Film: Family Affair

Noah Baumbach mines his own life for the acclaimed family drama The Squid and the Whale

Dec 14, 2005 at 2:06 pm
James Hamilton

Noah Baumbach, writer/director of The Squid and the Whale

New York filmmaker Noah Baumbach stands out. While everyone else at the closing ceremonies for the 2005 Sundance Film Festival arrives in soiled clothes, Baumbach walks past the recently installed theater seats at the cavernous Park City Racquet Club displaying a stylish suit, vest and freshly scrubbed appearance.

"Whoever's wearing dirty underwear raise your hand," Sundance Festival Programmer John Cooper asks the crowd, laughing.

By the appearances of the people in the room, Baumbach would be the only honest person keeping his hands at his side. He looks like a million dollars.

But the important reasons for Baumbach's distinction comes later that evening when he receives directing and screenwriting awards for his family drama The Squid and the Whale.

"This is my third movie but, while writing it and directing it, I discovered it was my first movie," Baumbach tells the audience. "I became the filmmaker I knew I was but wasn't able to be for some reason."

The acclaim Baumbach first tasted on an unseasonably warm Utah night last January keeps coming. He's been directing and writing scripts for movies for 10 years, ever since his comedies Mr. Jealousy and Kicking and Screaming.

But The Squid and the Whale, a family-in-crisis drama starring Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney as battling spouses, has elevated Baumbach to the level of an "authentic voice" in American film. He's not the moviemaker he used to be.

"Four years and six months," Baumbach says, rattling off the number like it's the first thing on his mind — and it probably is. "That's where I've been all this time, trying to get this film made. It took a year-and-a-half alone to get the script into fighting shape."

Acclaim and audience favor follows Baumbach from the Utah winter to a sunny September afternoon at the Toronto Film Festival, the latest promotional stop for The Squid and the Whale. Baumbach could sit back and relax amid the hubbub of talent and press gathered on a hotel courtyard, stylish again in dark sunglasses and a striped dress shirt.

Glowing reviews and enthusiastic feedback surround his film. He's a newlywed, just married to actress Jennifer Jason Leigh. But Baumbach, a boyish-looking 36 with his thick dark hair and thin build, quickly emphasizes the heartache behind the critical success of his film.

His lighting-fast production schedule was low budget even by independent standards. Many of his New York City location shoots were completed without a permit. Baumbach's point is that if you want to discuss the goodness surrounding The Squid and the Whale, make sure you credit the hard work and sacrifice that made it possible.

In the film, envy and competitiveness between husband-and-wife writers Bernard (Daniels) and Joan (Linney) impact their sons Walt (Jesse Eisenberg), 16, and Frank (Owen Kline), a 12-year-old who is mature beyond his years. The fact that the film borrows liberally from Baumbach's life did not make things easier. In fact, his closeness to the story probably accounts for the long amount of time it took him to finish the script.

Baumbach's parents, novelist Jonathan Baumbach and Georgia Brown, a onetime film critic for The Village Voice, divorced when he was 14 and his brother was 9. How the spouses manage to split custody equally across a seven-day week is something he knows first-hand along with the experience of growing up in separate homes on opposite sides of Brooklyn.

At the climax of the film, Walt rushes to the American Museum of Natural History to see an exhibit he remembers viewing on numerous occasions with his mother. The exhibit is the "The Clash of the Titans," a model between a squid and a whale in battle that frightened Walt as a boy. Asked if the scene represents the epiphany in his life when he too realized he would become a writer like his parents, Baumbach acts surprised.

"I've never heard that before," he says, his eyes hidden by the dark lenses of his glasses. "I'm not saying I don't like the interpretation, but I didn't set out to say that with the scene."

Baumbach listens politely to the personal questions of the interview. He acknowledges that his parents have watched the film and enjoyed it. Still, its broad-stroke similarities aside, The Squid and the Whale is a drama, and it would be wrong to pinpoint specific scenes as extracted from his own upbringing.

Press days in Toronto turn into publicity obligations for the New York Film Festival and year-end awards politicking. The positive momentum for The Squid and the Whale keeps building.

The immediate upside to all the attention over The Squid and the Whale is that it won't take Baumbach another five years to start his next movie. Too many people want to be involved in his next project for that to happen.

Asked if the movie has changed for him now that he's watched it time and time again over the past year, Baumbach is quick to correct, again.

"I really don't watch it," he says by phone. "I mean I watch it at festivals like Sundance and Toronto, and I watched in New York because so many friends and families were at the screening. But it's not like I go to the movies and watch it over and over."

More awards are to be handed out by year's end, and Baumbach hopes his journey ends just like it began. The Squid and the Whale ends ambiguously, but that doesn't mean its filmmaker doesn't deserve a classic happy ending. ©