The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hey, so today’s show has a few bad words. There’s a clip, and in that clip an actor is saying some four-letter words. So if you’re in the car with your kids maybe skip over that part. Also, they may not want to hear about a couple going through divorce. But, maybe they will. So, that’s the one language warning for this episode.
Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Noah Baumbach: I’m Noah Baumbach.
John: And this is Episode 435 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Craig is off on assignment.
Luckily today we are joined by writer and director Noah Baumbach whose movies include The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding, Frances Ha, and his most recent film, which is Oscar-nominated for Best Picture and Best Screenplay. Welcome Noah.
Noah: Thank you.
John: It is so good to have you here. There’s a couple things I want to talk to you about today. I want to talk about two handers. So Craig and I often talk about movies that have two central characters and generally those are romantic comedies or they’re buddy pictures. Your movie is neither of those things, and yet you still have to find the balance of those two characters and their shifting POVs. So I really want to get into that. I want to talk about the passage of time, because your movie skips ahead in ways that movies don’t tend to do these days. I want to talk about the passage of time.
John: Your movie is funny. So even though there are big serious topics, it’s really funny. So I want to talk about finding the jokes in those moments and trying to balance the comedy and the drama in your story. You have some great speeches in your movie, but you also have a lot of spontaneous dialogue. So I want to talk about the contrast between writing what characters would say in the moment versus things they kind of rehearse to say.
And we can talk about this because we have the script in front of us. So this is going to be one of those episodes where if people want to print out the script or look at the PDF online we might refer to page numbers. So, this is an episode where page numbers can actually matter. Sound fun?
Noah: Sounds great.
John: Cool. We have a tiny bit of housekeeping. We’ve been talking about the agency agreement between the WGA. This last week APA signed with the WGA. The week before it was Gersh. So congrats APA. And also Craig will be back with us for a bonus segment at the end of this show. So a reminder that Premium members get a bonus segment at the end of the main show. This week Craig and I will discuss escape rooms. Do you like escape rooms? Have you been to an escape room in LA?
Noah: I just heard about what this is. I think I know what it is.
John: So escape room, it is a concept where you and a group of friends are kind of locked into a room and there’s all sorts of puzzles and you have to find your way out of it. Craig and I do these a lot. We did one right before the holidays. So we’re going to talk through our techniques and recommendations for escape rooms. So if it’s something you considered doing in the future you’ll want to hear this bonus segment.
Noah: So you go to like a mall that has escape rooms?
John: Sometimes at malls. In Los Angeles you often find them in sort of industrial districts. And so there might be two or three escape rooms at industrial districts. Generally it’s about an hour to try to get out, if you get out in time. They are tremendously fun. So we have recommendations for anyone who is doing it for the first time, or seasoned pros.
Noah: And who creates them?
John: Very smart people. Puzzle designers. Listeners of the show, there’s a lot of overlap between screenwriters I think and the narrative designers who are putting together these experiences. But it’s people who want to do that kind of storytelling but in a limited period of time in a limited space. It has overlap with theater, so that also ties in with some things I know you’re interested in. It’s how you give people an experience of being in a place and a time.
Noah: That’s interesting.
John: Yeah. So we’ll get into that. But, let’s talk about Marriage Story. What is the origin of Marriage Story? What was the first stuff in Marriage Story that you actually wrote down?
Noah: It’s hard for me to remember. I don’t know if you have this feeling of often a kind of amnesia. Once you get into the script it’s hard to know how you got there exactly. And often when I look back at old notebooks I’m reminded and surprised by things that I thought I maybe discovered later that I actually had earlier and vice versa. I think it’s often a confluence of things that gets me excited about writing something. And with this one there were various things that ranged from working with Adam Driver again to thinking about new ways of telling a love story, or new to me anyway. And exploring divorce and both the minutia of what that system is and can be.
And then probably hundreds of other little notes and things that have found their way in that sort of gave me a kind of in to, you know, or at least the feeling that, OK, now I can start to write this thing. I don’t know if you have that feeling. It’s like you start writing, or when I start writing it’s like I write and in one sense I feel, OK, this feels like a movie to me and I feel like I can see the movie. But at the same of course you can’t see anything. And so you put one foot in front of the other.
John: So you talked about notes and notebooks. How important is that process to you? So you’re sort of gathering up your wool before you knit the sweater.
John: Are you methodical about that? Or as an idea hits you you will take some notes? What is that pre-writing process like for you?
Noah: Well, I think in general over the course of a day I will just write something down if it occurs to me. What tends to happen – once I start maybe a story or some sort of world starts to form itself then every idea or thought I have I almost will sort of pass it through does this fit in the thing that I’m trying to create. And some do, some don’t. Some come back later.
So, I have sort of notebooks, like little notebooks that I carry with me, and then I have more of like a notebook I have at home that I write longhand in. I tend to like to write longhand in earlier stages. And often I’ll find I’ll even write the same note or idea a few times in the book, almost like I’m trying to work out why it’s interesting to me. And at some point I’ll start transferring notes into a Final Draft document which is sort of when – so at least I have it ready when I feel like it maybe can turn into a script.
John: So for Marriage Story by the point where you’re switching from longhand into typing into the computer did you know your characters? Did you know the boundaries of the movie by that point?
Noah: I think, I mean, I had the notion that it would be a two-hander. That it would be both her and his story. I had some ideas for scenes. I had some ideas for story. The locations. I think all of that was in there fairly early. You know, all the sort of various relationships or how the story was going to tell itself I didn’t know yet.
John: Well how the story tells itself is really surprising to me when I saw it because I think I went into the movie with an expectation that we would see this couple either meet or fall in love and we’d see things go wrong, so the expectation would be there’s going to be a turn and we’re going to see everything fall apart. And what really excited in the opening of your film is you see those moments and you realize later what the context is of those moments. That it wasn’t what you anticipated being.
How early in the process did you write that opening sequence? Those first six or seven pages?
Noah: I think fairly early. Because I always knew the movie was going to start at the end of the marriage. And so I was sort of tasked with that challenge of investing you in a relationship that’s already over in a sense. And I wrote those sequences I think to some degree as almost an exercise for myself to kind of figure out the characters. Because both sequences are about both of them. I mean, one is the object, but the one speaking is also revealing themselves as well. They’re revealing what they – it’s what they see in the other person which says as much about them as it does about the person they’re talking about.
And it was a way to kind of get inside their relationship and to – I got ideas for character in that as well, of course, because in coming up with things that he might say about her, you know, that she would be this sort of person and vice versa when she talks about him. It also establishes their sort of milieu, their jobs, their everyday life, their son. But in doing that I also realized it provided me with a good beginning.
And as you say in some ways we kind of pull the rug out from under you. But I also felt like it actually – it also sort of sets you up for what the movie is going to be about which is ordinary life in extraordinary circumstances in some sense.
John: So, because this is a podcast we will play this opening scene so people can listen to it, but if people want to read through in the script we’re talking about the first four to five pages is what we’re going to cover in this opening section. So let’s take a listen to the opening of Marriage Story.
Adam Driver: What I love about Nicole. She makes people feel comfortable about even embarrassing things. She really listens when someone is talking. Sometimes she listens too much for too long. She’s a good citizen. She always knows the right thing to do when it comes to difficult family shit. I get stuck in my ways and she knows when to push me and when to leave me alone. She cuts all our hair. She’s always inexplicably brewing a cup of tea that she doesn’t drink. And it’s not easy for her to put away a sock or close a cabinet or do a dish, but she tries for me. Nicole grew up in LA around actors and directors and movies and TV and is very close to her mother, Sandra, and Cassie, her sister.
Nicole gives great presents. She is a mother who plays, who really plays. She never steps off playing, or says it’s too much. And it must be too much some of the time. She’s competitive. She’s amazing at opening jars because of her strong arms which I’ve always found very sexy. She keeps the fridge over full. No one is ever hungry in our house. She can drive a stick. After that movie, All Over The Girl, she could have stayed in LA and been a movie star, but she gave that up to do theater with me in New York.
