Director Noah Baumbach doesn't have to search far for material when making a film – he's brave enough to use incidents from his own life. Whereas 2005's The Squid and the Whale examined his parents' divorce and its wide-ranging ramifications, his latest, Marriage Story, puts his own divorce under the microscope. Brutally honest in the way it looks at how people who were once, and probably still are, in love with one another change under the immense pressure when dealing with this life-altering event, the movie also contains moments of levity and poignancy as Baumbach doesn't simply focus on the end of the central couples' relationship but provides memories of happier times as well. At a recent press conference in New York City for members of the Critics Choice Association, Baumbach sat down to discuss the film with three members from its cast, Adam Driver, Laura Dern and Alan Alda. Over the course of the wide-ranging, lively conversation much was revealed regarding Baumbach's approach to writing and directing, while the actors offered up insight as to what it takes to bring his characters to life. Alda's wit and Dern effervescent nature lent a sense of energy to the half-hour conversation.
Arguably, the most powerful moments in the film are those that show the couple in question, Charlie and Nicole, during happier times. Short scenes showing birthday parties, meals or holiday get-togethers — intimate moments we take for granted — gain significance once they are threatened. The opening of the film features a series of these moments as Charlie (Driver) recounts why he loves Nicole (Scarlett Johansson). This immediately sets the tone and establishes a firm emotional foundation for the movie to come.
"It is almost a movie within the movie," Baumbach said when asked about the significance of the introduction. "We shot it differently from the way we shot the rest of the movie. It's all handheld, that portion of it. And I think part of our feeling was that it's these sort of ordinary moments that often go unnoticed during a day. And what makes them extraordinary is that somebody who loves you is pointing them out, you know, that they see you. And what it also set up is that these ordinary moments don't go away even though the circumstances change. It's still our days and it's still true of these people, no matter what, even in that scene that you're referencing. So, when I was writing it and then when we shot it, it provided a lot for the movie."
While Baumbach's work will never be confused with films like Raiders of the Lost Ark, his work is still taxing on his actors, both physically and emotionally. Arguably the most strenuous moment in the film occurs when all that Charlie has been repressing, his feelings towards Nicole and the arduous process they've stumbled into, is released in a torrent of rage.
"It was intense," explained Baumbach. "We shot it over the course of two days. We realized that on the second day, we couldn't just jump in the end of it. We kind of had to start from the beginning. So, every time we did the scene, we did it from the start all the way to the finish. And it felt very much like theater doing it that way. There are always scenes in a movie that you dread in the schedule. And they all seem like they're too soon in the schedule, if it's physically exhausting or emotionally exhausting. Every scene in this movie kind of felt that way to me. Even ones that seemed pretty innocuous, it always took on a new meaning when you were with great actors."
While Driver and Johansson's characters are at the core of this drama, the supporting players are just as important in generating conflict, particularly the lawyers they hire to represent them. Laura Dern and Alan Alda play characters who are polar opposites: the former, a disingenuous opportunist with an agenda, the latter, a good-hearted solicitor in over his head in what has become an arena for self-serving gladiators.
Even at 83, Alda can still dominate a room, dropping one joke after another whenever the opportunity arises. When asked about the nature of his character he said, "It seems to me, he's an interesting example, sort of halfway between the rapacious lawyers and the people who want to be protected by ethical behavior. Not just ethical behavior, but some sense of fairness. And the interesting thing, like Adam, I didn't intellectualize the character; I didn't analyze, I never do that. I try to find a way to convey who the person is that goes beyond what you can put into words. Otherwise, it's an essay, it's not a performance. But he has the best of intentions."
Beyond the emotional underpinnings of the film, Alda feels it can serve another purpose as well. "I think the movie is a really good road map for people who are contemplating divorce, because this is some of the worst you could come up against. And it's out of your control. It's tragic in that regard. The divorce industry, which I think is many billions of dollars big, is stacked against you if you enter into that arena. So, I sort of found myself playing the guy halfway between the worst and the best with the best intentions."
Dern, however, was required to take a different approach. "I thought I knew her. And Noah gave me, as an actor the opportunity to go that much deeper. Why did she want to be an attorney? Who did she think she was defending? We sort of learned that later in the monologue. And just then when I sort of had some resentment, because as you said, we've all had our sides of knowing these lawyers, I felt that she was the hero and the muse of finding someone's voice for them and allowing them to be heard and protected. Noah really summed up family law in a pretty remarkable way on this side of things."
With any story dealing with divorce, representing both parties fairly and sympathetically is an issue that must be addressed. Marriage Story is particularly tricky in this regard as this is based on Baumbach's marriage to Jennifer Jason Leigh and as he is essentially telling this story, making sure it doesn't come off as one-sided is an obvious concern.
"I was very conscious of it being even-handed," he recounts. "It's always from Nicole or Charlie's perspective. Charlie is sort of not in the movie for a little while as Nicole is back with her mom and her sister. She's on the TV getting her hair and makeup test. It's all very much with her and in her experience up until Charlie is served with divorce papers. Now he's trying to find a lawyer. He's trying to direct his play. He's trying to be the best dad he can be. But when you're with the character you're with, you would maybe lean slightly towards Nicole. And then when we're with Charlie, slightly towards Charlie. So that when we end up in the conference room with the lawyers Bert and Nora, we're now with Charlie and Nicole equally. And our feeling was that then the audience then could honestly arrive at this sort of place of — that nobody is more right or wrong. These are two well-meaning individuals, imperfect human who are trying to do the best they can and trying to be the best parents they can be and trying to get through this situation that has kind of overtaken them."
Marriage Story will begin streaming on Netflix on Dec. 6