Courtroom scenes are inherently dramatic, but Noah Baumbach takes Marriage Story's sequence to another level with smart writing and cinematography.
We love a good scene breakdown around here. We recently looked at the brilliant opening sequence of Noah Baumbach's Netflix hit Marriage Story and how it efficiently sets up story and characters, but now let's continue learning from another of the movie's amazing scenes—the courtroom face-off.
This sequence does a lot with simple dialogue and spare physical direction. It allows emotion to develop naturally and keeps the focus on characters you might not expect. The cinematography helps the audience get into the minds of the characters.
How does it do that? Check out the video from Vanity Fair below and see!
How does it look on the page?
This is a great opportunity to take a look at how Baumbach wrote this sequence.
As he notes in the video, the two main speaking characters here are the lawyers, Nora (Laura Dern) and Jay (Ray Liotta), who have almost all the lines in the scene. Their dialogue sometimes overlaps, with simple underlining for emphasis.
And as Baumbach points out, the physical directions are kept very simple. "Charlie and Nicole both stare at the floor." It's up to Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson to bring emotion to the scene, if they choose. This is Baumbach trusting his talent and allowing them the freedom to react in the moment.
In screenwriting, there are few things worse than an overwrought script. Performances are going to grow out of a scene's conflict and emotional subtext. If you have those things down, your actors will know what to do.
Be smart about foreshadowing and callbacks
Within this scene, moments from earlier in the story are recalled and weaponized so they take on a different tone in this setting.
Early on, you see Nicole stumble a bit after drinking. Then later, Charlie fails to secure their son's car seat in his rental car.
Both initially seem like harmless moments that the characters treat with lightness and understanding. But later, in this courtroom sequence, these moments are instead framed as examples of each character's recklessness.
Sometimes writers will try to create new elements—new scenes, or new characters—in order the serve the story, when it's not really necessary. I've done it, too! You just have to learn how to catch it, and realize what will work better.
For instance, in the courtroom, these characters could have brought up different, unseen moments of strife from their marriage, but it's much more effective to call back to moments the audience has already seen. Baumbach is drawing from a backstory he's already wisely placed as a foundation for their conflict.
It's not only smarter, more efficient storytelling but it also heightens the audience's emotional response to seeing these moments twisted into something negative.
How is this sequence shot?
The scene allows the two lawyers to be dominant, while the couple are slightly out of focus in the background. Baumbach treats them as victims of their circumstances and believes this allows the viewer to project onto them and guess what they might be feeling. The film is also shot in a narrower 1.66 aspect ratio to keep the view tight and on the faces.
The sequence is also fairly static. The judge is heard but not seen until the end of the scene, again keeping the focus on these key players.
When Nora needs to display her authority, she simply takes off her coat. Jay stands to appear threatening. But the action remains tight and contained to a very small space.
Baumbach also points to Dr. Strangelove as an influence on Marriage Story, particularly because characters find themselves so often in oppressive settings and seated at tables. In close-ups here, the characters are sometimes shot from low, ominous angles.
Think about perspective
Perspective also comes into play. Each side is shot down the tables, as either Charlie or Nicole would see the other party. They are at the end of each table, connected through positioning despite the many people between them.
This connection is seen again later, when Baumbach uses a rack focus to show both Charlie and Nicole's reaction to her drinking being brought up.
A rack focus shot simply means that the depth of field changes and the lens focuses on a new part of the frame. It's a shot Baumbach was resistant to at first but said it was necessary to show both characters in this moment.
Baumbach also mentions that he sometimes cuts between two shots of the same character in the middle of dialogue. This isn't a traditional way to shoot a character, but is used here to show how Charlie or Nichole would be viewing that character from their different positions. This method is used during the opening mediation scene, as well.
What's next? Continue learning from Oscar-nominated films
Read Baumbach's screenplay for Marriage Story if you want to see how this and other scenes are crafted on the page. Consider following along while streaming the film. Then be sure to check out the rest of the Oscar-nominated screenplays.