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Interview: Noah Baumbach – Margot at the Wedding

As of this writing, Margot at the Wedding enjoys a 50% freshness rating on rotten tomatoes. Talk about a polarizing film. Dismissing the sentimentality of The Squid and the Whale and diving right into the cesspool of sibling rivalry and arrested development, Noah Baumbach’s new film explores the dynamics of a family on the verge of a collective nervous breakdown

As of this writing, Margot at the Wedding enjoys a 50% freshness rating on rotten tomatoes. Talk about a polarizing film. Dismissing the sentimentality of The Squid and the Whale and diving right into the cesspool of sibling rivalry and arrested development, Noah Baumbach’s new film explores the dynamics of a family on the verge of a collective nervous breakdown. 

Margot (brilliantly realized by Nicole Kidman) and her son Claude (in an equally brilliant debut) is on her way to visit her sister (Jennifer Jason-Leigh) who’s about to marry the troubled Malcolm (Jack Black).  Margot goes about poking her nose into everyone else’s business without bothering to take a hard look at her own shortcomings and the result is humorous, tragic and above all, frustrating.

Margot at the Wedding
is not an easy film to watch and your not going to fall in love with any of the characters. But the redemption comes during the realization that these characters hit a little too close to home.

I met up with Mr. Baumbach in New York.

Noah Baumbach

Question: After all the acclaim from The Squid and the Whale, how much pressure did you feel while directing Margot at the Wedding?
Noah Baumbach: Was The Squid and the Whale a hit? I’m glad to hear that. I went right into this film, during the theatrical release of Squid, so I didn’t really have any time to think about pressure, except for the normal pressure that comes with writing a screenplay. So I felt buoyed by Squid’s reception. I was working on another script that I felt like I knew a lot about, but because I knew a lot about it, I was having trouble writing it. I had this image of a mother and son on a train and something about that image made me want to write Margot. But I put the image aside and continued to work on the other script but eventually, I just gave in.

Q: When, throughout your writing process, did the story really begin to take shape?

NB: It developed over time. I had a draft of the script where Pauline and Malcolm were not even getting married, then I wrote a draft where they were already married, but then went back and wound up writing it around a wedding. It’s hard to answer that question in the abstract because elements change all the time, what I try to do is remain as open as possible in the early drafts, even though that creates a lot of contradictory situations.

Q: I heard that Jennifer Jason-Leigh was reading drafts of the script as it came along. Was there any helpful advice that she gave you?

NB: Sure she gave me a ton whether I wanted it or not. I mean I would ask her to help me out with certain scenes and she’s a fantastic editor, she’s great with character and story so she was invaluable.

Q: Did you always have Nicole Kidman in mind for Margot and how hard was it to get her to agree?
NB: It was incredibly easy; actually, I don’t think it’ll ever be that easy to convince an actor like that again. I had coffee with Nicole and the next morning she called and said she wanted to the part, but only had a certain, immediate window. So basically we went into preproduction that afternoon. As you can see in the film it paid off because she just gives everything to her performance and as a director, you can’t really ask for more. She can provide something unique in every take and it’s really exciting, as a director, to get to watch her transform into the character. There aren’t any big events in the film, it’s reall little things that make the film turn and go in different directions and Nicole gave me all these different options depending on which take I decided to use.

Q: What films have you seen that inspired Margot at the Wedding?

NB: I don’t think there’s any one film that inspired me to make Margot but I was thinking a lot about Eric Rohmer films and films where people go on vacation, specifically Claire’s Knee and Pauline at the Beach. Also Ingmar Bergman films that take place on islands or secluded homes that induce this feeling of isolation, while at the same time being close to those with you. I guess you could say The Passion of Anna and Shame were in the background of my mind. As a kid, we went on island vacations a lot so I connected to that. But I love movies, I watch films all the time so it’s be hard to pick one out of the aggregate, I think every movie I like seeps in somehow.  

Q: Did you speak to any of your own siblings before filming this?
NB: I didn’t talk to anyone in particular, I have siblings but the plot mainly stemmed from observations of people I’ve known, sisters I’ve known and basically whatever else I dreamed up. They actors didn’t improvise at all, the movie is basically in the script, I mean I cut things in the editing, but we rehearsed for two weeks and that time period was basically about finding themselves in the script.

