My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.
When I first heard Noah Baumbach’s name, sometime around the release of his first film, I immediately associated it with his father’s. Growing up in Brooklyn in the 1970s and aspiring to become a novelist, I was excessively conscious of not only the provenance of literary writers in Brooklyn—Whitman, Henry Miller, Norman Mailer—but of the existence of local talent trying to join the pantheon: Sol Yurick, L. J. Davis, Jonathan Baumbach. The fact that writers could be starved for recognition while working in the neighborhood reminded me of my father’s life as a painter. I was inspired to think a life in art was a life worth living, no matter the level of reward.
Years later, Noah’s debut was a film I remembered fondly, but nothing in it prepared me for how personally I’d take his newest, The Squid and the Whale. He and I turned out to have some deep circumstantial material in common, despite a bit of generational lag time (I’m 41)—divorcing Bohemian parents in brownstone Brooklyn, to put a name to it—as well as a fondness for Pink Floyd’s The Wall, and for the Museum of Natural History’s ocean dioramas. But ego-reinforcement aside, the film’s shaggy humanity snuck up on me in a lovely way. Noah had given himself the freedom never to try to persuade us to like any of the film’s main characters—two parents and two sons—and as a result, I’d fallen in love with all four of them.
Noah and I had already had a couple of pleasant meetings doing some volunteer work for an arts organization (see, we’re both good eggs), but my excitement at seeing his film led us into a much fuller conversation than we’d enjoyed before. Lucky me.
Jonathan Lethem Hey Noah.
Noah Baumbach Hey!
JL I did love the film.
NB I’m really glad.
JL Needless to say, I’m in your constituency, with Brooklyn, and the artist parents.
NB Right, if it didn’t work for you— (laughter)
JL Then you’d be doing something wrong. I felt nourished by The Squid and the Whaleprecisely because it had that homely humanity to it. There was breath and impulse and life. People speaking words that—whether they were reproduced from your childhood or stolen from some other part of your experience or whether you had the wit to concoct them (I’m sure it was some of all three)—felt like things you either overhear, say yourself or hear your loved ones saying. That is to say, degrees off from what any character in a Hollywood film these days is permitted to say.
NB I’m glad to hear that.
JL You understood an incredibly simple principle, but one that seems to have been abandoned, which is that if you cast someone innately magnetic, sympathetic, human, someone with whom the audience is likely to empathize or by whom they are likely to be beguiled, then you don’t need to have them say anything likeable. You don’t need to have them petting dogs on the head and speaking honorable words to establish that they’re okay, that it’s permissible to admire them. Any viewer is going to have a soft spot for Jeff Daniels even if he’s a raging ogre in the film, which he isn’t quite. Knowing that, you never bothered too laboriously to establish that he’s a pretty good guy after all.
NB Well, it took a long time to get the movie made, and the comment I got from many financiers and actors along the way was, Where is his redemptive moment?
JL Of course you did, it’s like clockwork in the culture of screenplay-reading: “Where’s this guy’s redemption?”
NB Jeff completely didn’t give a shit. (laughter) When we shot the scene in the hospital room, precisely a moment where redemption is expected, Jeff said to me, “There’s probably a side of me that wants Walt to leave once he starts challenging me.” Jeff’s impulse was absolutely true to the character and against any kind of forced sentimentality.
JL And Laura Linney simply laughs in his face when he tries to reconcile with her! It must have been difficult to persuade certain people that that was a playable scene for a character you were meant to care about. But once you cast Laura Linney in that role and gave her the context, there’s no risk of disliking her. The film is all the better for it.
NB I started in film from a writing perspective thinking that casting was less of an art than it is. I’ve changed significantly in that respect. It was a great experience to work with actors who were so faithful to the script, but at the same time brought so much of themselves. Their performances are incredibly personal.
JL It’s counterintuitive, because it cuts across that old Hitchcock or Kubrick idea of the director as this consummate master, the source of all creative authority. Yet there’s another kind of possibility that flows through your casting decisions. I imagine it can be tremendously freeing to embrace the meanings that certain actors bring into the work, precisely so that you don’t have to hammer at your audience through other means, through making the script more overt.
NB Hitchcock cast the biggest stars of his time, even though he dismissed acting. He knew that if he put Cary Grant in a part he could get away with a lot.
JL And for someone like me who loves those kinds of directors and credits them with such omnipotent artistry, it can be slightly awkward to realize that when you describe a Hitchcock or Hawks film as second rate, what you perhaps really mean is that Humphrey Bogart or Cary Grant wasn’t in the main role. You pine for a Grant or a Bogart working against the grain of the director’s material with their own effervescence, their own personality.
