A defining voice in American independent cinema ever since his 1995 debut with Kicking and Screaming, Noah Baumbach has a natural knack for human observation and crafting sharp dialogue that feels entirely true. These talents are on display with The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), a Netflix pic which premiered at Cannes to great acclaim, centering on the three dysfunctional adult children of a narcissistic, artistic patriarch.
Meyerowitz sees Baumbach working at the height of his powers, continuing to explore complicated family dynamics that are as hilarious as they are tragic. A native New Yorker, the filmmaker returns once again to a place that feels like home, returning also to the process of shooting on film — a format Baumbach feels is most aligned with his intentions.
What inspired The Meyerowitz Stories?
One thing that I’d been thinking about for a while that I wanted to find a place for in a movie was what it was like, in my experience, to be in a hospital. There were certain aspects of that which I felt I hadn’t quite seen in a movie before — this place where the personal and the institutional intersect. That dovetailed with an idea that I broached with Ben Stiller first, that maybe he and Adam could play brothers. I think as happens a lot of times with these things, it’s seemingly disparate things that find themselves sort of clicking into a script.
Meyerowitz is your latest of many New York stories. What compels your ongoing exploration of this place?
It’s where I was born and where I grew up, but I also grew up in Brooklyn, which now doesn’t seem very far away from Manhattan, but then did. It felt like a different place entirely. I find I have more in common, in certain ways, with people who grew up in other cities, who ended up moving to New York as adults, than I do with people who grew up in Manhattan because I felt very much inside New York, and also outside of Manhattan, simultaneously.
I think part of it is this familiarity and emotional connection I have to the city. Sometimes when you’re making a movie, it’s good to put yourself in unfamiliar and uncomfortable places, and sometimes, it’s about going deeper into things that you know very well. I like working on streets that I walked on as a kid, that I have memories associated with, and bringing that into the stories I’m telling.
The dialogue in this film is Altman-esque, in its breakneck pace and its observations of human nature. Can you give some insight into how you write?
The dialogue has always been the thing that has come most easily or naturally to me. As I’m writing it, I hear it in some way, and I also hear the overlaps — and in the layout of the script, I actually try to show where things should overlap so that the actors have that key.
With this movie, it was actually the structure of it. Once I figured out this idea of a selection of stories that you might find anthologized in a book, thinking of it that way helped me unlock things in the script that I had been struggling with. I think it not only helped me understand the narrative drive of the movie but also understand the characters, that there’s a certain compartmentalization in the family.
With the exception of a few key scenes, the film largely chugs along at an incredibly brisk pace. How did you conceive of the way you wanted this film to play, and then achieve that effect?
The script itself is very specific, so it’s all about the actors interpreting what’s on the page. A lot of that does involve getting the rhythm down, and the precise overlaps, and things of that nature. There’s a lot of movement in the movie, too, so it’s not only vocally, but also the blocking of these scenes—blocked takes that tend to move, and go on for a while, so the actors have to be able to not only keep the pace going but also say the lines at certain points within the camera moves.
That does take a while to get right. I’m giving them all these specifics and things that are, I guess you’d call, “exacting,” and I do many takes, as well. But within that, I’m looking for them to do something that only they can do, which is bring this humanity, and bring themselves, really, too.
Are you someone who writes toward his actors’ strengths?
Yeah, I knew Adam a little bit — I know him much better now. I had an idea of what I thought he could bring to that character, and I happened to be right. I’d worked with Ben before, so I felt this was an opportunity maybe for him to play something a little bit closer to himself than he had done before; certainly, done before with me. In that way, yes.
I was also thinking about, in some ways, the person I now knew very well, as opposed to the actor. I do like to work with actors sometimes over and over again because it becomes, I suppose, a conversation over time.
That was actually something also with Adam. I think in the rehearsal process, it was something that was relieving to him — I think he took on a great sense of responsibility with this part and really wanted to do it justice. He cared a lot about it. I think in some ways, when I let him know that it was okay for him to be funny — to be himself in that way — that also helped him feel more comfortable.
The experience of this film is so surprising for the way it’s able to mine humor and tragedy simultaneously. How did you manage to strike such a balance?
