Like so many people who are professionally funny, Noah Baumbach rarely cracks a smile in person. You'd think that he'd be walking on air these days, floating on the extraordinary reception for his new film, The Squid and the Whale, which opened in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver yesterday and begins rolling out in other cities next week.
Last January, the movie began its public life by scooping up two prizes at the Sundance Film Festival. When it opened recently in the United States, The New Yorker's David Denby called the film, which catches a family in the midst of dissolution by divorce, "a small miracle." Kenneth Turan in The Los Angeles Times led his review by saying Squid "has the power to break your heart and heal it again." For that matter, New York magazine has praised Baumbach, 36, as "old Woody Allen," a comparison that seems especially valid given that he is one of the very few writers in years to pen Shouts & Murmurs humour pieces for the New Yorker that are actually funny.
Baumbach's modest reaction? "Anything nice that anyone says about you in print, it's hard not to like," he replies cautiously. Sipping S. Pellegrino at the back of a French patisserie in Greenwich Village this week, that's as effusive as he'll get.
His fingers are thin and unadorned, bearing no symbol of his marriage last month to his long-time girlfriend, actress Jennifer Jason Leigh. He is dressed like the cliché of a Village intellectual: brown corduroy jacket, striped shirt and tan pants, sporting a two-day stubble that gives his young face a hint of maturity. The clothes seem generically familiar, but it's only later, when looking through production photos of Squid, that his uniform casts a provocative echo: In his film, the polarizing, selfish father Bernard wears a similar jacket. By that point, Baumbach is gone, but the question lingers: Is he wearing the same jacket as the one in the film?
It's a valid question because of how Squid was made. Shot for about $1.5-million (U.S.) over 23 days, the film was a sort of homecoming for Baumbach, who lives in Greenwich Village but grew up in the Brooklyn neighbourhood of Park Slope.
Squid parachutes the audience into that brownstone Brooklyn neighbourhood circa 1986, giving an intimate view of the breakdown of the marriage of Bernard and Joan Berkman and the fallout's devastating effect on their two teenaged sons. Bernard (Jeff Daniels) is a writer in the sunset of a career that never fulfilled its early promise, while Joan (Laura Linney) is also a writer, one beginning to slip out from under her husband's oppressive control and, not coincidentally, earn acclaim.
The film is rooted in Baumbach's life. His father is the chronically underappreciated literary writer Jonathan Baumbach, his mother the former Village Voice film critic Georgia Brown. The parents did indeed split up when he was 14 and his brother Nico was 8½. The kids did, indeed, follow a scrupulously fair but crushing joint-custody arrangement whereby they slept at their father's house on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Saturdays and every other Thursday, as detailed in the film.
"I know what's real in my life and what's in the movie," he says. But "there are things that I invented entirely that are in the movie that in a lot of cases feel just as real as stuff that actually is true," he says.
When he shot Squid, Baumbach occasionally dressed Daniels in his father's old clothes. He also used his mother's books for set dressing. "To have as many of the real things there was undoubtedly more for me than the actors," he says. "If it helped them, it was a kind of a bonus. But I use friends in the background of other scenes. I like to use elements in my life, if they're right, and put them in the movie, to help me connect, I guess emotionally, to what I'm doing."
Connect emotionally: It may seem like an unusual urge for a filmmaker whose previous features were quippily urban, including his lauded 1995 indie debut about graduating collegians, Kicking and Screaming (not to be confused with the Will Farrell goof of the same name), and 1997's Mr. Jealousy. With his friend, the director Wes Anderson, Baumbach also co-wrote last year's coolly ironic The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. The head-swirling opening party scene allowed Baumbach to pay homage to a film he greatly admires, Federico Fellini's famously hallucinatory 8½, about a harried film director.
The spare emotionalism and mature honesty of Squid is all the more surprising, since Baumbach says he thought he'd been writing a comedy. "It wasn't so much that I was looking at what I was writing and laughing. I just think, because of my idea of myself as a writer, I just assumed that if I'm writing it, it'll be funny," he explains. As for the level of emotion the film reaches, "I think it was just the right time" in life to write it, he says. "I just sort of trusted myself in a way to let go, and not worry about making jokes or controlling it or having an idea or concept, just sort of letting it be about characters, and being patient in a way. Letting the characters tell me what I was writing."
None of those characters escapes the clear-eyed gaze of Baumbach's camera: not the selfish parents, not the young brother Frank, not even Walt, the 16-year-old based loosely on Baumbach himself. His father's unjustifiably arrogant proxy, Walt, is a creep toward his girlfriend, blithely plagiarizes Pink Floyd's Hey You for a talent show, and passes off his dad's opinions of particular books as his own. If the film's ending suggests a faint freedom for Walt, with a moment in which he leaves his father's side, Baumbach tempers that now. "It's not like Walt is never going back," he says. "He may be back there in 20 minutes. I think we spend our whole lives having little moments of freedom, or open air in some way, and then shutting the door all over again, you know?"
If so, Baumbach might allow that Squid is one moment of freedom for him. "I wouldn't necessarily say that writing this script is when I got out from under my parents' shadow, their influence. But I would say it's the first time I felt like I was writing from me, in some ways discovering myself and how I work, in a way discovering the filmmaker that I am. So in that way this movie was a personal breakthrough, each step of it."
The four wounded Baumbachs don't see each other much any more. Mom lives in Italy for much of the year. Nico is studying for his PhD in literature in North Carolina. Last month, all four got together for the first time in a while at the premiere of The Squid and the Whale at the New York Film Festival, followed by a party in the Hall of Ocean Life at the American Museum of Natural History, which has a small but key role in the film.
Like Walt, Baumbach remembers being deeply affected as a kid by a diorama at the museum, showing a giant squid in battle with a sperm whale.
And sure enough, there they were that night, the two marine creatures locked together, watching over him with their saucer-sized eyes in an odd blend of benevolence and menace.
Roger Waters of Pink Floyd was there. So were some of Baumbach's oldest and dearest friends. He smiles now, briefly, at the memory. "It was all like a scene out of 8½," he says.