How Noah Baumbach Builds Complex Characters Through Family Dysfunction in "The Meyerowitz Stories"
We'll bet most of you can relate to the protagonists of 'The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)'.
Noah Baumbach returns to a familiar familial territory with his latest movie The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), and we certainly haven't grown bored of his work with the theme. The prolific director's career really took off after 2005's The Squid and the Whale, a film whose dark humor made even the legendary Mike Nichols gush.
In a talkback after Meyerowitz's screening at the New York Film Festival last week, Baumbach recalled an interaction he had with Nichols upon their first meeting. Nichols had remarked of Squid, "It reminded me of why I got into movies to begin with, which was revenge."
Uncoincidentally, many of our closest relationships are rife with jealousy or revenge, a phenomenon Baumbach has become an expert in navigating through the medium of film. The protagonists of The Meyerowitz Stories find themselves constantly competing for the attention of the family patriarch even in adulthood. Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller play step-brothers competing to reconcile with their difficult father, a character brilliantly brought to life by the incredible Dustin Hoffman.
The relationships which simultaneously tie the Meyorwitz family together while also tearing them apart are complex, yet entirely relatable. One of Baumbach's goals in the film was to tell "A hopeful story about how parents define things for children." In his opinion, the parent plays a particular role in "creating a kind of rulebook and hierarchy about what's important and what's not. I just felt, with this family, art took the place of religion."
"Ben, Adam and I sat down and talked about them playing brothers," Baumbach remembered of conceiving the film. "I had wanted to do something about brothers since The Squid and the Whale. I had started that movie writing from the adult perspective but scrapped that to go back and write it from the child’s perspective. Really the only thing we came away with was that there should be a physical fight. So I reverse engineered the movie from that."
"I started feeling more comfortable letting structure help me understand the character."
The characters in Baumbach's films often stand out as incredibly well fleshed out and with the added benefit of a dream-like cast, Meyerowitz is certainly no exception.
When asked whether his stories stem from the character up, Baumbach replied, "It varies. More in the past, I would say that character dictated what the story became. On Frances Ha, I started feeling more comfortable letting structure help me understand the character. In that movie, it was because she kept switching locations, so it was the homelessness that really ended up informing who that person was. In this movie, it really was thinking about the compartmentalization of family. And this idea of half-siblings, which could be both totally meaningful and totally meaningless. And different families and who got what. That helped a lot to inform who these people were."
Speaking of screenwriting structure, the (New and Selected) portion of the title indicates an experiment Baumbach made in writing the film. The film was presented in the form of chapters, punctuated by harsh cuts, often midway through a character's line. "It was a way for me to understand it. I thought of it in the writing of like a collection of stories that an author had published separately. You know this one was in The Paris Review, this one was in The New Yorker, then they were collected and put together," he explained.
"For me, that was sort of the back story of it. I broke it up into short stories," Baumbach continued. "I was thinking of authors who return to the same family over time. The early stories had them falling in love and getting married and the later stories had them breaking up. I found something extra moving about the fact that these stories existed in real time and weren’t preordained. There was something very sad to me that the authors had come to the conclusion for these people that they didn’t necessarily have when they published the initial story years before."
"Watching something on film has a totally different emotional effect on me and seeing it projected on film also has another effect on me. "
One aspect of his screenwriting process will always remain the same, however. "People ask me a lot if my movies are improvised at all, and I always take it as an insult, because I think ‘C’mon! I’m working on these things, I’m trying really hard!’ But now, I’m trying to take it as a compliment. The dialogue is highly stylized and the blocking is highly stylized in the movie. I mean it’s all very choreographed, the way of screwball comedies. And I’m interested in that because I love the energies of those movies. But I’m going for some total artifice here."
The film was shot on Super 16 and it's clear that Baumbach has picked his side on the film vs. digital debate. "I shot The Squid and the Whale on Super 16, but in a different way. We handheld the movie, it was more documentary-like, less structured in terms of the walking and everything," he explained.
"Starting with Frances Ha I shot on digital, but I shot it on the Canon 5D and we did it in black and white and I was very happy with how that came out," Baumbach went on. "Then I tried the Alexa on a couple movies and realized so much of my making movies is connected to my childhood. It’s not just the subject matter of the movies, it's also the going to movies. I’m going back through that all the time. It’s both conscious and unconscious. Watching something on film has a totally different emotional effect on me and seeing it projected on film also has another effect on me. I kind of realized having shot digitally that I need to do these things on film. I’d tried to make an argument for digital, just to try it out, and it’s fine, but it just doesn’t have the same meaning for me."
The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) is coming to Netflix October 13, but Baumbach urges you to get out and see it in theaters if you can. When asked how he felt about the home distribution model Baumbach replied, "I made the movie independently and I designed it to be put into theaters as I make all my movies.I expect all my movies to play that way. I think it's an unbeatable and undying experience. Netflix acquired it in post, but I think like many filmmakers, this is the way you’re supposed to see it."