An "Ordinary People" for the "Rushmore" set

Noah Baumbach, the writer-director of the Sundance-winning "The Squid and the Whale," talks about the perils of joint custody and the odd microcosm of the intellectual family.

Published January 29, 2005 9:00PM (EST)

Right around the time of my parents' divorce, movies like "Kramer vs. Kramer" (1979) and "Ordinary People" (1980) were playing in the theaters, and while the gut-wrenching arguments and melodramatic epiphanies in therapy loosely matched my experiences, it was the mundane details of daily life after my parents' separation that I found the most heartbreaking: those depressing cream-colored vertical blinds in my dad's new condo, or the way my mom let the bushes in the front yard become scraggly and untamed after my dad moved out.

It makes sense, then, that I'd have to wait for my peers to grow up to see a film that captures the child's experience of divorce with as much accuracy and humor as Noah Baumbach's "The Squid and the Whale." [Editor's note: Baumbach picked up the Dramatic Directing Award and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award for the film at Sundance on Saturday.] The film focuses on the struggles of teenager Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and his adolescent brother, Frank (Owen Kline), to navigate their parents' separation. After a few tense exchanges and late-night fights heard from behind closed bedroom doors, their parents, Bernard (Jeff Daniels) and Joan (Laura Linney), call a "family conference" and announce that they'll be separating, with the two kids spending exactly half of the week with each parent. The chaos that follows chronicles not only the strange ways the kids act out -- Walt parrots his father's self-important diatribes while Frank yells four-letter words at every opportunity -- but the ways their parents do, as well, from inappropriately honest confessions to their kids about infidelities to hiding books that they're afraid the other will take from the house.

Baumbach approaches his story with a keen ear for dialogue and an appreciation of those vivid moments that somehow end up defining what can be the most difficult time in a kid's life. While his first two movies, "Kicking and Screaming" (1995) and "Mr. Jealousy" (1998), were also filled with funny lines and memorable scenes (Who can forget Parker Posey in "Kicking and Screaming," trying to break up with her chumpy boyfriend while he mouths every word she says, until she finally starts laughing in spite of herself?), "The Squid and the Whale" is far more subtle but also more heart-wrenching than those films, and seems to mark a new level of achievement for Baumbach as a filmmaker.

In the lobby of the Marriott just off Main Street in Park City, Baumbach, 35, talked with me about the challenges of taking on such clearly autobiographical material.

There were so many times during this film where I found myself groaning in recognition. I'm guessing your film must be autobiographical.

It's funny. I've been dealing with this question a lot this week, but it's hard for me to judge, I think. In a certain way, when I was writing it, I did draw very directly from my experience. It's something I've never done before and I think on a personal level -- and I don't mean to be dramatic about this -- but just for me, it felt like a breakthrough, because I felt like I discovered the kind of writer and then, later, the kind of filmmaker that I was.

I wanted to make movies when I was really young, and I made "Kicking and Screaming" and I'm really proud of that movie, but it's weird, because the desire to make them and then the ability to make them and then to actually be able to draw upon whatever's inside of you didn't always match. On my previous two movies, there was often a feeling of, "OK, well, I guess that turned out that way." This is the first time I really felt like I was able to put what was inside my head out there. This is a long way around the barn to your question, but I think that came from writing very personally, which was all new to me, and not putting any filter up and not worrying about people's feelings and not worrying about whether or not it's commercial. So it's certainly inspired by my life. My parents did divorce when I was in high school, we did live in Park Slope. I think in some ways it feels more intimate and more real because of what's fictional about it, too. If it were more literally true, I think it would feel clunkier.

It's funny, because my parents were similar to the parents in your film -- they were beyond reproach, they had these streaks of superiority, they confided in me about subjects that many people would consider inappropriate. I guess I'm wondering if your film is sort of a generational snapshot.

That's really interesting. I didn't think of it so much generationally. I think the time that the movie's set in, in the '80s, and the age of the people coincides with the fact that it was my own experience. If I take myself out of it, yeah, I agree that a lot of these things are true for that generation. Also, this idea of joint custody, I've been told, was part of that time period. I remember, before I wrote this movie, telling somebody we had joint custody growing up, and somebody saying, "Oh, I remember when that was a fad in the '80s." And I was still under the impression that it was best for the kids, but then I thought, I hated it, so why is it best for the kids?

What's wrong with joint custody, in your opinion?

The particular joint custody that they have in the movie, which is Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday and every other Thursday -- that was my exact joint custody situation. It's kind of liberating when I hear people laugh at it. I didn't know it was funny, I was just putting it down because it was what my parents did. And there is that sort of thing about having made this movie where people do laugh at things like that. Or blanch at things like that. I'm glad to know that the fact that I hated it was maybe OK!

