NEAL CONAN, host:
A new movie called "The Squid and the Whale" opens in theaters across the country tomorrow. It tells the story of a family which at least on the surface may seem a bit unfamiliar. The parents, played by Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney, are literary types whose careers are going in opposite directions. They live in Brooklyn, New York, with their two sons played by Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline. For many watching, the film's struggle with divorce could cut close to the bone.
(Soundbite of "The Squid and the Whale")
Mr. JEFF DANIELS: We're going to have joint custody. Frank, it's OK. I've got an elegant new house across the park.
Unidentified Boy #1: Across the park? Not even Brooklyn?
Mr. DANIELS: It's only five stops on the subway. It's an elegant block, the filet of the neighborhood. We'll have a ping-pong table.
Unidentified Boy #2: I don't play ping-pong.
Ms. LAURA LINNEY: And we'll both see you equally.
Unidentified Boy #2: How will that work?
Mr. DANIELS: We're splitting up the week, alternating days.
Unidentified Boy #1: Why?
Mr. DANIELS: 'Cause I love you and I want to see you as much as your mother does.
Unidentified Boy #2: But there's seven days.
Mr. DANIELS: Right.
Unidentified Boy #2: So how will you split evenly with seven days?
Mr. DANIELS: Oh, I've got you Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday and every other Thursday.
Unidentified Boy #1: Every other?
Mr. DANIELS: That's how we each have you equally.
Ms. LINNEY: That was your father's idea.
Unidentified Boy #1: Don't do this.
Unidentified Boy #2: How will I get to school?
Mr. DANIELS: There's a subway four blocks from the house--four or five--no more than six blocks.
Unidentified Boy #2: And what about the cat?
Mr. DANIELS: We didn't discuss the cat.
CONAN: Noah Baumbach is writer and director of "The Squid and the Whale." He joins us now from NPR's bureau in New York City.
And thanks very much for joining us today.
Mr. NOAH BAUMBACH (Writer/Director): Sure. Thank you.
CONAN: And I think, as anybody can tell from that scene, it is both extremely painful and laugh-out-loud funny at parts. That's a delicate combination.
Mr. BAUMBACH: Yeah. And I think, you know, fortunately, I never thought of it quite from, you know, in terms of tone. I think I just, you know, came at it just how I see the world, you know?
CONAN: It's been said that this is at least in part, well, a story of your life.
Mr. BAUMBACH: Well, yeah. A lot of people keep telling me that. I think--you know, it's definitely inspired by people and places and things that I know really well, but you know, it's a work of fiction too.
CONAN: I assume you were the older kid in the movie?
Mr. BAUMBACH: Yeah. In real life, I was the older brother. Yeah.
CONAN: And there must be a great temptation when you're sort of rewriting roman a clef this chapter in your life to give yourself a lot of really good lines.
Mr. BAUMBACH: I actually got, you know, more interested in kind of taking myself to task and being more critical of how I behaved back then.
CONAN: Nobody gets off lightly in this movie.
Mr. BAUMBACH: Right. That's true.
CONAN: Especially, it seems to me, and maybe I was just cringing because of the gray in my beard, the father figure, who comes across--cringing at times; I was just cringing for him.
Mr. BAUMBACH: Well, I'm glad to hear that. I mean, I have--you know, at the same time that I certainly understand that reaction and relate to it, I also have a lot of, you know, sympathy for all the characters in the movie too, even when they behave badly.
CONAN: Especia--well, they're always behaving badly.
Mr. BAUMBACH: Humanly. Humanly.
CONAN: There's so many things in which you recognize yourself, no matter what age or sex you are, in some of these characters, and it is--it's both funny and it's really not a pleasant revelation.
Mr. BAUMBACH: Right. Right. And I certainly, you know, have had to sort of deal with, you know, things about myself and writing it that, you know, I'm not always so proud of.
CONAN: I bet. Treating your first girlfriend, for example. This is--I'm not sure anybody has come out on the good end of this.
Mr. BAUMBACH: Right. Well, that was an example where, you know, if I was going to be true to how I was at that age with other girls, I couldn't depict a particularly sympathetic character.
CONAN: Well, the girl is entirely sympa--she's wonderful.
Mr. BAUMBACH: She is. Not the boy.
CONAN: Cute, smart, interesting. The boy is just a--well, a boar in this particular example.
Mr. BAUMBACH: Well, he doesn't have great examples to learn from.
CONAN: No, that's entirely true, nor does he have a great deal of experience, as it becomes painfully obvious a couple of times. Again, the word `cringe' comes into play here.
We're talking with Noah Baumbach. He's the director of the new movie "The Squid and the Whale," which opens across the country this weekend.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
I wanted to ask you: You've been an independent filmmaker now for many years, and it seems sort of incremental steps up the ladder. I mean, this film might--well, it's shot in Brooklyn, but it's a pretty big-budget independent movie.
