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Noah Baumbach has been making movies for more than 20 years, and in that time, has developed a distinctive voice in American cinema. His stories of neurotic New Yorkers are loaded with memorable moments of self-obsession and narcissistic showdowns. But Baumbach didn’t become a filmmaker overnight; he learned much about filmmaking from watching other movies. Raised by novelist Jonathan Baumbach and film critic Georgia Brown, Baumbach grew up surrounded by cinema, and it played a critical role in his evolving love for the medium.
The filmmaker looked back on some of these key influences during a conversation at the Film Society of Lincoln Center shortly before a screening of his latest effort, the ensemble comedy “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected),” which Netflix releases later this month.
The Movie Brats
Baumbach was born in 1969, which placed on the younger end of the spectrum of moviegoers influenced by the movie brat generation — the collection of mainstream filmmakers who produced iconic studio movies at a transitional moment in Hollywood history. “I’m the age of ‘Star Wars,’ and everybody’s the age of ‘Star Wars,’ but I was actually seven when it came out and grew up with it,” Baumbach said. “At that age, I wanted to make all kinds of movies.” He was also a big Steven Spielberg fan. “I could see all these movies — not ‘Jaws,’ I [wasn’t allowed] to see that — but all the others. They were so meaningful to me… ‘E.T.’ was my favorite film.”
Baumbach’s cinephilia blossomed in the late eighties and early nineties. That’s when he first discovered another ‘70s-era breakout, Martin Scorsese. “Like everybody, you’re seeing the luck of the draw,” he said. “It’s like, who’s your James Bond? What was your first Scorsese? I saw ‘King of Comedy,’ then ‘After Hours’ and ‘The Color of Money.’ Those were my Scorseses. Of course, then I went back and saw the others.”
These days, Baumbach’s favorite filmmaker from that generation may be Brian De Palma, the subject of the documentary “De Palma,” which Baumbach co-directed last year. “I’m friends with Brian, but I couldn’t see those movies at that age,” Baumbach said, referring to his childhood. “I couldn’t go to ‘Dressed to Kill’ or ‘Blow Out.’ Those I caught later. The first Brian movie I saw was ‘Wise Guys,’ which was a strange one, a comedy.” However, De Palma’s meta gangster drama “The Untouchables” hit theaters in 1987, a sweet spot for the young Baumbach. “I was lucky that he made that one right when I could see it,” Baumbach said. “Even though my parents would tell it was ‘lesser Brian,’ I was like, not in my mind. It was great.”
It’s a little jarring to think that Noah Baumbach has been directing movies now for 22 years. In some ways, he still seems like that fresh-faced kid who released Kicking and Screaming when he was only 26. Somehow, behind a curtain somewhere, Baumbach became a full-fledged “veteran director.” (To put this in perspective, Baumbach’s at the same stage of his career that Scorsese was when he was making Goodfellas and Cape Fear.) Baumbach, like contemporaries such as frequent collaborator Wes Anderson, have now been doing this a long time. They are no longer the new wave of directors, they are just “the wave.” And now, Baumbach may just have made his best movie.
And that’s not a claim made lightly. Baumbach’s filmography includes Greenberg, The Squid and the Whale, Frances Ha, Margot at the Wedding – and one of the best documentaries ever made about a filmmaker, De Palma (co-directed with Jake Paltrow). But with The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), he’s arguably made his deepest and most complete film.
Dustin Hoffman plays Harold Meyerowitz, the father of Danny and Jean (Adam Sandler and Elizabeth Marvel), and their half-brother, Matthew (Ben Stiller). Their stories are divided in half, which builds anticipation because we have two of the biggest mainstream comedy stars of the last 20 years finally in a movie together, yet for a good portion of the film, they don’t share any scenes. Of course, Baumbach knows exactly what he’s doing. When the characters finally come together for the final act it’s truly powerful.
Baumbach does not like doing short interviews. So we had plenty of time to take a deeper dive into what he was trying to accomplish with The Meyerowitz Stories. And Baumbach can get a little skittish when talking about his movies and himself – like any normal person would – but it’s pretty obvious even Baumbach knows this movie is special.
The Meyerowitz Stories is currently playing at the New York Film Festival, as well as his partner’s film, Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, a movie that is also getting rave reviews. This is the first time the pair has had competing films (after collaborating many times) and as Baumbach admits, yes, it’s weird. Ahead, Baumbach also discusses who else he’d have loved to have made a filmmaking documentary about in the same style of De Palma. (It’s a legitimate “what could have been” reveal)...