NB Again, the art of casting, like a lot of the art of moviemaking now, is so inhibited by financing. It is such a very tricky line.
JL Treacherous, because everyone is talking names but they’re not talking them for your purposes—the purposes of art.
NB One of the many things I love about Jeff in this movie is that there he is: the beard, the hair, the clothes. He just walked into the movie and lived it. I actually had some strange floating transference with Jeff—I felt intimidated like a kid might be by his father.
JL He sneaks up on you in your film. Suddenly he’s looking just a bit older and you’ve got him in that beard, with kids. I don’t know if you’re also a fan of a film I’m very fond of, Fly Away Home, that Anna Paquin movie where he plays her father—he’s perfect there precisely because he seems so unlikely as a parent.
NB Yeah, we joked on the set that the two films would make a great double showing. He and Anna play father and daughter in Fly Away Home and in my film they play lovers.
JL (laughter) Jeff Daniels is so innately boyish, but in your film it’s as if he’s rounded some corner. He has this gruff, scruffy, fatherly authority that took so long to accumulate. It’s going to be interesting to see how filmmakers use him in this next phase. He brings a lot of oxygen to the other actors; he’s really generous in the scenes.
NB Oh, completely; the rehearsal process with him was viscerally exciting. Before I cast the role, I could do a pretty good imitation of Bernard in my head. So I had an unfair expectation for whoever played it, that they had to get it the way I saw it. We had a slightly rocky period in rehearsal because Jeff knew that and he was giving me the imitation of the imitation. Then we had a weekend apart and when he came back he said, “I really want to bring more of myself to it.” As soon as he made that decision, it changed everything. I don’t even remember my imitation now—I think I’m doing Jeff.
JL He recolonized the material.
NB Yes, exactly.
JL And this leads to the inevitable question about the proximity of your parents to the characters. I know you’ve suffered that question.
NB As soon as you got to that, I was going to ask you how you’ve handled that question.
JL We’ll wallow in the awkwardness of that soon enough. I want to stick to the question of casting because I’m so struck by the balance you located in the film. You’ve got two recognizable actors in the parts of the parents while the kids playing their children are unknowns. I often think the power of an unknown face is overlooked—the way a character and a part can be completely at one with the performance when you haven’t seen that person elsewhere, as opposed to the difficulties of playing against received echoes, resonances, star images and whatever else hovers around someone. Of course, Laura Linney and Jeff Daniels still both have a very nice margin of operation. They’re not Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt, where the world outside the film creeps over their image at every step. They have a lot of room to work, yet they’re recognizable and the viewer responds to that. Did that concern you, because you wanted the movie to belong to the kids—or were you not struggling to establish whose film it was?
NB Do you mean in the sense that the two adults might have overshadowed the kids?
JL In terms of the structure, and the viewers’ sympathy and energy. Did you feel that people might want to see more familiar faces rather than placing Walt, the elder son, as the center of the film?
NB In terms of the shooting, I never thought, Do I need to give Jeff and Laura more face time? The big deal for me was writing this from the kids’ perspective. It freed me up; I had never allowed myself to write quite as freely before this.
JL Yeah, I agree with you. Your other films are structured conceptually, but in this film you’re working from the premise inward.
NB The earlier films are jokier. But different things were going on in my life during the writing of The Squid and the Whale, both professionally and personally. It seems so obvious now, but it was a new idea for me to write this story from a kid’s perspective. I started making movies pretty young; I had a lot of preconceived ideas about who I was as a filmmaker and the kind of career I wanted to have that were still connected, I think, to the teenager I was rather than the person I was becoming. I discovered here who I really am as a writer and then as a director.
JL You’re tremendously lucky that you took that second breath. You see so many people, in film and writing both, who posit their career at the outset—“I’m this kind of artist”—and then live inside the stiffening armor of that proposition for the rest of their career.
NB With more success, I may have done that.
JL I happened to go to school with some people who had absurd writing successes very early on. It’s possible that I was less hamstrung because I got to operate under the radar for a while. I could fool around more. As it happens, I strongly relate to the nature of your progress as a writer—I also had to discover my capacity to write from the inside of the characters, to begin to trust my emotional instincts and inclinations instead of imposing a conceptual framework, to be less jokey.
