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Screenwriters' Lecture Series 2019: Noah Baumbach

6 December 2019

Transcript from the 2019 Screenwriters' Lecture Series: Noah Baumbach, Thursday 5th December 2019, Curzon Mayfair, London

Danny Lee: [Welcome to one of] our international screenwriters series in conjunction with Lucy Guard and the JJ Charitable Trust.  These lectures form part of BAFTA’s amazing year-round learning and events programme that aims to educate and inspire and we are hugely proud that thanks to all the technical staff here our lectures are online on BAFTA Guru website for anyone anywhere in the world. Thanks also to Curzon who have so graciously hosted us this year.


Tonight we are honoured to be hosting one of America’s foremost writer/directors, Noah Baumbach.  His screenwriting credits include ‘The Squid and the Whale’, ‘Fantastic Mr Fox’, ‘While We’re Young’, ‘Mistress America’, ‘The Meyerowitz Stories’ and his triumphant new film, ‘Marriage Story’.  Noah Baumbach’s gift for narrative subtlety, the deft and authentic way he weaves together the story of his characters’ imperatives, the need that drives their behaviour, marks him out as one of the world’s great storytellers in film.  I’m sometimes asked, in relation to hosting this series, whether I consider the fact that the screenplay is eventually manifested in a perform and film to be in some way a diminution of its artistic significance in comparison to say a novel or a play.  I’ve always thought the question missed the fundamental point, which is that all narrative fiction begins and ends with characters in action and the stories that unfold from each of their singular dynamics, so I make no apology for saying again and again that without the controlling imagination behind every screenplay, narrative film would not exist.  Show me a great narrative film, whatever the journey of production, whatever the reshoots, recasting, hiring, firing, editing and special effecting, and I will show you a great screenplay.  So we will begin, as we always do, with a montage of the work by this year’s lecturers.  Noah will then talk, followed by a Q&A with writer and broadcaster, Danny Lee, after which, as we always do, we’ll open it up to the floor.  Could we please have the montage, thank you.




[Clip plays]




Ladies and Gentlemen, Noah Baumbach.




Noah Baumbach:  OK.  I’ve never given a lecture before.  So, since I’m going to sit and talk about my own movies for a while in conversation I thought I’d start by talking a little bit about other people’s movies.  Mike Nicholas said about directors, “Speculating on how other directors do their job is how all the rest of us think about sex, which is does everybody do it this way?” I’d also wanted to focus in particular on the beginnings of certain movies, the opening sequences, you know the way we’re first introduced to the characters, to the story, and how directors and writers choose to begin.  I think as many filmmakers are in the audience you know that this is something we’re tasked with inventing all the time.  My friend Brian de Palma, who is also the subject of a documentary I made, emphasises that it’s your only chance to introduce the audience to your characters and to your movie. It’s your opportunity to do anything you want and a director must take this responsibility very seriously.  He said, “Think about how many movies start with generic aerial shots of the city.  Why would you blow this opportunity?” With drones it’s even easier now to do.  But then you think about the opening of The Shining where the aerial shots say everything, those gliding images with that music, that strange haunting feeling, so of course there are no rules or when we make them for ourselves we need to know when to break them.  Greta Gerwig pointed out to me that my movies tend to tell you what they’re about at the very beginning.  I wasn’t aware of this, but it’s embarrassing when you go back and look.




Mum and me versus you and dad is the opening line of The Squid and the Whale.  In Greenberg Greta Gerwig herself says to the unseen car in the lane next to her while she’s trying to merge “Are you going to let me in?”  Interestingly, when I was doing press for Greenberg an interviewer pointed out this line to me and that it told the whole story of the movie and of her and Ben Stiller’s characters, that the movie was about letting people in and I started to cry, because I’d never thought about it this way.  Honestly, I just thought she was changing lanes.




So, as filmmakers we are aware of some things and not of others and I’d like to keep it this way, if I may.  I find in general that if you’re successful in telling the story the other things take care of themselves.  I pick four movies and beginnings that I love, I mean they’re movies that I love, but they’re also particularly special to me because of the ways that I came to them when I first saw them, so we’re going to look at a couple of clips.  The first is from ‘Jules & Jim’, directed by Francois Truffaut, and the second is from ‘Goodfellas’, directed by Martin Scorcese and this is how both movies open, so I’m supposed to make this very obvious, so now we should play the clips!




[Clips play]


