Noah Baumbach was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. He wrote and directed the films KICKING AND SCREAMING (1995) and MR. JEALOUSY
(1998). He also co-wrote THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU (2004) and the upcoming FANTASTIC MR. FOX from a novel by Roald Dahl with Wes
Anderson. He is a contributor to The New Yorker Magazine's humor essays "Shouts and Murmurs."
Following the U.S. release of "The Squid and The Whale," Baumbach was awarded Best Original screenplay by the National Board of Review and the National Society of Film Critics well as New York Film Critics Circle and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. He has recently been nominated for a 2006 Academy Award in the category of Best Original Screenplay.
Baumbach is currently in pre-production on a movie he wrote and is directing this spring. The untitled project, produced by Scott Rudin -- is a drama-comedy that will star Nicole Kidman, and Jennifer Jason Leigh.
What was your inspiration for writing THE SQUID AND THE WHALE?
I had started writing a script about two brothers who were older, in their thirties, dealing retroactively with their parents' divorce. Then, by chance, I caught a screening of Louis Malle's MURMUR OF THE HEART, which I'd never seen before and watching a movie from the kids' perspective made me realize that I was dancing around what was really interesting -- that I needed to go directly to that time in my life and tell the story from there.
Was that something new for you?
It was a significant creative change for me. It freed me up in a lot of ways. By starting at a very raw and real place, I was able to fictionalize in a much more effective way. The first draft came pretty quickly and fluidly and as I started to rework it I began to understand the parents better and to write from their point of view.
How much of the film is autobiographical?
People will come up to me and say, "God, it must be hard putting everything so nakedly out there." But it doesn't feel that way to me because it's been so reinvented. What's real is the emotion -- it's emotionally real to me.
Did you have that experience with the squid and the whale at the museum?
Yeah, that diorama was something I was very taken with as a kid. It drew me in and it terrified me. I really loved torturing myself by getting closer to it.
Were you worried you wouldn't be able to shoot at the Museum of Natural History?
When I wrote the script I wasn't thinking practically at all. So I don't know what we would have done if it didn't work out, I really don't. I was told at one point, don't even bother [approaching the museum], they don't allow people to shoot there, or they charge a lot of money -- SPIDER-MAN 2 had shot there. But they were really cooperative and great. We were lucky because there was absolutely no alternative - it's essential to the movie.
The film has such a lived-in real quality, how did you capture that?
Well for one thing we shot on Super 16, which I wanted to do for a few reasons. I wanted to hand-hold the whole movie, but steadily, so it wouldn't feel rocky for the viewer. There's just a hint of movement which I think works on the audience subconsciously. Because it's a smaller camera it was easier for us to get in close and move with the actors. Also the grainier texture reminded me of movies I loved when I was in high school in the '80s -- the Coen brothers and Jim Jarmusch and Spike Lee. Some of those movies were shot on Super 16, and the look reminded me of that period in independent film. What I like about Super 16 is that it does feel lived-in, there's something kind of tactile about it, and at the same time it looks like an instantly older movie.
What were some of your other influences for this film?
Probably for the first time when I was writing, I wasn't looking at anything else for reference. In pre-production that changes. I never wanted it to specifically feel like a documentary in any real way but I did look at the direct cinema of the '70s -- Maysles, Pennebaker and Wiseman -- and think about how those narratives are constructed and the editing style, the camera work. And the French New Wave was also something I thought about because a lot of that stuff was just captured on the street. I wanted this film to have that feeling. We stole shots as much as we could, filming in Brooklyn using real atmosphere -- like the scenes on the subway, we just went on the subway without permits.
Was it tricky to balance the humor with what is essentially a pretty sad story?
I've never really thought about that. It's my sensibility, I guess. I've heard SQUID AND THE WHALE referred to as a comedy and I've heard it referred to as a drama.
That song you use by Pink Floyd is such an important part of the movie, did you always have that in mind?
Yes. I loved Pink Floyd as a kid and I love them now. I didn't, however, anticipate using "Hey You" in the film as much as I did. I thought Walt would play it a couple of times and we would hear it when the teacher plays it for his parents, but I brought it back a third time because the more I lived with that song and the movie, the more I started to think of them together, suddenly it started to feel like it was written for the film.
When you were directing did you ever get the weird sensation that, 'Hey, that's my life' or were you able to keep an artistic distance from it?
While you're shooting, it's very easy to keep a distance -- there's too much to think about. But there would be smells or colors that would suddenly give me a connection to things in my childhood in a way that I can't really describe. I would always take it as a good sign when I had those reactions -- it felt like I was on the right track in some way.
Everyone always says don't work with kids or animals, you had both, any problems there?
There's a scene where Frank gives Walt the cat and Walt drops it and the cat runs down the stairs and escapes. When we shot this, every time Jesse dropped the cat, the animal would just sit down and purr. It was the only time during the shoot that I really felt panicked -- I honestly didn't know what we were going to do. Then the cat wrangler said, "Well, I do have a running cat that looks exactly the same." To this day I still don't understand why we were using a sitting cat to do a running cat's job. Once the running cat came out of his carrier, the scene went off fine.
What was the most challenging part of making the film for you?
Well, we only had 23 days to shoot. So there were some days when we'd come to a point late in the day and I'd think, "This was an arduous, but really good day's work," and then I'd look at the schedule and there'd be two more major scenes to shoot. Even if it's only 23 days, by the end of the movie it feels like you've shot for a hundred.
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