Can you talk about conceiving this story and your writing process?
Noah Baumbach: It was inherent in the title that we are asking, “Does anyone really know what the story of a marriage is, and if that story has an end of sorts, does it mean it wasn’t a marriage?” I was really trying to come up with a way to write a love story, and I wanted to find a new way into a movie love story and within this material I kept finding all these other embedded genres in it. It gave us opportunities to expand in ways that I don’t think I’ve ever felt before in material I’ve written. There were the thriller aspects, the screwball comedy and horror, legal procedural and a musical. It gave us and the actors a real opportunity to push at the boundaries of the material.
Noah’s writing is just flawless
What were your first impressions of the character when you got the script?
Adam Driver: The first time I read it, we had talked about Noah being interested on making a movie that on a structural level plays with audiences allegiances; maybe you’re following someone and then something happens. This maybe changes your perception of them and then you kind of like this person. Noah doesn’t sacrifice structure or an idea for the life-blood that is happening throughout the scenes. There is the thing of, “how do you tell a love story through the lense of a divorce, how you tell the story of a relationship at the end of it,” but kind of in a way start at the beginning. My first impression after reading it, and after months if not a year of these conversations, was how impressively all of these ideas fit into this very lean script, where the stakes were high in every scene. There wasn’t something you could pull out and the film would survive without it. It all seemed urgent and coming from a very immediate place, so I was impressed with that and then also with how rare an opportunity it was to get something like this.
Laura Dern: I don’t know that I can add much to that experience of reading this for the first time, except to say that Noah’s writing is just flawless so that any actor finds it as a gift of a lifetime. There is a humility in the storytelling that allows every craftsman and woman involved to know their place in the storytelling. Whether the production designer or the actor playing the role, there is a fluidity in the narrative, there’s a heartbeat and a rhythm to the language. We all were a tribe to tell this story for Noah. It was like a composer working with all of these different players to come up with this language that Noah made out for us. Not only did Noah build this family early on with having these conversations for quite a while before we read the script, but we felt that all the way through. I still feel that way even through the press: hanging out with my family. It’s an incredibly rare gift to feel that feeling of a hundred people coming together with not just this common cause or this energy and awareness of the story, but really the rhythm of the language. That I had never seen before. You describe it as like working on a play, but its an amazing experience on a film to work like that.
The musical numbers in the film are completely surprising, and, somehow, they completely work. Can you discuss how you thought to include them?
NB: It spoke to the flexibility I was talking about earlier that I found. I feel like all of our jobs is to be open to those possibilities. I’ve seen it in past movies, things I wanted, the big ideas that the movie could not accommodate in the end. But here those ideas did work, for ways I both understand and don’t. Working with Randy is a privilege and one of the beautiful things about this job is you get to work with people you’ve grown up with who have meant so much to you. We both really loved the work of Georges Delerue, the french composer who did so many beautiful scores, like that of Truffaut and Godard, and how that music embraces and honors the characters for their struggle and loves them. But it can also be surprising how the same music can play at different moments and mean something different. It does not shift and it doesn’t play the scene: It’s a kind of response or memory. With the opening sequence was a way of scoring the everyday. On the one hand it’s a highly romantic thing, but it’s also about the ordinary moments, and those ordinary moments are going to continue throughout the movie. Even though the divorce overtakes these peoples lives, it doesn’t change the fact that they have to get their hair cut and get their kid dressed for school. All those moments that you see in the beginning are going on, but they’re different now. They’re the same and they’re different. I felt Randy understood that implicitly. I sit next to him at the piano at his place at the Palacaides. He plays and we talk. I talk non musically, but emotionally and he finds this musical language for these things. He will do things that I will take home with me and put into the cut. The pieces continue to grow and they inform the movie. Having those themes early on, because I cut in order, helped me cut the movie going forward. The movie has a musicality that helps me go forward. The more I do this the more I try to have all the collaborators involved as early as possible. I don’t write all these scenes if I don’t know these actors have their parts. I don’t write Nora’s monologue or have her saying, “sorry I look so schlepy– I had an event at my kids school.” Laura Dern delivering that line makes it brilliant. Otherwise it’s just fine as a line. Randy is just a wonderful collaborator in that way.
