Noah Baumbach has made a career of dramatic comedies inspired by facets of his own life. He’s been writing bits and pieces of “Marriage Story” for years, and spent many hours discussing it with his go-to leading man Adam Driver. While they were in post on “The Meyerowitz Stories,” Baumbach decided he was ready to fulfill two goals: To make “Marriage Story,” and to end a movie with Driver singing “Being Alive” from Stephen Sondheim’s “Company.”
“I’d heard him sing,” he told me. “It’s good because it’s human. I wanted the song to have the same function songs do in musicals: the character arrives at another place by the end of the song. It’s story and character. This material offered many hidden and not so hidden genres in it: comedy, horror, thriller, court procedural, love story, musical.”
Baumbach crafted his most accessible and poignant film to date by writing about a geographically fraught New York-Los Angeles divorce (not unlike the split between him and his “Margot at the Wedding” star Jennifer Jason Leigh) from two perspectives, male and female. “I thought of the movie as a journey that Nicole and Charlie set out on,” said Baumbach, “like a picaresque novel like ‘Tom Jones.’ They’re meeting these people as you go. It can be absurd and crazy and perverse.”
By the time Baumbach wrote the final draft, he also knew that Scarlett Johansson and Laura Dern were on board. “It helped me to be bolder in a way, knowing these actors were going to be in it,” he said. He also gave Johansson a “Company” song that she sings with her actress sister and mother (Merritt Wever and Julie Hagerty). “In a sense, they’re talking to each other without knowing it.”
The movie begins with a brilliant device: Baumbach begins by showing the couple in more affectionate times as they each describe, off camera, what they most love about their spouse. Nicole (Johansson) loves that Charlie (Driver) is organized and dresses without embarrassing her. Charlie loves the way Nicole cuts his hair and makes tea and leaves it around the house. These rosy memories turn out to be homework from their marriage therapist. The session does not end well.
“I knew it was always going to start at the end,” said Baumbach. “I wrote it as a way for myself to go inside the marriage, knowing that it was already over, and in doing that I realized it could be the beginning of the movie. It’s all these ordinary moments of life that we don’t think about — like the times I get food stuck in my teeth — that were also extraordinary because they’ve been pointed out to us by somebody who loves us, they see us.”
These moments of intimacy crop up throughout the movie. During a contentious first meeting with all their divorce lawyers, Nicole helps Charlie to order lunch. And later when she sees his hair looking shaggy, she whips off his shirt and gives him an impromptu trim.
“When I was writing the first part, you could almost think it’s a genre you’ve seen,” said Baumbach. “A woman gets away from a marriage and starts again and goes back to where she grows up. On the other side is the man who’s left behind, the wife leaves, he’s got to figure it out, he’s caught off-guard.”
The movie starts out from Nicole’s point of view as she tells her divorce lawyer Nora (Dern) how she fell in love and married New York avant-garde theater director Charlie, became his leading lady, had his child, Henry (Azhy Robertson), and gradually pulled away from the marriage, which wasn’t helped by Charlie’s affair with a woman at his theater company. “Through the whole monologue, she lives it as she tells it,” said Baumbach. “In the movie you could see all this in flashback, shown earlier, but I wanted to experience it through telling it, you feel it with her.”
Filmed with one 35mm camera, the five-minute takes required constant resetting with a new magazine of film. “If something went wrong, if the camera bonked or she lost a line, it would useless,” said Baumbach. “It was exciting and nerve-racking as we’d get close to the end. I could give her a note four minutes into it; she could make that adjustment and then go back and start right over.”
In Nicole’s story, Charlie is a character; when Baumbach picks up Charlie’s narrative, she becomes a character seen from his over-the-shoulder perspective. (Most viewers find the movie skewed in Charlie’s direction.) When the estranged couple eventually meet in Los Angeles with their lawyers, “then we’re always staying with one or both of their experiences for the whole movie,” said Baumbach.
When the couple reaches the explosive climax in Charlie’s apartment, which ends with him breaking down on the floor, Baumbach and cinematographer Robbie Ryan choreographed and blocked the actors precisely over the two-day shoot, knowing exactly when the director was cutting from a semi-wide shot to a close-up and back. “We’re cutting on specific movement and words,” said Baumbach. “I love that in movies. You can’t do this in another form, when something cinematic feels naturalistic. It’s total cinema, but it creates an emotional reaction that feels as real as anything.”
Shooting the scene over many takes was exhausting for everyone. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done as a director –and gratifying for the same reasons,” said Baumbach.
Laura Dern’s Oscar moment comes when her tough-as-nails lawyer tells Nicole why women in divorce court have to meet a much higher standard than men. “I wanted the lawyers to be surprising,” he said. “The way Laura plays Nora, she never comments on any of it. Some people think it’s terrible what she does, while others say that Nicole wouldn’t have gotten what she needed if she hadn’t gone to her. I felt Nora needed a moment where she said something true, a bravura thing, where her own point of view broke through.”
“Marriage Story” is filled with strong female characters, a skill he attributes to tons of research and interviews with lawyers and divorced couples, as well as his cast and his partner-collaborator Greta Gerwig.
“It helped having Laura and Scarlett involved,” he said. “It helped to picture them and have their voices in my head. I live with an amazing director and writer, and she’s a great reader. We involve each other at the beginning of everything we’re working on. She’s a great influence, but also gives me great notes and thoughts and lines of dialogue.”
Finally, the movie covers a lot of ground, and is open to many interpretations. “It’s many things,” said Baumbach. “It’s about how love is not always enough. It was important that they be relatively young. It’s more hopeful and more sad, that these two people at this age had to go through such a hard time. It ages them in a way that isn’t fair. But they also have so much life ahead of them.”