NB So many movies are created by concept, even on the independent level. People are looking for something they can ratify, a novelty or an exciting concept. I taught a class on the French New Wave and I came upon this quote by Godard—something to the effect that, “When I became a filmmaker, I realized I couldn’t make the movies I wanted to make before I was a filmmaker.” That whole thing about him saying he thought he was making Scarfacewhen he was making Breathless, but he ended up making Alice in Wonderland—that was Godard realizing who he was as a filmmaker. That’s something that didn’t come to me until this movie. I made my first movie when I was 24. I was the kid who loved Star Wars and Indiana Jones. I was still connected to that. I had to shake it out of my head. I had to outgrow it.
JL Well, but then again, ultimately, you were drawn to things that felt absolute; they were self-contained worlds. It’s often by a process of emulation that you discover your personal vision.
NB Right, of course. The people who made those movies do follow their vision. Spielberg—
JL Of course the New Wave guys are great for reminding you how much value there is in whimsical, antic freedom. Were you thinking about Truffaut’s films when you were writing The Squid and the Whale?
NB I didn’t look at movies when I was writing. I didn’t feel the desire or need to. But it was while I was watching Louis Malle’s Murmur of the Heart in 2000 that I had—I don’t want to say an epiphany, but I wondered, Why aren’t I writing about kids? Later in The Squid and the Whale‘s writing process, I came at it from the parents’ perspective. It became a movie about the whole family. Still, throughout the process, the kids were the motivating force. And yeah, 400 Blows is so pure and great. In a way, I didn’t want to look at those New Wave films because I didn’t want to think about what they were doing.
JL Sometimes you need to have your own arrival.
NB To some people, Quentin Tarantino being the best example, film reference is like experience. For other people it doesn’t work. It just feels like a reference.
JL Okay, let’s talk about parents. In the scene with the guidance counselor, was there briefly an actual reflection of your father in the mirror? It was like a hallucination.
NB My dad was on set. He was initially going to be in one of the tennis scenes because he plays tennis, but he had to leave after we shot the side he wasn’t on. His return shots are on screen, but he’s not. We were trying to figure out a place to put him, and he happened to be there that day.
JL It’s very spooky.
NB I thought he would just be in the background, but he’s so still and the way he’s lit, he appears like a ghost.
JL I’m guessing you let your mom, and your dad too, have a good hard look at what you were doing.
NB Actually, I didn’t. Sometimes when I think about the whole experience of this, it starts to become a joke within a joke within a joke. The film is not only inspired by my childhood and my parents’ divorce, but it was also the first script I didn’t show to my parents while I was working on it. It’s not that I wanted to protect them from anything. I mean, they’re writers, I knew they would understand, and I knew they were going to see the movie. I just wanted to keep it my own experience. When I started getting close to shooting I brought them into the process because I needed to use a lot of things from my childhood that were in their houses. I ended up using a lot of my dad’s clothes.
JL He and Jeff Daniels are the same size?
NB Fortunately. I brought my parents in at that point because I wanted to get their cooperation and help. I mean, they were aware of the whole thing, we’d been talking all the time and they knew I wanted to do this without them. I sound like an adolescent.
JL It’s amazing how absolutely persistent those relationships are, especially when you have a creator as a parent. My father’s a painter and I was a painter, before I took that crucial step to one side and became a writer. Nevertheless the line of influence, the degree and the force of that relationship—the legacy—is enormous.
NB Asking how much of the film is autobiographical is such a loaded question. On the one hand, I started writing from an emotionally real place. I attacked my own experience. I didn’t censor myself or worry about hurting anyone’s feelings. I didn’t give a shit; I just tried to write what felt real to me. But that’s only the starting point. The characters change and become these other people. Stuff is invented. After it’s done, who knows what relation it has to where you started? It really becomes something else. But of course, when it’s boiled down to a question and answer, and people ask you how much of this is autobiographical, I occasionally start stuttering. It’s not because I’m trying to protect anyone. The answer is honestly, I really don’t know anymore.
JL My way out of the stuttering was to begin any attempt at answering that question with the reply “How much? Everything and nothing.” Then I’d try to expand on that. It seemed to do justice to the impossibility of the question. I also think that the questioner doesn’t want the answer. (laughter) Any answer you bring forward is unsatisfactory, not just to you but to the person who has asked the question. The work, as you said, begins with something so specific and personal, but what people who don’t enter into that kind of operation can never quite understand is how much that is only a beginning. Everything subsequent is mysterious and creates a completely separate reality. As a result, you present these red herrings—people take the bait and assume, quite understandably, that everything is factual. Because of Fortress of Solitude, people assume I have this extensive experience as a music writer. I’ve just now backed into this gigantic assignment from Rolling Stone, following James Brown around. And I think the magazine editors themselves were fooled into this.
NB (laughter) We’re bringing you back, Jonathan.