John: Great. So you say that this is setting up the life before the movie starts, before the plot starts, and also functions kind of like an overture. If this was a big old fashioned musical they’d play the themes of the show so that you get a sense to hear what you’re going to hear ahead of time and sort of cue you up for it. So here you have literally Randy Newman’s score underneath there and sort of setting you up for what it’s going to feel like. Musical things we’re going to hear. But you’re also setting up rhymes for things that are going to happen later on.
John: And about cooking, about what they see in each other, and how they’re different. And things that attract them to each other but can also repel them later on. So, it’s a really smart sequence. You know, I love – the first shot we see of her is framed in darkness and it just feels like big drama. Then you establish that we’re in Brooklyn. That is what their apartment is like. This is the apartment that we kind of don’t go back to once it starts. This is the home that they’re going to lose. You establish that they have this kid, Henry. That he’s going to be the focus. He’s the stakes behind all of this. You’re setting up her family even though we’re not going to meet them for quite a long time, but that she has a family. That she comes from California.
There’s a couple moments that here on the page that didn’t make it into the film. There’s a moment in the theater where Nicole is putting on a song, getting people to dance. Did you shoot that?
Noah: Yeah, that’s in there. Where they dance is in there.
John: It’s described a little differently on the page than what it is here, but it could just be a difference in the script versus what you originally did. But it gives us a good sense of who these characters are and most crucially the tone. This is a movie that is going to be funny at times. And so the pickles moment. That she is weirdly good with pickles.
John: Writer Noah Baumbach as you’re doing this, like it’s so easy to put these words on the page. Did director Noah Baumbach get frustrated with writer Noah Baumbach for these one-eighths of a page that must have been so much work to set up?
Noah: Yeah. In some cases it can be a more difficult challenge from a directorial standpoint to do something that’s going to be five seconds of film versus an 11-page scene, which there are in this movie as well. So, yeah, those become scheduling challenges. And there are scenes in that apartment as well, so often it was at the end of the day you’d be like and we’re going to do Monopoly and cooking or something like that. You would have to fit all those things in. Shooting still lives of tea cups around the apartment becomes of course on a film set longer than you’d like it to be.
John: But those are often things you can maybe grab when you have like 15 minutes before lunch, or like while you’re waiting for someone in hair and makeup.
Noah: Yeah, those you could do because you don’t have actors in them. But, yeah, the others you’re doing, everyone has to change. You have to come back. You have the kid hours.
John: Well, the Monopoly sequence. Monopoly is a really short moment in here, but that’s four shots or something to get that Monopoly and different setups. And your wardrobe person is like it has to have a separate change just for that thing. Or is this a day that matches another day?
Noah: Well, yeah. You’re sort of balancing the thing, too. Because part of what I like with characters in movies is to see them in the same clothes sometimes–
John: That’s real.
Noah: It’s real. But we have the sort of storytelling of this that things are different days and different times. The clothes can help illustrate that. And we’re also sort of setting up their wardrobes for the movie that we’re about to see.
What helped a bit which is actually something is the style of this, the shooting style, we shot this handheld which none of the rest of the movie is shot that way. We did it because it sort of emphasized the intimacy of these moments and putting you right inside it. It’s the way I shot all of the previous of mine, Squid and the Whale, was all handheld. And in some ways with that movie, because I had 23 days to shoot it or something, part of it was by design.
Noah: Efficiency. Because rather than stopping to cover scene you would just sort of move around and shoot. And so that did help us pick up these sequences in that we were last exacting about camera movement and camera angles by design than we are for the rest of the movie.
John: So we open with this sequence and we have his voiceover. And suddenly we switch perspectives and we hear her voiceover talking through the same things. And it’s a nice match because when we just hear his we assume like, oh, does he have voiceover power through the whole movie. Is this going to be his point of view? And then once we have hers like, oh, so she has voiceover power, too. And we very quickly come to see like, oh, this isn’t actually a voiceover movie at all. This is just essentially prelap for what would be happening in that therapist’s office that we’re going to experience later on.
I should have said at the very start, of course, there are huge spoilers to everything we’re going to be talking about here. So this is the opening of the movie. We will get to bigger spoilers as we go through this.
So, as you’re writing these first sequences, you write his POV, we have her POV. Did you know that her POV was going to become a bookend? That basically he would finally find out what she wrote in that list? That that was going to be your ending?
Noah: It came to me fairly soon after I had it. By the time I had really written both these sequences and fleshed them out and figured it out I did know that it was going to return. I didn’t know how I was going to get there. I didn’t know at what point in the movie, how it was going to fall. But it’s partly what even sort of generated the earlier bits was then thinking of it as a kind of big reprise later on.
John: That’s great. Now, how much did you outline before you went into this? How much did you have a sense of like these are the beats of the story? Or were you finding your way through and just finding the scenes as you came upon them? What was your process in writing this?
Noah: Yeah. I don’t outline in any kind of formal way, but I often sort of going back to what we were talking about in the beginning, I think as I’m inputting notes and things I start to have at least ideas for where they might fall in the movie. And so they’re often just scenes or pieces of scenes or lines of dialogue that I just have at the bottom of the document that I’m kind of waiting to reach at some point as I go. And sometimes I never do. And sometimes they just never find their way in. Or sometimes I sort of try to force them in and they don’t stay. But there isn’t any formal outline.
John: Did you put any restrictions on yourself saying like this is not a movie where this will happen, or these are things that don’t happen in the world of this movie?
Noah: Well, everything was going to be from one or both of their perspectives. And this opening sets you up for that, whether you realize it or not, that it is a kind of more very straight forward way of – I mean, it’s literally his voice and her voice, even though we don’t return to any kind of voiceover in the movie. But it always – every scene is either her perspective – even scenes – so there are points in the movie where we’re with her where he enters into it and I always thought of it as almost like he’s part of her movie at this point. And then likewise when – and that’s when she first goes back to Los Angeles. And then when he arrives and she serves him, then we sort of move over to his – I always thought of it as sort of like you could make two separate movies of these stories. And now we’re going to be in his story for a little while and she’s almost like a visitor in his story.
And then once they start mediation and the lawyers come in it’s both of their movie. They’re sharing it now.
John: A notable example of that is there’s a scene fairly early in the movie where all the lawyers and everyone is up in this high tower meeting and there’s a discussion of what to order for lunch. And Scarlett’s character is helping him figure out what he wants to order for lunch. And that’s a case where it is sort of both of their point of view perspective. You couldn’t say it’s one or the other one’s scene at exactly that moment.
Noah: Well that scene is really the first time where I felt like, OK, they’re sharing this – they do in the beginning of the movie, too, when they come home after the theater and they’re in the apartment together. But then we move to her perspective as she cries and goes into the bedroom and then she goes to Los Angeles. And we kind of leave him behind for a time.
The scene you’re referring to is when we’re kind of – I felt like we kind of meet back up and it’s both of their perspectives.
John: Now, at what point did you have a screenplay you could show to people or were you talking about the project before you had a full screenplay? What was your process in sort of getting your ideas out to other folks to weigh in?
Noah: Well, I did approach – Adam Driver and I had been talking about sort of ideas a few movies back that have found their way into this movie. So he was always going to be part of it as far as I was concerned. So I did let him know at some point I’m writing sort of about this divorce. And we would have conversations, more generalized conversations when I didn’t quite yet know what it was fully about what profession it could be, just various things. And then just even general conversations about relationships and just life stuff.
And then when I brought Scarlett in and Laura as well I would have sort of similar kind of conversations with them. Once I kind of knew what the story was and the script was I talk less about it. Then it becomes a more interior process. And then I wait until I have something that I can show people.
