Noah Baumbach’s new film, The Meyerowitz Stories, stars Dustin Hoffman as the aging father of adult children. Hot on the heels of its acquiring by Netflix (reported exclusively here) and winning a slot in the competition at Cannes, the celebrated actor sat down with the writer-director for a conversation before a crowd tonight at the Tribeca Film Festival. Usually, of course, it’s Hoffman who’s being interviewed; for an hour or so, the roles were reversed, as he prodded Baumbach about a career that includes The Squid and the Whale (2005) and Frances Ha (2012) – while getting in a few good stories of his own.
When Hoffman asked what film had been most difficult for him to make, Baumbach answered, after a pause, that it was his second film, Mr. Jealousy. For his first film, Kicking and Screaming, he’d had the good fortune of knowing nothing about how to make a movie.
“With a career, you sort of learn how you’d do it instead of how you’re told it’s done,” he said, recalling a producer telling him that “there’s a tradition in editing a film” that when someone walks through a door, you don’t need to show the person walking down the hall and over the threshold, walking into the room and closing the door; you can cut. “What I thought was, the movie is about walking into the room.”
That prompted Hoffman to recall that when Barry Levinson was directing his first film, Diner, he got a note from a studio suit saying, “you know, when you have a character say ‘pass the mayo,’ ‘pass the ketchup,’ you repeat it over and over…why don’t you just cut the movie so that each request like that is done once – and get on with the movie?’ And Barry said, ‘That is the movie.’ “
They scrapped a little about the issue of actors making slight changes to lines. Actors “have to stay with what’s been written,” Baumbach said, in order to get to what the film is about. “Did you find that when we worked together?”
“Well, when we worked together, it was only the second time in 50 years that I worked with a director…” Hoffman said, before taking his own pause, “you want an honest answer?” “Yes!” Baumbach said. “…where a director wanted me to say every. single. word. that was on the page. And the last time that happened, it was The Graduate. The script supervisor would come up to me after the take and say, ‘That’s not a period, those are three dots.’ And your script supervisor did the same fuckin’ thing.”
“But we had so much fun,” Baumbach said.
“Yes,” Hoffman replied, absent inflection.
Hoffman asked about the level of autobiography present in The Squid and the Whale, and Baumbach grew thoughtful, admitting that he’d used many details from his life, including his parents’ divorce, shooting at his own high school and Brooklyn neighborhood – and the fact that Jeff Daniels wore the writer-director’s father’s clothes, all of which helped him “access something raw and personal and emotional.”
“But it wasn’t about trying to re-create my life,” he continued. “It was about doing something new while using all these pieces that I understood.”
Perhaps the best story came in Hoffman’s response when an audience member said that his favorite line was “I’m walking here!” Apparently no one in the assembly needed to be told it was Ratso Rizzo’s from Midnight Cowboy.
Working on a tight budget in the John Schlesinger film, he and Jon Voight were walking down Sixth Avenue, Hoffman recalled, as a van with a hidden camera followed them, taking in people on the street, synchronizing with the traffic lights and doing “take after take after take.”
“And we finally get it after the 50th take and we’re so happy at this point in the dialogue, Jon and I, and we’re at the corner and the light turns green and we’re able to keep walking, and a fucking cab…” he paused until the laughter died down, “And the truth is, this is the way the brain works. What I had in my head was, ‘We’re making a movie here!’ but I couldn’t say that. So the brain changes it to, ‘I’m walkin’ here!.’ But really what was said from me was, ‘We’re shooting here!’ “