Mr. BAUMBACH: Well, not--it depends who you talk to. I mean, you know, we made it for a million and a half dollars, and we shot in 23 days, which I think of as low and short. But you know, certainly if you're making a movie digitally in, you know, your back yard, I suppose it's a lot of money, but, you know, compared to most movies, it's actually not a lot.
CONAN: How did you get started in becoming, at your age, a director/writer?
Mr. BAUMBACH: Well, I--it was something I'd always--you know, when I was sort of the age of the kid in the movie, I'd sort of decided I wanted to be, and in certain ways--you know, I'd made two movies in my 20s that--it happened kind of fast for me. But right before I started to write "The Squid and the Whale," I kind of found myself at a position where I think like my career ambition had sort of exceeded my sense of self. So I sort of in some ways had to figure out who I was at a filmmaker after I had already become one.
CONAN: That's interesting. In other words, you'd sort of outpaced your own development.
Mr. BAUMBACH: Yeah, and this movie, in a way, I think, for me was a kind of breakthrough on every stage, the writing all the way through the directing, of kind of finding who I was as an adult filmmaker in a way.
CONAN: I have to go back, though. There are a lot of people who will be caught up by the phrase, `Well, you know, I made two films in my 20s and I really didn't know what I'--how did you end up making two films in your 20s?
Mr. BAUMBACH: I--you know, that's why I was saying ambition exceeded--not that I--I'm not proud of those movies. I am. I don't know. You know, I just sense--I wrote a script when I got out of college, which was about college kids who never wanted to leave the school even after they graduated. And I sent it around and, you know, ultimately I got money to make it, and it's a--but, you know, it took me--after having made two movies, it took me--you know, it was about a seven-year period between my last movie and this one. So it wasn't all easy.
CONAN: Are all of your films at least semi-autobiographical?
Mr. BAUMBACH: In different ways. I mean, they're all personal, I would say, but you know, I probably wouldn't describe them all as semi-autobiographical. For instance, I didn't--when I graduated I left school.
CONAN: We could tell. Right away. But nevertheless, you must run into people--memoirists have this happen to them all the time. You know, well, where am I going to be in your next book?
Mr. BAUMBACH: Right. Well, yeah. I--you know, and I'm noticing that. People are--you know, they're less conversant now with me. They're being more careful.
CONAN: If they're going to end up in your next movie, they're going to make you write it.
Mr. BAUMBACH: Right, exactly.
CONAN: As you sit down and write, a lot of this dialogue--I mean, again, this is very painful stuff you're talking about in terms of divorce and growing up, and people react to divorce and growing up not often in constructive manners. Let me put it that way. Yet the dialogue is really crisp. You know, how do you try to, you know, keep an edge--do you try to keep an edge of naturalism, where people `um' and `ah' and wander back and forth across the subject 17 times, and that desire to keep it crisp and moving?
Mr. BAUMBACH: Yeah, and--I mean, that's an interesting question. I mean, I think it's a process. I--dialogue is something that comes easiest for me in writing screenplays and I generally start with conversation and, you know, I might have an idea of character or I just might have an idea of a conversation and I'll figure out who the characters are based on what they're saying. But early drafts are, you know, like real conservation. People say the same thing, they keep going over the same topic, and you know, it's the sort of later drafts that become about really, you know, getting into--turning it into a movie scene, but still keeping that natural, you know, largely unconscious sense of real conversation that I started with.
CONAN: You start with a sense of conversation as opposed to a sense of explication--in other words, this is what I've got to get done in this scene. We've gotta go from here to here.
Mr. BAUMBACH: Yeah, definitely. I always--in movies particularly, like pitch meetings, are always based on concepts, you know, and I've always tripped myself up if I start to think that way, 'cause I start writing ahead of myself, and I think I really need to start with character and come from the inside out.
CONAN: Nevertheless, I'm going to ask you. What's the high concept of "The Squid and the Whale"?
Mr. BAUMBACH: The high concept--the--yeah. Although I guess I suppose you could say a movie about family and what it means to be a family and the breakup of family and the--you know, trying to heal family and adolescence. You know, that's fairly high concept, right? We all can identify with that.
CONAN: Noah Baumbach, thank you very much for being with us today. Good luck with the movie.
Mr. BAUMBACH: Thanks a lot. I appreciate it.
CONAN: Noah Baumbach is writer and director of the movie "The Squid and the Whale." He joined us from NPR's bureau in New York City. "The Squid and the Whale" opens in theaters around the country on Friday. If you'd like to find out more, you can go to our Web site at npr.org.
I'm Neal Conan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.