...When it comes to a documentary based on a filmmaker, I’ve heard the phrase, “Well, it’s no De Palma,” used a few times. That’s got to be a nice feeling that you’ve made a documentary based on a filmmaker that’s so well received.
Well, it’s nice to hear. I love it. That’s a project that I can un-complicatedly talk about because I feel both proud of what we did with it, but also, obviously, it’s a celebration of Brian. Brian’s work speaks for itself. We didn’t create an advertisement for Brian, which some of these very entertaining documentaries sometimes feel like. You know, they’re there to remind you how important this person was. And I felt like, whether you know Brian or not, that would be clear by watching the movie. But also that wasn’t what we were setting out to do. But I loved working on it because it just meant picking cool Brian De Palma clips to go with what he’s saying – it’s a pretty good day at work.
Could you do something like that with someone else?
Well, yeah. I mean, it’s obviously singular to Brian. I think, yeah, there are people I wish I had actually done it with, people who I got to know who passed away who I loved talking to and talking about movies. Jake Paltrow and I and Brian are just very close, close friends. And the thing really is a document of our dinners, our hanging out, our asking him about what happened on this movie and what happened on this movie. I mean, we did it obviously in a more formalized way for the documentary, but it’s all stuff we talk about and talked about anyway.
So that’s obviously an important ingredient in why that feels so personal, in a way. I know from my own experience, and I know it from other people who I know who are well known and do interviews or whatever, it’s just, no offense, but you can’t kind of enter into the same kind of ease that you can with a friend – and a friend who does exactly the same thing as you. So that was really part of what makes that. I mean, you look at other great documents like Peter Bogdanovich’s interviews with directors…
Who you got to work with a couple years ago.
Yes, well, I’ve known Peter for a long, long time. And those are unbeatable, too, because they’re just so much about filmmaking. You have them answering the questions and talking about the things that are, I think, really about filmmaking. And that’s always, for me, the stuff that I’m most interested in reading or watching.
Who do you wish you would have gotten a chance to do a documentary with?
Mike Nichols. Bob Altman. I got to know them pretty well, and I think they both would have made – and very much in their own ways – you could have done an interesting, great version of what we did with Brian.
“For me, when I was a kid, it was Blade Runner, it was Tron, it was The Shining,” Leto told Rotten Tomatoes. “It was these kind of elevated genre movies really blew my mind, as well as films like Clockwork Orange and Scorsese [movies] and the early work of Brian De Palma. But Tron is another one that I feel like is a world that we’re not done with yet. There’s so much more to explore and to see there. I would absolutely love to expand upon the world of Tron and see what we could do to bring that to life.”
Jeremy Lowe on Carrie
It had to have been October of ’89, and I had just started junior high. After school I’d always hang out at my best friend’s house and watch TV. Of course being Halloween season we were looking forward to seeing some brutal horror movie. Needless to say, his Mom was home early from work and watching some old chick flick. Ugh!
Regardless, we sat for a minute. Woah, why are all they throwing tampons at this poor girl? “I thought you liked horror movies and Stephen King?”, asked Jon’s mother. I answered, “of course I do, especially horror movies based on Stephen King books” (at 12 years old, I hadn’t actually read any Stephen King books). “Well, this is CARRIE, watch it, you’ll like it.”
Mrs. Dubey was wrong, I didn’t like CARRIE, I fucking loved it! Being a shy outcast, I genuinely felt for Carrie White (Sissy Spacek). I could completely identify with her. All she wanted was to fit in. The direction was so excellent. Each character knew who they were and what they were doing. During the whole film, I just wanted poor Carrie to get her revenge. When she did, it was spectacular! I loved the blood, the chaos, it was everything I wanted. The score really intensified the whole scene. Then to witness all this in a crazy split screen, what I later learned to be one of Brian De Palma’s trademarks, overwhelmed me… completely blew my mind.
Brian De Palma’s 1976 adaptation of CARRIE will always be one of the best horror movies, high school revenge film, and my kind of chick flick!
The layers of familiarity are almost deceptive: it’d be easy to dismiss OBSESSION as De Palma’s fanboy attempt to ape his idol, especially since his devotion to recapturing Hitchcock’s sweeping, melodramatic aesthetic is almost slavish. However, it’s more a fitting decoy designed to lure an unsuspecting audience down a path that quickly veers into the sort of lurid territory that Hitchcock only implied. OBSESSION climaxes with a dizzying display of ambiguity, a sublime moment that rapturously lays bare the psychosexual preoccupations of its director. It can be argued that this, too, is the moment De Palma truly arrived — even if he only stepped out of Hitchcock’s shadow long enough to be caught in his own a few months later.