It’s sort of this thing where humor and pathos live side by side. I guess it’s how I view the world, in some way. It’s both deliberate and not. I find that what I tend to write, and the way I tend to play things, gives room for those things to exist simultaneously. I don’t really question it — I kind of let it be what it is. I guess I just find it feels true to me.
Often, I think I’m writing a comedy, but I also know at some other level that it generally turns out sadder or more serious than I intended to. Maybe part of that is because I would maybe be intimidated if I thought I was going to set out to write a direct drama. But I like it that way.
What informed your choice to shoot this project on Super 16mm film?
I had shot The Squid and the Whale on Super 16 and I’d had a good experience on that. That one was mostly handheld in a way that this one is not at all. In that movie, I think the Super 16 added an almost home movie, documentary quality to it on some subliminal level. On this one, what I really wanted to do was bring a kind of earthiness out in the world. I think sometimes it’s the way I see New York. Certainly, I love seeing New York in old movies and old photographs, but we had a particular kind of palette that was informed by New York, which basically is like the color of the sidewalk, and the aging brick of buildings. The blue of the sky, the bit of green from the trees.
In the tests we did, Robbie Ryan, the DP, and I felt like 16 just felt like the right thing for the movie. I’d done three movies before it and shot digitally, and I think in returning to film, I wanted to go deep into Brooklyn, and have the filminess of it be in evidence.
Did shooting on film present a challenge, given the length of your scenes, the number of characters and the level of complexity involved?
It was an expense that we had to factor into our budget, but I felt it was worth it. When you’re making a budget and looking at your movie, you’re weighing all these different things. You go in wanting everything, and then you kind of figure out what’s really necessary. I felt like this was important to me.
Something I knew, but I think in some ways I had touch with, in my efforts to embrace digital and try it, is that I just have a different emotional reaction to my own material when it’s on film. I see it differently. I think I see it more clearly. When I started to watch the rushes after the first day of shooting, I kind of realized immediately that this feels more like me.
What has the experience been like, partnering with Netflix for the distribution of this film?
To be clear, I didn’t make the movie with Netflix. I made the movie independently, as I’ve made all my movies. I wasn’t even thinking of an alternative — I was thinking this would be shown in theaters, as all my movies are. Netflix acquired it from my producer in post and they have their way that’s important to them. We all end up there anyway — all movies are going to end up on these servers, and that’s great.
It’s great that people can find things that they’ve missed, or they wouldn’t find otherwise. I think it’s a great thing. I didn’t have that as a kid. VHS came around, but it took a while for that to be as thorough as what it is now. But I think it’s a singular experience, seeing a movie in the theater. I think audiences should be given the opportunity to see things for the first time that way.
I believe, actually, passionately about it. My girlfriend, Greta [Gerwig], who’s got a movie coming out as well, was asked this question at the New York Film Festival, and I was initially annoyed because she had such a good answer. I was like “How did you keep this to yourself?” She was paraphrasing [editor] Walter Murch, who I guess had written an addendum to this book, In the Blink of an Eye, about home viewing versus theatrical. He was saying that when you go into a theater, you are vulnerable. You’re giving yourself over to the experience in a way that when you’re watching it at home — no matter what, no matter how good your system is — you’re the master. You can shut it off, walk out of the room, make a phone call. And that doesn’t even get into watching things in a communal environment, versus watching things alone, which is also a different experience.
It’s important for me to stress how I think movies like mine, and what would be considered more intimate stories than a movie like Dunkirk — where the benefit of seeing it in the theater is obvious on paper — is that it’s equally important to see movies like mine and Moonlight in the theater, because you’re more emotional in that way. It’s just a different thing. Not only do I think it shouldn’t go away, I really think it won’t go away. Things will change, but I think that experience will continue to live on.
Gerwig has been your partner not only in life but also in art, co-writing a number of your recent films. What has it been like to experience her success with Lady Bird, her solo directorial debut?
It’s amazing. It’s also something I’ve obviously been following for a long time. It’s always exciting when people sort of get why something is as good as it is. They really are with this movie, and I’m really happy for her. Also, I’m excited just for people to see that movie, because it’s really special.