The Reeler


November 14, 2007

Baumbach's Wedding Party

Reeler Interview: Director discusses his Margot whirlwind and the art of the follow-up

Noah Baumbach on the set of Margot at the Wedding (Photos: Paramount Vantage)

Two years after his acclaimed Brooklyn dramedy The Squid and the Whale polarized audiences with its withering survey of divorce, writer-director Noah Baumbach returns to the front lines of family crisis with Margot at the Wedding. But while the comparisons between the films' biting middle-class malaise and self-aware creative inertia are inevitable, they aren't especially fair; starring Nicole Kidman as the title character, who reconnects with sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) on the eve of her marriage to listless Malcolm (Jack Black), Margot peels back the skin that Squid merely chafed. Narcissism and denial are the dominant inherited genes in the Zeller clan, and their havoc in the lives of parents, lovers and children alike (particularly Zane Pais, who, in his debut, exquisitely embodies the moody endurance required of Margot's offspring) imply a near-lethal imbalance exacerbated by Pauline's looming nuptials.

The slow crescendo of Margot buzz that began with Kidman's casting in 2006 reached a peak at last month's New York Film Festival, where Baumbach took more questions from a puzzled press corps than his cast members combined. Read Michelle Orange's festival review here, along with Christopher Campbell's press conference coverage here.) The film finally reaches theaters Friday in New York; Baumbach recently sat down with The Reeler to discuss the marathon of promotion, the art of the follow-up and the perils of overanalysis.

THE REELER: We're entering the second month of Margot fever. How are you holding up?

NOAH BAUMBACH: Pretty well. When we were at the New York Film Festival I really envied Wes [Anderson, director of The Darjeeling Limited] because he could just open the film the day after it premiered and let it go. As opposed to premiering in Telluride and limping all the way to November. It feels like a long time, though it's really not in the scheme of things.

R: You're everywhere with this film; you're at Lincoln Center, BAM, MoMA, the National Board of Review -- and that's just New York. A lot of filmmakers worry about overexposure lest the film not speak for itself. But Margot's challenging; how active do you feel you need to be on its behalf?

NB: If it were up to me -- if I were one of those people who could generate more press by doing no press? I think I'd probably try that.

R: Noah Malick?

NB: Exactly. But I do feel a certain responsibility to the movie and the studio. Paramount backed me on this movie and really let me absolutely make the movie I wanted to make. So I want to be the adult and go around and do it properly. But it isn't my favorite way to do it. I would rather the movie speak for itself, and I try as much as I can anyway to let it speak for itself. But sometimes Q&A's can be interesting and even enjoyable.

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R: Are there any notable illuminations about Margot you've experienced during this recent run?

NB: In some ways the Q&A's don't distinguish themselves -- you're getting the same questions at each one. But someone asked me a couple of nights ago about the idea of doubles in the movie. It's something I never thought about. But she kept talking, and I was really interested in her take on it. I was at another one where some guy took the mic and said, "I don't know why people are entering into any kind of conversation about bad behavior or if Margot is a bad lady or if these people are unsympathetic. This is how people are." And I thought, "Well, now we can start having a conversation."

R: You just mentioned Paramount backing you on this film, and certainly you could have gone any number of ways after The Squid and the Whale. Why did you choose this route -- to go with a studio?

NB: Really, as long as they're supportive of the movie and the way I want to make it, the difference between it being a studio or not isn't that great. It's more secure with a studio, but you can also get caught up in more red tape. Suddenly they have to clear everything in the shot; people get anxious. On Squid, no one was looking over our shoulders. That can be kind of a drag, because you really just want to shoot the world and not have to worry about it. But I understand it. And [Paramount Vantage chief] John Lesher really got the script and understood everything we wanted to do, so that's why we chose them.

R: Did that compound the pressure for you as a filmmaker?

NB: No. I put my own pressure on myself to make the movie as good as I can. I figured if I make the movie well, it'll translate.

R: Like Squid, the characters here generally seem to be working at the same emotional maturity level -- adults and kids both. What drew you back to exploring that dynamic?

NB: I don't think of it quite that way. I am interested in relationships between parents and children and how those lines can blur, and in many cases it's adults using children as confidants or allies or friends in some way when they're in moments of weakness or crisis. And how kids, at the same time, can be very empowered by that but also very hindered by it. I think a lot is made in both movies about how damaging this kind of parenting can be for kids. But I don't think it's all bad; in The Squid and the Whale, there is all this exposure to all this art and literature through the prism of someone who has a real self-interest in what he likes and doesn't like. It's still good for kids. In Margot, Claude has a real bond with his mother, and I think she's loving although she can be very cruel.

R: Claude is a terrific role for Zane Pais. Margot marks consecutive films on which you've worked with a child of actors. Did you sense that quality gave Zane and [Squid's] Owen Kline an advantage technically, or that maybe you were even harder on them on the set because of that DNA?

Oh, how they laughed: Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Jason Leigh in Margot at the Wedding

NB: It's a fluke that they're both the children of actors, except that they came into our lives because we knew their parents. But based on my small research of two, I do think having actors as parents means something. Whether it's in the DNA or just being around actors and seeing acting as a kind of natural thing that your parents do rather than some kind of weird other thing that only professionals do -- it might seem more daunting and mysterious. In both cases -- and this is really exciting -- I got these kids when acting had been demystified for them, but they'd never done it. There's something in that moment of them trying this for the first time and then connecting to their natural abilities and talents -- they were using much of themselves. They hadn't built up that wall that acting teaches you.

R: And of course the more they learn during the shoot, the more radically they change before your eyes. How do you control for that as a director?

NB: It's true. I saw that with Zane, especially because we were on location. He was away from his friends, and I think he got lonely. So in addition to everything else, I wanted to provide him with a comfortable environment and keep his spirits up. Two months previous when he found out he was going to be in a movie with Nicole Kidman and Jack Black and Jennifer Jason Leigh, it was this dream come true. Two months later he was sitting around waiting for a scene to be lit. It can be very dispiriting. So I tried to find ways -- even outside the character -- to keep him involved and excited. They also keep putting those kids into school all the time. It's really hard for them.

R: There's also a continuation of the theme of writers and writing in Margot. To what degree do you think the profession and its responsibilities paralyze these characters emotionally? Or are they just that fucked up?

NB: I don't know. I'm obviously interested in writers as characters, but I think it's because I grew up around writers and I know a lot of writers. But I don't know if I believe ultimately writers are more screwed up than other artists or even coal miners or whatever. I see it in a more micro way; it's hard for me to speak generally about them.

R: The tree is monolithic in this film; it's a metaphor that could have been really easy to mishandle. Did you go back and forth at all determining the ways it should be featured?

NB: It's funny, because I put the tree in because I wanted Margot to climb the tree. I liked the idea that Margot had climbed trees when she was younger -- that she would climb that tree and would do it again. Then when they're getting into a dispute with the neighbors, I thought it could be about the tree and its roots. But you're right: Then I'm stuck with this metaphor, which I didn't consciously intend. But of course I'm aware of it. The tree is a more obvious example of this, but I think when I'm writing, a lot of these things will come up and be there. If I like how they feel in the context of the movie, I'll leave them in but stay oblivious in some ways to any kind of significance or meaning. I'm much more analytical of my real life than my work.

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