Q: Margot’s kind of irredeemable, did you ever try to soften her character and found it didn’t work?

NB: I don’t agree that she’s irredeemable; I think she’s complicated and you might not like her but I have a lot of empathy for her. I don’t really look at the film that way, i.e. should I try to soften this person here or there? I just try to think about what’s going on in their lives at that moment. Margot’s in crises and I think people going through nervous breakdowns aren’t always their best selves. But I also know a lot of people like Margot, and Margot to me is a real person, she’s a fictional character but she also feels very human to me. Sometimes being human is not being a great person.

Q: Did you ever feel the need to tack on a more finite end to Margot’s crises?

NB: Well in my experience I never really know when the crisis ends. I don’t know anyone who’s had a nervous breakdown who one day just says: “OK nervous breakdown: over.” So in a way the film approximates that experience. I think characters like Pauline have more conclusive endings (in a more traditional way). But the film is about not being able to escape your family and how this stuff just keeps going. So to slam an ending on it and declare that Margot’s better now, seems contrary to the film’s central theme.

Q: Margot has a border-line inappropriate relationship with her son, how do you want the audience to interpret that?

NB: I don’t think it’s as direct as that. I don’t think Margot would actually do anything sexual with Claude. But there are blurry lines and I think parent’s behave ways with children which we know the extreme criminal versions of, but I think the more benign, socially acceptable versions, happen all the time. I’m interested in Claude and Margot’s bond in a more mother/son fashion. I’m not really interested in any sort of physical relationship that exists between them. However, I have no problem with someone interpreting it that way, just because I disagree with an interpretation doesn’t mean it’s not true.

Q: What drove you to cast Jack Black?

NB: I had met Jack in LA, before Tenacious D and really before he got pigeon-holed as this slapstick actor. I always wanted Malcolm to be funny, so Jack was sort of the first person that came to mind. I understand from an outside point-of-view that it might feel strange. But throughout the times I spent with Jack he gave off this real sensitivity and I wanted to bring that out but in a way that still allowed him to be funny. I didn’t cast Jack in a dead serious part where he would frown up and down, but I wanted him to bring what he brings within the realm of this film.

Q: Did you find it challenging to write women? More specifically sisters?

NB: Well I didn’t start out thinking I was going to write a movie about sisters, but as the script went on it turned out that Margot was going to visit her sister. It became a movie about sisters and I just went with it. If I set out to write a movie about sisters I think I would psyche myself out of it. But letting the script unfold the way it did I think it was easier to manage. I don’t think it’s specifically challenging to write about women, I think if you're inside your character, male or female, then the rest of the story just springs forth.

Q: Could you talk about the shooting style of the film?

NB: The Squid and the Whale was shot in Super-16 so it maintained a lot of grain. When you blow up Super-16 to 35mm it has a lot of grain which I wanted for that film. With this film we shot on 35mm but we shot on these old lenses from the 70s, which make the image not quite as sharp, it gives it a more diffused look to it. We also used a lot of natural light. I wanted the movie to feel like how eyes see things, and when you’re indoors during an overcast day with no lights on, everyone falls into shadows. But I also think the film is about peeking and looking into things so it allows the audience to have a voyeuristic sensibility. I want people to look into the film, it’s not lit for you, you have to sort of look in and participate.

Q: I saw the tree in their yard as representative of Margot’s relationship with her family, how accurate is that?

NB: I’m happy with that. You know I’m very analytical in my daily life, but when it comes to my films I try to not analyze them at all and just let things go into them. People ask me what The Squid and The Whale stand for and I don’t know (except that it’s an exhibit at the Natural History Museum). I put the tree in initially because I had this idea that Margot climbed trees as a kid and it would be funny if she were challenged to climb one again. But I did become aware of its symbolism and almost took it out for that reason, but I wanted her to climb it so I went with it. I like hearing people’s interpretations of the movie because in general, I avoid that myself.   
Paramount Vantage releases Margot at the Wedding in theaters November 16th. Look for a wider release in the weeks to come. 

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