Director Baumbach Tracks Family Failure

In his latest film, Margot at the Wedding, Noah Baumbach continues his exploration of families falling apart.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ALISON STEWART, host:

Critical acclaimed writer/director Noah Baumbach made his first movie at the age of 24, the post-college malaise comedy "Kicking and Screaming." It included a plotline about a 20-something writer.

(Soundbite of movie ""Kicking and Screaming")

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) Okay. And Czechoslovakia is just the worse place to go. And the way I see it eventually, you'll make your life in the States. Why run away now? You're just postponing that get started year.

Unidentified Woman #1 (Actor): (As character) I'm not postponing anything. I've postponing months of emotional carousing.

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) Exactly. It's a bad idea to go to directly. Poor Alice is just going to wait for you and you could - what are you writing?

Unidentified Woman #1: (As character) Notes.

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) Will you stop writing what I'm saying? Can we have one spontaneous conversation where my dialogue doesn't end up in your next story? And what if I want this material?

Unidentified Woman #1: (As character) We'll see who gets it first.

Unidentified Man: (As Character) Okay. Let me borrow your pen.

STEWART: Baumbach would earn Oscar nomination 10 years later with the film "The Squid and the Whale," about a New York family going through a divorce. Yes, Baumbach's parents did split. And this year, "Margot at the Wedding," about siblings struggling to love each other, one of whom is a writer who draws from her family's life.

When Noah Baumbach visited the BPP studios, he addressed the perception that he, like the title character in his latest movie, pulls material directly from his own life.

Mr. NOAH BAUMBACH (Writer, Director, "Margot at the Wedding"): I do use a lot of stuff from my life, but a lot of it is very literal. I mean, in "The Squid and the Whale," where I got this sort of biography-thing a lot, I used the location of my childhood. My parents had gotten divorced in real life, and the movie depicted a divorce. And so, there were a lot of easy connections people could make, but it really wasn't autobiographical. It was a work of fiction. And this movie has things, too, from my life, from other people, but I always find that the people who come up to me and say, oh, you took that thing, are always wrong.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BAUMBACH: And the people that I think, oh, no, they're going to see I took that conversation or something, they - no idea. So as long as that keeps happening, I can keep doing it.

STEWART: You worked with Jack Black in this film, and he is so great at, you know, broad, physical comedy, so I'm curious what kind of conversations you had with him about working within a smaller scale, a very language, very conversation-driven film versus sort of the great slapstick that he's known for?

Mr. BAUMBACH: Part of what I really admire about Jack's broader movies -"School of Rock" or "Nacho Libre" - are I find he really grounds those characters. I mean, it's played in a broader world, but it - there's a real sweetness and a real humanity to them. So that's what I connected to and also, in meeting him, I connected to about him personally, that it never felt like a stretch to me to put him into the world of this movie.

(Soundbite of movie, "Margot at the Wedding")

Mr. JACK BLACK (Actor): (As Malcolm) Paul apologizes for not coming. She's still is getting the house ready.

Ms. KIDMAN: (As Margot) I'm sorry it's such short notice.

Mr. BLACK: (As Malcolm) I don't care. Paul's frantic, but I don't give a (censored). If you're wondering about the mustache…

Ms. KIDMAN: (As Margot) No. I wasn't.

Mr. BLACK: (As Malcolm) I had a full beard for a while, and then when I shaved it, I left this part for last, you know, to see how it looks. And - it's meant to be funny.

STEWART: He's also so likable. And, again, this is a character who might not be particularly likable, but there's something about the way he plays this sort of unmotivated or motivated by some really strange things kind of guy that makes you almost want to root for him to be a better person.

Mr. BAUMBACH: I think so.

STEWART: You know?

Mr. BAUMBACH: And I think a lot of that is Jack. I think there's something in Jack that you feel that there's potential there, and you want him to be his best self.

STEWART: My husband and I used to work together. He's an executive producer at the TV station I used to work for. And we had rules that we laid down, like, he would have to book me to be on the show, but he couldn't just tell me. He had to go through the proper channels.

