'My Parents' Divorce' would not, on the face of it, seem the freshest subject for a film. Yet in his third feature, "The Squid and the Whale," Noah Baumbach molds this familiar material into a searing character study marked by telling detail and emotional veracity. At 2005 Sundance (where adolescent angst is the coin of the realm), the film snagged the Walt Saldo Screenwriting and Dramatic Directing awards. And it also more than held its own in the lineup of high-profile auteurs at this year's New York Film Festival.
With equal parts sadness and humor, Baumbach explores the fallout on sixteen-year old Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and twelve year old Frank (Owen Kline) of an acrimonious divorce between their literary Brooklyn-based parents. Bernard, the father (a bearded Jeff Daniels), is an academic slash novelist whose writing career is stalled, while that of his wife, Laura Linney's Joan (who instigated the divorce), is blossoming. Boxed into an awkward joint custody calendar, the boys quickly draw up sides in the post- marital meltdown: Frank aligns with his mother; Walt with his father, whom he reveres, vicariously absorbing Bernard's humiliation and rage. Typical of the film's painful comedy, Walt and his split parents all pursue romance at the same time.
The POV shifts among characters, but really it's Walt's film, the story of an elder son and his father. Jesse Eisenberg, his distress radioed by his clenched shoulders, and Jeff Daniels, eyes glinting like a cornered bear's, make you ache for these characters, while laughing at how they armor themselves with cultural touchstones. The film suggests that in effect, the son must symbolically kill the father in order to move on -- and it's partly this mythic subtext that makes the drama so resonant.
Baumbach also co-wrote "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" and the upcoming "The Fantastic Mr. Fox" with fellow writer-director Wes Anderson. Recently, the filmmaker, who's silkily handsome in the Adrien Brody mode (minus the Armanis), spoke with indieWIRE contributor Erica Abeel about transmuting real life into fiction, directing an Oscar-worthy performance, and comedy-drama as action film.
indieWIRE: Did you ever worry the subject of "The Squid and the Whale" was banal?
Noah Baumbach: Yah. Two contrasting things kept me from writing this story: on the one hand, everyone deals with divorce – it's too universal. On the other, it's too specific to my family, and won't resonate beyond that. Unconsciously, at some point I just let go and thought, Let's see what happens.
iW: What was your budget?
Baumbach: A million and a half. We shot in twenty-three days.
iW: And how did you choose the Park Slope locations?
Baumbach: The brownstone we used belonged to my childhood friend Ben and his wife Molly. They were really generous to let us transform their place and relocate while we filmed. Shooting in places that had real meaning to me helped me connect with the material on both a visceral and creative level. I also used my parents' real books. And I put Jeff [Daniels] in my dad's clothes.
iW: Have your parents seen the film, and how did they react? Have you heard that question before?
Baumbach: I have, yeah. They liked the movie. It's funny, I think in a way -- and I take this as a compliment -- other people assume the movie is, like, actually more revealing than I think it is. For me the movie feels like a protection. In order to make it, I wrote in a very personal, raw, uncensored way about very familiar things to me. But doing that allowed me to reinvent it. If this movie weren't so effectively fictionalized, it wouldn't feel so real. I'm sure it's weird, though -- to see something even somewhat related to what we went through. But my parents are both writers so they kind of get it. My dad rooted for Walt to leave the hospital room.
iW: Wasn't the film an indictment of the parents? They struck me as pretty selfish and inappropropriate.
Baumbach: I'm completely open to that interpretation. I don't necessarily feel the same way. I feel affection for them -
iW: You mean the characters?
Baumbach: The characters, yeah yeah [laughter]. My parents I love. Some people feel the way you do, and others think the parents are trying as hard as they can. It depends on what stuff of their own people are bringing to the movie. To be able to write the film, I didn't judge them.
iW: Still, the way they talk to their kids about their sex lives makes you cringe.
Baumbach: I guess I'm interested in people who are very sophisticated in intellectual ways, while being completely off the mark in emotional ones, with these huge blind spots in terms of their own behavior.
iW: Do viewers take sides? I know, I sided with Bernard.
Baumbach: That's interesting, because I get both. Some people say, oh the mother was so much more sympathetic than the father. When I was trying to get the film made, people felt like, oh Bernard needs to have some sort of revelation at the end. There has to be redemption, where is that? He can't be so uncompromising. My feeling is, there's just no place for redemption in this film.
iW: Even in indiewood they talk like that?