But going back to what you were saying before, which I think is really interesting: There's a thing about families of intellectuals, the sort of "us against the world" feeling, which can be very empowering in some ways, but it's also completely isolating. So there's both this strange thing of feeling better than everyone else and your family is also somehow unique, and then also being ashamed of your family because you've been told you're not like anyone else.

And you can see that they're so obviously out of step with the norm.

Right. As a kid I had this feeling of, "My parents are smarter and better than all other parents," and "Other kids are talking about 'Gremlins' but I know 'Rules of the Game' is the real one to watch" -- you know, even though I hadn't seen it. But at the same time, split right in me, was this shame of people coming over to my house. Is this weird? Is this different? Is my mom's cooking as good as the other kids' moms' cooking? And then when your parents break up, all these things come to the surface even more. It's something I definitely relived and also investigated in writing the movie. The older kid in the movie accuses his mother, he says, "This is a great family. I don't know why you're screwing it up." As if it's like a baseball team.

You say there's a big change between "Kicking and Screaming" and this movie. I would think it's almost like coming out of the closet, to take on subject matter that's this personal, and to reveal stuff about your past that it's tough to own.

It's funny, because when I talk about it or think about it, everything [from my childhood] is in there, in the movie. Even if I had made this movie about cops, if I had been able to write as honestly, on some level, and find myself in the filmmaking the way I did in this movie, I would feel similarly, in a general way, that I found the kind of filmmaker I want to be. Since that's not my sensibility, and it is about my childhood in some way, and partly about a kid who's having trouble finding his own identity, in some ways it's like one of those Russian dolls. I can chase myself in circles thinking about it. I talk about it in therapy, and I'll be talking about the movie itself as the outside movie, and then we're talking about my experience of making the film, and then suddenly I'm talking about things about my own parents that I realize that I've actually put in the film, and then it's like I'm chasing my tail.

So do you feel that you put your experiences into the story without even thinking about it, and then later you realized, My god, this makes perfect sense in the context of the stuff I went through.

Definitely. This morning someone reminded me of the scene where the dad and Walt are in the car together, and Walt asks his dad if he thinks Sophie, his girlfriend, is pretty, and his dad's like, "Sure. She's fine, but she's not the type I go for." This person said, "I felt like I was watching a child get scarred right there on the screen." And I thought, What a great thing! I guess that is what that scene is about, but in my mind, it was really more about how my father talked to me, and how I heard other kids' parents talk to them. So I was really focusing on the minutiae of the interchange, and it's great to hear it back the other way. I think throughout the movie, I wasn't always aware -- and it's probably good -- of what the impact of a scene might be to other people.

It might have made you self-conscious about revealing some of this stuff, if you knew how completely crazy it seems to some people.

Exactly. But on one hand, if I knew how fucked up it was, I might be afraid to put it down, and then on the other hand, realizing later how fucked up it is is great because I didn't know it was fucked up.

It just makes it more special! I had that experience watching "Election," when Reese Witherspoon's character loses the election and her mom says, "Well, maybe you should've made more posters." I thought it sounded like something my mom would say, and later a friend mentioned that she thought that remark was just devastating.

Yeah! People say, "God, what a dysfunctional family" -- using that term. And I think, Really? Isn't the point that they're not dysfunctional? But I think that's one -- of probably a million reasons -- why it took me a long time to deal with this territory. I didn't think it was unique or universal. I just thought it was boring parents-children divorce stuff.

There are so many times when the parents in your film are way, way too honest. When the dad tells the kids that the mom has been having affairs, and then the mom tells them that she slept with the father of a friend of theirs. How do you feel about this issue of parents being extremely frank about adult subjects?

Well, I think with a divorce, there's this issue of kids becoming companions with the parents in a way. They take the role of the other parent, and I think that's definitely true in the movie with Bernard and Walt. Walt in some ways becomes his new wife. He gets more attention. He's always his father's favorite, but he gets to hear more and when Bernard tells him about his mom's affair, it doesn't even occur to Bernard that Walt hasn't already heard it. I think it's interesting about it being generational -- I haven't thought about it in that way. I think it's tricky, though, particularly with articulate people. In some ways, what's nice about growing up that way is that everyone's taken seriously. But then, on the other hand, there's a burden there, to be let in on things that are probably not good for them to hear.

At the same time, so much is a mystery leading up to a divorce. There are all these secrets going on -- at least in my family and in the family in the movie -- before the divorce that the kids know about but they don't really know, they can't put their finger on it. It comes out in a tennis game. So, in a way, I think it's probably nice for the kids to hear these things because it puts facts to what they're feeling. But at the same time, how can they possibly handle those things? I don't know the answer to that, and it's probably really tough.

I remember that feeling, like all of a sudden everything adds up.

In some ways it's liberating because it's kind of like, Oh! That's why I'm so miserable!