There’s a scene in a movie I made called ‘While We’re Young’, the character played by Ben Stiller is giving a lecture, I had to imagine this because as I told you, I’ve never given a lecture before and he has a PowerPoint presentation and it stops working and he tries to figure it out and we tried to get some laughs that way.  I know now that experience because in my dream of this moment it would play through the entire montage at the beginning of Goodfellas but there was some breakdown in the communication so you only got that first part.  That first part doesn’t really relate to Jules & Jim as much as the part that comes after, but it’s probably on YouTube, maybe someone could get it up on their phone and pass it around and maybe you guys remember it, Tony Bennett sings Go from Rags to Riches and after he says I want to be a gangster we see him as a kid, it’s always great when people talk movies.  In 1990 I was at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie New York, it’s about 2 hours outside of New York City if you don’t know Poughkeepsie.  It’s also immortalised in The French Connection where he says, “do you pick your toes in Poughkeepsie”.  I grew up with parents who loved movies, who sometimes wrote about movies and who introduced me to many kinds of movies, but it wasn’t until college that I began to truly appreciate international cinema.  It was at Vassar that I saw Jules & Jim for the first time.  And it’s great when you see, I imagine people in the audience have had this feeling, hopefully many times, but it’s great when you’re younger and you see the right movie at the right time.  I felt elated when I saw that movie from the very beginning of that montage and it seems so contemporary to me.  The ideas of friendship were very relatable to me, although the specifics were totally out of my experience and weirdly the sub-title of “pros” I thought was, p, r, o, s, but and even the central love triangle, really the main story of the movie, was mysterious to me and it really remains that way to me to this day, but none of that matters because the movie had such feeling and such energy and I’ve returned to it many times over the years and it’s meant different things to me every time I see it and if pressed to say my favourite movie, which is always an annoying question, just because I never feel like I’m going to do it right for myself, but I will often say Jules & Jim.  I’ll also say E.T.  The same week I went to the Poughkeepsie Galleria, which was a mall 30 minutes from school where we’d go to see new movies and I saw the new Martin Scorcese movie Goodfellas and it blew me out of my seat.  And as a teenager in the 1980s I was discovering a lot of great artists from the seventies and the sixties and before that and often on VHS (I was told I should take a moment to explain what VHS is [laughter]).  Before it came out of the sky you had to put tapes and things to play things, you could record on them, you could record for 6 hours but the quality was terrible.  My parents got divorced, my father was dating a woman who lived in Manhattan, which was very glamorous for all of us for many reasons, but in Manhattan they had cable.  Again, for those of you, before it came out of the sky, it came from under the earth [laughter].  But in Brooklyn we had no cable, they didn’t give us cable.  Now Brooklyn has everything, everyone loves Brooklyn, but then we weren’t worthy of cable, so she would record things on these 6 hour extended play tapes and she’d just run it on Showtime and my father would bring them back and we’d be so excited.  Actually I put this, a version of this in the Meyerowitz Stories, that we would get things like Gorillas in the Mist, Scanners, Beverly Hills Cop.  So we would have these sort of triple shows that made no sense except it was just what they ran on the thing.  That’s a digression.  But often these filmmakers that I was discovering from the past when I would see their new movies, things, you know that were coming out currently in the movie theatre it sometimes wasn’t considered their best and I would think oh I was born too late, I’m not getting the best moment of this stuff, my Bond was Roger Moore, uh, my Rolling Stones was the album Dirty Work, which doesn’t get much of a laugh because nobody knows what I’m talking about.  But here in Poughkeepsie I was seeing a classic in real time.  My Scorcese was Goodfellas, and in Poughkeepsie I felt like Truffaut and Scorcese were speaking to each other in some way, because if you’d seen the rest of the clip this would make a lot more sense.  But, so, ‘cos he tells the story similarly in the rest of the clip, in that it’s, but it’s with Henry Hill’s voice instead of the sort of omniscient narrator of Jules & Jim and as it tells you very deliberately what is going on, and I would just like to add as a matter of fact-checking when I moderated Martin Scorcese’s DGA screening a few weeks ago and I brought this up to him, his response was “Goodfellas is the opening sequence of Jules & Jim for 2 hours”.  I feel in both these sequences the excitement of having the idea is expressed in the execution of it and this is one of my favourite feelings in movies and something I often from both Truffaut and Scorcese.  My friend Wes Anderson does this as well.  There is an economy and an energy in both.  We’re introduced to the characters in a very direct way as I pointed out, the use of the voice over is musical.  We’re told Jules & Jim became friends, there’s no question about it, we’re told ‘I always wanted to be a gangster’, it’s not ambiguous.  The sequences are almost complete in their way like short films, but they suggest so much more to come, particularly in Scorcese’s movie, the scene you did see in the car (the accordion player is not supposed to come for another five minutes [laughter]).  You know, the scene that we see in the car is mysterious, it’s thrilling, it’s violent, it’s horrible, you know and we also come back to that scene in a new context later so it means something to us differently later.  But there is also the thing of being in such, they’re like announcing themselves as well, that you feel in such great hands.  We also have that experience in movies where, I particularly don’t like this in horror movies, where if I don’t feel like I’m in good hands and I have that feeling that anything could happen in this movie at any time, but in the worst way, because I feel taken advantage of, I feel manipulated, versus when you’re with a director where you feel like anything could happen in this movie and I love that feeling because I will go anywhere with this person.  Watching these sequences feels physical to me, I mean when I look at them I feel like I’m kind of participating in them, it’s the way my father used to be when you’d sit on the couch watching Nicks games, he would always kind of do this wiggle with the action of the thing, and I feel that way watching these sequences.  It’s so important too because what the movies are about is how this visceral giddy propulsive feeling can’t last forever, it’s fleeting.  In Jules & Jim it’s innocence, youth, early friendship, early love, in Goodfellas it’s the rush of success, power.  I always think this movie is as much about success as it is about the mob.  It’s the party and then what comes afterwards.  I’d also, just to say also about the music in Jules & Jim, Georges Delerue’s score is such an important part of it and perhaps we’ll talk about later, for Marriage Story, Randy Newman and I listened to a lot of Georges Delerue and we looked at a lot of sequences, particularly in Truffaut movies because of the way he uses it.  In Frances Ha I used many of these scores actual, we used the scores as a kind of collage to create a similar feeling of exhilaration.  The music is big, it’s beautiful, it’s romantic, it’s melancholy.  It doesn’t underscore the scenes or push for feeling, it reacts, it almost springs out of the movie itself and it plays the bigness of feeling.  It gives a sense of both present and past tense and the editing, the energy I feel like is what’s so present in these sequences but the music makes it feel like past, and there’s something very sad about that.  I think, why don’t we look at… there’s two other clips that I’d like to introduce and talk about. The first one is from ‘Blue Velvet’, directed by David Lynch, and the second one is from a movie, ‘Trouble in Paradise’, directed by Ernst Lubitsch.  So let’s play those 2 clips, now, please.


