In anticipation of the Netflix release of his latest film, Marriage Story, writer-director Noah Baumbach focused on the power of beginnings in his lecture for the BAFTA Screenwriters’ series.
The filmmaker, who has also worked extensively with director Wes Anderson, has seen success with films including The Squid and the Whale, Frances Ha and The Meyerowitz Stories in 2017.
Conscious that this was his first lecture, Baumbach cited the words of Mike Nicholls, Brian De Palma in discussing the importance of a film’s opening scenes. He summarised: “It’s your only chance to introduce the audience to your characters and to your movie. It’s your opportunity to do anything you want and a director must take this responsibility very seriously.”
Though aware of this importance, he joked that “Greta Gerwig pointed out to me that my movies tend to tell you what they’re about at the very beginning. I wasn’t aware of this, but it’s embarrassing when you go back and look.” If in doubt of this, then you should focus on the opening lines in both The Squid and the Whale and Greenberg.
To illustrate his point, he pointed to four separate films, each of which holds a special place for him. As a student at Vassar College, he recalls the seismic impact of Martin Scorcese’s Goodfellas. “I was seeing a classic in real time,” he enthuses, “it blew me out of my seat.”
The opening to Scorcese’s mob epic was compared to the altogether more playful Jules and Jim, a film which Baumbach often cites as his favourite. Central to both of these films is that they deliver openings which capture “giddy experiences that can’t last forever.”
Similarly, the openings to both Blue Velvet and Trouble in Paradise set the tone for what is to come. “Beneath the glossy surface there are hints of a darker underbelly,” suggests the director. It’s this symbiotic relationship between light and dark, comedy and drama, which has gone on to underpin Baumbach’s filmmaking.
The director’s time at college was a hugely formative time, but is summarised simply as “a really exciting time for me to be discovering movies.” Beyond just the joy of discovering new films, central to his nascent love were the “really exciting moments in life when you start to see connections or invisible conversations between works of art from different time periods.”
Despite his palpable love for cinema, Baumbach is rarely quixotic. He suggests that “the excitement of having the idea is seen in the execution of it,” while also claiming that “scripts are, by nature, potential.” It takes a holistic view of the filmmaking process to bring these ideas to fruition. As a result, he sees screenwriting, directing and editing as crucially intertwined. Fundamentally, he suggests, “I find in general that if you’re successful in telling the story the other things take care of themselves.”
In a career which has seen many of his pictures appear at least partially autobiographical, there was perhaps a surprising focus on Frances Ha during the Q & A. Following the rush of creating two films in his mid-twenties, the wait between these and his black-and-white picture was a difficult period, one in which he questioned whether he could really deem himself a filmmaker. Battling through this ennui, coupled with the thrill of working with Gerwig, means he now recalls it as “the movie I needed to make but didn’t know it.”
Baumbach may have burst onto the scene at a young age, but has much changed since his days at Vassar College? When discussing both how he approaches films and how they affect him now, he contends that “certainly age helps and experience helps but (…) when a movie connects it connects viscerally and emotionally.”
While still indebted to Scorcese, Lynch, Spike Lee, Ingmar Bergman and countless others, there’s something personal about Baumbach’s approach. Above all, he says that when filmmaking “I’m always talking to that younger person who was discovering movies for the first time.”
Marriage Story is released on Netflix UK on December 6.