John: Singling out just some little small things on the page, stuff that’s scene description and no one is ever going to get to see on the screen, but is delightful. Top of page 10 we meet this mediator. We don’t know very much about him. But he’s wearing a sweater vest with too many rings. Sitting tightly-crossed legged facing them. So, he’s not a crucial character. We’re not going to come back to him a lot, but you did spend the time to give us a very specific description of him so we know what it was we were looking at as we were reading through the script.
John: How important is it to you that the screenplay make sense to anyone who reads it as opposed to just you who is going to direct it?
Noah: That’s a good question. I think – and I don’t know that I’m always consistent about it – I think there’s probably times where I know much more – I have a lot of visual ideas about it or the way I might want to shoot it that I don’t really feel is relevant for the read of it and so I won’t put that in. Likewise a character. But I find with most characters, even if like you’re saying they’re only in one scene, both for the read but also I think just to give us all ideas later. The costume designer. Even myself again later as a director. If I can put in little things that might spark stuff for us, give the actor something to think about, but also give the reader a kind of visual or an idea that just sort of grounds them a bit more, I will do that.
John: So on page 13 it’s an example of a tremendous amount of dialogue on the page. So you do a lot of dual dialogue throughout the whole script. But this was a great example of there are a lot of little small conversations, we’re picking up little snippets. And so your approach to showing us all these little snippets is to do a lot of dual dialogue and have people sort of circle around. Is this exactly sort of what happened in the moment or was this just giving you an overall plan for what you hoped you might be able to capture? Basically I’m asking like did you write this page planning like these are exactly the lines I’m going to get, or I want these things generally said and I’m going to catch them?
Noah: I mean, I take time with these lines so I actually do want everyone to say these lines. And to overlap the way they are on the page. Sometimes though when we’re shooting and suddenly now you have a theater group and you have a bunch of people I might find that we either have too much or not enough in terms of covering. Because it’s also like music. It’s like atmosphere in the scene. And particularly with this theater company they are almost like Greek chorus in some senses. And so there were cases where I would add a little bit more later to fill out something, or even reduce stuff. Or switch out and give different actors different lines because the – I would say to your question I think does it need to be actor three saying this and actor five saying that, that was more like well once I know who the people are and I know also what the blocking is and how this is all falling together I might switch out some of these lines and give one actor one of them and one another. Unless it’s a specific line to the character themselves.
But I was conscious too though that like actor three know she’s done with it, know this time it’s really over. He’s more skeptical of things. So I would keep all of that very consistent in terms of when I cast. And also I thought about like Matt Maher who I cast as one of the theater company is a great skeptic the way he plays it, so I was sort of thinking when I cast him he would be perfect for that sort of attitude.
John: A thing I noticed about your dual dialogue and I don’t know if you’re even aware that you consistently do it is page 13 has an example. So Beth is speaking. And then when it goes to dual dialogue Beth’s dialogue always moves to the right. So the character who is speaking always drifts off to the right rather than staying on the left. And I think it’s just a way of helping to indicate that, OK, this new person on the left is interrupting or cutting into the flow of an ongoing thing. So Beth is probably one continuous thought, but actor three is the one who is interrupting here. You’re very consistent throughout the script as you do that.
Noah: Yeah. I think that’s more intuitive in a way. I’m trying to think in terms of left and right. But, yeah, I mean, I do try to – now that I’m looking at it – I think I do try to keep that kind of consistent, and also for the read so that you kind of know what you’re supposed to follow mainly. Also, by naming her Beth I feel like I feel like you’re also ultimately the other actors have names. But it’s a way for the read – I find it’s always very hard in the script when you have so many names you really do get bogged down and need a glossary. And in this case I put in Actor so people reading would kind of know who to follow.
John: Yeah. On page 14 you do a thing where Frank stands and makes a toast to Charlie and Nicole about their move to Broadway and how they’ll miss Nicole and then makes it about him returning to Broadway with the Young Turks. In 1986 he was the Young Turk. So in scene description you’re sort of setting up a speech that is not fully on the page. Talk to me about your decision to do that.
Noah: I don’t do that a lot, but I do do that sometimes is put in the direction stuff that I think should probably be turned into dialogue later. Part of this, too, was I knew I wanted Wallace Shawn to play this character who is also a friend and also a wonderful writer. And what we ended up doing in the shoot, too, because I ended up making trims in this scene in the movie, is Wally actually ends up making a toast to Charlie and Nicole as it indicates in there, but also giving you story very straightforwardly he says Nicole is going to California. We’re going to Broadway, she’s going to California. We’re saying goodbye to her.
Noah: And we’re cutting between Charlie and Nicole. We get their looks. And so I was able to actually in his toast and also in the visuals tell the scene faster than I had fully figured out on the page. So, there were other lines in this bit that I cut out of the movie because it felt repetitive in terms of where Charlie and Nicole were going to go from this point forward.
John: Absolutely. Well where Nicole is going to go is to Los Angeles. And so cut from a discussion in the apartment, you say we switch over to Nicole’s point of view, and then suddenly she is in Los Angeles. And so we’re establishing on page 20/page 21 new characters who are brand new to us. So actually page 18 is where we make the switch over to Los Angeles. You knew from a pretty early moment that this was going to be a movie that was split between two characters, but also between two worlds, so New York and Los Angeles.
You’re a New York person mostly?
John: How much research did you have to do on Los Angeles to sort of figure out the LA part of this all?
Noah: Well, I’ve spent a lot of time here and I kind of knew it, or at least had my version of it. And I shot my movie Greenberg here as well and it was a different kind of view of LA, but I had thought of LA in terms of a movie before previously.
John: You had a good understanding of what a New Yorker would think of LA coming here. So the frustrations that Charlie might feel trying to adjust to it.
Noah: Right. And versus Nicole’s where it’s both where she grew up but a place that she had since been away from for a while.
John: So Nicole has moved to Los Angeles. She’s going to be working on this pilot. There is a really good and really funny sequence of her shooting this sequence with this baby and it’s going to be CGI and all that stuff. And as we’re looking at this, as I was first watching this scene and thinking like, oh, this is going to be a major focus of the story and it’s sort of a misdirect that it’s actually not about this scene or this science fiction at all. It’s all really about a setup to like, oh no, you need to get yourself a better divorce attorney. Did you feel any pressure at any point to trim, to get to the lawyer part of that faster? Because it’s just so funny, but I’m wondering whether even on the page or in the edits did you feel any pressure to sort of get through that stuff sooner?
Noah: Well, I thought of it in some ways her hair and makeup test or her TV, the stuff done on the TV lot, I was thinking of it a little bit like the Wizard of Oz, how the scarecrow, the tin man, and the lion all kind of echo – they’re played by the same actors – the farm hands, so that there’s this sort of familiarity in a new place. And I was also thinking about this, it’s actually a conversation I had with Scarlett at an early stage and we were talking about how when you go through a divorce or a kind of major life transition how the world feels weird to you. And you often find yourself in places – you might be more likely to go to some party you wouldn’t normally go to, or something. That you always find yourself in strange – and everything feels a little bit stranger.
And so I thought of that sort of TV experience both as an echo of the theater company, because we have, again, sort of all these overlapping voices that are disembodied and she’s meeting people rapid fire and they’re all new and they all may be a big part of her life going forward, but we don’t know. We don’t know if this show is going to get picked up. We don’t know what it is. And everything is kind of happening rapid fire.
And so I thought it was actually a good introduction to the lawyer thing because it was funny. It was a way to also bring, like you say, have some humor. But I also in a way felt like it kind of captured a certain kind of mindset for Nicole who has kind of done something somewhat radical. And she literally wakes up in her childhood bed. It’s like everything is familiar but unfamiliar. And I thought this sort of added to that.
John: Well it’s also a moment of her being very competent. She’s the center focus, again. She’s not in a periphery of her husband. And she’s actually speaking up for like is that the right thing. I think this is not actually how you hold a baby. And should that character actually be killed off? She’s actually starting to assert some authority which becomes important later on.