[Clips play]


In 1986 my friend Bo and I took the subway into Manhattan from Brooklyn and saw Blue Velvet at the Waverley Theatre in Greenwich Village.  I fabricated this episode in The Squid and the Whale.  In that movie Jeff Daniels, who plays the father, chaperones his son on a date to go see Blue Velvet, as I imagine it would be uncomfortable, and David Lynch was very kind in lending me the clip from Blue Velvet.  If you’ve seen the movie, Isabella Rossellini is naked and bloody and says he put his disease in me and then Laura Dern gives a kind of indescribable, it’s almost like an inhalation and exhalation at the same time, in reaction, and I realised recently that that was my first collaboration with Laura Dern.  All the time I’d been thinking that Marriage Story was the first time, but again, it came when an interviewer asked me about it, and I said “no, that was Laura Linney” and she said, “no, but in Blue Velvet”… anyway so that made the… I didn’t cry in this interview.  As I said before, this was a time when I was discovering great movies and a lot of directors from the past, but I was also lucky enough to be seeing these amazing new filmmakers of the moment in the theatre, David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee, the Koen brothers, Alex Cox, Jane Campion, it was a really exciting time for me to be discovering movies, and I think the sequences speak for themselves, they’re very clear in certain ways.  The Blue Velvet clip you start with something sort of familiar and something we’ve seen a version of before, but then, but something is off and unfamiliar, and then of course we go underneath to this horrifying, disgusting, bug life and it puts you in a mood for what’s to come, although what’s to come in Blue Velvet is totally unpredictable.  But it also expresses how these things live side- by-side all of the time.  In college I took a screwball comedy class, which was comedies of the thirties and forties, which had huge impact on me and I saw movies by Preston Sturges and Howard Hawks and Leo McCarey and Frank Capra and Ernst Lubitsch, who directed Trouble in Paradise, and I’d never heard about Trouble in Paradise, I didn’t even know who the actors were, Herbert Marshall, who plays the baron,  Miriam Hopkins, who we see briefly playing the ukulele in the gondola, Kay Francis, all wonderful actors, but not well known, at least in the 1980s.  And my teacher, Jim Steerman, because you were in a learning environment they would point out these things to you, pointed out the genius of starting with the trash gondola.  And it immediately reminded me of Blue Velvet at the time which I had seen already and setting you up right away for this idea that nothing is exactly what it seems and beneath the surface a kind of glossy surface there’s a darker underbelly, and that these things are ever present and live together always.  But at the same time both these movies are so inviting. They, I mean all 4 of these clips you can’t stop watching.  I mean if we could we could just watch all of them and rather than talk I’d actually rather watch the clips.  But Lubitsch I find really one of the best directors, I mean ever.  And I drew upon Lubitsch a lot for Marriage Story, his blocking particularly, his camera movement, which you saw some of there, the notion of performance, often his characters are performing in some way, which you learn about that character.  ‘To Be Or Not To Be’ which is another great one that he did about a theatre company in Nazi Germany.  There’s also often a sense of façade, but mostly his incredible energy.  I mean I picked these clips just as a way of introduction in a way sort of to talk about, even to get into talking about my movies is because I feel like those are really exciting moments in life when you start to see connections or invisible conversations between works of art from different time periods.  And these 4 were particularly illuminating for me at the time, when I was growing up, and I feel like unfortunately this happens less frequently as an adult.  But when I watch movies by these filmmakers it brings me back to that sense of discovery and as a creative person that’s a kind of headspace I want to be in as much as possible.


I’m going to now show you the opening of my new movie Marriage Story and afterwards we’ll have a conversation and talk about that movie and perhaps some others.  The clip should be shown now.


[Clip plays]




Danny Lee:  Noah, that was fantastic. I kind of feel I just want to listen to you talk more, is that permissible?


Noah Baumbach:  Well yes, if you ask me direct questions I’ll talk.


DL:  Fine, let’s do that and we won’t queue up any more, oh no we are going to queue some more clips aren’t we?


NB:  Right, we have more to show.


DL:  It was fascinating to listen to you talk just now, it put me in mind of a couple of years I spent teaching English and at that point in terms of teaching young children to put one sentence in front of the other, it felt like there were 2 ways to do that, you could either teach them grammatical devices and teach them from the blackboard, or what turned out to be much more effective, you could throw a pile of fascinating books at them, which they would never have heard of otherwise and they would make their way through them and they would become people who were comfortable and who were joyous with language.  It sounds a little bit like you were doing both at the start of your career but it was veering towards the latter, it was veering towards just bumping into a huge amount of great films.


NB:  Yeah well I had, I had the sort of luxury, but also the challenge I would say of having parents who were cinephiles and who would put these movies in front of me, often movies too early.  That’s what I was saying about Jules & Jim,  like I had seen other French movies or Italian movies in high school and I kind of knew I was supposed to like them but I didn’t, I just couldn’t get there yet, and I always feel like, and this still happens with certain filmmakers where I’ll revisit them every few years with that hope that something is going to open up – American directors too. I mean like John Ford.  Like, I know he’s a great director, I’m still waiting to be, to totally enter in, not all of his m… I love ‘My Darling Clementine’ and ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’ but those, for whatever reason were more accessible to me, than ‘The Searchers’ which, you know, I know to be great, but I haven’t yet had that feeling of its greatness and I think, you know, but it’s exciting when that happens, when those, like you say, it is like learning a new language.  Eric Rohmer, I was just in Paris yesterday so I was trying to say Rohmair


DL:  You said Rohmair the second time


NB:  What’s that?


