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Noah Baumbach—Margot at the Wedding—10/13/07

Noah Baumbach's films as writer-director include Kicking and Screaming, The Squid and the Whale, and now Margot at the Wedding, which stars his wife Jennifer Jason Leigh. Baumbach also collaborated with Wes Anderson on two screenplays: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and the upcoming The Fantastic Mr. Fox. I spoke to Baumbach (and Leigh) at San Francisco's St. Regis Hotel.

Groucho: I'd like to start by asking about the element of the blooming boy and the smothering mother, which immediately reminded me of Murmur of the Heart—and I jotted that down, and then I was doing my research and I realized that you had explicitly mentioned Murmur of the Heart as an inspiration on The Squid and the Whale script. So what is it about that film, I guess, first of all, that struck you, and were you conscious of echoes of that in this film?

Noah Baumbach: I guess I hadn't thought about it so much consciously for this movie. And, in a lot of ways, its influence on Squid was more just that—it was a movie, I hadn't seen it, and—it was one of those movies that, when I saw it, I was surprised I hadn't seen it, because I liked it so much. And it's nice when you're an adult and you find a movie that somehow has slipped by that you hadn't [seen]. But at the time, with Squid, it was a big deal because it was it was written from the kid's—about kids and a certain kind of—in some ways, it's sort of a freedom of childhood and a suppression of childhood at the same time that that movie has that I just—

G: Related to?

NB: Well, I related to it in terms of the Louis Malle movie, but also it just gave me in some ways maybe a certain confidence to kind of explore it in my own life and think about it more—to think this could be material for a movie, which up until that point I think maybe I hadn't—maybe shied away from it because I thought it's not really a movie. With this movie, umm, I guess any sort of thematic similarities are probably just the fact that I—whatever I responded to in that movie obviously connects to me personally, so anything I do might have a kind of comparable theme or something to it. But I think the thing about that movie is it feels so personal, and that's what's kind of great about it. I've only seen it once. So it's not—I don't mean to cite scenes from it. I probably have vague memories of it—

G: Have you been called out by people who think they recognize themselves and your writing, as happens in the film?

NB: Not like in the film, no. I mean, it's funny, it's always people I barely know: "You took the thing that I did where I—" and I have no recollection of it. It's always those people who are not happy they're in the film.

G: I'm curious about the casting. Where did you start? Did you start close to home? Can you tell us about the process?

NB: Well, Jennifer was the first person to be actually cast in the movie. But I try not to think a lot about casts when I'm writing because it's important for me to believe all these people kind of exist somewhere on the real earth somewhere, and once [you] start thinking about actors, you're acknowledging the artifice of it, so I try to leave that for as far down the line as I can. But yeah, Pauline was the first because she was there, and I wanted to work with Jennifer. And I don't remember the order after that but it all came together pretty quickly.

G: What about casting Claude? It's his film debut, is that right?

NB: Yes.

G: How were you able to find him? He pretty remarkable in the film.

NB: Yeah, he, umm—Jennifer was doing a play in New York—a Mike Leigh play called Abigail's Party, and on a matinee day she saw this boy doing his homework backstage. And so I had just started casting the movie, and I was looking for kids, and we were doing lots and lots of kid auditions, and she—it was the son of this woman Lisa Emory who was in the play with her. And so she said, "You should take a look at this kid—I think he could be kind of good." And so we brought him over and, yeah, he's exactly what you'd look for, which is somebody who hadn't acted before who would bring a lot of themselves to the part. But, at the same time, he had real technique. I mean, he could actually act. He could connect to the emotional life of the character—which is kind of remarkable—

G: Maybe it's a moot point when it comes to family, but are any of these characters good for each other? We see a lot of the negative influences they have on each other, but is there something they can get from each other that is helpful?

NB: I'm sure—I'm sure there is. I mean, I haven't quite thought of it that way. And I don't think about it necessarily about how they're negative influences on each other, either. But—and like you say, I don't know—a lot of times, the dynamics are so—

G: Complicated.

NB: Well, yeah, and there's a kind of habitual behavior that you can't escape. So it's hard to change direction. I mean, you know, Margot comes to Pauline after Jim has visited and she's hurt. She's trying to talk about how complicated the situation is where she's thinking about leaving. And Pauline tries to be there for her but ends up talking about her own life and ends up insulting Margot—"You can get a manicure. You don't have to have an affair." But I think Pauline means well. I don't think she's trying to—it's just that I think you have two people who've been jockeying for position for so long, it's so hard to change that.

G: And it's the lack of self-awareness too. Margot doesn't even know really why she's come back to see her sister.

NB: Right. Right. And I think, in many ways, her conscious intentions are probably good that she—I think Margot doesn't come there to wreck anything. She comes there because she loves her sister and wants to support her. She just can't help herself once she sees what the situation is.

[For Groucho's interview with Jennifer Jason Leigh, click here.]

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