John: So even though the TV show is not a major player in this it’s showing her finding herself in this element. She’s not completely thrown to the wolves. She’s not overwhelmed by it. She’s actually pretty good at it.
Noah: Yeah. And I thought it was a way both as you say for her to sort of start to find voice. And she even pitches herself as a director and at the end we’re going to find out that she is directing. But also in some ways you could also read it as she’s taken some Charlie with her. And so in a way there’s still the kind of connection there. And how when things end, which I think the movie is in many ways about, it didn’t mean because it ended it failed. And that there are many wonderful things that she’s bringing with her from this experience even though it’s an experience that she no longer wants to be part of.
John: At the end of this sequence we’re going to move into meet Nora for the first time. And she has an amazing introduction. So at the bottom of page 28. This begins an eight-page scene. So, Noah Baumbach I need to tell you that the lords of screenwriting say that the longest a scene should ever be is three pages. And so you’ve now broken the rules of a three-page scene.
Noah: Well there’s an 11-page scene coming up.
John: Yes, I know. You’re setting yourself up for some long scenes. This I think is a great example though of prepared speech versus spontaneous speech. Because Nicole is going to be talking a lot, but all of what she’s saying she’s kind of saying for the first time, or it’s the first time she’s putting it all together. Versus Nora who believes what’s she’s saying, but she’s said this exact same thing a bunch of times. And the contrast between the two is just so nicely drawn and so well done.
You know, an eight-page scene, what was the process of you working on this scene?
Noah: Well, the scene also, and this is something that Jen Lame, my editor, and I talked a lot about when we were cutting the scene is how Nicole, because Nicole has this long monologue–
John: Page 35 is just a column of text.
Noah: Right. She starts in on 33 and I guess speaks all the way to 36. The monologue relies a lot on the rhythms of the previous part of the scene. So that was a balance in the editing which we were always very conscious of. But I’m glad I didn’t know about that they tell you that you shouldn’t be longer than three pages. But to what you were saying which I think is very interesting, somebody said to me, one of the women I interviewed to sort of research for the movie, she said it’s very hard to leave without momentum. And I thought it would be compelling to create a scene where in some ways you watch the momentum develop in front of you.
And so I thought in a lot of cases like with this monologue that you could see her, as you’re saying, she’s putting things together. It’s the stuff of her life, but she’s in effect kind of creating a narrative out of life that’s giving her reason and momentum to move forward. Because she’s in a place right now where she’s sort of done something. She’s now feeling bad about it. She doesn’t know if she’d done the right thing. And Nora in the context of this scene gives her an opportunity to find voice.
But as you say there’s also this interesting juxtaposition of the fact that Nicole is the actress who by design says scripted lines. We’ve seen her act earlier in the movie. And Nora is the lawyer, I mean, you could say a non-performer, but of course in this context Nora is the performer and Nicole is speaking in an unprepared way.
But then you also have this thing, I thought of this monologue, well, and this is something actually – I always knew how I wanted to shoot this, even though it doesn’t specify it in the script, because in the script as you say it’s long columns of dialogue. But I always felt like it should be – we shouldn’t see it coming. Of course when you’re reading it you see it, so you know what – you’re like, wow, this keeps going, and probably most people reading the script turned the pages before they even went further just saying like, wow, OK.
But in the movie you don’t know how long it’s going to be. And that’s something I felt like, well, it’s a great opportunity to sort of create a situation you don’t realize it until you’re midway through, oh, this is still happening. And a lot of that is in the way we blocked it and framed it, which you wouldn’t get from the script.
John: Absolutely. So the script makes it clear that there’s moments where she stands, but it doesn’t make clear like that monologue involves a whole trip to the bathroom where she’s off camera for a while and coming back in. It’s not just one single close up the entire time. It actually has a real plan and a real shift in things. So, Nora’s character, her motivation is clear from the start. We know when the scene opens what she wants to do. She wants her to be a client and she wants to comfort her, but also she wants her as a client.
It’s a little more challenging to figure out what Nicole wants at the start of the scene, and it shifts over the course as the conversation goes what she actually wants changes. And what she wants in that moment but also what she wants in the very near future and the long term future. You can see her starting to form a different kind of plan for her life.
A challenging thing to figure out on the page, but I also imagine a detailed conversation you’re having with an actor as you’re figuring out the beats of the performance. What is that conversation like and does it start – are there rehearsals? How are you going through this to figure out how to make all that work?
Noah: Yeah. We rehearsed it. And one thing I always felt strongly about and talked to Scarlett about was in effect I felt she should live it as she says it. In another movie we would flash back to these scenes. And that she should give us that experience–
John: She is the flashback.
Noah: Yeah, she is. And because the telling of it is as important as what she’s saying. And so – and it’s something she does brilliantly in the movie is that when she’s telling the happier times you feel her inside those times. You feel that exuberance. You feel that being seen by him and what that meant to her. How falling in love, the rush of that. And then you feel, you know, at the point where she says “I got smaller” you feel the shift. You feel the sadness, the disappointment, the self-realization. So, that was something we were all very clear about.
And what she could do brilliantly is she could make adjustments two pages into that monologue, you know, when we did take four. And if I had an idea for later she could make these sort of hair pin turns and still stay in the emotion of the scene which was kind of – was really kind of wonderful.
But I think because the earlier part of the scene as you were saying is in effect a seduction scene. It’s somebody trying to get a job. But what she’s also doing is she is giving Nicole permission to tell her story. And to take control of her story. And I mean I’ve had a lot of interesting responses and people’s interpretations of these things or how they feel about Nora. But many people have held very strongly about the fact that Nicole wouldn’t have ever gotten what she needed if it weren’t for Nora. It doesn’t matter whether you like Nora or not. She was necessary.
And I certainly felt that was true in this scene. And we actually – one thing, too, is that we shot the monologue, it was always one take, because I wanted to have the option of just never leaving her. But it actually we felt like you do want to see Nora listening, because the listening is important. You see the invitation in Laura’s face.
John: Let’s focus in on one little moment, that moment you cited where I got smaller. We have a clip of that.
Scarlett Johansson: In the beginning I was the actress, the star, and that felt like something. You know, people came to see me at first. But the farther away I got from that and the more acclaim the theater company got I had less and less weight. I just became who, well you know, the actress that was in that thing that time. And he was the draw. And that would have been fine, but I got smaller.
John: So you’re saying that in the actual shooting of it that might be take four. You would have discussion about sort of nuances of sort of where you get to and what moments. Are you directing that with verbs, with a scale of one to ten? Like how do you fine tune where you want to be at different moments in this long monologue?
Noah: It’s a challenge. It’s a challenge for her, obviously, but it’s a challenge, yeah, for me as I’m watching it to be able to find those moments and mark them.
So, and of course the success of the monologue as I was saying is its own momentum. And the fact that it feels, it’s all live action in a certain sense. And so it isn’t as simple as saying do this part this way, this part this way, this part this way. I mean, that wouldn’t have worked. Even my perfect version wouldn’t have worked. So, I found myself somewhat specific about where, if I felt things. It really was more about keeping them on storytelling I think. And making sure it was clear where we were in the story as she’s telling it. And also keeping that sense of momentum because it is – it’s a scene that has so many beats just anyway so that when it’s still going – and I knew that in effect part of what was going to work about it was that there is a point of like, wow, this is still happening.
John: Where the character herself is aware that she’s been talking for a long time and she’s still talking.
Noah: And she’s still talking. And by the time she’s on the couch it’s like a different part of the story. And things that I did in the direction for instance is that we actually move in on her while she’s talking and she’s on the couch. It’s the only time until Charlie sings Being Alive that the camera moves unmotivated by physical motion. Because I felt it was an internal development that’s motivating the camera.
John: Her monologue is very much like a song without lyrics.
John: She’s saying what she sort of can’t dare to say otherwise. And, of course, songs in musicals are those moments where like words fail you and suddenly a melody is supporting you.
Noah: Right. And in both cases the character is in a different place at the end then they were at the beginning. Another thing we did in this sequence in the clip you played, it starts earlier when Nora is talking to her on the couch and she says what you’re doing is an act of hope. The central air kicks on in the room. And when she says I got smaller it shuts down. And so that’s that sort of silence when you’re in a place where you’re hearing white noise of some sort, when those things do go off suddenly it feels much quieter than you realized.
John: Now, one of the things I wanted to talk about today was the sense of time and sort of what you did so smartly at the start and jumping us ahead in the story. But also as it goes along it feels like we’re getting these bigger and bigger gaps where we’re suddenly catching up with characters, like wait, how much has happened in the meantime.
An example at the top of page 73, this is a moment that really caught me, Charlie and Henry are off going to meet lawyers and Henry says, “I remember those fish,” which was just a great moment where it’s like, oh, well of course kids think of all fish the same. And then you realize like, oh, one of our characters has been doing a tremendous amount that we haven’t seen. So basically Nicole has been visiting with a whole bunch of lawyers that we didn’t know about. And it’s such a rug being pulled from underneath us. We thought we sort of knew everything that was going on with Nicole and we realize we didn’t know everything that was going on with Nicole.
So it’s both time had jumped forward, but our assumptions about how much information we had about what each character are doing are not quite correct.
John: Did you in your head map out sort of what both characters were doing in the scenes we didn’t see? Or were you just kind of only working on the scenes that we did see as an audience?
Noah: Well essentially yeah. That time off camera is built into the structure of the script. So the fade outs that are also scripted, those were – between fade out and fade ins there’s always some gap in time. And so I would always sort of essentially figure out what happened off camera, I don’t know everything, but I would know what was going to at least be revealed in the next sequence like the fact that she’s seeing other lawyers.
I didn’t know that necessarily while I was writing it all the time, and there were scenes that I entertained writing or wrote versions of that I decided were more effective just alluded to and not seen. You know, in the early stages I’m sure I thought about writing, if I didn’t write a draft of Nicole visiting a lawyer and choosing not to hire them.
John: What draft of the screenplay did you shoot? I mean, how many drafts did you go through before you were in production?
Noah: I often work in sort of perpetual revision in a way. I don’t move too far forward unless I revise what I have. I edit that way, too. I’m always kind of like moving backward to move forward a lot. So that by the time I get to the end of something, like if I have a draft of the script, it’s often – I mean, I’ll change it, you know, of course after that, but it’s at least in the ballpark generally of where I’m going to get. And I don’t really know then how many drafts. I mean, there are many because I’ll always sort of – you know, any changes I make I always sort of make a new draft and work off that. But I don’t know exactly.
John: While you were in production how much did Noah Baumbach the writer come back and do work? Were there new scenes, new pages, new anything?
Noah: Rarely. Only in like I’d say in those moments like I was saying, like if I feel that some of the incidental dialogue that I’ve written needs to be either developed further or trimmed down. I mean, a little bit more in rehearsal. I mean, when I work with the actors thinks might adjust a little bit. Or an actor may say is it OK if I say this. Do you think maybe I could say this? Or this might be a better way of saying it.
But once I’m shooting it’s pretty much the script.
John: How much rehearsal did you have with your principles and with other folks? How many days did you have with them?
Noah: I had like two official weeks of rehearsal because Scarlett and Adam and Laura were involved. And I cast even some other parts earlier. We had sort of unofficial conversations or like they’d come over and we’d read together and talk about stuff. So I felt like everybody had a good sort of base even once we went into the two weeks. And the two weeks of rehearsal I mainly focus on the rhythms of the dialogue and just making sure everybody sort of almost speed a lot of the time, of just like – and how these overlaps might work. And then blocking. And I try to get into all the locations as much as we can to block the scenes out so that when we get there on the day of shooting we’ve sort of explored it already.
John: Absolutely. So people aren’t walking into a space they’re supposed to be knowing intimately for the first time. So they get a sense of that. You’re not doing really basic stuff, wasting time. You can really focus in on those scenes themselves.
Noah: Yeah. And where I can I like to bring in – not in the very beginning of rehearsal – but once they’re up on their feet and moving around a location I like to have the DP and the editor and script supervisor and production designer even there for part of it to give them ideas. They can see what we’re doing, but also give them ideas. And often it can also give the actors ideas, too. A prop can give the actors ideas. Or the placement of something on a wall or whatever it might be.
John: I want to jump ahead to page 90. This is a scene, Charlie is calling Nicole. She is at a Hollywood party. He is at his apartment. It’s one of the few long phone calls in the movie. And they’re arguing. We have a clip to listen to here.
Adam: Are you moving out here?
Scarlett: Did you find a lawyer?
Adam: Yes. Henry says you’re moving here?
Scarlett: Have your lawyer call Nora.
Adam: I want to talk about it as us.
Scarlett: Who the fuck is us?
Adam: Let’s just get in a room, you and me. That’s what we always said we’d do. It’s not up them. It’s up to us.
Scarlett: My lawyer would never let me sign anything.
Adam: It’s our divorce.
Scarlett: They say I could later sue them for malpractice.
Adam: What am I walking into?
Scarlett: What are you walking into?
Adam: Yes, what the fuck is going on?
Scarlett: I read your fucking emails, Charlie. I read them all.
Scarlett: I don’t know. Recently. You’re a fucking liar. You fucked Mary Ann.
Adam: It was after I was sleeping on the couch.
Scarlett: It was bullshit about working on us. You know what? I have been working. I’ve been doing the work alone.
Adam: How did you read my emails?
Scarlett: I hacked into your account you dumb fuck.
Adam: I think that’s illegal.
Scarlett: Don’t give me this shit about being surprised about LA. Surprise, I have my own opinion.
Adam: How do you even know how to do something like that?
Scarlett: Surprise. I want things that aren’t what you want. Because, surprise, you were fucking another lady.
Adam: One time. I think you’re conflating two different things. Mary Ann has nothing to do with LA.
Scarlett: I am conflating mother fucker. You watch me conflate.
Male Voice: Did you just stamp your foot? I don’t think I’ve ever done that before.
Scarlett: I’m just so angry.
Male Voice: You look like you needed me.
Scarlett: Yes, I do. Thanks.
Male Voice: You know the Japanese are making really interesting tequila right now.
Scarlett: That’s exciting, I guess.
Male Voice: What are you so angry about?
Scarlett: My fucking ex-husband. I spent all of this time feeling guilty and he’s so self-absorbed it’s pointless. It’s a game I’m playing with myself.
Male Voice: Oh, hey, Pablo. We met at the—
Scarlett: You held the bounce board.
Male Voice: The flirty grip.
Scarlett: Here’s what I want you to only do. OK?
Male Voice: What?
Scarlett: I want you to finger me.
Male Voice: What?
Scarlett: Just finger me.
Male Voice: OK.
Scarlett: That’s all we’re going to do. Just fingering. OK? I’m changing my whole fucking life.
John: All right. And that is why we have a language warning on this episode. Some strong words being said here. Why I wanted to use this clip is I thought it was such a great example of two characters are having a serious argument and saying some real things to each other for the very first time and things we knew separately they’re saying to the other person for the first time and it’s getting really heated. And then we stay on her point of view and she’s having a comedy moment right through and out of it. And I just really loved it. It was a character you had set up earlier. He’s perfectly cast. And one of the biggest laughs you got from me was her reaction to his tequila line. It was just a really great moment.
Talk to me about the bounce though of comedy and drama. And at what point are you mindful that you’re not stepping on the drama by trying to go for the joke, or worried that you’re going to be too serious if you don’t lighten up. How do you find that balance?
Noah: I don’t think about it so much, I guess as much as it feels intuitive to me. I guess I think of it more like these things live side by side anyway. So, it’s sometimes they reveal themselves or not. I mean, I think, you know, in the case of this I thought of her, too. In the storytelling of the movie a thing I was always aware of is like you have on one hand this sort of high drama of this divorce and then just ordinary life is always – you know, once you hang up the phone you’re back in your life. And she’s furious, but she’s also at this Halloween party. And she’s with her new group of people and she’s still sort of feeling her way out there.
And I also thought it said a lot about where they are at this point in the movie. I mean, she’s sort of active and having new experiences and he’s in this hotel room alone, totally out of his element. So I think I thought of it more that way. And then bringing Pablo back just seemed like a good opportunity. Less about the tone balance and more just about the sort of reality of the situation.
John: Well, it sounds like the drama is both of them trying to figure out their future and also dealing with all of their past versus the comedy is very present tense. It’s like what’s right there in front of them. It’s the very day daily life, the stuff that comes up. And, you know, the minor annoyances that are in front of you and the possibilities in this case in terms of like Pablo and people say dumb things. And so you can respond to them.
Noah: Right. And it’s not that different thematically from ordering lunch in the meditation. These things still have to get done. And maybe in another movie you’d not show them and we’d just assume at some point they all ate lunch, or you assume at some point the lawyer would tell you what they charge, or that you wrote a check to the lawyer at some point. But I thought for this movie all that stuff was part of the story. So I wanted to include all of these sort of ordinary quotidian things.
John: Well, an example is there’s the inspector who comes to the apartment and so Charlie’s character has this sort of parental inspector person sent by the state or sent by somebody to watch them do really basic stuff. And so it’s all the tension, the high wire tension of being watched while you’re doing all this stuff, where just normal daily stuff is happening, and suddenly there’s a magnifying glass on what normal stuff would be. And how you cannot act normally when someone is watching you.
Noah: Right. Well Charlie’s apartment, a lot of what happens in Charlie’s apartment speaks to that. I mean, because it is – he actually set decorates it to make it feel like a home and then he’s supposed to act like ordinary life with somebody watching. And it does sort of go with this notion of performance which is set up at the beginning of the movie in that they’re actually part of a theater company. And then here he is performing as dad, as human being on the planet in front of somebody. And in an artificially set designed place.
John: Yeah. It’s a little terrarium for a father.
Noah: Yes. And so it’s, you know, while also a potential step and stage in divorce proceedings, and it’s very real, it’s also – the movie has kind of set you up for something.
John: Well it’s a really thematically dangerous moment, and yet in the character of this woman who is coming to inspect him she is a comedic character who just underplays everything so dramatically that like you want to laugh and you do laugh while not neglecting the stakes that are there for him. And that she cannot be pleased. And so you’ve given him a central sort of very classic comedy where he’s trying to please a person who clearly cannot be pleased.
Noah: Right. Right. And with Martha who played the part so beautifully, she’s absolutely unreadable. And that is in a sense what all the divorce proceedings are in every stage is that there is no clear answer. This sort of notion of court as a court but no court – I mean, he and Alan Alda’s character Bert, I always thought of those as like an Abbott and Costello routine. It’s like this sort of perpetual – I mean, it’s why Kafka was such a genius, or one of the many reasons why Kafka was such a genius, but it’s these journeys where you keep feeling like you’re coming to some sort of conclusion or answer and there isn’t any. But then there’s some strange logic in that.
And so yeah this scene sort of furthers that notion and if you think about marriage or the fact that their theater company, there’s performance, but of course there’s also what comes up in the divorce proceedings is, oh, you said you were this person and you never were that person, which is also other notions of persona and misrepresentation and who we say we are versus who we are, or who we want to be versus who we are. And so here you have some sort of strange playlet, the playing out of a guy simulating being a father.
John: Simulating perfect divorce dad.
John: So talk to me as you get through the end of this story as a reader, as the writer, as the director, what thematic goal posts were you aiming for? What were some of the thematic things, questions you wanted to raise and hopefully answer and what new ones came up as you were working through the process? Going into it what did you think it was about and coming out of it what did you think it was about?
Noah: Well, when I was writing, and I think generally when I write I think less thematically and more I really try to tell the story as entertainingly and as effectively as I can. What I find is if I’ve done that successfully the thematic stuff all starts to reveal itself. I don’t know if you have this experience. And often it really is just structuring it right.
I mean, I feel that way working with actors as well. It’s like if the blocking is right, if the lines are right and the blocking is right it really gives them a lot of freedom and access to playing the scene in the most effective ways possible. And I think that’s also true I find for me with themes is that they tend to reveal themselves only when I’m actually telling the story correctly, or at least – correctly is probably the wrong way to say it – but I mean when I’m telling the story effectively. That the themes start to – I start to see these themes. I didn’t choose a theater company because I thought, oh, this is really about performance and the lawyers will become performers later. I chose it because it seemed – I liked it visually. I liked that milieu. I liked the idea of having a theater troupe. And I liked the director/actress relationship.
I also liked that they collaborators. I thought well that raises the stakes for them in the breakup.
So, but of course as I’m filling it out I start to see, oh, these things kind of relate to each other in some way.
John: And things also rhyme. So he starts as a director. She ends up getting an Emmy as a director.
John: As you go through this story you sort of see what each of them wants and becoming what they want to be to some degree. You see Charlie trying to just get back to a thing that he had before and finally accepting that he’s never going to get back to that thing that he had before and he has to move on.
John: He could’ve done that right at the very start of the story, but he wasn’t ready for it at that point.
John: We as an audience are sometimes frustrated that her character is not willing to sort of read that list aloud at the start. That she’s not able to acknowledge at the start sort of what she has. And she eventually finds her way to that point. But you didn’t know that all when you were doing your pre-writing, as you were starting. You just had a shape of ideas that could become a thing. That you felt had stuff that connected them together, even if you didn’t know quite what those connections were.
Noah: Right. And I knew in a sense – I was referring to The Wizard of Oz – I mean, I was also thinking of things like The Odyssey that I knew that they were going to go, you know, two people going on both an adventure together and separate. And that they were going to meet all these interesting characters along the way. I mean, it sort of goes to the rings. Like I want, you know, to make everybody compelling who they meet because I thought it’s like you’re going to learn something from each person. I mean, sort of like you do in those, like 18th Century novels, like Clarissa or Pamela where they go on these sort of adventures and they seem kind of wild and sometimes kind of horrible, but they end up sort of OK at the end. They get through it.
And so I was in a sense really trying to follow that story. And then also be true to at least a – tell the story of these divorce proceedings. Sort of going back to your earlier question about drafts, I would say the biggest thing I learned in the first draft, the first full script I had, was that scenes that didn’t stay within that narrative of getting them through this divorce process to the end were all the ones that felt extraneous. So things of running into – I had things at Henry’s school. I had things of Charlie running into friends, like another couple that had been their friends that was taking Nicole’s side. I had some stuff with Nicole and Henry that again was sort of off the topic of this.
Because what I realized in telling it was that – and this goes to the ordering lunch and to the Pablo sequence – is that ordinary life is just there anyway while they’re getting divorced. So I can do both simultaneously.
John: Yes. Fold those moments into things that actually have to be there for plot, otherwise they could be cut away, you’re going to probably end up cutting them away.
John: Yeah. Your script, at least the one we have printed out here, is 152 pages, which seems long. So 120 is sort of what we leave it at. But your movie is not long at all. So tell us about why that one page per minute rule does not apply.
Noah: Yeah. I mean, I’ve discovered that over the years that often having some quite short movies when I – I mean, this movie is long for me.
John: What is the running time on your movie?
Noah: It’s two hours and 15 or 16 minutes or something.
John: Yeah, it doesn’t feel long.
Noah: But that’s still shorter than the script count would be if it were a page a minute. Yeah, I mean, The Squid and the Whale was 81 minutes. And I remember hitting like the hour mark and realizing I was almost at the end when I was cutting it and I thought like, oh man, I hope I have a feature film. You know, Frances Ha is like 84 minutes. But those scripts were all over 120 pages. So, I just discovered, you know, I do tend to write at least in sections of the movie quite a lot of dialogue. And you know I play it very fast, generally play it fast.
Although this script did have things like Charlie singing Being Alive is just a line. It’s in there, but it’s a line of–
John: You’re not sticking all the lyrics there.
Noah: Yeah. I didn’t put the lyrics in. So, of course, that was longer than the page count would indicate. But at this point going into this one I sort of have much more of a sense of how my scripts play, so I wasn’t overly concerned by the script length. Although I knew it was going to be a longer movie than I’d done before.
It also has longer pauses. The pacing is a little bit I’d say different than many of my previous movies.
John: Well with your nominations I think you officially have dispensation so you can have 11-page scenes and have a longer script. You are allowed, Noah Baumbach.
Noah: I’m grandfathered into it.
John: We were talking about Charlie’s apartment being sort of like an LA terrarium. And so we got a question which I think you may actually be able to speak to really well. Adam asks, “All the recent assistant talk and advice for the gentleman moving from New York to LA has got me thinking about a weird social science phenomenon. LA housing favors coupledom. In my day job I’m an entertainment industry drone who doesn’t make very much more than an assistant, but I’m not rent-burdened. I share a one-bedroom apartment with my wife. An LA one-bedroom is comfortable for two people sharing a bed, but not for roommates. When we lived in New York the apartments were so much smaller we needed a two-bedroom not to kill each other. Being coupled is no cheaper than having a roommate there.
“Being an Angelino while poor-ish incentives coupledom. Is this why New Yorkers seem to have more adventurous sex lives? How many dissatisfied Angelinos stay together for housing? Should all the 20-something single assistants shack up with the first warm body?”
So, I look at Charlie’s apartment and compare Charlie’s LA apartment to his New York apartment. And his New York apartment seems much lovelier and cozier, but his LA apartment is bigger. And it’s a recurring thing that people say in the movie is like there’s so much more space. What do you think of Adam’s suggestion that LA is cheaper for couples? Does that make sense to you?
Noah: Well, I think about it in terms of the movie, your observation is interesting because it is like the LA apartment by all accounts seems bleak, but it is actually bigger than how he would be living in New York. But, yeah, I don’t know. I don’t know.
John: You never lived in sort of Charlie’s apartment here. Charlie’s apartment here is a real apartment. Is that correct?
Noah: It’s a real apartment. I actually wanted to build it but we couldn’t afford to build it. So it took a long time to find it.
John: And so you have to rent that apartment. You have to deal with all the neighbors around it. There’s always noise. I mean, in my movie Go we shot that, again it’s an apartment, in a real apartment. And it was a nightmare for everyone involved. And I feel so bad forever. I should still to this day be baking them cookies for all the nights we were shooting there.
Noah: Well fortunately I think that that complex didn’t have a lot of long term people in it. And had enough space that we actually ended up renting like – like we had holding rooms upstairs. There was nobody next door because Adam had to hit that wall so many times that I guess apparently it went through to the – like the wall in the apartment next door broke off, too. So, but it’s was interesting that it was that hard for me to find an apartment to the specifications of both conveying what it should be but also having the visual interest and being, you know, both realistic and also because of the amount of scenes we have in that apartment, something that was big enough to shoot in.
John: Yeah. Doug Liman often will say if you want to shoot – it’s tough to shoot a boring a party, because you have people standing around and not having fun, well that’s actually not going to be interesting to see. So in this case you needed a drab, boring apartment, but it needed to convey that message but without actually being so uninteresting to the eye that we didn’t want to spend time in there when we were in there. So, finding that balance can be tough.
Noah: And that was a challenge of the movie. Because of the story there are so many scenes in offices, both personal offices, then conference rooms, then the windowless room off the conference room. Even Charlie’s theater company is in a rehearsal space. There’s all these sort of transitional spaces which of course worked for the movie because the movie is about one giant transition in some sense. And his apartment was that as well.
But I like that challenge of making something that by design is supposed to have no personality sort of finding beauty in that. And we had all these sort of different versions of white that we would bring from some of these rooms to other rooms, and Charlie’s apartment being one that we tested a lot of different versions of white for that.
It’s also why shooting on film I thought, I mean, I love shooting on film just anyway. But I felt particularly in this movie because there are all these blank walls of sorts to have the grain.
John: Give some motion, yeah.
Noah: Gives them, yeah, gives it a kind of body that it’s hard to find digitally.
John: Yeah. At the end of every one of our episodes we do a One Cool Thing. Were you warned about the One Cool Thing?
Noah: Yeah, I was told. Has anybody recommended David Byrne’s show in New York?
John: No. So tell us all about that.
Noah: it’s called American Utopia. I think it’s a version of what he toured with, but he’s been doing it on Broadway. And Greta and I saw it and Rohmer my son saw it over Christmas break. I mean, it’s just a fantastic show. It’s a concert essentially, but it has not unlike Stop Making Sense if you’ve seen that, he’s kind of created a kind of concept for it which is really beautiful. But he told a story in it which I thought is very interesting about – I think about it a lot with sort of script and directing and script. There’s a song in the show called Everybody is Coming to My House. And he tells the story about how a children’s choir I think in Detroit or somewhere recorded a version of the song. And he said, you know, it’s the same lyrics, it’s the same arrangement, and it’s a totally different meaning when they sing it to when he sings it.
And he said you know when I sing it it’s clear I’m not so sure about everybody coming to my house. I’m worried they might stay. Or won’t leave. And when they sing it it feels like an invitation. It’s about inclusiveness.
It’s also in his telling of it I felt – he seemed so touch by that notion that something that he had really been thinking about, his version of it could be interpreted that way. And of course we’ve experienced that with covers of songs and all the Halleluiahs that are out there. But I think about that a lot. And I’ve talked about it a little bit in terms of people asking me about sticking to the script. Because I do find that there’s actually so much room for interpretation. If you create a framework actually I feel like it gives the actors all the freedom.
John: Yeah. Greta was saying that same thing when she was in your seat saying that even having come out of an improv background she feels as an actor she just has so much more permission to go further because she has the words to back her up. There’s something holding her up as she goes and explores things.
Noah: Yeah. And I love improv and I have an improv background a bit from college. And I actually think I employed a lot in writing. I think I’m improvising with myself in some way. But I feel the same way she does is that when we’re going to do it, but it’s also why the script has got to be ready and you have to spend that time getting it there, yeah, that there is more freedom.
John: Cool. My One Cool Thing is also about getting a script ready. So ten months ago back in Episode 390 we said goodbye to Scriptnotes producer Megan McDonnell who had just gotten staffed on a TV show. This past week it was announced she’ll be writing Captain Marvel 2, a big giant Marvel movie that she is now in charge of. So congrats Megan.
John: That will be a big thing. And I don’t think that will be a big improv movie. I think that will be a very scripted movie and a very different process than even I think you went through on Marriage Story. I think it’s going to be a very different kind of screenplay and very different requirements. But I’m excited for her and really proud of her.
Noah Baumbach, thank you so much for joining us on this show. It is a pleasure to have you here with us.
Noah: Thank you. It was really fun.
John: Reminder to our Premium members that we will be back after the credits with Craig to talk about escape rooms. But this episode is produced Megana Rao. Edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro is by Alex Winder. If you have an outro you can send us a link to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions. For short questions on Twitter, Craig is @clmazin. I am @johnaugust. Noah, you’re not on Twitter are you?
John: No. Good plan. You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find the transcripts. We get them up the week after the episode airs.
You can sign up to become a Premium member at Scriptnotes.net where you get all the back episodes and bonus segments. Noah, thank you so much for joining us. Congratulations on Marriage Story.