DL:  You said Rohmair the second time


NB:  Yeah but Eric Rohmer in America, I couldn’t, I saw a couple of his movies, I think I saw a movie of his in college, and I saw a new movie of his right out of college and I really struggled with them and then it was at a film festival, it was a retrospective of his at the Film Forum in New York, and I decided to give it another chance, I think I was in my late twenties, and it was like a drug, I kept going back, I kept going and I felt like I was learning a new language, so much so that there was actually when ‘Pauline at the Beach’, they were showing them sort of in order, and that one’s in the eighties, and I, when it came, they had shipped a print without subtitles and it didn’t matter, I felt like I knew, I mean I speak some French, but I felt like I was so inside the movies now and his rhythms and now he’s one of my favourite filmmakers.


DL:  I wonder is that do you think just a result of getting older and actually watching more films or is that a result of becoming a filmmaker and actually knowing that world from the inside out?


NB:  I don’t know that being a filmmaker has a lot to do with it because when a movie connects it connects viscerally, emotionally, I’m not thinking about…usually if I’m thinking about how a movie is made it’s ‘cos I’m not, it’s not a very good movie, or it’s not a movie I’m responding to.  I think, I mean certainly age helps, experience helps but I think it can also just be timing, you know, you could maybe, if you didn’t get it on a Tuesday you could get it on Wednesday.


DL:   Right.  We’re here to talk about script writing specifically so I want to talk about you as a filmmaker, but in terms of script writing I wonder what kind of writer you are.  Are you the kind of writer who is happy with the first draft when something delights you on every page and every scene sings to you, or is it a question of getting to the point where nothing appals you or makes you want to shoot yourself?


NB:  Is anybody like the first part?  The idea of everything delighting me seems like… uhh, but that’s why I keep trying, looking for that moment.  Well, when I think about script writing it really is intertwined with directing for me, and editing too, I really do experience the whole process as one and I don’t, and I want  to talk about screenwriting, but I do, I do find a script that isn’t a movie of my own somewhat useless.  Like, I don’t find, I don’t think scripts are somewhere, I don’t think scripts are complete things, they’re by nature potential and, you know, they’ve been called blueprints and some directors use them very much as just guides that, you know, Robert Altman would make an entirely new movie out of the script he was given.  I follow my scripts quite closely, I’m interpreting them as a director, but I’m following, the lines are the lines and the scenes are the scenes, but even so on their own I don’t get a lot of delight out of them, I guess I should say.  But, the way I work is, and I edit the way pretty much the way I write, which is, um, often, now anyway, I sit down to write when I kind of feel like I have enough to start and I take a lot of notes always, and often there’s a few different things that are sort of going on at once and one thing kind of announces itself and when that wire, kind of electricity, goes through that wire, I try to follow it and, but once I have scenes or a beginning or something I tend to work forward and go back and revise and go a little bit further and then go back and revise.  So by the time I’m done with the script it’s close to being ready.  Which is the same way, I don’t have a rough cut, I start at the beginning with my editor Jim Lane, and we cut the movie, we go a little bit, then we go back and then we revise, same thing.  So that when we’re done, doesn’t mean, of course we make changes throughout, but and once you see it all together it gives you other ideas, but the, but it’s generally in very good shape.  I don’t, I don’t sort of throw it up there roughly and then, I’d find too disheartening I think.


DL:   It’s funny I remember going to Manhattan for the first time in the nineties, and at that point I think it was that kind of Tarantino moment, and you had scripts which were being sold on the streets, you had like bootleg scripts.  It doesn’t sound like you were the kind of person that was seeking those out as those almost fetishistic objects of the script itself.


NB:  I’d never seen a script until I wrote one and it was before Final Draft or any of these screenwriting programmes and my first movie ‘Kicking and Screaming’ was the first movie I’d ever seen which I had to actually write it to see it and I had so much trouble with the tabs getting the formatting because you know it was before, so my whole experience mental memory or emotional memory I should say of that process was just hitting tab and trying to centre Grover with the line and I spent so much time trying to get it to look like a script..


DL:   That was the important stuff


NB:   Yeah, yeah and then I looked at some scripts just for the formatting, I bought scripts you could buy not on the street, I didn’t know about those, but I bought published scripts, but they were often, or the ones I had were all kind of transcripts of the finished movie, they didn’t look like scripts as I’ve now come to understand them.


DL:  In terms of looking at the scenes you played just now and finding sort of connective tissue to your work, it feels like place is a very obvious one.  Whether that’s Venice or whether it’s Lumberton, there’s this sense of place, which is more than just, it’s never just a location it’s always very much the essence of the film, and that really feels like something that you’ve brought through in your work as well.


NB:  Yeah, yeah and what’s interesting about Blue Velvet it’s very specific but it’s very generalised at the same time.   Lumberton, you know, where is that? But it seems we all know where it is but we have no idea where it is, which is amazing.  Yeah, place is a big part of it and I like to know the place when I’m writing, I mean I need to know the place, but I mean I like to even have visual ideas of the streets, the locations, if I can, when I’m writing.  For the same reason I often use real names in my scripts of people I know.  Not because I’m writing about them at all, I would never do that, but because it’s immediately a real person to me, I believe it. I know that, I know who Roger Greenberg is because I grew up with Roger Greenberg.  He wasn’t Roger Greenberg in Greenberg but he, also because I hadn’t seen him since I was like 15, but I had deep affection for him and for that time in my life and even though the movie had no literal connection to that, calling him Roger Greenberg made me love him, and also it made it real to me.


