Can divorce ever be pain-free? That’s the question in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, which tells a deeply personal story about a director unpicking his marriage to an actress and finding every single pothole on the road. It’s hard not to see the autobiography for Baumbach, who explored his parents’ divorce in The Squid and the Whale and went through his own experience when his relationship with Jennifer Jason Leigh ended in 2013.
“Of course, I have a real connection to the material,” he says. “But I was also at a time in my life where many of my friends were getting divorced. I saw it as an opportunity to do something more expansive, so I did a lot of research. I interviewed a lot of my friends, and friends of friends, and then also lawyers, judges, mediators.”
He wanted to stress just how best intentions can be diverted by the realities of the legal process. The characters, Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) both insist they want to be amicable, but their lawyers have other ideas. “It makes it very difficult, no matter how good the intentions are, to maintain the course that you wanted to maintain in the beginning,” Baumbach says.
On the way, the journey reflects the full rainbow of human experience. It turns from dark drama to screwball comedy, legal procedural, even showstopping musical, all on a dime. “It did allow for that balance of tone, and nods to different genres, without it taking you out of the movie in any way.”
DEADLINE: This feels like a very personal film—how autobiographical is it?
NOAH BAUMBACH: I mean it’s, of course, as you say, a personal movie, because I was a child of divorce. My parents got divorced, which is something I explored a bit in The Squid and the Whale, and then I’ve gone through a divorce as an adult. Of course, I have a real connection to the material. As I started taking notes for this and thinking about what a movie about a couple divorcing might be, I was also at that time in my life where many of my friends were getting divorced.
I saw it as an opportunity to do something more expansive, and so I did a lot of research. I interviewed a lot of my friends, and friends of friends, and then also lawyers, judges, mediators, because I wanted to get a broad look at: what are all the iterations? As the story developed, I would have questions. I’d go back to these people and say, “Well, if this happened…” I’d talk to a lawyer, I’d say, “OK. What would you say if this happened here?” And it took on a life of its own.
DEADLINE: Did anything that came out of the research surprise you?
BAUMBACH: I think what’s extremely common is how it’s such a painful experience for people. I think it’s something that’s very hard to imagine if you’re not going through it. Alan Alda’s character has a line about it being a death without a body. There is something I think, not unlike when someone close to you dies, where you feel really an indescribable loss, and it alters your life and your reality in many ways. You often go to people who had similar experiences for comfort or ways to talk about it, because I think it’s very hard to convey. It is like having a rug pulled out from under you in a way.
What was interesting was both getting everybody’s personal stories, but also hearing how that feeling—which, like I say, is somewhat indescribable—how common that was.
DEADLINE: While both of these characters struggle not to slide into a dark place, they can’t seem to avoid it. It seems inevitable.
BAUMBACH: Part of that is it’s part of any break-up, but also what is so particular about divorce, and divorce in our country, is the legal system in that process, which makes it very difficult, no matter how good the intentions are, to maintain the course that you wanted to maintain in the beginning.
DEADLINE: It’s hard to find the heroes and it’s hard to find the villains on the legal side of this.
BAUMBACH: The system in a way is its own beast, and the lawyers aren’t bad. They’re certainly not villains. They’re both products of the system, but they understand the system. They’re there to help you maneuver the system and, given the system that we have, they’re necessary.
DEADLINE: How hard was it to create a balanced perspective between Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson’s characters?
BAUMBACH: It was very important to me to show both of them, to portray both sides equally. That was the only version of this movie that I wanted to make. There were plenty of things in the script that were challenges to get right. It wasn’t hard for me to look at it from both sides.
What I did do, which also was very helpful to me in writing the script, was I went to Adam and Scarlett, and Laura Dern as well. Laura and Scarlett, although I hadn’t worked with them, I’ve known them a bit, and I told them the area that I wanted to explore and that I wanted to make this movie about this couple. I didn’t know them very much at that time but having their commitment and voices in my head was very helpful in writing it. I could think of Adam and Scarlett, in addition to the characters of Charlie and Nicole, while I was writing.
DEADLINE: The experience of watching it come together on set with that cast must have been exciting.
BAUMBACH: It was, and inspiring to watch how much of themselves they would give to the scene. I remember Adam saying the first week, I don’t remember exactly what scene it was, it was the scene maybe with Ray Liotta, and Adam said something like, “It seems like a big scene to have on the first week.” Then, he said, “But then I looked at the rest of the schedule, I realized they’re all big scenes. We have to shoot them sometime.” It did feel that way, which would make it very exciting to come to work every day.
DEADLINE: There’s this long downward spiral, but it’s balanced with humor, like the scene with Merritt Wever and Julie Hagerty futzing over how to hand over divorce papers.
BAUMBACH: It’s something that’s been more or less true of probably most of my movies. It’s a somewhat intuitive balance, I think, for me.
I think there is something about this subject, there’s something about divorce, and the whole process of divorce, that allows for many hidden genres in a way. The scene with Merritt and Julie, I could think of it almost like a screwball comedy, people going in and out of doors. The envelope in that scene is either a kind of comic trope, or it’s a thriller. It’s a bomb hidden under the desk, which you’re waiting to see if it’s going to go off or not. I felt like all of those things kind of exist naturally in this process.
You already have the legal system. We almost have the notions of a thriller or a procedural baked into that—even though it doesn’t announce itself as that—because they’re in theater and they’re show people in a sense. I also saw that as an opportunity to have sad, musical moments, and to show a scene from a play, show a bit from a TV show. That, of course, goes with this notion that in a sense the lawyers are performers. They’re there to create a case for their clients and to sell it. There’s almost a reality show baked into it. Survivor or something. I felt like the more I dove into the material, there were all these opportunities. It did allow for that balance of tone, and nods to different genres, without it taking you out of the movie in any way.
DEADLINE: The film features a pair of song and dance numbers. How early did you hit upon that idea? Was it always going to be Sondheim?
BAUMBACH: They’re both from [Sondheim’s] Company. A few years ago, Adam had just even said in passing to me something like, “Do you think there would be a movie of Company? What would that be like?” We kind of tossed that idea around. While we were doing it, I was listening to the soundtrack a lot. I kept thinking, I’d just love to have Adam sing “Being Alive”. It was a task I set for myself in the writing: How could I justify Adam singing this song? Then I thought, Well, of course, Scarlett should have the song with her mom and her sister. I mean I think it says so much about their history together.
Even though we hadn’t set this up as a musical in any way beforehand, it would be an opportunity to express both emotional and narrative momentum through song. Because of the fact that they work in theater, it seemed like, well, that’s a natural thing for them to do. In some ways, like many artists, they can actually express themselves. I think this is probably truer for Charlie than Nicole.
DEADLINE: Might this be a precursor then to you directing a full-blown musical?
BAUMBACH: I mean I love musicals. It’s definitely a possibility, but I don’t have any plan as of this moment [laughs].