Writer-director Noah Baumbach's Margot at the Wedding, his follow-up to his Oscar-nominated The Squid and the Whale, portrays the friendship -- and friction -- between sisters Margot (Nicole Kidman) and Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Pauline, mother to Ingrid (Flora Cross), is marrying her boyfriend Malcolm (Jack Black) -- and Margot comes to lend her support for the big day, bringing her son Claude (Zane Pais) along. But the sisters aren't really the best friends they claim to be, and the Pauline's coastal home soon seethes with judgments and resentments and secrets. And yet, according to Leigh, the tension on-screen wasn't on-set: "It was a pretty happy set, actually -- and also the scenes are exciting; it was exciting to have scenes with this much going on them. So you never went home bummed out; they were exciting and really good scenes, and the tension was alive. ..." Of course, Leigh also had the fairly unique experience of working with her husband as her writer-director. ... Leigh spoke with Cinematical in San Francisco about working with the people you love, what happened when the cameras were off, which of her movies she doesn't flip past when they come up as she channel-surfs and the sort of movie she considers a "crowd pleaser."
Cinematical: To start with a fairly obvious question, is it easier or harder when at the end of the day's shooting, you're going home with the director? Does that make your job as an actor easier, or more difficult?
Jennifer Jason Leigh: A lot easier -- because of our relationship, too, but it was a lot easier. Because not only can you talk about the day, but you can talk about the next days to come, and what you want from the scenes and what you're striving for -- and also you have the person you love most with you through it all, so you get to have this great creative collaboration doing something you love together and be together. For me, it made it easier. Also, if there was a scene I wanted a little extra rehearsal on, I could get it at home.
Cinematical: You had unlimited access to the writer.
JJL: Writer, director, yeah. "Could we work on that scene. Could I rehearse with you?"
Cinematical: What was it like working in these very intimate dramatic scenes with Jack Black -- who people don't automatically think of as an actor, who people think of more as a presence, or a comic actor. Did you do a lot of preparation, or did he just show up bringing his "A" game?
JJL: We did rehearse; we all rehearsed. Jack was Noah's first choice, and Jack's someone I've always wanted to work with, and I've known Jack a really long time, so I knew he could be great. I just think he's a wonderful actor, so ... he would always joke about having his "A" game on, and all that, but ... he's just so good. There was never a doubt in my mind. And I knew we'd have good chemistry, because we're friends, and I just enjoy him anyway. It's always nice to work with people you know and like, just because you already have that history - and it shows, in a way, and you can feel it on the screen a lot of the time, I think. He's a wonderful actor; everything you would hope he'd be, he is. He's warm, he's available; he's funny, he's smart as hell ... he's lovely.
Cinematical: In many ways, the house is sort of an additional character -- a lot of the action happens there, a lot of the underpinnings between the characters are there. Between takes, between shots, when you're just sitting in the house, did it start to feel, in a weird way, like a home? Would you put on the turntable, would you put tea on the stove?
JJL: We did, yeah; I mean, Jack could play the piano, or the guitar; there were James Taylor songbooks we would take out and sing from, play Monopoly or whatever boardgames were around, like Scrabble or whatnot - and that was encouraged, for us to feel like it was our home, so that was very much the case. And the house was so beautifully dressed and fully realized by the set designer and the production department ...
Cinematical: What was the biggest challenge in shooting this that you didn't expect? That sort of snuck up on you?
JJL: I don't know; things that you would think would be a challenge --- like working with your husband, or working with your wife could end up being tricky -- well, it never was: he was the director, I was the actress. And I was really pleased to be able to show him how easy I am to work with. (Laughs) I'm good at what I do, I really enjoy working, and he'd never seen me or worked with me in that capacity. We talked about work a lot at home, but it's different; that was great. It was a really good production. And I'm trying to think of challenges in the role; there were like all these little tiny things, but ... I was in good hands; Noah knows me so well. He really wanted a kind of naked performance; he wanted to see a lot of -- even though I'm very different from Pauline -- he wanted to see a lot of me in it; he didn't want to see a version of somebody else inside this person. So it was a different way of approaching it for me, and it was exciting -- and I guess challenging -- to be that sort of simple and that present and using that much of myself in a way as opposed to disappearing into someone else.
