When Noah Baumbach debuted his fourth film, The Squid And The Whale, at this year's Sundance Film Festival, the chorus of raves came with questions, particularly "Where the heck has Baumbach been?" After debuting in 1995 with Kicking & Screaming—a funny, truthful study of college friends dealing with life after graduation—Baumbach quickly followed up with the underrated Mr. Jealousy, another funny (though less immediately relatable) story about the uncomfortable emotions that emerge with real adulthood. And then? The shadow years. There were reports that Baumbach had retained the Mr. Jealousy cast for a low-budget comedy shot over the course of a single week, but the movie never showed up in theaters. (It eventually came out on DVD a couple of years ago under the title Highball, with Baumbach's writing and directing credits removed at his request.) Otherwise, aside from the occasional humorous essay in The New Yorker, and a co-writing credit on Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, Baumbach fell off the radar.
As it happens, he spent much of the last decade securing financing for The Squid And The Whale, a bare-knuckle comedy inspired by the divorce of his esteemed writer parents when he was a teenager. The movie stars Jeff Daniels as the aloof academic father, Laura Linney as the nurturing but distracted mother, and Jesse Eisenberg as Walt, the self-deluded, pseudo-intellectual high-schooler. It sports Baumbach's trademark witty dialogue, but it's tighter and more confident than his earlier work, with a raw vérité style and some lacerating observations about how a smugly unorthodox family can implode. Noah Baumbach recently spoke with The A.V. Club about his evolving style, his lingering fears of growing up, and life in NYC.
The A.V. Club: Your parents were professional writers, you're an occasional New Yorker contributor, and your early movies seem more dialogue-driven than visually dynamic. What made you want to be a filmmaker instead of an author?
Noah Baumbach: I see the careers as connected, really. I always wanted to write movies that I'd direct. I didn't come at it from a writing standpoint more than a directing standpoint, except that growing up, I didn't have the opportunity to shoot as much as I did to write. I mean, I used a video camera, and shot on film cameras at school and stuff, but I had a lot more training as a writer. I kind of live like a writer. I get up and I write. I've done that my whole life.
In terms of the early movies vs. The Squid And The Whale, I do think that I in some ways trusted my own voice as a filmmaker more on this one. I more thoroughly and successfully found the visual equivalent to what I had written. I think the other movies have visual interest—I don't think they're lifeless or flat—but I do think in this movie I did "find it" in a way that I hadn't before. And I think I also was able to communicate to the actors in ways that maybe I wasn't in the past.
AVC: Did you have any filmmaking models for your style before, as opposed to your style on The Squid And The Whale?
NB: Maybe I thought too much about other models on those early movies, and less so on this one. I mean, I did look at lots of movies for The Squid And The Whale, and thought about them visually. I looked at a lot of documentaries, and French New Wave movies, and John Cassavetes and early Martin Scorsese. Things that had a sort of raw feel. I think in the past I may have had a harder time because I had so many influences that it'd almost be overwhelming. Maybe I'd imitate shots too directly. With The Squid And The Whale, I was able to incorporate those influences and filter them through myself more successfully. Basically, what I'm describing is "maturity." [Laughs.]
AVC: Kicking & Screaming displayed a little Whit Stillman influence, though maybe that's just because it featured Stillman regular Chris Eigeman.
NB: Well, the influence wasn't direct. I'd seen Metropolitan by that point and really liked it. I was kind of excited by Metropolitan, not only because it was really well-written and well-directed, but because of the way it was made. It was made for all the right reasons. But to me, that group of people… I identified with them in broad ways, because the movie was identifiable in its specificity, but I never saw the guys graduating in my movie as part of that same social class. Sort of the point of Kicking & Screaming, I always felt, was that college equalizes people from different economic backgrounds, and once you graduate, you're put back where you were. I think Kicking & Screaming was perceived as being more about elites than I ever intended. I understand that even people who go on scholarship to good liberal-arts schools are part of an elite in terms of America at large, but they're different from people who are living a Fitzgerald-like existence on the Upper East Side.
That's a long-winded way of saying that while I really responded to the kind of ensemble feeling of Metropolitan, I was also thinking a lot about Diner, which was another great ensemble "friends" comedy.
AVC: Making The Squid And The Whale as raw-looking as you did was effective, because although the dialogue is still as funny as it was in your earlier work, it sounds harsher in this more claustrophobic atmosphere.
NB: Yeah, I was very interested in trying to make this movie as immediate an experience as possible for the viewer. I think you can tell the same person wrote all my movies, but in the other ones, the dialogue was in some cases maybe more "clever," and the movies were less emotional, or maybe more afraid of emotion. They're about people afraid of emotion. [Laughs.] With this movie, I became a lot less analytical, and went more on feel. That was true in the writing and in the shooting. I don't want to say that I wanted to make it feel as "real" as possible, because that isn't really what it is. I just want it to be an experience, you know? I think it requires audience participation, in a way. I think you have to enter the movie and live it.