There is that fantastic scene where Scarlett tries to be amicable and then things fall apart into catastrophic collapse. How do you put yourself through that, Adam, and how many takes can you do in a day?
AD: We shot the sequence over the course of two days. We blocked it out and had rehearsal before the movie started. We rehearsed it in a room, similar to a play, in L.A. We taped it out on the floor, just like a play, and we ran through it by saying it to get used to each other, and then we rehearsed it the day of, if not the day before. At that point we had a couple of weeks of knowing each other. You have to know it, and thats easier with Noah’s language, because it’s so well written, so you’re not memorizing lines, you’re memorizing ideas and thoughts. Then we rehearsed it on the day. We blocked everywhere we were going to go. With Noah’s scripts, the lines are very similar to a play– there’s no changing the lines, but the intention is up for grabs. You can adjust as much as you want. I knew this from doing runs of plays, you do a play for four months, eight shows a week and always at the end, it has evolved into a better version than where you started, either through repetition or a new idea or the actors are doing something new, or something in your life has happened to you that influences your performance. Noah has compressed that into a day. You are given a lot of opportunities to run it, you can play with intention and either Noah or you will come up with an idea, sometimes just the act of doing over and over again wears you down and makes you more available. You look at a light on the set that somehow opens you up to a new idea, which only comes from good writing. Only good writing gives you enough places of your imagination to help you reimagine it. This is because there is no right way to do a scene. There are infinite possibilities. It makes sense on the page, but sometimes theres an emotional truth that makes even more sense than on the page. We started at the beginning of the day and went through to the end of the day. We did a lot of takes to make sure there was no regret. The second day, we realized it was hard to just jump into the second part, so we would have to run it from the beginning through to the end. There was just one camera that we were pushing around. Noah set very clear blocking and lines. Being within that is very freeing to me, because you know what your base is. What happens, you never push for emotion, because it never comes. You always rely on the text, which was very strong and very beautiful, and then I relied on my scene partner Scarlet, and even the crew. You could feel the focus in the room, and when you have a director who’s there with you who you feel is acting the scene with you, who’s not vacant or a spectator, you feel very free to not waste time in getting hung up on your own insecurity. You have to say it and mean it, and if the environment is comfortable to do that, then the conscious and unconscious part of acting that is most exciting for me takes over. You’re not processing anything. You’re just trying to mean it as much as possible. Inevitably, maybe something will happen if you’re there with your partner and the people in the room.
What was your approach to the clothing and the movement of your character, Laura?
LD: It is all in the writing. Even the costume design was laid out. Even the red shoes and how she flicks them off was a description. We had this amazing collaborator, Mark Bridges, who I worked with a few times and love so much. I’ve worked with amazing filmmakers, but the’re not at my costume fittings. Noah was there for every conversation. Every detail and choice was important to him and it mattered. So to feel like we were not only designing, but defining how she uses her physicality to win, was pretty fascinating, perhaps especially at this time to consider a woman in her previously male dominated workplace environment, considering the take over, in order to represent a woman; to win that woman’s voice and using everything she has as a woman to beat the men, is weird and thickly layered. We met a few incredibly generous lawyers, particularly in Los Angeles, some of them who have even moved toward mediation because they know the system is so fractured. They are stealth and part of it is their physicality. I’ve never seen people at work using even their body and their physicality to win a legal case, but it’s a real thing. It was fascinating that every single detail was considered. I just wanted to add, and that Adam is describing so beautifully, is what you’re given in every moment in the space that Noah creates. It can’t be taken lightly the reverence for a set that Noah has. When you walk in, everyones checked their cellphones at the door, because this is space where we get to invent and find the story. There is a ritual and something that is a deep opportunity, where we are given this safe haven to find these characters whether its the physicality or the emotion of it, or from the painting on the wall, or days of exploring. It takes not only the auteur that he is, but the deep love for film, and the reverence that he has for storytelling that I think sets the tone for the entire cast and crew. So that you keep wanting to go on. You get so excited to keep exploring every possibility to tell this story he has laid out for us.