Cinematical: And you've done things so different from yourself in the past. ...
JJL: ... And this character is so different from me, but I'm using more of my own physical self and emotional self in it ...
Cinematical: You don't have period clothing, you don't have that sort of ratchet-jawed manner of speaking from The Hudsucker Proxy or Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle. ...
JJL: Yeah; no mannerism, no .. (Pauline's) got no tics; she doesn't laugh differently than I laugh. (Noah) wanted me, if it felt 'acted' ... he always got me to be the most pure, the most simple, the most ... and I really appreciate that. And I guess that was a challenge to know I could use all that of myself to play someone different from me, in a way.
Cinematical: You've mentioned that one of the pleasures of this shoot was to give your director, writer and husband a very different perspective on what you do; did you get a different perspective on what he does professionally?
JJL: Well, I visited -- I was on the set a lot for The Squid and the Whale, so I had seen him on set -- and that was one of the reasons I was excited to work with him. He's great with actors, he's great with the director of photography .. he's great with everybody. And he's very thoughtful and very focused; he really knows what he's doing, and he knows what he wants. He's open but he's also very clear, and he definitely knows what he wants from a scene, and has a lovely way of going about it and getting great things from people so I was excited about that.
Cinematical: Which of your films -- because you've done a tremendous number of great films -- do you find yourself going back to the most often for pleasure? Something you can watch and enjoy and not think "I hate my hair, or I hate that line reading. ..." Which one do you consistently go back to and think, "I really like that movie as a movie ..."?
JJL: I don't really watch my moves all that often; I mean, really, I don't. I think Miami Blues, I can watch and think I'm good in without ever cringing; I love Georgia ... I watch them when I'm making them, and when they come out, but I have a tendency to pass something at night on the TV and I come on ... I don't have a need to watch myself on TV at night when I'm in bed; it's like, "enough already." (laughs) I mean, it's good it's on, but ... just keep moving.
Cinematical: With a film like this - which has been at Telluride, Toronto, Mill Valley, New York Film Festival -- does it start to feel like bit of a long march? Will you be glad when it simply opens?
JJL: I'll be excited about it opening, yeah ... I'm excited for it to open also because I love the movie and I want people to be able to finally see it, you know? But definitely, it's a long haul ... but it's a good one.
Cinematical: The child actors in this film are uniformly terrific, and I'm always curious if there's a different process or rehearsal or method with child actors; do you spend more time working on that, or do you spend less time for fear of making it too mannered and rehearsed?
JJL: Well, that's a different question for Noah than it is for me. First of all, I knew Zane ... but I think it's good, when you're playing somebody's aunt or mother to spend a lot of time with them, so they're not intimidated or shy ... so Flora and I spent a ton of time together; we spent mother's day together. And I'd have her and Zane come over on the weekend and we'd hang out, I'd cook brunches or we'd watch movies. And Flora is a very loving little girl, and she's very tactile and very affectionate, which is good -- because I wanted that relationship to be very affectionate and very warm. And Flora was very warm, very sweet, very huggy and loving ... my thing is to spend as much time with the kids as possible, also because then you see things about them that are great. There's nothing improvised in Margot at the Wedding except for that one scene where Zan is telling me about the dream ... and that's a dream we had weeks before when we were hanging out, and I told Noah about it. And Noah said, "Zane, why don't you talk about that dream. ... "So Zane told that dream, and that dream just spoke so much to what that little boy, that character was going through in the movie ... and I never would have heard that dream if I hadn't spent all that time with him, so I think it's good. ...
Cinematical: Do you worry that this movie is going to be a slightly tougher sell as it gets out to more theaters, because of the fact that it's this brutal family relationship -- played out with humor and heart, but nonetheless a bit tough to watch. Has the festival response to Margot at the Wedding been heartening?
JJL: Yeah, but this is so my kind of movie; I love these kind of movies, and it's such a ride; it really is a roller-coaster ride in many ways, because it moves fast, because it's devastating and it's also really funny ... (laughs) For me, I just think, "This is such a crowd pleaser! This is my kind of thing!"
(For more with Leigh, check out Moviefone's interview.)