Yeah! But I wonder if it makes you hardened, because you're given information that you have no way of really understanding. My dad used to talk to me about his girlfriends, and it was sort of cool, and I was gonna be on his side no matter what, but it was still strange.

Well, why wouldn't you be [on his side]? It's that thing where in some way, they're bragging to you about their conquests. It's really tricky, because it's so empowering to be brought up to their level. And it's always interesting with families with siblings. One kid has absorbed it and run with it and is the achiever, and the other one is living in the basement and is obese and depressed. I'm fascinated by that stuff. In the movie, Walt has clearly been chosen as the successor, which is, on the one hand, great for him, but if it means succeeding this guy who considers himself a failure, it's a hard mantle to inherit. And then there's Frank, who's not even really considered in the running, and I think that's why Frank acts out in more inarticulate ways. And he's also younger. It's endlessly fascinating to me, looking at families that way -- my own, certainly, but also other people's, and how technically the same parenting has different effects on different kids.

We touched on this earlier, but I'm wondering: What did you dislike about joint custody?

I was told that I was just upset about the divorce and I was transferring it onto something else. But when I look back, I really just didn't like moving back and forth between the houses. My mom's house, like in the movie, was the place where I had my room, and I had grown up, and I just wanted a base, because at that point I was a teenager and I wanted to go have a social life. To have my home keep switching -- it sounds silly, but it was almost the hassle of it that became a huge deal to me.

Especially when you're a teenager and you hate hassles and you want to spend all your time with your friends anyway.

I kept being told the same thing the kids are told in the movie. When they announce the divorce, Walt says, "Why are you doing it this way?" and the father says, "Because I love you and I want to see you as much as your mother does." And on the surface, that's a nice thing to hear. If you told that story to someone, they might say, "That's so great! He loves you and he wants to see you as much!" But it's more complicated than that. Not that he doesn't love him, but there is this weird competitive angle also of each parent getting the same amount out of it.

What I also found interesting about divorce with two parents and two kids, they all share the same thing, but they can't be there for each other at all. So everyone's having this kind of isolated experience with people who are going through the same thing, but nobody can connect to each other -- appropriately, anyway. There's something really sad about that.

That is sad! It makes sense, though, when the dynamics in your family are such that you have to call a family conference in order to have an important conversation [as they do in the movie]! When your parents are ashamed of having those conversations, it teaches you to be ashamed, too. That's why I love that shot at the beginning of the family conference, where the two boys and the dad are waiting for mom to come out of the bathroom so they can begin. You hear the toilet flushing and everyone's all awkward and silent. If that's the sort of torture that surrounds any serious talk about how you feel, of course the kids aren't going to turn to each other and say, "Hey, how do you feel about all of this anyway?" Instead you're up in your room, sorting it out alone.

And there's the illusion that you are kind of there for each other. There's a lot of analyzing why it happened, and saying, technically, all the right things: "I love you, I want to see you as much, it's not your fault." All those things that are kind of standard.

Well, most parents aren't heartless or stupid, so they're going to run down the bullet points.

That's something I became in tune with by writing it -- those things that were said to me then that I still believed at some level, like with your dad and his girlfriend. I still felt that joint custody was better. Even as I'm stripping away all this crap and telling the story of how unhappy a time it was, I'm still believing that certain things were best.

That's the danger of having parents who can expertly rationalize their emotions. You get a treatise, you get this Parental Manifesto that you learn by heart. It takes so long to unearth which ideas are true for you and which ideas or beliefs came from the accepted parental text. Then again, it's not like there's not a lot of wisdom and cleverness in that text, too.

There's a scene with Laura [Linney] and Jeff [Daniels] where he drops the cat off, and they talk in the doorway. I wrote that scene later. When I started writing the script, I really came at it from the kids' perspective, and as I shaped it more and rewrote it, I entered the parents' side as well. I really love watching that scene partly because I think Laura and Jeff are so good in it. It was a real pleasure to cut that scene, because there were four takes on each side, and they gave me such great variations each time, it was such a feeling of making a movie with real actors.

But, at the same time, what I really like about that scene is that I have a lot of sympathy for the parents, and how hard it is and sad it is for them. I can see why they cling to the kids and unintentionally brainwash them with their ideas. I do have a lot of sympathy for why they'd want to involve them in their lives so much and tell them too much, because it must be incredibly painful for them.

Do you feel more inspired to write now, after creating something that's this personal and that you're this proud of?

I do. This movie has been so all-encompassing for the last year and a half, and then what was great was, I was able to co-write "The Life Aquatic" with Wes [Anderson] while I struggled to get this movie made. So it was a great way to also use another part of my brain and do something so different, but also a movie about fathers and family and failure. It was like being able to play in a world that I would never have made on my own. I love Wes' filmmaking and I love that movie, so it was a great way to write, and write in a different way. But to answer your question, yeah, I do feel much more connected to the kind of movies I want to make now.

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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