DL:  I mean you mentioned Brooklyn in your lecture and Brooklyn obviously has this pivotal role and again it’s this sense Brooklyn is not just a place it’s a source of drama, a source of conflict sometimes, you have that relationship between Manhattan and Brooklyn which comes up in your work. I know you have in Marriage Story, New York and LA, so it’s less Brooklyn specific, although it is Brooklyn but it’s also New York and it’s the coast as well. 


NB:  Yeah, it’s also home and I think notions of home that come up in my movie, even my first movie Kicking and Screaming, they are by design not at home but they’re in college but it’s become a kind of surrogate home that they don’t want to leave and it’s sort of being fixed and associated with a place that can be, that can hold you back or it can propel you forward, you know, and you know, place and family and home, I mean all these things then can become versions of each other.  In Marriage Story New York and LA in some ways become stand ins for, once the lawyers use them as arguments in their divorce, they become representative of the characters themselves you know, and that’s true but it’s also not true.


DL:  Yeah, we tend to think of our places the kind of person we are, but as you say, that’s sometimes a mistake.


NB:   But Brooklyn, to what you’re saying, I mean I have a strong connection.  I feel like a lot of what I’m doing as  a creative person is a conversation or maybe a sort of silent conversation with my younger self who loved movies.  I mean I think it’s why I was drawn to talk about what I talked about is that I’m always talking to that person who is discovering movies for the first time who is excited about them and so often I’m drawn to the world of that time as well, even if I’m not…Squid and the Whale was actually that time in my life, but the even when the movies take place say in the present, it’s still, in some sort of cinematic way I’m sort of still conversing with that boy.


DL:  We’re going to shortly queue up another clip from Frances Ha and that’s a particularly fascinating thing I want to pick up a thread really because Frances Ha is seen as not about you, you know it’s a different generation, it’s a different gender, but I would be fascinated to know in which way Greta and you kind of merge on the screen. 


NB:  Sure


DL:  I mean do you want to say anything about Frances Ha before we look at the clip because again New York is vital.


NB:  Again, I think it’s the beginning of the movie, right?  Well, again well Frances Ha was also I think even more directly inspired in my mind anyway by Jules & Jim’s opening.  And you know it is about friends and it’s also about you know friendship as love, sort of a love story between friends and the story of course is about that bond but also it’s about individuals and a pair at the same time, which Marriage Story is too.   But show the clip and see how I was sort of introducing again the sort of language of the movie that you were going to later see.


DL:  Absolutely.  Well let’s look at this clip from Frances Ha.



[Clip plays]




NB:  I haven’t seen that in a while actually.  I just quick, uh, the world premiere of Frances Ha was at the Telluride Film Festival, which is an amazing festival, um, we were there with Marriage Story and I love it.  But we were premiering the movie and no-one knew we’d even made the movie ‘cos we kind of made it sort of under the radar, and so it was very exciting and so here it goes and there was some, um, the movie began and there was music and picture, but I knew ‘cos there was also a low dialogue soundtrack, you know, ambient track underneath, that wasn’t playing, and there was no way anyone who didn’t know the movie would know, so I turned to the person, you know, friendly person with the headset who was next to me in case there was a problem and told them “you got to turn it off, you got to turn it off” and it sort of takes the mystery and drama out of showing a movie when you have to restart, and so they stopped the movie sort of part of the way in and then, a few minutes and then they show it again and it’s the same problem again and so then they stop it again and you’re really losing the momentum of your worldwide premiere.  But I did have to explain to people that the movie is actually in black and white [laughter] because at that point I think they were all like oh the colour’s off [laughter].


DL:  So third time lucky did it play?


NB:  The third time it played as it was supposed to.  Of course in my imagination there was somebody like “oh!” you know, plugging in the thing, you know that thing in movies when the thing’s just not, but I’m sure it was more sophisticated than that.


DL:  It’s such a beautiful scene though because it feels so haphazard and it feels so random, it feels like a sort of box of snapshots that you’ve sort of stumbled upon and then you realise by the end of it you have, you’ve given us so much information.  Information is a very unsexy word but it’s also vitally important in movie storytelling and it’s this incredibly, again, I mean it’s just high praise, it’s a very functional scene.  You know you’ve told us a lot.


NB:  Well that’s, you’ve just, again, going to the clips that we looked at in the beginning, which are, I mean they’re poetry, but they’re also just as you say, they’re absolutely functional, they really just tell the story.  In that Ernst Lubitsch clip you learn so much so quickly and you get the trash gondola which is like, you know, it’s like amazing and it’s you know, as I was saying about Goodfellas and Jules & Jim, they actually just tell you exactly what you need to know.  I mean we don’t use voiceover here because we didn’t need it and it wasn’t the style of the movie but the, yeah, of course I’m even watching it now looking at them fighting in the beginning and it’s a play fight but they’re fighting and I’m like, that of course is sort of what the movie’s about too.  But, I mean this movie was in some ways as I was making it, it was a movie I needed to make but almost didn’t know it.  I wanted to make a movie in a different way than I had before and in a sense I felt like I wanted to make the first film, my first film all over again or a first film I never did make and I was also exploring working digitally for the first time.  I mean I’ve since gone back to film.  Marriage Story is shot on film.  Meyerowitz Stories before it was also shot on film.  But I wanted to shoot with a very small crew and kind of not, the sort of notion that like we don’t need to tell anybody, why do you always have to like tell everyone you’re making a movie, let’s just go make something.  The conversation we’re having right now could be in the movie if we were recording it and filming it so let’s just do that and Greta and I wrote this script but it really did, I think also shooting in black and white sort of going to your sense of place, I was shooting in New York again I had shot Greenberg in LA before, so I was coming back to New York, and I think seeing New York with kind of fresh eyes literally in a different, with no colour, and in a different way, and in a different medium with digital instead of, it freed other things up even in the storytelling and I love that about making movies ‘cos what I was saying too about the things you know and the things you don’t and I find more and more if you focus on the storytelling the really, sort of what you’re saying, the functionality of things, then you’ll back into some more magical or things that can be misconstrued as profound.