You worked with your wife on this film. Did you guys lay down any sort of ground rules before you went in? Professional rules versus what's going on between Noah and Jennifer at home?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BAUMBACH: Well, it's very unlike us to make rules in that way. But I tried to be responsible and I said, you know, we should just have a moment and right now, say, if we fight, say, on the set, we should take it off the set. But we're both very comfortable on movie sets, and she's done this way more times than I have, even. So it was only good.

STEWART: There are these - I'm referring to them as quietly shocking moments in the film - when a character will just say something that just - it's like a blast.

(Soundbite of movie, "Margot at the Wedding")

Ms. KIDMAN: (As Margot): It causes cancer.

Mr. ZANE PAIS (Actor): (As Claude) Underarm deodorant?

Ms. KIDMAN: (As Margot): Uh-huh. It's got chemicals and other things which are extremely harmful.

Mr. PAIS: (As Claude): I'm not going to die from underarm cancer.

Ms. KIDMAN: (As Margot) No. You'll get it somewhere else, like your stomach or your testicles.

STEWART: When you're writing these moments, are you writing them to grab the audience, or are they just - was that just part of this woman's personality?

Mr. BAUMBACH: It's really part of this woman's personality. I don't think of those moments as so shocking, really, I guess I - to me, it's how some people talk.

STEWART: Some us live in a very gentile world.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BAUMBACH: Well…

STEWART: A very gentile, contained, world where nobody says a thing.

Mr. BAUMBACH: I don't know. I don't know. Listen closer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: People are saying things that I don't know. So when you're writing this, you don't realize that that's actually really - some of those things are really difficult?

Mr. BAUMBACH: In my experience, I mean, I - they might be more shocking compared to what we often see parents and kids talk about in movies. I don't think it's that different from how parents and kids talk in real life. It's a very specific relationship. I'm not saying all parents and kids talk this way at all. And these are - it's a mother and son, where the boundaries are fuzzy and their bond is - they're very close. And they're also at a very specific time. He's about to hit puberty, and about to go through changes that are going to, in some ways, draw him away from his mother and out - look - you know, turn him more out into the world in a way and be more interested in people that are not in his family.

And she's going through a crisis in this movie, where she's looking also away from the family and thinking about abandoning the family, potentially. But saying all that, I also think that there's a certain casual frankness and sometimes cruelty and - but also lovingness that goes on all the time in families, and particularly families in close quarters. I think if we taped a lot of families that claim to be relatively normal, you'd be surprised when you hear some of the things said.

STEWART: Back when you made "Kicking and Screaming," I looked it up, and you were named one of Newsweek's 10 new faces to watch. That was 11 years ago.

Mr. BAUMBACH: Yeah, they were 10 years off. But…

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Did that accolade help you move things along in your career, or did it create some sort of weird expectation about you?

Mr. BAUMBACH: I don't know. I made two movies very young, and then I had trouble getting a movie made, and so - which was both, I think, a plus and a minus. It was a minus because it made me unhappy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BAUMBACH: It was a plus in that I think developed as a filmmaker, so by the time I made my third film, I was in a stronger place. I really like my first movie a lot, "Kicking and Screaming." I think it's a - I'm very pleased and proud of that movie, but it wasn't the - it wasn't "Citizen Kane" right out of the box, you know? It wasn't "Sex, Lies and Videotape." And so, I made a good movie. I didn't make a masterpiece. And I would have had a different pressure, I guess, if I had made the best movie of my life then - not that those filmmakers necessarily made the best - I think Soderbergh's made a lot of great movies. So did Orson Welles, by the way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BAUMBACH: But I, you know, I imagine there's a pressure, in some ways, coming out so young and making a movie that's beyond your years. I think I made a movie, probably, right around my years.

STEWART: You're right in the pocket, then.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Thanks for coming in, Noah.

Mr. BAUMBACH: Thanks for having me.

(Soundbite of music)

STEWART: Noah Baumbach's new movie stars Nicole Kidman, Jack Black, and his wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh. Noah was there. They get along just fine.

(Soundbite of music)

BURBANK: Coming up on the BPP, producer Mark Ronson. This guy can turn a Britney Spears song into a funk masterpiece. Stick around to hear how that…

STEWART: How that happened.

BURBANK: …how that kind of alchemy happens.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.