Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale, a semi-autobiographical film about a Brooklyn family's experience with divorce, was the sleeper indie hit of 2005, and after its success Baumbach shot to prominence as a director to watch. His highly anticipated follow-up effort, Margot at the Wedding, returns to similar themes of family love and loathing; it stars Nicole Kidman as Margot, a high-strung writer who, along with her son Claude (Zane Pais), goes on a pilgrimage of sorts to her childhood home, where her estranged sister (Baumbach's wife Jennifer Jason Leigh) is marrying an unemployed painter (Jack Black) she just met. Baumbach -- who, it must be noted, bears an uncanny resemblance to Adrien Brody -- sat down with us in Toronto to talk about New York, family dynamics and just what's up with all those masturbation scenes.
Cinematical: After Squid and the Whale, a lot of people looked at you as a Brooklyn artist, the way they might look at someone like Jonathan Lethem. Did you have any temptation to make another movie set in Brooklyn, or did you deliberately move away from that?
Noah Baumbach: It wasn't deliberate or not deliberate -- I started writing this movie and it became what it was. It wasn't a response to anything in particular. I feel a real connection to Brooklyn, certainly, because I spent 20 years of my life there, but I don't think of myself as a Brooklyn artist any more than I think of myself as a male artist. I will say that when people would respond to Squid with a kind of Brooklyn-centric reaction I was pleased with that, because obviously Brooklyn means a lot to me.Cinematical: And what about Long Island, where this movie's set? Had you spent time there?
NB: Not really. We shot in Long Island, but [it's] never specified where [the movie] is. I think in some ways the emotional life I was bringing to the script when I started writing was more about leaving home, about being out of your comfort zone. Squid is about the comfort zone at home not being as comfortable as you maybe thought it would be; this was more, for me, about those feelings of leaving. I still am very connected to New York, and I never love leaving New York, so in a way, the sort of anxiety that seeps into this movie came from my feelings of, as a kid, leaving the comfort of home.
Cinematical: The character of Margot is fairly unsympathetic. Do you want audiences to hate her, love her, pity her or empathize with her?
NB: I want people to understand her. For me personally, if I understand somebody, I can feel for them. I don't have to like them, but I can feel for them. Knowing that she's in pain in a lot of ways doesn't let her off the hook, but at the same time I see why she's doing the things she's doing. And that's what I want people to be able to see and experience.
Cinematical: Watching the movie, I felt as though she was a different person when she was a child. What might have changed her? Or was she always like that?
NB: I think Margot, like a lot of the characters in the movie, is clinging to an idea of herself, or a sense of herself, because she's visiting her sister and she's in her old family home. It happens in my life, too. If I go home, I'm instantly caught back up in the feelings of that. I have a great relationship with my brother, but we can easily bicker like we were children again. But I think that happens to to adults all through their lives. They have these ideas of themselves as grown people, but they'll often start behaving childishly if they're in pain or if there's anxiety in the room. And so I think that's what's happening to Margot during the course of this movie, is that all these things are coming up, and it's reducing her in some ways to a more childish version of herself.
Cinematical: What is the situation with the sister Becky [who is alluded to but never seen]?
NB: The movie begins with a mom and son leaving on the train, but they're leaving the husband and father and other son -- we learn that as we go -- and I was interested in these subsets of families. You have family units, but then when people splinter out, [I was interested in] how they are without the others. And how their dynamic changes. With Margot and Claude, they almost become like a couple themselves, and Claude becomes the parent. Things shift. The same thing [happens] where you have siblings, when two of them are together and one is not there. It's a way to bond, to attack the other one, and it's a way also not to deal with their own issues. It's a movie of these people who are all not orphans, but they're re-creating the family bond, though not as the main family. Early on [Pauline and Margot] bond by laughing at the other sister, and then later, when Pauline turns on her, she starts using the other sister as an ally against Margot. I think that happens all the time with siblings.
Cinematical: In Squid in the Whale you write from the kids' point of view; and in this movie, you're also sort of on the kid's side. Is that something that you intend to keep doing? Do you feel more comfortable writing from the younger person's point of view?
NB: With Squid I think the way I got into the script was by writing the kids' stuff first, but that's just how it happened. With this one I really just had this image of the mom and kid on the train, and the kid was a character, so I started thinking about that ... I think both movies to different degrees are about kids and adults coexisting in the same place. In the movie there's a kids' table and an adults' table, but there isn't always a strict barrier, and this stuff is crossing over all the time. Squid maybe tilts more towards the kids, because by nature in a divorce you sort of go to the kids. In this movie, it's sort of everybody's movie. I like writing ensembles that don't seem like ensembles. Whoever's on screen at that time, it's their movie, and I feel like that should be honored. And it's a little different than the way people might be used to watching movies, where you want to kind of latch on [and say], "OK, this is my person," and everything's through their [eyes]. This might be more challenging to some people, but I like having it be everyone's movie. No one is spared, but I have empathy for everyone as well.
Cinematical: In Squid and the Whale and this movie, masturbation scenes play a big part. Is that just a coincidence, or is this a sort of theme for you?
NB: I think both movies are about intimacy, or lack of intimacy in some cases, but they're about intimate moments in people's lives. I'm interested in the way major events don't necessarily announce themselves as major events. They're often little things -- the drip, drip of life that changes people or affects people. So in a lot of cases the scenes that we're seeing are the in-between moments in people's lives. And I think masturbation is an intimate moment. It's people alone, it's people with themselves. I like people looking in mirrors, too. It's times you have with yourself -- observing yourself, playing with yourself, whatever it is. I'm articulating and intellectualizing it now for you, because you asked; on the other hand I wasn't thinking, "I've got to get a good masturbation scene in there."