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Adam Driver. Image Credit: NYT

Noah Baumbach wasn’t quite sure what time zone his body was in.

In the span of a few days, the filmmaker had flown from New York to the Venice Film Festival, where his divorce drama ‘Marriage Story’ premiered to acclaim, and then to the Telluride Film Festival. Now, on the morning of his movie’s first screening in the picturesque Colorado mountain town, he sat on the couch in his rented condo, feeling discombobulated.

“I was awake at, like, 5.30, which was bad because I went to bed after 1,” he said, his fingers wrapped around a cup of life-giving coffee. Soon, he’d be on a plane to the Toronto International Film Festival.

The non-stop travel, screenings, parties and interviews of the festival season can leave anyone feeling drained, but Baumbach has been buoyed by the rapturous reception ‘Marriage Story’ has received so far. Critics have hailed the picture as the strongest work yet from the writer-director, whose 10 previous films include ‘Kicking and Screaming’, ‘The Squid and the Whale’ and ‘The Meyerowitz Stories’, and a worthy addition the pantheon of classic divorce movies such as ‘Kramer vs Kramer’, ‘Scenes From a Marriage’ and ‘Shoot the Moon’.

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The writer and director Noah Baumbach in New York, Nov. 11, 2019. Image Credit: NYT

Oscar prognosticators expect the film to follow the path of last year’s ‘Roma’ to earn Netflix — which begins streaming the film on December 6 — another shot at a coveted best picture Oscar.

Through it all, Baumbach, 50, is just trying to keep his head on straight. “Staying off the internet is helpful,” he said dryly. “But at the same time, it’s always just nice when people like what you’ve done. You go into all of the movies with the same intention, which is just to make it as good as you can.”

By turns wrenching, tender and darkly comic, ‘Marriage Story’ stars Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver as Nicole and Charlie, a longtime couple with a young son whose marriage is coming apart. Despite their best intentions of having an amicable split, the two find themselves dragged into an increasingly messy divorce, as Nicole, an actress, moves to Los Angeles with their child to work on a TV pilot while Charlie, a theatre director, insists on trying to keep the splintering family in New York.

Drawing in part from Baumbach’s own experience as both a child of divorce and a divorce himself (he separated from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh in 2010 after a five-year marriage), ‘Marriage Story’ delves into aspects of what he calls “the divorce-industrial complex” — emotional, legal, financial, parental — that are often hidden from view.

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Scarlett Johansson at Sardi's restaurant in New York, Nov. 27, 2012. Image Credit: NYT

“It’s interesting, for something that’s so common in our society, how little of the process is actually known,” he said. “It’s sort of happening under our noses. It’s both such a big subject on its own, and there’s so much that comes out during it that opens up all these other narrative possibilities.”

For the cast, Baumbach’s screenplay offered the sort of fertile dramatic terrain that actors live for, said Laura Dern, who plays Nicole’s tenacious divorce lawyer.

“I’ve never cried so hard over a script in my life,” Dern said. “I remember being 6, 7 years old, watching my mom, (Diane Ladd), on a movie with Scorsese, my dad, (Bruce Dern), on a movie with Hal Ashby, listening to the words, watching their collaboration, and going, ‘I want to do that thing.’ I read Noah’s script and said, ‘This is the kind of movie that made us want to make movies.’”

Though divorce has been a theme in a number of Baumbach’s films — including 2005’s ‘The Squid and the Whale’, which earned him an original screenplay Oscar nomination — ‘Marriage Story’ actually came out of an impulse to explore the subject of love. “For a long time, I’d been wanting to make a love story, but I had no idea how to come at it,” said Baumbach, now romantically involved with director and actress Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote and starred in his 2012 film ‘Frances Ha’. “In looking at a couple breaking up, I sort of found this opportunity to tell a love story in its absence.”

While working on the script, Baumbach spoke with friends who had been through marital break-ups as well as divorce attorneys, judges and mediators. But the echoes of his own life are undeniable. Like Charlie, he is a director who was married to an actress, with whom he has a son. Though a dyed-in-the-wool native New Yorker (“I didn’t learn how to drive until I was 40”), he also has a place in L.A. and feels the tug of both cities.

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As such, Baumbach knows that many viewers will wonder just how autobiographical ‘Marriage Story’ is. “I saw this interview with Philip Roth where he described his process as taking two stones of reality and rubbing them together so they spark the imagination,” he said by way of answering. “I related to that. I think most of my writing has begun that way. I like to know where I am, just as a way to start; I’ll go to a time in my life or a conversation, a place, a smell, a city. I understand it triggers that question. But, for me, it’s often a place to start, knowing that it’s an opportunity for transformation.

“I think the movies are masks in a way,” he continued. “I mean, I wouldn’t know how to go about telling a story from my own life exactly. Things are more autobiographical in places that people wouldn’t even think to ask about.”

‘Marriage Story’ had initially been set up at Amazon Studios, but after the company pulled out amid personnel changes, Netflix — which had released 2017’s ‘The Meyerowitz Stories’ — quickly stepped in. “Netflix didn’t wait a heartbeat,” said ‘Marriage Story’ producer David Heyman. “They loved the script, and they believed in Noah. They have been incredibly supportive on all fronts.”

Having spent his entire career telling adult-oriented stories, Baumbach knows how difficult it can be these days to get people to leave their houses to see those types of movies. But while he has expressed misgivings about the streaming shift propelled by Netflix, he’s been encouraged by the company’s dedication to ‘Marriage Story’, which it’s giving a longer exclusive theatrical window than any other film it has released.

“I’ve been fortunate to find people who’ve supported what I want to do, and I work at a budget level that doesn’t put undue pressure on them,” he said. “While it’s harder now in some ways, because of companies like Netflix there are also more opportunities. Yeah, I look at what’s in the theatre and wish that there were more movies that were made for me. But when you know where to look, there’s always great and exciting stuff. So I don’t know. I’m figuring out where we’re all going as much as you are.”

Still, for Baumbach, nothing can replace the experience of sitting in a darkened theatre, sharing an intimate film such as ‘Marriage Story’ with perfect strangers: “In a theatre, you’re vulnerable. You’re there. It’s happening in front of you,” he said. “It gives you the opportunity to give things a chance. Some of my favourite movies, maybe you don’t know right away what you think. Then, when you come to it, you love it that much more. Because, in a way, you found it.”


Don’t miss it!

‘Marriage Story’ streams on Netflix from December 6. Watch the trailer below: