Noah Baumbach

The homegrown filmmaker wonders why you aren't laughing.

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Illustration: Rob Kelly

Noah Baumbach's films are gently heartbreaking affairs filled with reckless, overeducated adults and the kids whose spirits they accidentally crush. It's always poignant stuff, but Baumbach swears he isn't trying to make you cry. On the contrary, he wants to make you laugh. It was only when he saw people's sad reactions to his Brooklyn-set tragicomedy, The Squid and the Whale, that the sometime "Shouts & Murmurs" contributor realized just how subjective humor can be.

Noah Baumbach's films are gently heartbreaking affairs filled with reckless, overeducated adults and the kids whose spirits they accidentally crush. It's always poignant stuff, but Baumbach swears he isn't trying to make you cry. On the contrary, he wants to make you laugh. It was only when he saw people's sad reactions to his Brooklyn-set tragicomedy, The Squid and the Whale, that the sometime "Shouts & Murmurs" contributor realized just how subjective humor can be.

In his latest, Margot at the Wedding, the 38-year-old writer-director sends a narcissistic author (Nicole Kidman) and her adolescent son (Zane Pais) out to the country for the wedding of her sister (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Family implosion ensues.

Baumbach—who lives in Greenwich Village with his wife, Leigh, and their German-shepherd mix, Freddy—called us from Los Angeles to chat about filmmaking, psychology and comedy.

What are your feelings about therapy? It seems people in your films use psychology to hurt each other.
I'm a huge proponent of therapy and analysis, but it's something that, in a nonprofessional way, can be abused. Articulate people especially can use it as a way to make someone feel less secure, particularly in the case of Margot. With a family member it's unfair, because you know someone's history so well it almost becomes a way of dirty fighting.

Did you consider putting your wife in the Margot role? Having her play the antagonist?
No, I wanted Jennifer to do something that I thought felt closer to her as a person. She's not literally like Pauline, but I thought it would be interesting to see her play something where she could use things I see in her in real life—a certain lightness and sense of humor.

Margot at the Wedding was shot exclusively with a handheld camera. Don't you think the cameraman's arms got tired?
[Laughs] It's heavy. We would periodically buy massages for him.

Did you really? What kind of massages?
They were G-rated. Aboveboard.

That's less exciting than if you'd procured prostitutes for your cameraman.
This is an American film, not a European one.

It was depressing as hell in a European way, though.
But funny, too.

Would you describe yourself as a funny person?
I still think of myself as a funny person, but a lot of data seems to tell me different. I keep thinking I'm making funny movies, but then people tell me otherwise. As a kid I thought of myself as a funny person who secretly wanted to be serious, but now I think maybe I'm a serious person who secretly wants to be funny. But you can be analytical and funny, right?

Right.
Being funny, in some ways, is about being connected to psychology. I think I find the same things funny and serious; just depends on when they're happening.

But did you think you were making comedies?
I don't label them so much in my head. I don't think they're comedies, but I don't think they're definitely not comedies either. I expected more laughs than I was getting with The Squid and the Whale, and then I realized people were too involved with the characters. Because of that, things I assumed would get laughs people were finding upsetting.

Is there a particular scene in which that happened?
In Squid, when the younger boy cracks open a beer; that was pretty funny to me, and then I realized that a lot of people find it troubling that a young guy would be drinking a beer. Maybe they have a point.

Have you considered using a laugh track?
Maybe on the next one.

Margot at the Wedding is now playing.

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