AVC: It feels a lot like a literary short story, where readers dive in and out quickly, and are left with a little elliptical moment at the end.
NB: Right. I thought about that. At times I'd get scared while writing, like, "Is this even a movie?" But the more I thought about it, I thought, "Well, we accept this kind of material in fiction a lot, and in memoir, and in popular fiction, even." Why are movies more filtered? I feel like in a lot of cases, for this kind of subject matter, filmmakers often look for books to adapt. Which doesn't mean you can't make an incredibly immediate version of a book, but why not make something that is personal and emotional from your own perspective? Something that you feel directly, right from the screen? I never thought twice about writing this as a short story. Why not make a movie that gives some kind of equivalent experience?
AVC: You've said elsewhere that the movie isn't line-for-line autobiographical, but there are certainly some details that seem too precise to be invented, like the dad getting irritated about losing his parking space.
AVC: Are you comfortable discussing which parts of the film come directly from your own experience?
NB: It's not that I'm not comfortable doing it, it's just that it doesn't really mean anything. Like, did my father get annoyed sometimes when he lost his parking space? Sure. [Laughs.] Do other people I've been with in cars also have that reaction? Yes! Do I sometimes feel that way? Yes! But the scenes in the car aren't precisely from my life. So, you know, it just becomes such a slippery slope. I understand—and I'm flattered, even, to some degree—that people care, and want to know what's real, and that the movie provokes that reaction. I think in some ways, it's intended to. But for me, "wondering" is what it's about, not "answering." Because there is no answer. These are people and places I know really well, but the movie's a work of fiction. There's no annotated script. [Laughs.] Nothing that says which word is real and which word is not.
AVC: Maybe viewers aren't trying to extract more meaning from the film by figuring out how much of it is "true." It's just that there's such specificity to scenes like the kid masturbating in the library…
NB: Which is not true, by the way!
AVC: …that it makes people wonder where they came from.
NB: Right. That scene came from my imagination. [Laughs.]
AVC: How much of the soundtrack did you pick?
NB: All of it.
AVC: Really? You said recently that Dean Wareham suggested Lou Reed's "Street Hassle."
NB: Well, he gave me the song, and told me it was a song he'd always really liked, but it was my decision to use it for when Walt runs at the end of the movie, because I liked the momentum of the cello. And then later I came up with the idea to kind of extend it and actually play it through to the singing. Dean and I are good friends, and he did the score for the movie, so we talked a lot about music. I'd play him things and he'd play me things and stuff like that, but I picked all the music in the same way that I picked all the colors for the walls of the houses. But that also means that Anne Ross and Bob Yeoman—who designed and shot the movie—had huge contributions. Music is like color or acting or whatever. It's really something I think about from the beginning. Not that I always know exactly what I'm going to use, but I don't see it as something like, "Let's find some songs now!" after we have a finished film.
AVC: A lot of the music cues are really character-building, like the way the cool girl listens to The Feelies while the bland girl listens to Bryan Adams.
NB: Yeah, that's kind of fun, and one of the many ways I thought of using music for the movie. "What do the characters listen to?" Obviously, I'd listen to "Street Hassle" more than I'd listen to "Run To You," but that doesn't mean that "Run To You" isn't the most appropriate song for that scene. Because it's Sophie. And that felt true. And then it's like, "Yeah, well, what is Anna listening to?" That was… you know, the ex-drummer of Luna was Stanley Demeski, who was in The Feelies, and Dean put those Feelies albums on a CD for me, because they're actually out of print. So he was influential in that choice as well. I'd played around with using a Go-Betweens song there.
And then Joan's listening to the McGarrigle sisters, and Frank listens to the Risky Business soundtrack…
AVC: A lot of teenage boys in the mid-'80s probably listened to that soundtrack and imagined they were Tom Cruise, "making love on a real train."
NB: With an incredibly great-looking prostitute. [Laughs.]
AVC: You grew up in New York, correct?
AVC: Just about everyone who grew up in Middle America can wrap their head around childhood in Steven Spielberg's Los Angeles or John Hughes' Chicago, because they look pretty familiar, but there aren't many movies about childhood in New York. Were you aware of what it meant to grow up as a city boy?
NB: Well, the movie kind of documents this without ever really articulating it, but growing up in Brooklyn felt like being outside of the action. [Laughs.] It's isolated from Manhattan, and Manhattan seemed like this incredible place where really interesting people had dinner parties. Wes Anderson grew up in Houston, and he and I talk about Manhattan in similar ways, as a kind of fantasy world. I think he really experienced New York through The New Yorker and New York movies and New York fiction, so I was definitely more connected to it than he was. But I live in Manhattan now, because, in a way, it was my fantasy. [Laughs.]