JL I didn’t know how to explain to them that I made it all up. As to the parents, much like you, I created a father-son pair whose relationship depicts me and my father. The space between them is the space between me and my father—but the character’s temperament and his attitude toward his life and art is nearly the opposite of my father’s. (The only clear thing they have in common is their lack of wide public acclaim.) As to my father’s feeling about this, I have the same explanation you do: my father is an artist who works by conflating imaginary material with observed material. How could he fail to understand what I was doing?
NB I think you’re right, that no answer will suffice. My stock answer is, If I hadn’t fictionalized it as effectively as I had, it wouldn’t seem so real.
JL Or you could be like Bob Dylan and say, “How could you live with yourself asking questions like this?”
NB (laughter) That would be good too. Bob Dylan or Lou Reed gives a good interview. Actually, going back to your original question, I didn’t look at 400 Blows, but I did look at Truffaut’s interviews about 400 Blows. He was estranged from his parents, but he wanted to be on good terms. They got upset after Cannes and so he backed off after that and said it was all made up. Then I looked at Philip Roth interviews throughout the years.
JL Roth’s been a model for me in putting the autobiographical into a complicated, slightly metafictional matrix, where you provoke the reader by suggesting autobiographical accounts but not verifying them. He’s the master at gaining energy for his writing by not just using his own personal material, but exciting the reader’s anxiety about how much of it is real.
NB The fact is I understand why they ask those questions: because that tension is part of what works about the piece.
JL You’ve excited that interest quite deliberately, so the question can’t not be asked. But then again, all you can say is that the truth of the piece is inside the work, not outside it.
NB However, in the past, I’ll have fictionalized things for the sake of fictionalizing things and I’ll have made them worse. Sometimes you want the exact person.
JL I took a vivid pleasure in how you gave yourself the freedom not only to use reality, but to use it in gratuitous specificity, just to make it feel realer to you. It’s like you’re creating a time capsule, you’re putting a world into an almost immaculate re-creation.
NB You’re right. And I felt that even if this movie was not specifically about where I grew up, that I would still like to bring in things that—if they were right for the story—had some emotional resonance for me. Like dressing Jeff Daniels in my dad’s clothes; it’s not really because he’s playing my dad but because that visual triggers something for me. It’s both re-creating and reinventing. If I had filmed different subway stops from the ones we used as kids, something would have deflated for me. In film you can have those specificities. I put friends in the creative writing class, it made it like home to me; not home, but it makes the whole thing feel close and personal.
JL I recognized Ben Schrank in your writing classroom.
NB It activates emotional memory. Creating that time capsule effect triggers other things that will emerge beyond the specific references. It resonates.
JL Well, let’s segue into New York stuff.
NB Yeah, I was actually having coffee a couple months ago with Tom Beller. He hadn’t seen the film but he was saying, You are going to be part of this Brooklyn artist’s movement with Jonathan Lethem.
JL There are some gratifyingly eerie overtones. I literally used the squid and the whale in the Museum of Natural History in Motherless Brooklyn.
NB Oh really? I haven’t read Motherless Brooklyn yet.
JL There’s a scene where the narrator and one of his orphan friends go to the museum. They’re hypnotized by that room. They find this little brass door that’s been left open and they slip behind the glass into the penguin exhibition. I also mention the squid and the whale—I always felt so much eerie power in those dioramas. They didn’t let you use the real one in the shot, did they?
NB They did.
JL Of course things look much less scary than when I was 12 years old, but it didn’t have that sense of murky depth.
NB We lit it a little more. I wanted to expose it—when you get in really close and see it, it looks fake; so I let its fakeness come through.
JL In my memory, it’s almost something you can’t see unless you press your face to the glass.
NB They used to have glass; now they don’t.
JL I’m clearly overdue for a return visit.
NB Yeah. I was actually afraid to go back, for two reasons. I was afraid we wouldn’t get to use it and I didn’t really want to see how they’d changed it. They’ve done a great job with it but returning, no matter what, triggers all those feelings.
JL I have such sacred feelings about that museum. Those panoramas are a kind of culture-making—an art form, really—that is taken for granted, as though they just miraculously formed there, like nature itself.
NB They are works of art and at the same time they are so entertaining and informative in every way, scary and fascinating for kids.
JL They have an incredible narrative; they’re like Gregory Crewdson’s photographs in that they seem like film stills.
NB Yeah. They suggest so much of what comes before and what goes after. I still have dreams and memories of that museum that I’m not sure really exist in there. They’re feelings of exhibits that I find myself drifting into. Did you ever see the Red Grooms show?
