Noah Baumbach chronciles the pain and quirks of divorce

January 31, 2020 Danny Munso

For your reading pleasure, please enjoy this excerpt from our longer interview with Marriage Story writer/director Noah Baumbach from Issue 41 – our Oscar issue – of Backstory.


If you enjoy what you’ve read – we hope you’ll join us to read the rest of the article by buying Issue 41 as a single issue or subscribing to Backstory Magazine!

Oscar Lessons: Marriage Story
Noah Baumbach artfully and honestly chronicles the conflict, pain and quirks of a couple’s divorce.

Divorce is certainly not a new topic for Noah Baumbach. In films such as 2005’s The Squid and the Whale and 2017’s The Meyerowitz Stories, the writer-director focused primarily on the children of divorce living in its long shadow, but his latest film Marriage Story zeroes in on a couple going through an increasingly contentious split. As the movie opens, Charlie (Adam Driver), an acclaimed New York theater director, and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), his actress wife and theater company partner, are already winding down their marriage. But the process grows complicated and volatile as lawyers (Laura Dern, Alan Alda and Ray Liotta) get increasingly involved, putting the custody of son Henry (Azhy Robertson) in the balance. Featuring an expansive emotional spectrum and Baumbach’s trademark wit and incisive characterizations, Marriage Story has earned the filmmaker Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay, as well as nods for Best Actor (Driver), Best Actress (Johansson) and Best Supporting Actress (Dern). Baumbach recently spoke with Backstory about his experience writing the film.

Backstory: What is your favorite scene to write, and how did it come together?
Noah Baumbach: I didn’t really have a favorite scene. I think in a lot of cases, a scene works because of the way the scene before it sets it up, so I see it all as just one piece. But if you have a favorite scene, I’m happy to address that.

I guess it’s the, quote-unquote, showiest scene, but Charlie and Nicole’s big argument in the apartment toward the end. It’s not just two people screaming at each other. The tone shifts a few times, and it’s very intimate. Was the whole thing in your head from the beginning, or did it evolve over the writing process?
The intimacy informs a lot of that scene, even the way they fight with each other—the personal nature or the scrappy nature, in some cases the cooler remarks. When I was working on that scene, I thought of it as two people trying to find their voice again. At this point in the movie, they’ve gone through this process of divorce proceedings where they’ve hired lawyers who’ve almost in a sense become their avatars, making arguments on their behalf and taking things that maybe have some basis in truth and twisting them and perverting them and turning them into tools of battle. It’s all about division and separation. You refer to a marriage and a family and a couple and they’re all singular, and then suddenly a divorce turns it into two: a man and a woman. So when I was writing the scene, I was thinking of it as they are almost like children learning language again. Not dissimilar to the through line in the movie of Henry learning to read. I also felt it was important that we haven’t actually really seen Charlie and Nicole alone together since the beginning of the movie. And they probably haven’t been alone together for quite some time. So for me [that scene] was largely informed by the narrative and the story at that time.

What was the most difficult scene to write?
The sequence where the evaluator comes to observe Charlie and Henry in the apartment. It wasn’t necessarily that it was hard, but it was incomplete. Initially I conceived it with her coming and it was written pretty much as you see it in the movie, but it didn’t have [Charlie] cutting his arm. It just ended—she left. And I felt this is a peculiar enough situation and a horrible enough situation for Charlie to be sort of observed kind of playing as a father in an apartment that he set-decorated to feel like a home. But when I finished it, I felt like I wanted something that was a kind of visual and external expression of what has been going on internally. It was an opportunity to turn it up further. And that’s when I came upon the notion of him cutting open his arm, and so I wrote the X-Acto knife in from the beginning of the movie as well. That was a story a friend of mine told me: When he was younger, he was visiting people at college, and he did something similar, where he was like pretending to [cut himself] and then he actually did it but didn’t want to acknowledge that he was in terrible pain. As soon as he told me, I thought, I’d love to do that in a movie sometime. So it was one of those things where I thought that could be kind of great here. It was a little bit later that I went back and discovered it, and now you can’t imagine the scene without it.

Were there any scenes you wrote in an earlier draft that you ended up cutting, and can you explain why they had to go?
Something I discovered after I had my first complete draft of the script was that any scenes that didn’t relate to the forward momentum of the story—which really meant the divorce proceedings—felt extraneous, even if it was a quick character scene or kind of interesting to me visually. I had scenes with Charlie and Henry, which are sort of related to when they’re out looking for lawyers. In an earlier draft, there’s a longer sequence where they run into another couple that Charlie and Nicole had been friends with and it’s clear the couple has taken Nicole’s side in the divorce. Charlie’s kind of embarrassed, and they’re kind of pretending they don’t see him. And it’s complicated by having Henry there. It was a good scene. It certainly felt like a scene that could very well remain in the movie, but I felt I could find those emotional aspects in scenes that actually had more forward momentum. What I really discovered was that even though the divorce proceedings and this sort of fracturing of this family threatens to define their lives, life isn’t aware of that and just keeps happening. So that’s where ordering lunch [during the divorce meeting] or Nicole still cutting Charlie’s hair or her gate not closing are examples of all these things that are still happening. I could have all of that, and it was more effective actually in the context of the story at large.

If you enjoy what you’ve read – we hope you’ll join us to read the rest of the article by buying Issue 41 as a single issue or subscribing to Backstory Magazine!

For more info about all the other amazing articles in issue 41, view our Table of Contents.