Baumbach: Even in indiewood. They want Bernard to pet the cat, to show that he's okay, he loves animals, at least.
iW: Of course there's a difference between honesty and the literally real – but the film feels pretty naked. Did you ever feel embarrassed by what you were revealing?
Baumbach: The really naked stuff I've dealt with in my own life, my own therapy and relationships. For me it just feels like a film I'm really proud of.
iW: Was your first feature, "Kicking and Screaming," as autobiographical?
Baumbach: I never did what the kids in the movie do -- hang around Vassar [Baumbach's alma mater] after graduation. But the more distance I get from that movie, the more autobiographical it feels to me. Because I've always had trouble with change and transition and moving from a comfortable place to an unknown place. And the movie is really about that fear. I think all my movies are about transitions to some degree.
iW: How did you coax that marvellous performance from Jeff Daniels as the fallen patriarch? You've said you actually felt psychological transference with his character.
Baumbach: I'd have that transference with him when we were standing around on the set, and I'd feel this kind of nervous laugh come out of me. When I actually would direct him, I would cut through it. Jeff and I had difficult moments, though. At first he was doing an imitation of what he thought I wanted. He was trying to please me, but I could tell he wasn't comfortable – it felt a little pushed or acted. We broke for a weekend, and when we came back, Jeff said, I've been doing an imitation of what you wanted, I need to bring more of myself to this. It was a thrilling moment for me to witness an actor find a character so thoroughly. After that, he was so uncompromising, he never gave a shit about how he came off. He just wanted to be true to the guy. As a fan of Jeff's -- and Laura [Linney] -- I felt privileged to be around those actors.
iW: How did you get him to show such pain in his eyes?
Baumbach: It's that mystery as an actor. Jeff's associated with affable characters, but he has a gravity to him. And with that beard, you have a forest, and then you have these blue pools. No matter how he behaves, you want to help him a little. And that puts you in Walt's shoes. You feel like the kid who wants to help this person
iW: What's eating Bernard?
Baumbach: He's a prisoner of his own ideas of success and failure, using Norman Mailer as a pinnacle of what he could be, and watching peers go to greater success. In fact, he he's never able to acknowlege his real failings.
iW: I never "got" Joan.
Baumbach: Her side is more of a mystery. In a way, Walt is living out, as Bernard's kind of partner and accolyte, what Joan lived out in the marriage --
iW: And we see what a pain in the ass Bernard can be --
Baumbach: Well, yeah, so maybe you can understand where Joan is coming from, by seeing what Walt goes through.
iW: How do you make pain funny?
Baumbach: I thought I was writing a comedy the whole time. And then the movie turned out to be sadder than I'd thought. I never tried to balance comedy and pathos. It's just I find the same things funny and sad simultaneously.
iW: Did you intend to mock the characters' intellectual pretentiousness? You get a lot of laughs from those moments.
Baumbach: It's an interesting question. In the case of Walt, he doesn't know what he's talking about. But Bernard is so protecting himself from a fear of failure in his own career -- so he'll praise the less successful and popular writers and filmmakers to justify his own struggle. It's less making fun of how intellectuals talk, than showing how they hide their personal insecurity.
iW: Why did you shoot in Super 16 rather than digital video?
Baumbach: I wanted to give the film an authentic 1980's feel. I didn't want to use technology that didn't exist at the time. Super 16 also feels lived-in, instantly looks like an older film. I wanted to handhold the movie, but steadily, so you detect only a hint of movement. It added to the immediacy of the whole thing.
iW: Reading "The Squid and the Whale: The Shooting Script" [Newmarket Press], I was struck by how much you pruned the screenplay. What pushed you toward such a tight form?
Baumbach: It came a lot from cutting that tennis match at the beginning of the movie [when the family plays doubles.] I really wanted this to be an experience that people live through. Which is how people talk about action films. In some ways, maybe the cinematic equivalent of that would be not to give people moments of reflection. So that you're taken through each scene, and then you're right into another. A lot of scenes start on the dialogue, and the dialogue prelapses the next scene -- So you never have time. There's no sun rises over Brooklyn shot, no establishing shot. It's almost the way you think of "Road Warrior."
iW: You've said that with the film's end, you wanted to "take the breath right out of the audience."
Baumbach: Yes, I don't like when you necessarily know that this is the end of the movie. I like when a movie ends abruptly. You go through this, and some of the scenes are uncomfortable, and some are funny - and then suddenly it's over.