By Aaron Hillis
[Photos: Left, Nicole Kidman in “Margot at the Wedding”; below, Noah Baumbach, Paramount Classics, 2007]
Some of us have been following writer-director Noah Baumbach’s career since his 1995 debut (the addictively quotable, post-collegiate pearl “Kicking and Screaming”), but his wry, semi-autobiographical dramedy “The Squid and the Whale” had even bigger acclaim and success spilling out its blowhole in 2005. Critics have been leaving the bar high for Baumbach, since his fifth directorial feature, “Margot at the Wedding,” shares some similarities with “Squid,” including a reactionary novelist, self-destructive family politics, parent-child role reversals and brutally sharp-witted dialogue. Nicole Kidman stars as the domineering Margot, on a trip to the country with her son Claude (Zane Pais) to visit her boho sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Baumbach’s real-life wife). Pauline is about to marry the shlubbily mediocre Malcolm (Jack Black), a man Margot instantly despises and can’t hold her barbed tongue about, making for a cringe-worthy reunion of humiliations, projections and secrets exposed. So why are we laughing so much? I had a chance to speak to Baumbach the week that his film opened.
In “The Squid and the Whale,” children learned behavior from parents who show no filter between what they think and their verbal lashings out. In “Margot,” nearly everyone acts like this, blood-related or not. The dialogue feels genuine but somewhat stylized to me since I’ve never met anyone with that personality type. Do you know people who act as scathingly as this?
I know a lot of different kinds of people, and I’m not specifically drawing upon real people. But yeah, I guess I would say I recognize the behavior in the movie. It’s familiar to me. I mean, I don’t see them quite as unfiltered. There are things they say, Margot in particular, that might make you think: “Oh, I can’t believe she’s saying that right now.” But there’s a lot she withholds, also. I don’t know if Pauline or Malcolm is so unfiltered. Did you find that?
A little bit. Definitely not to Margot’s extent, but I’d also believe a volatile chemistry could cause people to pick up each other’s bad behaviors while in close proximity.
Right, and well, I think there’s a major difference to how people talk when they’re around their family. In Margot’s case, if you’re in crisis, you’re often not your best self. I think the conversation in this movie is very particular to the situation and environment that the characters are in, as opposed to if these people were all at a cocktail party being introduced for the first time. I think sisters feel freer to say things to one another that they wouldn’t say to other people. Similarly, Margot says things to Claude that she wouldn’t say to other people. That’s evidenced when Margot is interviewed by Dick in that bookstore and he takes a swipe at her. She has a really hard time with that.
That scene in particular read as a pointed attack on critics who harp on trying to figure out what specifically is autobiographical in your work. Does the endless analysis of your personal life and upbringing make you want to, say, go make a genre film just to get them off your back?
Well, I guess by [having made] this movie, it didn’t. I got tired of answering that, certainly in “Squid” interviews. If it was interesting to me, I would’ve been more interested in talking about it. I don’t know any writer of fiction who enjoys trying to point out or dissect whatever they produced with strangers and let them go through it and pick apart what’s real and what isn’t.
Even though Margot has some dislikeable qualities, you’ve said before that you hope audiences will understand her. Reverse Shot wrote about this film that “the compassion [Baumbach] once showed toward his neurotic characters, starting from his 1995 debut, ‘Kicking and Screaming,’ has turned into rancor.” In defense of that, would you personally want to spend time with these characters, and how mean-spirited do you see the film to be?
A lot of us do spend time with these characters. People might not want to see that in a movie, but I think this behavior is a lot more common than what people let on or recognize. On the other side of it, I’m not writing about people I necessarily want to go hang out with. It’s certainly not why I’m writing about them. In a lot of ways, I think the question is wrong. I’m not saying yours is; you’re reading from a review. I don’t really know how to start talking about these people with “Oh, they’re unsympathetic.” First of all, I don’t think that’s true from even sensitive people’s criteria. Pauline is not a perfect human being, but I think she’s very sympathetic. I think Malcolm, the kids and John Turturro’s character are sympathetic. I have a lot of empathy for Margot, but I understand how people might… you know, I’ll give them a pass on that one. She dominates a lot of the movie, and I know that can be difficult for people, but in the movies and books I like, there is such a thing as an unreliable narrator. I suppose it fits in a Jim Thompson novel, but why not have it in movies that are actually closer to our lives, that are about real human interaction [rather] than trying to sympathize with hitmen, murderers, or some sort?
When you write characters who are themselves writers, do you find it difficult to convey how good or bad their work is?
Well, that’s not important. Whether or not Margot is a good writer isn’t really relevant to the movie. A lot of times, people would refer to Jeff Daniels’ character in “Squid” as a bad writer. I don’t think that’s true, necessarily. But that was people deciding because they had a problem with him as a person. I think at this point, we’re all familiar with writers that we may not like as people but we like their work.
You worked with your wife for the first time, which I’m sure was a real pleasure, but was the transition ever awkward in maintaining a professional demeanor?
No, I found it really easy. That’s why we did it because we thought it would be fun, collaborative and great. It’s a continuation of the marriage; things that come from marriage also come into the work. I’ve been on a few movie sets and Jennifer’s been on a lot of them, so we’re very comfortable and feel very free on them. It’s great to have somebody that you know so well who can bear with you. I mean, I’ll get annoyed with actors I’m not married to over a 40-day shoot. [laughs] A film set becomes its own family anyway, and all family dynamics come out during a shoot. The trick is hiring people who know how to handle that. But it’s like any marriage. If Jennifer and I decided to go coal mining together for the first time, I’m sure the anxiety and tension of that might put a strain on things. The fact is, making a movie is something we’re both very comfortable with, and excited and happy to do.
“Margot at the Wedding” opens in limited release on November 16th.