There’s a moment in Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” when all the unspoken tension breaks loose. Playwright Charlie (Adam Driver) and actress Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) have been enmeshed in nasty divorce proceedings involving the custody of their young child, and their attempt to talk it through results in harrowing bursts of anger on both sides. Watching the A-list actors throw themselves into the moment, Baumbach was caught off-guard.
“I was very moved by it,” the filmmaker said, in his first interview about the movie this week. “It’s extremely personal for me, but it really became this thing where I felt like everybody was bringing themselves to it.”
Baumbach last explored the trauma of divorce nearly 15 years ago, with his Oscar-nominated “The Squid and the Whale,” which drew on his adolescent memories of watching his parents split up. With “Marriage Story,” Baumbach’s 2010 divorce from Jennifer Jason Leigh after the birth of their own child invites an unavoidable autobiographical reading. However, the appeal of “Marriage Story” — which screens in TIFF’s Galas section and other fall festivals — extends beyond the director’s off-screen history and illustrates his ability to imbue precise experiences with broader appeal.
“Because I’ve gone through a divorce and also been through it as a child, there are things from my experience that of course I could draw from,” Baumbach said. “But it also gave me a real opportunity to talk to friends of mine. I mean, so many people have gone through this experience, and it’s not spoken about a lot.”
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So Baumbach picked up the phone, and the research shows. “Marriage Story” chronicles the unsettling minutiae of a divorce between two established artists incapable of reconciling their desires to live on opposite sides of the country. (Charlie wants to stay in New York to pursue his projects, while Nicole nabs a TV gig in L.A.) The story extends beyond melodramatic squabbles to map out sprawling legal challenges in riveting detail. These include a hotshot lawyer played by Laura Dern, who represents Nicole by alternating from amiable exchanges to high-stakes machinations, as well as Charlie’s oddball legal defenses from a frumpy Alan Alda and intimidating Ray Liotta. Baumbach burrows into this ecosystem, transforming the wrenching process into a cinematic tapestry of taut showdowns, quiet self-reflection, and unexpected dark comedy.
“I talked to lawyers and mediators,” he said. “It gave me an opportunity to ask them questions.” Some old feelings bubbled up. “Divorce is like death in a way,” he said. “When it happens to you, people can speak about it, but no one really wants to speak about it who’s not in it.” He laughed. “I just felt like there was a way to make a movie that was both very much about this subject,” he said, “and also totally transcend it.”
Baumbach is obviously not the first director to go deep on divorce. Forty years ago, “Kramer vs. Kramer” chronicled the split between wealthy urbanites so well it almost became the last word. But Baumbach, who first dealt with the “Kramer” comparisons on “The Squid and the Whale,” was wary of making the connection.
“I do love ‘Kramer,’” he said, as well as 1982’s Diane Keaton-Albert Finney drama “Shoot the Moon,” but the filmmaker cast a wider net. Screwball comedies like Ernst Lubitsch’s “To Be or Not to Be” and Howard Hawks’ “Twentieth Century” helped him explore the onscreen dynamic he wanted between the dissolving couple, who collaborated on Charlie’s New York theater projects in their earlier days. “Both of those movies have performers who are in personal relationships in and out of their work,” he said. “What helped with this family is that because they’re show people, the theatricality of it all feels organic to them. This gave me a real opportunity in what would otherwise be considered a naturalistic movie.”
Mostly, though, Baumbach turned to Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona” for guidance as he sought a style that relied heavily on his actors’ faces. “I knew I wanted a lot of closeups in this movie,” Baumbach said. “It’s a movie where you often have two people in a space together, and I loved how he would frame those actresses.”
Reuniting with his “Meyerowitz” cinematographer Robbie Ryan (whose recent credits include “The Favourite”), Baumbach developed an intimate look with 35mm and a 1.66 aspect ratio. The technique takes hold from the opening moments, as Johansson bounds into center frame at the start of an absorbing seven-minute montage set to Randy Newman’s vibrant score. Though “Marriage Story” begins with the divorce already underway, it manages to recap the history of the couple’s affection in sharp visual terms.
Baumbach beamed about his stars. “I can watch them in this movie in a way that I can’t generally watch my movies, because I find what they’re doing so inspiring and kinetic,” he said. The project marked his fourth collaboration with Driver, going back to his role as a scrappy young filmmaker in “While We’re Young.” This time, the actor tackles a more mature stage of life. “Adam has become a great friend,” said Baumbach, who conceived of the character in part through conversations with Driver. “He’s off book from beginning of rehearsal and he’s thought about it so much, but at the same time, he’s completely open to the moment. It’s thrilling.” The actor even performs a Steven Sondheim song in one of the movie’s rawest moments. “I felt like there were a lot of opportunities for him to do things we hadn’t explored together,” Baumbach said.
While “Marriage Story” marks Baumbach’s first collaboration with Johansson, he first approached her about another project years ago that never came to fruition. “Since then, I’ve always thought I’d love to have something that’d be great for her,” he said. Johansson herself has been divorced twice. “You can feel it in the movie,” Baumbach said. “Neither of them were afraid to draw from really deep places, and the material required that.”
In the most startling example, Johansson delivers a revealing monologue to her lawyer over the course of a single five-minute take. (There is one cutaway, but Baumbach kept the camera rolling.) “It was helpful thinking of her while I was writing it, that she’d have the guts to to do that,” Baumbach said. “It’s a lot of words on the page. When you give the script to people, their eyes are rolling when they reach that part, but I could imagine her in that room. It’s almost casual in the beginning and suddenly becomes very direct. She’s like an athlete.”
There are many moments in “Marriage Story” that go unexpected places, and at times, the movie veers into thriller territory: a mishap involving knives, casual after-hours drinks, and even the plan to deliver the divorce papers unfold with undercurrents of Hitchcockian suspense. “I think there are a lot of hidden genres in the movie,” Baumbach said. “There’s a hidden thriller, a procedural, a romantic comedy, a tragic love story. I felt like this was a subject that could handle all those things.”
At 136 minutes, “Marriage Story” juggles a lot of developments, but Baumbach’s script works overtime to balance the two main perspectives. “It was important to me that it was even-handed,” he said. “It’s something that often happens in life — people break up and it’s natural for them to take sides. That also happens to us as moviegoers.”
With all that in mind, the movie’s title — long kept under wraps as “Untitled Noah Baumbach Project” on IMDb — might seem ironic, but Baumbach has his reasons. “It was the name of the document when I wrote it, and the more I lived with it, it was the best and most resonant thing for this movie,” he said. “In exploring a couple divorcing, I felt there was a real opportunity to make a movie about marriage. It’s like when something stops working, you actually see it for the first time.”
Baumbach was in a reflective mood. The filmmaker, who recently became a father to his second child with his partner Greta Gerwig, has been chasing his unique brand of storytelling for some time. Next year marks the 25th anniversary of his breakout debut “Kicking and Screaming,” and while he and Gerwig are attached to write a “Barbie” movie at Warner Bros. for Margot Robbie, “Marriage Story” proves he has yet to give up on his precise narrative voice. “I’ve got to make a living, but I’m doing stuff that I want to make and watch,” he said. “It’s a job that I wanted to have when I was very young, and I feel very appreciative that I get to do it.”
He wasn’t sure how “Marriage Story” would sit with him in the long-term, but the emotion in his voice spoke volumes. “It’s a hard thing for me to know,” he said. “Maybe I’ll know in a couple of years.”
“Marriage Story” premieres this fall in theaters and on Netflix.