Article by Brian Brooks:
Oscar-nominated filmmaker Noah Baumbach was the focus of an hour-long conversation at the Tribeca Film Festival, though his screen-legend moderator certainly shared the limelight from the stage in a packed theater in Lower Manhattan. Two-time Academy Award Best Actor winner Dustin Hoffman lead the chat which was imbued with heavy doses of dry humor, along with analysis of filmmaking technique and some playful jousting.
The combination of 79 year-old Dustin Hoffman interviewing 47 year-old Noah Baumbach at Tribeca was not exactly an accident. Hoffman stars in Baumbach’s latest project, Meyerowitz Stories, which will have its world premiere at the upcoming Cannes Film Festival next month. It is described as an intergenerational tale of adult siblings contending with the influence of their aging father. The feature also stars Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Elizabeth Marvel, Grace Van Patten and Emma Thompson.
2017 also marks the half-century anniversary of Hoffman’s breakthrough role as Benjamin Braddock in which he starred opposite Anne Bancroft’s Mrs. Robinson in Mike Nichols’ The Graduate (1967). Early on in the conversation, Hoffman found a connection between his experience working with Nichols and Baumbach, which set the tone for their on-stage back and forth.
“This was only the second time in 50 years that I’ve worked with a [filmmaker] where the director wanted me to say every single word that was on the page,” explained Hoffman about working on Meyerowitz Stories. “The last time was on The Graduate. The script supervisor would come up to me then and say, ‘It’s not a period. Those are three dots…’ Your script supervisor did the same f****** thing!”
Baumbach, who only directs projects he has written, said that he spends a lot of “time and care” finessing the flow of dialog for his films. He realizes actors may need some time to digest what is in a script, but ultimately it is up to them to bring life to his words.
“I’m more interested in seeing the actor find their way through what I’ve written,” he said. “Even if they don’t right away, they have to find a way rather than trying to re-write the dialog.”
Baumbach shared that he rarely speaks about his second movie, Mr. Jealousy (1997), saying that going into that project was “much harder,” because he did not have the same naiveté he had been blessed with heading into his first directorial, Kicking and Screaming (1995). The filmmaker revealed he was “self-conscious” and “struggled” with Mr. Jealousy, a comedy-romance, which starred Eric Stoltz and Annabella Sciorra. It would take seven years before Baumbach was back on set directing a feature film. That film, The Squid And the Whale, would prove to be a watershed for the filmmaker, though it took some time to get off the ground.
“Nobody wanted to make it,” he recalled. “People liked the script, but it was seen as non-commercial. I was trying to get it made in 2000, but it wasn’t until 2004 that we did.”
Baumbach received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay for The Squid And the Whale, which starred Jeff Daniels, Jesse Eisenberg, Laura Linney, Owen Kline and William Baldwin. Set in the ‘80s, the feature, which follows two young boys dealing with their parents’ divorce in Brooklyn, grossed over $7.37M at the box office. His 2015 film, While We’re Young, overtook Squid And the Whale at the box office, coming in at nearly $7.6M.
“There’s nuance in doing something personal,” said Baumbach about The Squid And the Whale. “The movie uses something from my biography. It’s in Park Slope where I grew up. My parents were divorced. Jeff [Bridges] wears my dad’s clothes. We used my high school. It’s meaningful for me because it accessed something that’s raw, emotional and personal, but it wasn’t something that recreated my life. I used somethings I understood, and that meant something to me.”
Greta Gerwig has played a major part in Baumbach’s filmmaking evolution. The duo, who are a couple off-set, co-wrote Frances Ha (2012) and Mistress America (2015), which also starred Gerwig. She also appeared in his 2010 film, Greenberg.
“Working with Greta broadened and opened me up,” said Baumbach. “Before I hadn’t gotten outside myself enough to see other possibilities. I don’t take other people’s scripts and make them, but I do need to find someone else’s (collaboration) to break through things. I found working with Greta inspiring.”
He has also looked to other friends in honing in on his technique.
“When I was younger on [my first two films] Kicking and Screaming and Mr. Jealousy, I’d find whatever was the best location for what I wrote and that would [have] to fit,” said Baumbach about the evolution of his filmmaking modus operandi. “But now I do think a lot about location. Brian De Palma talks a lot about this in the documentary I did (De Palma, 2015). Sometimes he doesn’t know about a scene until he sees the actual location.”
Offering the perspective of cinematic history, Dustin Hoffman recalled that Mike Nichols had luxury of shooting The Graduate in a schedule that filmmakers today could only dream of, especially for a send-time filmmaker (Nichols’ first feature was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf – 1966).
“It was basically a small movie,” said Hoffman. “It’s a few actors with walls, but he shot it over 100 days. That’s unheard of today. A picture like that would be shot in 35 days. He also brought in the crew for the rehearsal, which would not be allowed… Rehearsing doesn’t mean you’re learning your lines, it is your time to be wrong and have the luxury to learn what’s wrong…”
Hoffman said that like Baumbach’s The Squid And the Whale, “a lot of people” had passed on The Graduate too. He said that he also learned more about why he had been cast in the starring role only years later.
“I read that I was a bit of an alter-ego and that’s why [Mike Nichols] cast me,” he said. “Benjamin Braddock was meant to be a Robert Redford type — six feet tall and blonde. But then he went for me.”