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Noah Baumbach on his Adam Sandler movie about failed artists

Noah Baumbach talks about The Meyerowitz Stories starring Ben Stiller, Dustin Hoffman and Elizabeth Marvel, his movie about a dysfunctional, neurotic family

Don’t judge a film by its title: Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) is a bittersweet, rapid-fire New York comedy which bursts with so many incredible one-liners it has to be seen twice to catch them all. What’s more, it’s one of Baumbach’s very best, which is no mean feat for a director whose stellar credits include Frances Ha, The Squid and the Whale and Mistress America, not to mention co-writing Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic and Fantastic Mr Fox.

Granted, the casting seems a bit strange. Not Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson or Ben Stiller (who starred in Greenberg and While We’re Young), but the lead role for Adam Sandler. Yes, that Adam Sandler. Try to imagine Adam Sandler sharing scenes with Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha. You can’t, can you? But rest assured, The Meyerowitz Stories is definitely a Baumbach movie, and it’s the most nuanced performance from Sandler since Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love and this specific two-minute clip from The Wedding Singer.

The ensemble comedy revolves around the Meyerowitz family, a neurotic bunch whose messy emotions overspill when their belligerent father, Harold (Hoffman), falls ill. Harold is, career-wise, a resentful sculptor who never quite made it beyond selling a single item to the Whitney Museum. As a family man, he’s arguably worse. His three bickering children – slacker Danny (Sandler), corporate sell-out Matthew (Stiller) and oddball Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) – respond by airing their own petty, vicious grievances, which are all tinged with regret over similar artistic and creative failures.

In that sense, The Meyerowitz Stories resembles a spiritual sequel to The Squid and the Whale. But it also follows in the tradition of Frances Ha and the rest of Baumbach’s oeuvre in how little bits of dialogue – not just the gags – get lodged inside your mind. I’d also add that Baumbach’s scripts are so meticulous and efficient, his visual approach can go underappreciated. There is, for instance, one specific directorial flourish towards the end that I’ve never seen from Baumbach before, which is clearly indebted to his mentor, Brian De Palma. Plus, there’s Adam Driver as a guy handing out mysterious pills – so you can’t really go wrong here.

We spoke to Baumbach last week when he came to town for the movie’s gala screening at the London Film Festival. The topics discussed include knotty family relationships, the influence of Brian De Palma, and why, even though the film is out on Netflix this Friday, you should try to see it in a cinema.

How autobiographical is the film? I’m joking. I know that’s one of your least favourite questions.

Noah Baumbach: Good, you’re joking. It’s one of them. It’s always a peculiar question as to why anybody cares what’s real and not real.

And also how much of the dialogue is improvised.

Noah Baumbach: Right. That is my least favourite question.

Adam Sandler’s kind of a revelation in this. What film convinced you he would fit in with your style? Was it something more obvious like Punch-Drunk Love, or maybe even Billy Madison?

Noah Baumbach: It wasn’t one thing. I’ve just always liked Adam’s work. He had reached out to me a few years ago. We met and just talked. He was like, “I hope you’ll consider me.” And I’d worked with Ben a couple of times, and I was thinking of something with brothers. It just seemed like an exciting pairing, the two of them.

For The Squid and the Whale, you said you didn’t want a comedian for the Jeff Daniels part, yet you’ve cast more traditionally comic actors in The Meyerowitz Stories.

Noah Baumbach: It was more that I didn’t want it played comically, but I still wanted someone who was funny. I’d seen Jeff be funny, in that case, but I didn’t want it played for laughs. Jeff used to say a thing after a take. He would say, “It felt funny.” It’s not that he was trying to elicit laughs, but there’s something embedded in what he was saying that was funny. So I’ve always liked actors, whether they’re known as comics or not, who have an implicit humour.

So with Ben and Adam, you can ask them to fight on the grass, for instance, and know that it’ll be funny?

Noah Baumbach: Yeah. Because there’s always a part of me that thinks the movie is a comedy. But you can tell it when you hear it. If people have humour, it’s just evident in the way they interpret the lines. I’ve seen it sometimes when I’ve auditioned people, like very good actors, and it’s just not the right match. A lot of the time, it’s because it doesn’t have this sort of simmering humour in it.

“I wanted to write about a hospital. I felt, in a movie, I hadn’t quite seen what it’s really like to be in a hospital when you’re with someone who’s sick” – Noah Baumbach

Were you trying to come up with a title that Will Ferrell won’t steal (Baumbach was annoyed by Ferrell’s film of the same name)?

Noah Baumbach: Yeah. No one’s going to steal this title.

On IMDb, Will Ferrell’s Kicking and Screaming now comes up before yours.

Noah Baumbach: Does it? Well, there’s still time for me to catch up. I think what was useful, for me, was thinking of Meyerowitz as a collection of short stories. So in my mind, I was thinking of maybe some author who, over their career, would revisit this family, and at some point someone’s like, “Let’s put them all together in one volume.” So he’s like, “Well, I’ll write one new one.” That was what was in my head with “New and Selected”, which is a common title for a collection of stories. It was a way for me to crack some of the things I was having difficulties with in the script stage.

What kind of difficulties were you having?

Noah Baumbach: Just figuring out how to tell the story. I wanted to write about a hospital. I felt, in a movie, I hadn’t quite seen what it’s really like to be in a hospital when you’re with someone who’s sick, and having the personal and institutional kind of colliding. But I didn’t know how much of the movie that was going to be. Getting the short story structure helped me think, “OK, that could be here. And I could have the two brothers not even be in the same movie until the third section.” That was helpful, too, because it spoke to the kind of family dynamic, the compartmentalisation that Harold utilised. He doesn’t involve Danny and Matthew; he sees them separately.

Adam’s daughter, played by Grace Van Patten, seems to be able to escape all the self-hatred. Is that because she’s chosen to be a filmmaker and that’s a healthier passion?

Noah Baumbach: I always thought of it as that she has a buffer. Our relationships with our grandparents are always much less complicated than they are with our parents. It can become annoying for parents when you watch your parents be great with your kids, and you’re like, “But what about…?” I saw it as that Danny, in some ways, ran interference for her, that he’s kind of corrected it. In that instance, he’s burdened by Harold in his professional career, but he’s unburdened by him as a father, because Harold, of course, doesn’t value parenting (laughs). He values art, but he doesn’t value human relationships in the same way. I think Danny protected her. So for her, it’s a less stressful thing to do.

You released a Brian De Palma documentary last year, and spent a few years before that revisiting his films. Did that influence Meyerowitz in any way?

Noah Baumbach: Somebody said to me the other the day that they saw Brian’s influence in the movie. I thought that was interesting. It’s not something I thought of consciously, but there are a lot of long camera moves and stuff I’ve done before, but I felt maybe I and Robbie Ryan, who shot it with me, were more successful at doing some things I’ve been trying to figure out. Brian obviously is known, rightfully so, for his great long pans.

And that thing which Brian says: you can’t play chess without showing the chessboard first.

Noah Baumbach: Right, right. Yeah, his whole thing of suspense is contingent on you understanding the space to know what’s really at stake. So often, people rush to the suspense without setting it up. Brian loves to set up a room and show you everything.

This is a weird, specific question I’ve always wanted to ask you: do you write your dialogue in order? I think I read in an interview once that you write the scene description first, then add the dialogue out of order.

Noah Baumbach: I don’t quite do that. When I was younger, I would write more inside a movie, and fill it out. The character, in some way, would help me figure out the story. And now, not that that doesn’t still happen, but I’m now more open to the structure helping me fill in the character. And in this movie, I wrote a lot of stuff that I just scrapped, but when I figured out the structure of it, I was able to understand the characters better.

A lot of filmmakers lose their spark after a few movies, but you haven’t. How do you ensure your dialogue stays fresh and fast?

Noah Baumbach: The actors do the dialogue I write. So for better or worse, that’s what it’s going to be. There’s a kind of cadence and rhythm, depending on the character and the scene in the movie. But it’s a little bit like music. You can hear the difference. I can, anyway. If people get a line wrong, it just sounds wrong. Even if it conveys the same information, it never sounds right to me.

Would you feel happy writing a more female-led version of this on your own, or would you rather co-write that with someone like Greta, for instance? I know you did Margot at the Wedding on your own, though.

Noah Baumbach: No. You could do the story with women. On another day, I might write something like that. I don’t think it matters. Greta and I could just as easily write a film together that’s all about men. It’s dependent on the movie and the story.

What’s happening with Flawed Dogs, the film you wrote with Greta? Are you still directing that?

Noah Baumbach: Nothing. It’s in a box somewhere.

Do you have other unproduced scripts you did with Wes or Greta?

Noah Baumbach: No. It’s only Flawed Dogs, which I was paid to do for DreamWorks, so it was a different thing. Everything’s been done that’s been written. But with both of them, Greta particularly, we have things that we talk about a lot, which I’m sure at some point we’ll do.

“Wes and I have traded jokes before on things. He’ll have a joke in a movie of mine, and I’ll have a joke in a movie of his” – Noah Baumbach

Do you ever do uncredited punch-up on other people’s movies?

Noah Baumbach: I haven’t done much of that at all. Wes and I have traded jokes before on things. He’ll have a joke in a movie of mine, and I’ll have a joke in a movie of his.

There’s some music credited to you, Adam and Randy Newman. Were you the lyricist? Or were the three of you jamming in your garage or something?

Noah Baumbach: No, we have one song that’s three of us, and one that’s just me and Adam. The lyrics were written by Adam and me, and Adam wrote the music for the song he sings with Eliza. And then Randy wrote the music for the Myron/Byron song.

How do you feel about the fact that so many people will be watching this on their laptops within a few days from now, rather than in cinemas?

Noah Baumbach: It’s not a contest, really, is it? It’s a unique experience, seeing things in a theatre.

I spoke to Bong Joon Ho recently about Okja, and he gave quite a polite answer about how films end up on Netflix anyway, but I didn’t really believe him.

Noah Baumbach: Well, movies all end up there anyway, eventually. If people are going to see my movie, it’s great that they’re accessible in that way. Because when I was growing up, VHS came out, but still, you weren’t able to see all of those things. But that’s different from what you’re saying. And unlike him, I didn’t make the movie with Netflix. It wasn’t in the equation. I made it the way I make all my movies, and that’s to be seen in a theatre.