DL:  I mean was the writing process kind of a question of relearning as well? Because filmmaking is collaboration of course but I mean writing at least at first draft stage, isn’t.  If you’re writing solo you’re there, you are at that moment the executive, but here you were collaborating with Greta from the word go with the script.  How much of a change did that represent for you?


NB:   I collaborated with Wes Anderson on the movies he directed but this was the first time I collaborated with somebody where I was directing it and um, yeah, it was, it’s less lonely for sure and what’s nice about it, it is about conversation, and although Greta and I weren’t  in the same place very often when we wrote Frances Ha, a lot of it was done individually and then emailed back and forth and then we would revise each other’s and then I would collect this bigger script as a whole and start putting it together.  It’s funny ‘cos I get asked the question a lot you know about autobiography in my movies and the one I get asked the least, you were alluding to this in your introduction to it, the one I get asked the least about is Frances Ha because people don’t see me as a 27 year old female.  But it actually, I think a lot about, there’s a lot of how I’ve, I went through a period after I made, I made 2 movies when I was quite young, I made Kicking and Screaming when I was 24 or 25 and then a movie, Mr Jealousy, when I was 27.  And then I didn’t make another movie till I was 34 or something, 34/35, Squid and the Whale, and that period for me was a period of real struggle and in my conscious mind I was trying to get another movie made, I was writing things trying to get another movie made, what I was doing unconsciously was growing up and I felt very much like, I mean Frances talks at some point someone says “what do you do?” and she goes “well it’s hard to describe” and they say “why” and she goes “’cos I don’t really do it” and I felt that way.  I’d made 2 movies but I didn’t feel like I could call myself a filmmaker ‘cos I wasn’t doing it and I wanted to do it again but I wasn’t doing it and it was a very hard time.  And I emotionally reflected a lot on that time from my point of view, I mean so much of Greta’s in the movie too obviously, but in that sort of what I guess they call quarter life crisis.


DL:  No, it’s just fascinating hearing you talk ‘cos also I think people do think of Frances Ha as Greta’s film but from what you’re saying it almost feels as if there’s a timeless quality, both to the change in Brooklyn, and also you know to Greta at 27, and then there is still part of you at 27, a little further down the line and, it’s so culturally specific.  It’s about, and While We’re Young is, the same thing happens there, very culturally specific about Brooklyn now but from what you’re saying it’s still…


NB:  But with Frances I feel like it is culturally specific you’re right but it is… part of the choice to do it in black and white was to put it out of time too, and While We’re Young is like, I feel, more in time, culturally specific and maybe even has some limitations because of that.  Frances I do feel like, and also the use of the music, it is all Georges Delerue music, there’s some other songs, Paul McCartney, there’s David Bowie, there’s Modern Love that she runs to, but it was all by design to kind of I felt in a way to sort of honour her, that you have this, you know, in a certain sense an ordinary life and but for all of us living it it’s extraordinary and I wanted the movie to kind of to react in kind and give back to her and that’s what that music does.


DL:  We’ve got another clip of Marriage Story to look at but I wonder just before we play it, ‘cos it speaks to this point, did the character of Frances and also working with Greta, did it improve you as a writer?


NB:  Yeah, absolutely.  If for no other reason I was trying to impress her.  I, she would send me scenes and boy it was so good it was so exciting to the point that I’d just like, if I knew maybe a scene was coming I’d just be like refreshing email hoping it would come through.  But yeah it would always make me feel good if she liked what I sent her or laughed at a thing or something like that.  So certainly on those movies, but I think, I know, I’ve improved as a human being because of her and as a director at least in my eyes from watching her, from working with her and watching her movies now too.


DL:  Let’s pick up this thread after this next clip from Marriage Story.


[Clip plays]




NB:  Do you want to show the screenplay clip?


DL:  Well, let’s just pick up the conversation there, ‘cos I think it’s worth saying actually it’s interesting you applauded then.  I mean I think when the film’s been on the festival circuit for the last few months, I mean there has been quite a lot of spontaneous applause at that scene in particular.  I mean I wonder do you feel like you could have written that without having co-written Frances Ha first?


NB:  Probably not, I mean I, also without knowing Laura was playing it.  A lot of the impetus for that scene came from talking to Laura ‘cos Laura and Adam and Scarlett I’d had involved in the movie even before I was writing it, and one thing that I was talking to Laura about in playing this character, if you haven’t seen the movie, is the divorce lawyer, and was, and we were talking about it even from an actor’s perspective, of like, what got her into this job in the first place, what is you know, it wasn’t always Machiavellian, you know she’s obviously very good at working within the system and the system is Kafkaesque in a way, not to quote The Squid and the Whale,  but it, so it was the sort of notion that she got into it to crusade for people and for women in particular, and so that was kind of the thought, and I thought well then we should hear that, that should come forward, and working on that scene with Laura was amazing too because there were so many ways to envision it.  And I would just say, why don’t you say it now like you’re having these ideas for the first time, why don’t you say it now like it’s prepared, why don’t you try it now like you get angrier as you tell it and one that it’s almost cathartic as you…and she could just dial it in and out and so that was just one of those fun days at work.  But Greta is very much in that too.  I mean in writing it too it was like I’d talk to her about it as well and throughout this whole movie and we’re very much involved in each other’s work, even the ones that we’re not working on officially together, you know we’re always very involved in each other’s work.