I tend to separate De Palma into two categories: Prime-De Palma and Sub-De Palma. His prime stuff is pretty easy to recognize, with THE PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, SISTERS, CARRIE, BLOW OUT, and DRESSED TO KILL, and his sub stuff (while still great) is everything else. That all being said though there’s only one movie that’s PURE Brian De Palma, a film that puts all of his strengths and weaknesses on display in one gloriously grimy package.
Thats right, I’m talking about BODY DOUBLE.
The mystery at the core of the conspiracy is revealed early on in the film, but as DePalma explained upon the film’s release the movie is not about the core but rather about the relationship between Cage’s corrupt Rick Santoro, attempting to something pure, and good for once in his life, and Sinise’s murderous Boy Scout, who, while his intentions may be pure, is going about things the right way. We see two friends — told in broad strokes — who keep an uneasy loyalty to each other, even when at odds with what they believe is right. DePalma’s slick, knowing camera work (a very long take — with hidden edits — opens the film) elevates SNAKE EYES from forgettable Hollywood boilerplate to exciting, B-movie trash with a terrifically nihilistic ending.
I was six when that film came out. One night, I was in the car with my parents, going who-knows-where, when we passed the local drive-in theater, which was playing PHANTOM. Already obsessed with movies even at that young age, I eagerly looked over to catch a glimpse of the screen as we drove by. In those five seconds, I saw the shot where the rock star known as Beef is electrocuted onstage and his face contorts from the shock. I’d never seen anything like that before. It was fascinating, making me wonder what the film was about and what other kinds of things happened in the story. It was only a few years ago that I finally got around to seeing PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE in its entirety, but to my delight, it was every bit as bizarre as I imagined it would be back in ’74. In many ways, this is the magic of movies for me. Little bits and pieces stick with you for years, or even decades, and the way you saw something becomes an integral part of your experience with it. I’m sure I would have enjoyed PHANTOM regardless (it’s got good music, great style, and an awesomely kooky sense of humor), but the fact that I had that tiny snippet lodged in my brain for years made my eventual discovery of the film so much more powerful.
Fuck it, I guess it might be an overly-obvious choice — although no one here has made it yet — but SCARFACE is an absolute classic. It’s not the sexualized updating on Hitchcock that DePalma made his bread and butter, but it’s a visceral, unforgettable gut-punch with incredible characters, razor-sharp dialogue, blistering and operatic ultraviolence, and pathos enough to make the ancient Greeks envious. One of the best crime films ever made.
Grace’s quest for the truth leads her to a mental hospital, where she is to discover the truth about Dominique. Here, Grace is mistaken for a patient and her insistence on her true identity is laughed off as a delusion by the men in charge. It’s a truly harrowing moment that resonated with me as both a woman and a journalist, as Grace has her agency stripped from her so easily and quickly. This storyline was later revisited in American Horror Story: Asylum, a series on which Salt serves as both producer and writer. Finally, I adore the film’s dark ending, with everyone finally ready to believe Grace, who (thanks to her hypnosis at the hand’s of Danielle’s husband) no longer has any memory of the murder. De Palma would only get better after SISTERS, but the film’s flashes of genius, its unwavering commitment to exploring the darker side of identity, sanity and sexuality, paired with a unhappy and somewhat unresolved ending make it a must-see for me.
The one I’ve seen the most is SCARFACE. The one I’ve heard the most (due to the Ennio Morricone score) is THE UNTOUCHABLES. The one I’ve studied the closest is BLOW OUT. The one I’d most like to take another look at is THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES. The one I kinda still can’t believe actually exists is PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE. (And thank God for that one existing, by the way.) The first one I remember seeing is CASUALTIES OF WAR.
Then there’s the first one I didn’t remember seeing.
I watched BODY DOUBLE again in 2015. I thought I hadn’t seen it before, but I was mistaken. Ever have an involuntary autobiographical memory? Turns out I first saw BODY DOUBLE when I was six or seven. My dad was watching it on cable. I came in during the beach scene.
I remember now thinking it was a foreign film, since my dad watched plenty of those at the time, and particularly since that sequence is so sparsely worded, and heavy on soft-focus visual style and Pino Dinaggio’s orchestral music. (Not to mention that protagonist Craig Wasson has the sort of looks that would easier make sense for a star in France than one in America. There’s something sort of Depardieu-ish going on there.)
