first, and sometimes it’s the scene right before. For instance, the scene where Charlie and Nicole have a big argument that turns into a very emotional fight is really informed by the courtroom scene right before it. So we couldn’t get it right until we’d got the courtroom scene right.
A lot of directors do test screenings. Do you?
No, I have people I show it to and get feedback, but I’ve never felt the need for testing.
VFX play a role. What was involved?
The Artery did them. For instance, when Adam cuts his arm we used VFX in addition to the practical effects, and then there’s always cleanup.
Talk about the importance of sound to you as a filmmaker, as it often gets overlooked in this kind of film.
I’m glad you said that because that’s so true, and this doesn’t have obvious sound effects. But the sound design is quite intricate, and Chris Scarabosio (working out of Skywalker Sound), who did Star Wars, did the sound design and mix; he was terrific.
A lot of it was taking the real-world environments in New York and LA and building on that, and maybe taking some sounds out and playing around with all the elements. We spent a lot of time on it, as both the sound and image should be unnoticed in this. If you start thinking, “That’s a cool shot or sound effect,” it takes you out of the movie. Both have to be emotionally correct at all times.
Where did you do the DI and how important is it to you?
We did it at New York’s Harbor Post with colorist Marcy Robinson, who’s done several of my films. It’s very important, but we didn’t do anything too extreme, as there’s not a lot of leeway for changing the look that much. I’m very happy with the look and the way it all turned out.
Congratulations on all the Oscar noms. How important is that for a film like this?
It’s a great honor. We’re all still the kids who grew up watching movies and the Oscars, so it’s a very cool thing. I’m thrilled.
I don’t know. I just started writing, but nothing specific yet.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.