DL:  I’m going to hand over for you.  Thank you for bearing with me.  I’m just fascinated in your career I could sit here and ask you questions all night.  Just one last one before I do that, I mean in terms of your relationships with actors, how much of a joy is it for you to almost, just for a second, relinquish control to them, ‘cos obviously you can control what’s on the page but then once it’s with an actor it can’t help but become something different.  I mean is that a pleasure for you?


NB:  Yeah, absolutely.  And I find that I mean in some ways working with actors is not dissimilar to what I was saying about writing in that if you get the basics right, you know, again the storytelling, the efficiency, a sequence, other things start to reveal themselves in the work and suddenly you see, oh that’s in there too, well now I can detour a little here because you’ve got the framework, you have the structure, I can now do this little aside and this little thing here and maybe break, like I said, break a rule here.  And I find that that’s for me in a way, I mean Elia Kazan always talked about being a prop, you know people would talk about what a good director he was with actors, he said “I’m a prop director, you know I come up with good props for them and things for them to do and that gives them ideas and it opens them up” and I know what he means, I think giving them a framework and a structure.  All scenes are very blocked out and we have it really down to every little moment and the dialogue is all precise but then just as you say, then they, I feel like it gives them all the freedom in the world to be present, to just be, you know, to find the truth of what’s going on and find their truth and working with actors like this too who are alive to everything that’s different in the moment and everything that they give, if they’re in a scene with somebody else, even if they’re off camera, you know they’ll change based on the reaction that they’re getting.  You know, Adam Driver in the movie will, he’ll say, we’ll do a few takes and I’ll be feeling pretty good and he’ll say “I’m going to try it not crossing my legs this time” and I know to him that means something else is going to happen because he’s changing his reality and changing his physical posture. He’s so aware of how all of these things factor into performance and I try to give actors as much of that as I can, that I think of, and I might say to an actor “maybe don’t cross your legs or maybe stand up this time” because I feel like it’ll change something.  And that’s exciting and I do relate it to writing in that way.


DL:  Thank you for your patience, letting me ask my questions.  If you have a question, a hand went up very quickly in the front row, I’ll try and get round as many people as I can. The microphone will come and find you.


Q:  A few years ago Liv Ullmann was sat exactly where you are now, different seat but same spot.


NB:  Who sat there?


Q:  Sorry?


NB:  I missed the beginning.


Q:   A few years ago Liv Ullmann was sat where you are now, different seat but same spot, and apparently the film Persona came about because Ingmar Bergman thought that Liv Ullmann and Bebe Anderson looked incredibly alike, which I’ve never seen, but anyway, but I remember seeing the trailer for Marriage Story the first time and as soon as Scarlett Johansson appeared on the screen I thought Bebe Anderson, so the question I guess is to what extent is Scarlett Johansson’s haircut written into the script and can you perhaps talk, especially in light of Laura Dern’s speech about absent fathers, about the whole Bergman influence on this film. 


NB:  About the, say the last bit again?


Q:  The whole Bergman influence on this film. There’s an explicit reference to Scenes from a Marriage in this film, so


NB:  Well, I mean Bergman is one of my favourites, and another, I mean talking again about movies that directors and artists that reveal themselves more to you each time you see them and also at different times.  I saw Persona in college and I couldn’t really make heads or tails of it, and now it’s a movie I watch frequently, I watch it before every movie really.  But I particularly looked at Persona for this movie because of the close ups  and the framing of faces and, I mean that’s a movie also about, I mean it’s about everything in a way, but it’s about, one of the things it’s about is the sort of duality, parts of the same person in a sense, and it’s also it has about performance, she’s an actress who loses her voice, I felt that, you know, what happens to these performers is they lose their voices when the lawyers take over and we shot those scenes very deliberately as if they’re conversing but they are not saying anything.  It’s almost like voiceover, internal monologue, but it’s the lawyer’s talking next to them.  So Robbie Ryan, my DP, we looked at that movie a lot.  In terms of Scenes from a Marriage, it’s funny ‘cos people brought up, at one point it’s a clipping from a magazine that Scarlett’s mum, played by Julie Haggerty has framed and put up and it was a magazine clipping about Charlie and Nicole, I just thought it seemed like the obvious title for a magazine piece about it because they are married and they’re in theatre, so of course you’d call it Scenes from a Marriage.  I didn’t mean it as a direct reference to Scenes from a Marriage, although of course I did.  But it’s a movie I love.  I didn’t look at it again in particular for this. I didn’t really look at movies with similar themes for this movie because many of them, Kramer vs Kramer being one, Shoot the Moon, I love The Awful Truth by Leo McCarey, uh, E.T. I think of as a great divorce movie in a sense, I mean about the aftermath of it, and so the movies that I was looking at and thinking of were really more specific to the task at hand of.  You know, I looked at Dr Strangelove for the courtroom and for the offices because there were so many people at tables and rooms and that movie both has obviously the sense of absurdity and also the sense of menace.  And it’s both a horror movie and a comedy at the same time and I feel that this movie in some sense is that too.


DL:  That’s so true actually, there’s that sense a darker energy has taken hold.


NB:  Yeah, and Kubrick’s framing is so he, you know, captures that, and the sort of way we shot the offices was also in some what inspired by him.


