The Squid Kid:
An Interview with Noah Baumbach
(Originally appeared on VanityFair.com, June 3 2005)
At 36, Noah Baumbach is already a multi-tasker of the highest order: in addition to having been a contributor to The New Yorker since 1999, he has written five screenplays and directed four movies, including his latest, The Squid and the Whale, set to be released in early October. The film, about a Reagan-era family in Brooklyn on the brink of implosion after a divorce, somehow manages to skirt that fine line between the heartbreaking and the hilarious—a nimble, Houdini-like feat that’s practically impossible to pull off, as any viewer of the Lifetime network can attest to. Here, Baumbach opens up to VanityFair.com about, among other topics, Jeff Daniels, Pink Floyd, and Burger King glasses.
I’m assuming you’ve been asked a lot recently if your film is autobiographical. But aren’t most movies autobiographical to a certain degree? In your case, you just didn’t put up any filters. In fact, I don’t remember the last time I saw a movie with fewer filters.
Was Herbie: Fully Loaded autobiographical? I know what you mean, though. It’s hard to know what people are asking when they pose the autobiographical question. Do they want a cheat sheet with the real versus the fictional? I think mostly they’re not so clear, either. But at the same time, I’m aware that I’ve made something that feels immediate and personal, and it’s going to provoke those kinds of questions. It’s a movie about characters and environments that I know very well. It’s emotionally real. How much is really real? I don’t know—I don’t care at this point. Maybe, if I’m lucky, the real Ivan [the tennis coach, played by William Baldwin] will do a bus tour of Park Slope and then we can all find out.
I was struck by many of the details in the film. As opposed to most movies that take place in the 80s, which feature stereotypical set pieces, it seems like you really went the extra distance to create a verisimilitude. In one scene, there was a glass from Burger King that I remember buying, circa 1984.
I focused on what felt true to the time period for me. I didn’t think about the era in any kind of grand way. And those little things really matter to me. The same way you want to get a line of dialogue right, you want to get the drinking glasses right. As a kid I wore an orange Tropicana watch that we got from sending in proofs of purchase, and Owen [Kline, who plays the character Frank Berkman] wears it in the film.
The same goes for the music. It was refreshing to hear a song by the Feelies and not to have to hear any 80s “classic” chestnuts, such as “Walking on Sunshine” or “Our House.”
Yeah, I figured Lili would be listening to the Feelies just the same way that Sophie is listening to Bryan Adams and Joan is listening to the McGarrigle sisters and Walt likes Pink Floyd. In most cases I think about the source music from the characters’ perspectives. The Bert Jansch and Loudon Wainwright and Lou Reed are songs that feel like the movie in a broader way. Like the colors of the walls or the camera movement, they fill out the picture. The first time I heard Loudon Wainwright’s “The Swimming Song,” I was an adult, but it felt like childhood to me.
In one scene, Walt pretends to have written Pink Floyd’s “Hey You.” He then performs it during a high-school talent show. Why did you pick that song? And how hard was it to acquire the rights to it? Roger Waters is notoriously stingy when it comes to doling out the rights to his music.
A friend of mine is very close to Roger Waters, and she facilitated the whole thing. So, it ended up being quite easy. He gave it to us for a deferment; it was incredibly generous. I picked it initially because it seemed funny to me that a teenager would claim to have written something so intense. And I love the song. But the song’s meaning and significance changed for me the more I lived with it and the movie. “United we stand, divided we fall . . . ” It’s as if it was written about a divorce.
Not having grown up in New York, I’m fascinated by depictions of New York academics. The on-screen Brooklyn family struck me as being the polar opposite of Woody Allen’s Manhattan academics—a little more realistic and also tinged with more sadness. For them Manhattan exists in the distance, and you can almost feel them yearning for the twinkling lights of the big city just over the horizon.
As a kid, I certainly had that feeling about Manhattan. It seemed so glamorous. I live there now, and I still can’t believe it.
After watching the movie, I have a hard time imagining that Jeff Daniels is the same actor who played Harry Dunne in Dumb and Dumber. What did you see in him that made you want to cast him?
He’s done a lot of serious work too: The Purple Rose of Cairo and Something Wild are two great performances. I wanted an actor who I knew could be funny, but also someone who would go for it. Jeff’s beard, in a way, represents his commitment to me—he just let it go. When we first met, Jeff listened very carefully to how I described the character, and he took extensive notes in his script. I’m not sure what he wrote, but it was clearly so important to him to get it right. In early rehearsals, he was doing more of an imitation of what he knew I wanted. Once he realized that and made it more personal, it became something great. It transcended whatever it was I was looking for. I felt privileged to witness it. Jeff is a deceptively simple actor. I think he can do anything.
The movie has been in the works for some time now. What is it about this type of film that makes it so hard to get financing?
I guess it’s because they’re traditionally difficult to market. And if you call it The Squid and the Whale, you’re not helping matters.
One would almost expect a spate of movies about divorce in the 1980s. It’s surprising how few of them exist. Why do you think this is the case?
I don’t know. I didn’t look at movies when I wrote the script, but when it was finished I figured I’d watch some related films and, you’re right, there weren’t very many. There are more European movies that I feel connected to about this sort of subject matter than American films. That said, Shoot the Moon is a great, very painful American film about divorce.
Technically, how different is it for you to write a humor piece for print versus a screenplay? How long does it take you to write each?
I like writing dialogue—it feels very natural and comfortable. So, in that sense, screenplays are easier for me to write. But the older I get the longer they take me to finish. I’m not sure why that is. Maybe because I don’t let myself get away with as much as I used to. On the other hand, I have to wait for [comedy pieces] to come to me. And it’s less frequent. The last one came while I was walking my dog, Otis, in the Hollywood Hills this past summer. Once I have an idea that works I can write it much more quickly.
You’re co-writing the next Wes Anderson movie, based on the Roald Dahl book The Fantastic Mr. Fox. What is it about the story that so appealed to Wes and you?
Neither of us had written for talking animals before, so that was an incentive. We also had to come up with a way for them to be able to curse without offending children.
Vanity Fair’s literary editor, Wayne Lawson, plays the part of a talent-show judge in one of the scenes in The Squid and the Whale. Truth be told, as good as every other actor was in the film, I think it was Wayne’s presence that truly made the movie so special. A young Brando comes to mind.
At the talent show, Wayne is sitting next to Pat Towers, whom I’ve known my whole life (and is an editor at O), who is sitting next to Mike Santiago and Juan Torriente, who are my doormen. I like casting people I care about. It’s nice to have them on the set and then to see them in the film. It helps me to connect more fully to the material. They also tend to be better actors.