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Noah Baumbach – Hollywood’s king of indie on David Bowie, ‘Marriage Story’ and his lifelong obsession with music

Welcome to REEL TALK – NME's brand new weekly interview feature with the biggest names in film and TV.

Noah Baumbach has, arguably, never made a bad film. After nearly 25 years in the business, we meet the indie maverick to discuss David Bowie, new Netflix divorce drama 'Marriage Story' and his many musical influences.

There are certain telltale signs which let you know you’re in a Noah Baumbach movie: everyone around you is some sort of creative artist, probably a writer, actor, director or dancer. They are all obsessed with living in New York. Distant fathers greet their offspring with the words: “There’s my son.” Nobody can ever find a parking spot. Everybody has just been or is about to be featured in either The New York Times or The New Yorker, the only publications which exist within the Baumbach Cinematic Universe (BCU). 

Yet even though he has a tendency to set his films within a particular milieu, Baumbach is at his best when he manages to hone in on that which we can all relate to. Over the course of his almost quarter century career (Noah’s arc, you might say), spread across the 10 narrative features he’s written and directed (plus one, 1997’s Highball, which he disowned) he has done this time and again. 

Noah Baumbach
Credit: Matt Salacuse

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In his 2005 breakout hit The Squid and the Whale, he transformed the pain of his own parents’ divorce into a story that was at once touching, heartfelt and hilarious, and was rewarded with an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay (losing out to unsettling crime drama Crash, which also won Best Picture). 

In his collaborations with partner Greta Gerwig, including 2012’s widely-acclaimed Frances Ha and their criminally-underrated 2015 follow-up Mistress America, he captured the melancholy rush of youth flying by in a way that connected even if you weren’t a part of their specific social group. It’s not as if the BCU isn’t rooted in reality. Shortly after Baumbach and Gerwig first made their relationship public, they were featured together in a joint profile in (where else?) The New Yorker.

Noah Baumbach
Credit: Matt Salacuse

It would be easy to assume, then, that Baumbach’s latest film Marriage Story, which stars Adam Driver (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) and Scarlett Johansson (Lost In Translation) as a director and an actress divorcing while worrying about the future of their young son, is a retelling of his own 2013 divorce from the actress Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight, Anomalisa), with whom he has a young son. He disputes this. “None of these movies are autobiographical,” Baumbach says, somewhat unconvincingly, “But they do have a personal approach that’s to do with the way I look at the world. [Late American novelist] Philip Roth had a quote about ‘rubbing two stones of reality together to spark the imagination’. The movies I’m making take place in a kind of everyday life, and this movie in particular came from lots of research and interviews I did with people who’ve gone through divorce and also the people involved in the business of divorce.”

Noah Baumbach
Credit: Matt Salacuse

A common thread in Baumbach’s films – notably Mistress America and 2007’s Margot at the Wedding – is the ethical dilemma thrown up when people take incidents from their own life and refashion them into art. In Marriage Story, that idea is given an even sharper edge when we see apparently harmless family moments – a mother too tipsy to be carrying her son, for example – converted into ammunition by cutthroat divorce lawyers. “I thought of it in terms of a thriller,” says Baumbach. “In a traditional thriller, you start off and there are these little moments, like somebody innocuously picks up a piece of evidence, and then later their prints are on it and that becomes a thing, even though we know they’re innocent. We filmed those scenes, not to highlight them so you think about them in the moment, but enough that they stay in your mind so then later when they’re brought up they have this significance.”

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Noah Baumbach
Credit: Matt Salacuse

This results in courtroom scenes where, as NME can personally attest, you’re liable to find yourself shouting ‘wait, that’s not fair!’ angrily at the screen. “Right,” agrees Baumbach. “We have the context, but then the lawyers take it out of context and turn it into something else.”

The most fearsome of the divorce lawyers is Nora, played with scene-stealing relish by Laura Dern (Jurassic Park). In one memorable moment she attempts to comfort Scarlett Johansson’s character by quoting the wisdom of rock legend Tom Petty. “The waiting is the hardest part,” she says, before following up with the killer revelation: “You know, I represented his wife in their divorce. I got her half that song.”

Baumbach, a longtime Petty fan, says he was inspired by remembering that the songwriter’s 1999 album ‘Echo’ had been widely seen as his ‘divorce record’. “I was aware he’d been divorced, so when I was writing that scene I came up with that notion,” he says. “I liked the idea of her quoting him and then having this anecdote to tell.”

Beyond Petty, Baumbach’s films are often peppered with references to the music he loves. In Margot at the Wedding, Jennifer Jason Leigh’s free-spirited divorcée boasts that her soon-to-be-husband “played with Ric Ocasek [late vocalist of post-punk band The Cars] once.” In 2010’s Greenberg, Ben Stiller’s pitiable musician-turned-carpenter calls New Wave rockers Duran Duran “great coke music. Give it a chance!” 