DL:  Just here, about 5 rows back


Q:  Hi, so you talked a lot about fallibility and also the extraordinary ordinary a little bit earlier and I, especially when I went to see Marriage Story I saw a lot of that where characters were really just incredibly human and they make mistakes and there’s misunderstandings and sometimes they’re likeable and sometimes they’re not.  How do you go about crafting your characters in such a way that they seem like people you relate to and you root to but are also, like you say, fallible, and don’t always get things right?


NB:  Yeah, well in this movie in particular I thought a lot about perspective, also.  About, I mean it’s become such a part of divorce because you actually have people arguing 2 different perspectives of the same experience and then even the opening of the movie is, on one hand it’s beautiful and romantic, it’s someone saying what they love about someone and it’s all the ordinary little moments in life, but it is selected by the person who’s talking so it is selective too, and those moments we see come back later, or variations of them come back later and mean different things in different context.  And the movie is also structured in a way where we start with both of them together but then when we go to Los Angeles with Nicole, Charlie’s not in the movie for a little while and it’s all very much her life and her experience of her life and we’re never with any other character except Charlie or Nicole for the whole movie.  Even when the lawyers are talking in front of them we never go over their shoulders and get inside their world, we’re always over Charlie and Nicole’s shoulder, so, you know, so that if we were talking and then we turned to the audience we would stay over our shoulder, we’d never go down and shoot from over the audience’s perspective, we would always keep them, you know as part of our experience.  And then that becomes true when Charlie re-enters the movie and we stay with him, so it’s almost like they almost appear as characters within each other’s little movies at times.  And then when they kind of enter the process, the sort of legal process, we then are always with both of them.  So that was a way, that was both built into the script and very specific, but also something that then we found visual counterpoint for.  I mean I find often with the material I’m drawn to, very true of Marriage Story, that humour and drama and sympathy and fallibility and sympathy, that kind of exists side by side and part of my job is to be aware of it and to let it in where I see it.  And I don’t think about writing comedy to lighten a dramatic scene or adding drama to you know because things are getting too silly, I think of it that they always exist, not unlike the bugs and the waving firemen.  They always exist side by side and so I need to be aware of that and acknowledge that and it’s sort of how I see things, I mean it is how I see things and how I approach writing.  I sometimes thought you know what I think I’m just going to go funnier on this, I’m just going to make this a full out comedy and then I, you know, it just suddenly is so sad.


DL:  I think we’ve go time for one more question and we’ll try and go, is there someone at the back?


Q:  I just wanted to ask you about the Mumblecore movement, because I know you got involved in producing some movies during that and I wanted to see how it affected your writing process because it felt from the outside that your work almost became, or seemingly, more improvised as a result of working with those filmmakers.  That might not be the case, but it seemed like that as before it was very kind of almost Woody Allenesque crisp writing and then it kind of became a bit more I guess human and natural seeming. I don’t know if working with them affected your writing process?


NB:  No.  I mean every movie is absolutely scripted, I mean no different, I’ve never, I don’t improvise on set.  It doesn’t mean I won’t change something if it’s not working, but I mean we rehearse everything in advance so then we’re you now, if an actor has an idea on something that’s not working I’m totally open to that but a lot of sometimes how I relate to when we’re shooting a scene is also in the musicality of the dialogue, it’s hearing it, it’s seeing it of course, but it’s also hearing it.  It’s like music in that way, for me.  So I often find if an actor, if a scene’s not working, if I actually recheck the script it’s ‘cos maybe an actor’s inverted two words or has dropped a line or something, because and something has fallen off and I find that usually if we go back then they, then it starts, doesn’t mean it works immediately, but then it starts to click in a little bit more.  I always think a very interesting thing about actors and directing actors, sort of to what we were talking about before the sort of conscious and unconscious thing that these, I mean many of the actors I’ve worked with do so beautifully, but then Adam and Scarlett could both be totally lost in a scene but also doing all the specific gestures and movements that we had already choreographed.  But is sometimes I’ll find when, and this has been true of amazing actors, is I’ll do, you know we’ll start shooting a scene or something and you do a couple of takes and it isn’t, you know, it hasn’t quite found itself yet, or whatever, and then suddenly, you know, I’ll find myself leaning forward behind the camera like here we go and the actor will say “sorry, sorry, can I start again?” and I’m like you know. But I totally sympathise and understand that because I know I do that as a writer.  It’s like when you’re falling asleep and you realise you’re falling asleep and you jolt yourself upward and you’re like oh God I was there, and I’ve got to you know do this again, you know.  And I think there is that thing, that fear of going into the unconscious and sometimes I see it happen with actors it’s like they catch themselves getting lost and it’s, and um, again, you know, my job is to create  an environment where they can slip into that and not jolt awake, but I also find it’s our job as writers, is to try to find that place too because it’s so easy to decide to look at how much money that movie made at the box office or whatever you’re going to do on your phone instead of working and you know I’d find the best writing is when you find yourself you know slipping into it and you’re not thinking anymore and you’re not… it doesn’t mean it doesn’t need to be revised and figured out later but it’s, it’s that kind of daydreaming mind that so much creativity comes from.


DL:  It’s like parenting your own talent almost.


NB:  It is, it is.  And it is about, and it is why, it’s so interesting the way people work to, you know, or what they need to work to find themselves.  Cos some people love, Greta loves being in like she’ll go to a coffee shop to work because she loves sort of entering this world with life around her.  I think it feels safe for here, whereas I like quiet, I like to be in an office, I like to be in my own environment and that to me feels safer to slip into this mode, which again if you’re lucky you get for a few minutes…


DL:  Every now and again.


NB:  Every now and again yeah


DL:  No-one’s sadder than I go have to do this but we’re out of time, we’re going to have to leave it there, but please, Noah Baumbach.




NB:  Thank you.