“Marriage Story” Is A Love Story According To Noah Baumbach
Marriage Story is simple and clear in its message. It could have been titled Divorce Story, but screenwriter / director / producer, Noah Baumbach, also known for his Oscar-nominated film The Squid And The Whale (2005), and Greenberg (2010), wanted his opus to be a story about conscious decoupling – a film about the “transformation of love.”
Noah Baumbach could have referenced other films about divorce and child custody battles like Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), but he took an entirely different tack. “I always saw it as a love story.” Although the marriage of Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole Barber (Scarlett Johansson) was over, there was still a residual love between them. “I felt strongly about the idea that endings aren’t failings. I wanted to tell the story of Charlie and Nicole’s marriage, even in its absence,” mused the screenwriter. Ultimately Baumbach wanted Marriage Story to be about the “transition of love and family and a redefinition of them while it reflects on the marriage that was.”
Like most good stories, the screenwriter drew upon personal experiences to write his characters. “I begin the writing process by taking notes because divorce happens to so many families including my own.” Although he didn’t want to rely solely on his life, he didn’t want to produce an entirely autobiographical film. He conducted extensive research with divorced couples. “I interviewed couples (both men and women) and people in the “divorce industry” – lawyers, judges, mediators, and evaluators, so I had many real experiences to reference – not only of divorce, but also of marriage.”
At the core of his divorce interviews, Baumbach was interested in people’s different love stories. “Just because a marriage is over, it doesn’t mean it wasn’t real. We can pay tribute to it in its coming apart. When a marriage becomes absent, you suddenly become more attuned to it,” he mused.
We asked Noah about his script development process. Marriage Story could have taken a number of tonal turns such as dramatic courtroom battles or a simple goodbye. This wasn’t part of Baumbach’s plan. “I don’t think about tone. I’m open to the material and the opportunities it presents to me as a screenwriter and as a filmmaker.” He felt there was a lot of flexibility in how he could tackle the source material of divorce, including numerous potential genres. “There was a thriller aspect to it, a court procedural, comedy, or even a musical,” he continued. “I could approach Marriage Story in a number of ways without betraying the material.”
Despite the celebration of love and marriage in Marriage Story, his film is ostensibly about divorce. “After writing my first draft, any scenes that took me away from the general thrust of the story felt extraneous.” Such scenes included scenes about their son Henry (Azhy Robertson) at school. “Although they were interesting at the writing stage, they were detours I didn’t need to take.” Even though Baumbach was exploring that real life doesn’t slow down during a divorce, these scenes weren’t critical to the screenplay. “I felt that I was trying to freeze life in the Barber family, but life doesn’t know that. Life keeps happening.” Nicole and Charlie still needed to parent Henry. “Hair still needs to be cut and lunches still need to be made.”
Traditionally, screenwriters are taught that there can only be one main character from whose point of view the story is told – even in an ensemble piece. Baumbach defied this paradigm in Marriage Story and opted for dual protagonists. “It’s a two-hander and it’s equally both Charlie and Nicole’s story. Perspective is a big part of the story that’s used as a tool by the lawyers in terms of taking sides.”
Baumbach was also aware of how the audience might perceive the story in terms of taking sides of the main characters. He took special care to give both Charlie and Nicole similar amounts of screen time, so the audience would naturally side with whoever was onscreen at a particular point in time. “I built the screenplay on when we were with Charlie, when we were with Nicole, and when we were with both of them.” The filmmaker was meticulous in deciding whose story was presented at a given time so, although the perspective pendulum would swing, it would end up in the middle. “Nobody was more right or wrong in Marriage Story. Both are imperfect people doing the best they can in a very difficult situation. They may not always be their best selves, but I have equal compassion for both.”
Not only does Baumbach not think in terms of stories always needing defined main characters, but they also don’t need definitive heroes or villains. Quoting French filmmaker Jean Renoir, Baumbach states, “Everyone has their reasons for their behavior.” Even when his characters fall into a morally-gray area in Marriage Story, Noah is more interested in exploring their motivation than judging them.
Being a true artist, Noah Baumbach doesn’t have a strict career itinerary in planning his films. “I carry a notebook all the time and take notes. It could be an image, a line of dialogue, a general observation. When something in my notes clicks with me and feels like a movie, I start writing it. I don’t think “why?” so much, only that it does feel like a movie.”
Baumbach is a New Yorker through and through. We asked him how New York shapes his films. “It’s home. There’s a familiarity to it. I have memories throughout the city from my childhood to the present. I often think of filmmaking as a conversation with my younger self. Because New York connects me to my childhood, either directly or indirectly, it puts me in a creative place to write films that feel real to me.”
Being interested in how films were made from a young age, the screenwriter is answering this question in his adult years. “The wonder of making films is similar to child’s play. After watching many movies as a kid, I would go home and recreate the movies I had just seen with action figures and toys. There was a film I had seen and the film that I lived with. It was a truer way of telling a story.“
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