By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 30, 2005
Early in Noah Baumbach's semi-autobiographical new movie, "The Squid and the Whale," a mom (played by Laura Linney) and dad (played by Jeff Daniels) call a family meeting and announce to their sons that they are getting divorced. It's presented as a no-biggie, best-for-everyone split, but it devastates the two boys, who didn't see it coming and who dislike the sound of the joint-custody arrangement that has been worked out.
"Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Saturdays and every other Thursday," says Baumbach, who at the moment is sitting in Bar Pitti, a restaurant in the West Village. "I remember it because that was exactly the same arrangement that I had growing up."
In the movie, this child-sharing deal is sold to the kids as loving and perfectly reasonable. But it sounds, more than anything, like a logistics nightmare and it provides one of many moments in "The Squid" that make you groan and laugh at the same time. The boys have just been sentenced to years of bag-packing hassles and unhappy flux, and their parents -- Dad, especially -- are surprised when the news is met with anything more than a shrug.
"I have to admit, that is one of the moments where the audience's reaction -- it was somehow freeing to know that I wasn't crazy," Baumbach says. "I thought at the time of my parents' divorce that I was upset by deeper, more profound things and I was just taking it out on the joint custody agreement. But that disruption was bad enough. That was a huge deal for a teenager."
Baumbach, who is 36, put a lot of himself in "The Squid," which opens in Washington on Friday. The action is set in 1986 in the Brooklyn neighborhood where he grew up, and his family, like the one in the film, is composed of two boys and a mother and father who both write for a living. (Baumbach's real-life dad is novelist Jonathan Baumbach. His mother is retired Village Voice film critic Georgia Brown.) But if this is a family portrait, it is pretty unflattering. The dad in "The Squid" is pompous and colossally self-absorbed, pathologically cheap and so combustible he's livid when he can't find a parking spot. Mom is vastly more sympathetic, though she admits to a number of extramarital affairs. So the first question for Noah Baumbach is pretty obvious: What was it like talking to your parents after they'd seen the movie?
"Initially, a little surreal," he says, sweeping a hand through his black hair. "But we are very close and they knew this was coming for a long time. It didn't just appear one day."
And all those life parallels aside, he adds, enough was changed to make the whole production feel like a work of fiction, to him as well as to his family. Which perhaps is a news flash that Baumbach's younger brother hopes everyone hears loud and clear. His on-screen corollary reacts to the divorce with tears and then beer drinking and chronic masturbation.
"Those are things my brother never did," says Baumbach, repressing a very slight grin. "But I would guess people are asking him about it. I feel bad about that."
* * *
"The Squid and the Whale" -- the title refers to an enormous diorama at the American Museum of Natural History, which acquires symbolic meaning in the film's final minutes -- is shaping up as Baumbach's breakthrough. The movie has been raved about in New York and Los Angeles, where it opened a few weeks ago, and praised as "a small miracle" in the New Yorker. It has already earned close to $1 million, which is roughly the combined gross of his first two releases.
Major studios are calling. Baumbach looks poised to join the slender ranks of independent writer-directors who are backed with Hollywood cash and then pretty much left alone to create. People like Alexander Payne, the guy behind "Sideways," and Wes Anderson, best known for "Rushmore" and a friend and a collaborator of Baumbach's (and one of the producers of "The Squid").
"Other people have worked with big studios and maintained control over their movies," he says. "I see no reason why it wouldn't work for me."
Baumbach looks exactly the way you'd expect an up-and-coming New York director to look -- handsome in a hunk-of-the-coffeehouse kind of way. You can tell he has a wicked sense of humor, though over coffee one afternoon two weeks ago, he is too self-conscious or too careful to unveil it. He is guarded enough to ask that his parents not be called for this story. He doesn't talk much about his personal life aside from confirming that, yes, he recently married actress Jennifer Jason Leigh.
"We met a few years ago when she was in the cast of 'Proof,' " he says in a tone that is polite but chilly enough to suggest he would rather talk about something else.
Not surprisingly, many of the movie executives now calling are the very ones who turned down "The Squid" when it was a script in search of funding. That search took about four years.
"It might have been easier if he was some kid who'd just come out of film school and had no track record," says Peter Newman, one of the movie's producers. "Then people think you might be the next great hope. Noah was a guy who'd already made a few movies, neither of which earned a ton of money. Plus, he hadn't been on the radar screen for five or six years."
Ultimately, they raised $1.5 million. That paid for a modest-size crew and a 23-day shoot, but left virtually nothing for the lead actors and many of the top production personnel. They were given a percent of the box office instead of a paycheck. "We're all partners on this" is the way Newman put it.
Linney, of "Mystic River" and "Kinsey" fame, signed on in 2000, soon after the script was completed. Next cast was the role of Frank, the younger brother, a tricky part, given that Frank is not only a compulsive onanist, he curses like a mobster for much of the movie. He's also vulnerable, adorable and, in some hard-to-explain way, kind of wise. Baumbach wound up recruiting his Frank one night at dinner, with friends Phoebe Cates, Kevin Kline and their now 14-year-old son, Owen.
"My wife had said, 'You know, you need a kid like Owen.' And so over dinner I asked his mom if he'd be interested. I made sure I said it loud enough so that Owen would hear."
The answer was yes. "He's grown up around actors," Baumbach says of Owen, "which was a big advantage. There was no chance that he'd confuse this part for real life."
Next came Jesse Eisenberg, who as Walt is effectively a stand-in for Baumbach at 16. He wasn't surprised that Baumbach asked for dozens of takes for some of the more wrenching scenes in the film: "He often had something specific in mind. And when you're on a 23-day shoot and you do 40 takes, it sort of sticks out."
Halley Feiffer, who plays Walt's girlfriend, remembers: "He also gave us the DVD of his favorite movie, 'My Night at Maude's,' " a 1969 romantic drama directed by Eric Rohmer. Feiffer, now a sophomore at Wesleyan University, adds, "He asked us to watch it together." (In the odd coincidence department, Baumbach is also a huge fan of "Carnal Knowledge," which was written by Halley's father, cartoonist and writer Jules Feiffer.) In casting the role of Bernard, the father, Baumbach was stumped until he met Jeff Daniels, who liked the script enough to pay for his own ticket to New York to introduce himself.
"I told Noah that I thought the script was incredibly funny," says Daniels, calling from a hotel in Los Angeles. "And he thought so, too. He said, 'Everybody keeps telling me how painful and tragic it is.' Nobody else seemed to get the comedy of it. We sort of bonded over that."
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.' "