Noah Baumbach—best known for the 1995 cult classic Kicking and Screaming—grew up in Park Slope, the son of novelist Jonathan Baumbach and Village Voice critic Georgia Brown. His new film, The Squid and the Whale, casts Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney as parents who bear a striking resemblance to his own and whose divorce wreaks havoc on their sons.
The character based on you, Walt, feels so much pressure to be deep that he plagiarizes Pink Floyd. Did you feel that?
It wasn’t that my parents held the bar up there—they were encouraging—but as an adult, I became aware of internalized pressure. Being articulate, my parents could make anything sound reasonable. Even the joint-custody arrangement in the movie, which was mine—Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday, and every other Thursday—it seemed very reasonable.
When did you realize that it wasn’t?
Not until I wrote the script, probably. Maybe it took writing it down to realize that it was, you know, insane. I’ve realized that a lot of things I took to be true were rationalizations. I made my first movie at 24, and I had this idea of who I’d be; it wasn’t until I was 30 that I realized I was a different person.
Who’d you think you’d be?
I was concerned with how people would react. At 30, I hit a crisis. In a general way, I think, I wanted to make more emotional movies that were less about being clever.
To avoid that New Yorky thing—that pressure
to show off?
Yeah. In the movie, Walt’s talking about books that he hasn’t read but knows how he’s supposed to feel about them, and I did that—being aware of complicated emotions and thought without coming to it organically.
You’ve said your parents liked the movie, but
I can’t imagine your father’s approving of the father in the film, who messes everything up.
Well, I mean, I’m not going to pretend it’s my friend’s father, but it is reinvented, and he’s written about his dad, too. I think he was able to experience it as a movie. That said, it’s got to be weird.
What did he say after he saw it?
He actually gave me this great compliment. He told me he was rooting for Jesse [Eisenberg, as the older son] at the end, because when he watched it, he felt like the kid. I was really touched.
Well, it was a phone call and I was in Paris, so I guess I managed to be a continent away. They probably both need to see it again, and in two years they’ll know what they think.
It should be good for jokes around the dinner table.
If we still all ate dinner together.
Did you worry about being derivative? There are so many coming-of-age stories, and yours even features the Museum of Natural History, like The Catcher in the Rye.
You know, that’s probably why it took me so long to write. On the one hand, I thought it was so rarefied nobody’d be interested. On the other, everyone’s gone through divorce, so everyone would be. And it’s about intellectuals in New York, which is such Woody Allen territory, and has been tackled by so many novelists. I had to make a conscious decision to trust that it would be worth it.
You and Ben Younger, who made Prime, both have films this fall inspired by New York families—his mom was a psychiatrist. That’s Woody Allen’s turf, too.
You know, the real achievement of Woody Allen was that he was making movies that felt very personal, and for a whole group of people it spoke to them. Then he became an archetype, like Groucho Marx or Chaplin. In high school, people like me imitated him exactly, rather than taking what was most important and writing stuff that was personal, and funny, and dramatic.
Now that he’s working in London, you’re safe.
Yeah, now we can go back in! But it’s also that intellectuals are depicted so negatively now, it’s nice to show that they can be human beings, too—to make emotional movies about intellectuals rather than analytic movies about intellectuals.