JL Oh yeah. I loved that whole idea of a microcosm of the city. The Calder circus in the glass box at the Whitney. And the film of him making the figures do acrobats and dance.
NB I’ve seen that film. All these things conflate to become like a city within a city.
JL I’m a few years older than you, but I think we could intricately map the overlap of our childhood cities.
NB The Boerum Hill and Park Slope neighborhoods.
JL Where did you go to school?
NB I went to St. Ann’s for middle grades and then I went to Midwood High School.
JL My sister’s a Midwood graduate.
NB Where did you go?
JL I went to local public schools 29 and 38 and then I went to Music and Art High School. In Fortress of Solitude I sent Dylan to Stuyvesant instead because he didn’t have any art or music talent to speak of. Also I wanted him to be closer to the punk clubs, to CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City.
NB In real life, when my parents got divorced, I was 14 and my brother was eight and a half. I aged the kids to 16 and 12 because I wanted Walt to be more in the world of girls and I wanted Frank to be closer to prepubescence.
JL It’s funny how conscious you become of these very slight adjustments. I needed Dylan to have exactly the same movies and songs I had in my experience, but for elaborate reasons I also needed him to be exactly six months younger than me. You feel these little tremors of adjustment move through the book because of that.
NB When you’re in command of it, you can do those things and go in either direction, making it exact or adjusting it. That reverberates throughout the whole thing.
JL The Pink Floyd motif in The Squid and the Whale really got me. I’m no fledgling musician, but I’d nevertheless rewrite the entire lyric sheet to The Wall into a notebook as if I were somehow substantiating it, just like your character.
NB Making it yours. It’s funny how people’s memories and associations work. Pink Floyd is associated with the ’70s. The Squid and the Whale takes place in ’86 and people are like, Hey I loved the ’80s detail of Pink Floyd. When I was in high school that was as current as anything. But it’s funny what people will see as period details.
JL It means that you’ve captured that feeling with a piece of culture that’s so totemic that that song was born the day you heard it.
NB It’s still similar, but Park Slope and so much of Brooklyn is much more affluent than it was when we were growing up. I always have a slightly irrational feeling that my childhood Park Slope is not your childhood Park Slope.
JL What’s so interesting is how it is so absolutely changed and how it has some innate, infrastructural reality that was probably the same in 1870. A feeling of how city life is structured that resides in the buildings and streets themselves, the angle of light. But then again, most people focus on change, specifically gentrification. It’s been 30 years of steady renovation. The world we knew, the street life, the sense of marginality, is largely gone. It was kind of tropical in Brooklyn back then.
NB That life in the street was such a big part of life in Brooklyn.
JL I think the nature of childhood has changed, too. Kids aren’t given that license to define their own use of time. I’m sure this is another note you got on your screenplay: that the younger brother being left home alone at night at such a young age is horrible; a kind of abuse much too serious to be treated so lightly.
NB It’s funny, I’ve heard people refer to joint custody as a failed experiment from the ’80s. The first time I heard that, I was like, Really? That was just life.
JL (laughter) Our parents’ methods have been firmly rebuked by subsequent generations of right-thinking parents. But I’m not convinced that there wasn’t something beautiful being reached for even in all that experimentation, truthfulness, and mess.
NB I feel the same way. I see friends with their kids and I’m impressed at how loving they are as parents and how they seem to have the kids’ best interest in mind. People have referred to situations in the movie as awful. And I feel like, I don’t know. It’s not so bad.
JL You apply no judgment on, for instance, the parents’ attempt to be honest with the kids about what they’re going through, honesty even to the level of absurdity and discomfort. Obviously, at 15 you don’t want to hear so much about your mom’s dating life. But that impulse—that it’s best to treat the children like equals and to be real with them—it shaped me, and I treasure it. It’s not to be completely mocked or shamed.
NB I agree.
JL I think we might be in good with these folks now. I mean, not that it’s not a gas talking.
NB I wish all interviews could be like this.
Jonathan Lethem is the author of six novels, including The Fortress of Solitude (Doubleday, 2003) and Motherless Brooklyn (Doubleday, 1999). He is also the author of two short-story collections and, most recently, a book of essays, The Disappointment Artist (Doubleday, 2005). He lives in Brooklyn and Maine.
Originally published in
Featuring interviews with Arturo Herrera and Josiah McElheny, Jennifer Bartlett and Elizabeth Murray, Lincoln Perry, Anthony Downey and Yinka Shonibare, Eliot Weinberger and Forrest Gander, Lionel Shriver, Noah Baumbach and Jonathan Lethem, George Lewis and Jeff Parker, and David Rabe and Evangeline Morphos.
My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.