Anyway, if you remember how that scene ends, you might understand why I figured it was time I left the room. Unfortunately, all of that prompted a conversation about the birds and the bees that I was just not ready to have.
Some movies you can’t completely extricate from that sort of viewing experience. As an adult I can totally admire the film, even while re-experiencing it through the lens of a six-or-seven-year-old’s absolute confusion.
Now, I suppose, the rest is a matter for psychotherapy.
From the beginning (the end of the 60s) and until today (Passion, 2012), and tomorrow still certainly, the staging of Brian De Palma will never cease to play the game of cat and mouse. But in a version where the roles are constantly reversed: to be beaten at one's own game...
Split screens, double focal lengths, slow motion, 360-degree panning, dives and counter-dives, multiplication of angles and axes, aerial camera, so many ways to expose a mise en scène or to sum up all reality to its mise en scène. In short, a sophisticated device of signs as so many indices that give the viewer the illusion of his omniscience: if all reality holds in its staging as in a box, then nothing is supposed to escape the one who Looks in the box. De Palma likes nothing more than to drive the spectator-voyeur, to make him go around the owner, to direct his glance and to designate a detail (to better conceal another). Is that not the very subject of Body Double?
The vertical plunge holds a place of choice in the De Palma fireworks. It is even a recurring motif of his work, a motif that is often quickly interpreted as a tribute to Hitchcock (the opening credits of North by Northwest, the staircase of Psycho, the tower of Vertigo, the pipe organ of Secret Agent…). In the visual economy of the cinema of De Palma, it is also the ultimate ruse: the zenithal point of view seems to make each spectator a god. Nothing escapes it apparently, everything is given to see and everything is seen, the foreground doubled as background. But this phantasm of all power makes him forget his constitutive infirmity: the spectator, like a character of De Palma, has no eyes in the back (if it were otherwise, Carlito would still be alive ...). It is there, at his back, that De Palma stands, and with him the truth of all his staging: there is always someone or something that looks at the one who looks. As in a game of mirrors, or in the painting by Magritte (Not to be Reproduced), one is always seen as "the eye was in the grave and looked at Cain" (Victor Hugo , La Conscience).
Here in the present, how often does “Some Kind of Wonderful” come up for each of you?
Howard Deutch: Quite a bit, actually. Which is ironic because it wasn’t considered a hit when it came out. But it’s a meaningful movie to people and I met my wife on set so it’s a meaningful movie to me.
Most people talk about it like I talk about a movie I didn’t direct and I don’t think the other person has heard of. They don’t talk about “Some Kind of Wonderful” as completely unknown or an underdog but they cherish it because it hadn’t been this massive hit movie. It’s not like they’re saying, “Have you ever seen this little movie, “Back to the Future?”
Lea Thompson: It wasn’t a bomb, but definitely a disappointment. Yet it seems to have a broad base around the world that are really touched by it and quote it. I just asked on Instagram and Twitter about everyone’s favorite line from the movie and was amazed how many people have so many different memories of it.
I also hear from more men than women who love it, but I can’t tell you why. Maybe because it’s two girls fighting over a guy? Or because it’s about a guy trying to find himself? I also hear from a lot of gay women who love Watts.
You both have worked more or less continuously in films and television since 1987. Where do you see “Some Kind of Wonderful” in the arc of your work?
Deutch: I had only made one other movie up to that point and couldn’t cast the role Eric Stoltz ended up playing. Around that time, I ended up on a plane with (director) Brian De Palma, whom I didn’t really know. He told me, “If you can’t cast it, don’t make it.” I mentioned this to John and suggested I do one of his other scripts and ended up in movie jail. Paramount locked the door of my office.
Martha Coolidge (director of “Valley Girl”) was brought on to replace me. The script was originally a broad comedy and John made rewrites to take it in the direction of Martha’s sensibility, which was darker and more adult. Martha cast Eric. But when she and John had disagreements, I was brought back with a different script, a leading actor. A different movie.
Thompson: I was 26 when I made “Some Kind of Wonderful.” Right before, I had made “Howard the Duck,” which got terrible reviews. I thought my career was over. Eric Stoltz, whom I had become friends with while working together on both “Back to the Future” [Stolz was the original Marty McFly] and “The Wild Life,” acting as a messenger for Howard, delivered the script to my house. Howie saw me as right for Amanda even though I had already turned it down because I thought Watts [the character ultimately played by Mary Stuart Masterson] was the better part. I needed a job. Amanda was my second chance.
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