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Scenes From A Divorce

Critical acclaim heaped upon
Critical acclaim heaped upon "The Squid and the Whale," an independent project, has earned Baumbach interest from mainstream studios. (By Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)

Once he'd agreed on Daniels, Baumbach drove him one day to meet his father, and left Daniels and Baumbach senior alone for the better part of three hours.

"Noah went to get bagels and his father told him to go to this specific deli because there is lots of available parking around the place," he said. "I made a note of that."

At the outset of filming, Daniels was doing what he called an impersonation of Jonathan Baumbach. "That didn't work," he says. "You've got to make it true to you. You've got to find out how your character thinks, and the key thing about Bernard is that he considers himself a victim. If it were up to him, his marriage would still be going and it's not his fault, and as an actor you stick to that."

* * *

Odds are good you didn't catch any of Baumbach's first three movies, all of which disappeared soon after release. His debut, 1995's "Kicking and Screaming," is based on his experience as a Vassar graduate and follows a group of neurotic, rudderless ne'er-do-wells as they idle in the purgatory that is life after senior year. It's a talky and purposefully inert movie, and for stretches it seems unduly enamored of its repartee. When one of the leads drops off his date, she tells him, "Tomorrow is my birthday," which prompts this dialogue: "That's terrible. That is just the worst. Now I won't know what to get you. If I get you a big gift, it will seem like I'm overcompensating, coming on too strong. If I get you something small, I look cheap. I've inherited a tragedy."

"Kicking and Screaming" is more interesting now for the ways it prefigures "The Squid." Elliot Gould plays what looks like an early prototype of Bernard, a father who is too dense and narcissistic to know that he shouldn't share his travails as a newly single divorc with his son, and he certainly shouldn't mention his dislike of condoms.

How did Baumbach persuade anyone to give him money to direct his own script? He'd never been to film school and had never directed.

"I had a lot of weird meetings, some of them with kind of shady people. We finally convinced this company called Trimark, which makes most of its money from home videos. I think they were trying to become the next Miramax, which didn't really work out."

"Kicking" was followed by "Mr. Jealousy" and "Highball," which Baumbach shot in six days and which was released straight to home video.

Neither "Kicking" nor "Mr. Jealousy" launched Baumbach, though they attracted a hard core of cinephiles who fawned over the films.

One of those fans, it turned out, was Wes Anderson, whose debut film, "Bottle Rocket," was also an intimate comedy-drama that few people saw in theaters. For a few years, Baumbach had been hearing at meetings and from acquaintances, "You've got to meet Wes Anderson," and soon after the two finally shook hands, they were fast friends. During the lengthy campaign to make "The Squid," Baumbach kept busy by, among other things, co-writing, with Anderson, "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou," starring Bill Murray.

"We wrote most of it right here," says Baumbach, gesturing around Bar Pitti. The place, he said, was so accommodating as he and Anderson scribbled for the better part of a year that the restaurant is saluted in the movie's closing credits.

Anderson would become a producer on "The Squid." His contributions, according to his co-producer, Newman, included working on the script, the casting and the editing. All of it unfolded, though, in slow motion, giving Baumbach a long time to determine precisely the way he wanted the film to look.

"By the time we started shooting, there was nothing he hadn't considered," says Newman. The limited budget, though, meant they couldn't be sticklers about period details. Look close enough and you'll see some post-'86 cars in some street shots.

Look closer and you'll see Jonathan Baumbach, who has a non-speaking cameo, in a scene where the mom and dad visit Frank's school to confer with the principal, worried about Frank's strange behavior. Baumbach the elder can be seen over the shoulders of the characters played by Linney and Daniels, sitting in another room, writing something.

He was around the set for six days, recalls Daniels. "I think he liked that someone was making a movie about him," the actor says. But could he possibly like the way he's portrayed?

"He told Noah, 'I come off really unsympathetically.' And Noah said, 'A lot of people think you're a really sympathetic character.' And Jonathan said, 'I don't think so.' "

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