Noah Baumbach
Credit: Matt Salacuse

1995’s Kicking and Screaming, about a group of recent college graduates who display no desire to move on with their lives, begins with the pounding surf riff of ‘Cecelia Ann’, by alt.rock icons Pixies. Looking back, Baumbach says he got a kick out of juxtaposing the full-throttle music with his listless characters. “I loved the momentum of it,” he says. “I felt it would have some humour for the audience if we started with a song that feels like it’s going to catapult you forward, and then it doesn’t.”

In The Squid and the Whale, a key plot point turns on Jesse Eisenberg’s pretentious teen passing off a cover of Pink Floyd’s ‘Hey You’ as his own work. “I wanted a song that was sort of well known, but not like ‘Another Brick In The Wall’,” says Baumbach of his decision to use that specific track. “We were all listening to so much Pink Floyd in Brooklyn in the ‘80s. That sort of classic rock was so much more influential on us as teenagers than the music which I love now which was the music of the time, like The Cure and The Smiths. I thought that would be something he would be listening to and trying to play.”

Perhaps the most famous (and most meme-able) musical sequence in Baumbach’s films is from Frances Ha, where Greta Gerwig exuberantly bolts down a Manhattan street to the sound of David Bowie’s funk-soul hit ‘Modern Love’. Itself an homage to Leo Carax’s 1983 crime drama Bad Blood, Baumbach, who says he owns every record Bowie ever released, explains that song choice was another personal one. “I came to Bowie through the greatest hits records ‘ChangesOne’ and ‘ChangesTwo’ in the early 80s,” he explains. “‘Let’s Dance’ was the first current album of his that I bought, and that was exciting because it was like jumping into the midstream of his career and saying: ‘This is my Bowie now’. I remember when I first played that record. ‘Modern Love’ is the first song, and I just couldn’t believe how happy it made me.”

Given this history, it’s something of a surprise that Marriage Story eschews indie rock classics in favour of an instrumental score by acclaimed songwriter Randy Newman. “It was sort of intuitive when I was first writing it that I felt like I wanted it to have an orchestral score,” says Baumbach. “Something that felt grand. Randy and I didn’t want music that was just going to underscore scenes. We wanted the music to be the movie’s reaction to what’s going on.” 

Noah Baumbach
Credit: Matt Salacuse

Baumbach had already collaborated with Newman on his last film, 2017’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), which like Marriage Story was funded by Netflix. He’s such a fan of Newman’s that they’ve even talked about making a documentary of the LA-born singer’s life. While this orchestral score might be something of a surprise if you’re of the generation that was introduced to Newman by Toy Story’s ‘You’ve Got A Friend In Me’, it harks back to his earlier work on critically-lauded dramas like Ragtime and Avalon.  Baumbach also praises Newman’s sharply comic singer-songwriter material like ‘Short People’, ‘Political Science’ and ‘I Love L.A.’

“‘I Love L.A.’ is like so many of his songs in that it works on multiple levels,” points out Baumbach. “It works in the most straightforward way. If you want to drive around LA and play it and sing along there’s nothing better, but then you actually listen to the song and it’s all much more complicated than that. So many of his songs have that… that beauty and then this deep complexity. Those early records, like ‘Little Criminals’, are pretty perfect. I mean, ‘Sail Away’ is a stone-cold classic.”

Noah Baumbach
Credit: Matt Salacuse

Newman will surely be among those – like Driver and Johansson – in the running for an Oscar nod for their work on Marriage Story. Baumbach, of course, is far too gracious to even acknowledge the trivialities of awards season buzz. When NME asks him directly how he sees his chances, he veers off in another direction. “I’ve been travelling with the movie since late August,” he begins, “We started in Venice, and what’s been really gratifying is just talking to people and getting reactions, because the reactions are often quite personal. I learned about the movie from them, because it’s like having the movie reflected back at me.”

If Marriage Story does manage to pick up a Best Picture or Best Director nomination, Baumbach could well find himself in direct competition with Gerwig and her hotly-anticipated adaptation of 19th Century coming-of-age novel Little Women. That should make for some fun sparring over the breakfast table and hopefully enough material for a future film about one couple’s tussle to take home a 13½ inch gold man. As of now, Baumbach’s only confirmed future plans are teaming back up with Gerwig to write a live-action Barbie movie, starring Margot Robbie (Suicide Squad). It might be too much to hope for an lofi cover of Aqua’s 1997 bubblegum pop anthem ‘Barbie Girl’, but in Baumbach World don’t be surprised if our heroine manages to find love, hope and solace in the midst of heartbreak – and, of course, ends up being profiled in The New Yorker.

‘Marriage Story’ arrives on Netflix on December 6.

Photography by Matt Salacuse

Design by Tom Tutaev

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