That said, I guess I probably took New York for granted. Growing up, playing in the street, going down to the Avenue to the record store and to the grocery store and stuff like that. But I don't have a driver's license as an adult, so it's also stymied me in other ways. I remember when I saw E.T. as a kid, and when they were flying and I saw all the pools, I remember thinking that was hilarious. [Laughs.] You know, like, "What a great touch!" But of course if you grow up out there, that's just obvious.
AVC: You don't have any kids, do you?
AVC: Have you ever given any thought to what kind of parent you'd be?
NB: [Pause.] I've definitely thought about it. Yeah. I mean, I just got married a few weeks ago, so I also gave thought to what kind of husband I'll be. [Laughs.] What kind of adult will I be? Definitely the older I get, all those different stages of life, like parenting or marriage or job or where you live… I think you have your fantasy as a kid, or you have your examples, and as you enter all those phases, at least for me, I've had to square myself with the reality. You know, [in The Squid And The Whale] Walt says, "I always thought I could do better," talking about Sophie, and she says, "Better how?" That's a very adolescent version of what I think adults find themselves struggling with too, albeit in more sophisticated ways.
AVC: Besides Wes Anderson, do you have any other strong social relationships with filmmakers?
NB: Peter Bogdanovich is a good friend. I don't want to sound like a name-dropper here. [Laughs.]
AVC: It's just that there seems to be a wave of filmmakers roughly your age, all emerging over the past decade, and some of them are openly social, like P.T. Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, and Sofia Coppola, or Tarantino with Robert Rodriguez and Richard Linklater, or yourself and Wes Anderson. Are you all networking? Is there some larger cinematic movement afoot?
NB: [Laughs.] No, not that I know of. I've met a lot of filmmakers that I really admire, both contemporaries and older ones, and some of them I've stayed in close friendships with, and then some I've met through my wife [Jennifer Jason Leigh], who's an actress. Wes' and my friendship is more memorialized because we have credits on each other's films. But I don't feel like there's a salon or anything. [Laughs.] I do have some very good friends who are also in the business.
When I meet certain filmmakers, sometimes you sit down and you do have this kind of shorthand. It can be fun to see them as someone who has been through similar experiences, but also as someone who just loves film. You can talk with them about films in a way that feels really free. "Oh, have you seen this and this and this?" Wes' and my friendship… I'm asked about our collaboration sometimes, and I could make something up, but really, just like any friends, it's hard to analyze. Our collaboration really feels to me like an extension of our friendship. It continues to be fun for the reasons you're saying. We go out to dinner and talk about movies and things we like and don't like, and we introduce each other to things and read each other's scripts, and then we actually work together off of that. It's a great way to get into business.
AVC: Why have you disowned Highball?
NB: It's not obvious? [Laughs.] The truth is, I never "owned" Highball. It really was an experiment, and kind of a foolish experiment, because I didn't think about what the ramifications would be if it didn't work. But it was made with all the best intentions, which was to try and make a movie in six days, and use all the same people from Mr. Jealousy, with all their goodwill, and bring in some more people. And it was a funny script. But it was just too ambitious. We didn't have enough time, we didn't finish it, it didn't look good, it was just a whole… mess. [Laughs.] We couldn't get it done, and I had a falling out with the producer. He abandoned it, and I had no money to finish it, to go back and maybe get two more days or something. Then later, it was put out on DVD without my approval.
AVC: You didn't think about the ramifications? What ramifications?
NB: Just that I feel about as much ownership of Highball as I do the Hi-8 videos I made the summers I was in college. But those aren't out on DVD. [Laughs.] I mean the ramifications like, if Justine Bateman and Rae Dawn Chong are in your movie, someone's going to try to make money. It doesn't matter if you finished it, or even felt like you got a movie out of it.
AVC: Is there also an element of trying to control your filmography, the way a musician tries to control his discography? And then some ex-manager comes along and puts out Live At The Cavern Club?
NB: Right, exactly. Fortunately, there are enough of those in other people's careers I admire, so I can think, "Yeah, okay, this is my Live At The Cavern Club." Highball is my Mr. Arkadin, or one of the many Orson Welles movies that are all a thousand times better than Highball.
AVC: How did you feel when you saw that there was going to be a Will Ferrell soccer comedy called Kicking & Screaming?
NB: I wasn't excited about it. [Laughs.] It's complicated. But unless it's a title like Top Gun, you can't really prove in a lawsuit that it dilutes the value of the other title. Because they could make the claim, "Well, more people are going to rent your movie now!" [Laughs.]
AVC: That's what you want… people looking for a Will Ferrell comedy and getting Carlos Jacott instead.
NB: Well… it's a long race. In 10 years, we'll see what they're renting.