Noah: Thanks John.
[Bonus segment begins]
John: Craig Mazin, I just finished talking with Noah Baumbach who has never been to an escape room.
Craig: Well, my opinion of Noah Baumbach just plummeted.
John: Well, he was at least curious about it. So I was trying to describe what it was and he had a sense that there are things that are in malls and you go in there. But I promised him in this bonus segment we would talk through our experience with escape rooms, our guidance for first time escape room attendees so that he can have the best experience. He and Greta can both go to an escape room and really maximize their enjoyment.
Craig: I mean, that would be nice. Right?
Craig: Everybody should go there.
John: But between all the award show stuff, I mean, they can do an escape room. The little PR limo can stop there and they can have an hour to do an escape room and then go on and do more press.
Craig: Award shows are actually the worst escape rooms ever. You’re just like, well, I’m trapped in this room. There’s only two ways out. Winning or losing. But either way I’m trapped.
John: The good thing about escape rooms though is it has a timer on it. It’s only going to be an hour and then you’re out. They can’t go long.
Craig: Oh man. What I would give. What I would give to have these things be an hour. Oh my god. I’m so ants in the pants, ugh. Man. Yeah.
John: All right. Let’s define our terms. So what we mean by an escape room is this is a business that you go in there. Oftentimes they have multiple rooms but you’re going in to do one specific room. You signed up for it. You and a group of four to eight, sometimes a little bit more, people/friends of yours hopefully are going into this room. They give you instructions and then they close the door and then you have usually an hour to find your way out of this room by solving puzzle after puzzle after puzzle, each one sometimes more difficult than the last. Is that a general definition of escape rooms that matches your expectations?
Craig: That’s pretty much accurate to me. Yeah. Some rooms have a slightly different measure of how many people. Some rooms are a maximum of only six. There are a few rooms where they say you can’t do it with fewer than two people because there are people that sometimes just go we’re crazy, let’s do this, just me and you.
Some rooms sometimes have puzzles that require multiple people working at the same time. Fairly common. But, yeah, what you just described. It’s always organized around a theme. Typically there is some kind of narrative. So before you go in the room the person who runs the game will give you a little backstory. And then off you go.
John: Yeah. And so you and I got our chance to do our first escape room together, because I’ve done a bunch, you’ve done a bunch. The first one we did together was right before the holidays. So it was all the Quote-Unquote, the podcast folks, and your folks all together in an escape room. We solved a Jumanji room. And I had a really good time. It was not the best room I’ve ever done, but it was really fun doing it with you. You I thought had a good combination of leadership but also inclusivity which is I think two crucial qualities for a good escape room experience.
Craig: Well, thank you. And, you know, the thing about escape rooms is only one can be the best escape room. So they’re always, like every escape room to me is a little bit like the way I approach crossword puzzles where I think, OK, you know what, overall I generally liked it, or I generally didn’t like it. But here were some highlights. Here were some things I loved. Here are some things that drive me crazy when I see them in escape rooms, which I’m happy to talk about.
But the escape room personality that is best to have, I think, and I thought you had it as well – and in fact I thought everybody had it that we did this with.
John: It was a good room.
Craig: Is essentially a generosity of communication.
Craig: You’re just telling everybody everything. You have to presume that some people are just going to solve a puzzle before you can or ever would. So you just keep sharing and then your own brain will naturally match up with certain puzzles that you’re just, you get. And other people will go, oh, the thing that’s frustrating you or completely mystifying you I know what to do. It’s such a relief when one of your partners knows what to do.
John: Absolutely. So when we say communication it is to call out the things that you’re seeing, especially when they are inputs or outputs. So you see something on the wall that says like, OK, I need a three digit number. And someone else is saying like, OK, I see it and this is a map and there’s dots on the map. And you’re calling out the things that you’re seeing so other people in the room who hopefully aren’t all clustered around you can see, OK, these are the things we’re looking for. And that kind of constant narration of the things that you’re working on is really important.
Also in that communication is we want to say like this is already solved and done. Because so often when I see people who are struggling in escape rooms they are trying to solve a puzzle that has already been solved. So calling out when you’ve done something is really important.
Craig: Exactly. The other thing that you want to do is point out patterns that may not be inputs or outputs but feel like they’re relevant. If something on the wall is some words but they’re in colors and they’re arranged in a certain way, just say we’ve got some words with colors over here. Because you may uncover something later and go, oh, those are the colors that that thing is in. And in this way you can kind of keep everything together. It’s good to announce like you said that something is solved so everybody knows that’s burnt. We don’t need to deal with that anymore. It’s over.
John: Almost never in an escape room will one thing be used for multiple purposes. You’re not going to go back and use that same thing twice. So if a lock is opened, you’re done with it. And if there was a key that had to go into that lock, just leave the key in that lock because you’re not going to use that key for anything else. So, cleaning up after yourself and moving on is a really crucial skill here.
Many of the escape rooms will actually have multiple rooms. So you’ll enter in one place and you’ll go into another place. In most cases you’ll never go back to that first place once you’ve crossed a threshold into a new room. Not 100% true, but keep in mind that you’re probably not going to be backtracking a lot.
Craig: Yeah. Generally speaking there’s forward motion. There are two kinds of rooms and sometimes I’ll ask what kind we’re dealing with, but sometimes I just don’t want to know. There’s linear and there’s parallel. In linear rooms you solve a puzzle, it gets you to a next puzzle. You solve that it gets you to your next one. And you proceed as such. In a parallel room there are multiple puzzles that are available to be solved at any given time. You choose which ones. Eventually you have to solve all of them. But they will begin to open up other things. And you may have to backtrack. And you may have to use something twice. And something could get reinterpreted. Those rooms are harder. It’s fun to play either kind. And it is also fascinating to see how we can trap ourselves.
So, sometimes it’s really good to call out and say I have a theory. I just saw a this, and I know that there’s a that over there. My theory is if anybody discovers a blankety-blank it will tell us how to interpret this to put into that. And sometimes you’re right. And sometimes you’re not. And when you get stuck it’s important to kind of go through and say what are we presuming and let’s challenge those presumptions because what if we’re totally wrong. What if we’ve been banging our heads against the wall trying to figure out how to stick a square peg in this square slot when that’s actually not at all what this is for?
And it can get frustration. It’s kind of part of the job.
John: It can.
John: The other thing is to avoid your perfectionist tendencies. So if a combination has four pieces to it, and you have three of them, don’t worry about the fourth one. Just go through all the options on the fourth one until you find it. Unless it’s really clear from the start that there’s some sort of time limit or number of attempts possible on this combination lock before it locks you out for a time. And in that case you will need all the inputs in order to try that thing.
Craig: Yeah. You will at times – and they usually let you know. They’ll say, OK, for this electronic lock it’s very common that you’ll face a safe that has a standard keypad on it. For this electronic lock if you enter the wrong code, if you enter three wrong codes it will lock you out for five minutes. That’s important to know. Because that’s not something you want to try in brute force. But you’re right. If you have a combo lock and you know three of them, that’s fine. Back solve it. I’m a big fan of that.
John: Absolutely. And then I would say rotate out and around. So, if you’re working on something and you don’t get it, let somebody else swap in for you and tell them what you’ve tried and let them figure it out. So in the escape room we did before the holidays, like Bo your assistant was able to figure out something that I just could not figure out. And I told her what I had done and she was able to step back and figure out what I was missing. So, it is good to have – when you have multiple people they have fresh eyes and they sometimes can have a perspective that you yourself were missing.
Craig: Yeah. Listen for confidence voice which is different than false confidence voice. Confidence voice is I know exactly what to do. Here’s what we’re going to do and this is why it will work. I’ve got this. Let’s do this. Usually when somebody gets confidence voice it’s good for everybody else to stop arguing with them and let them be right. Because what you don’t want to do is debate what the right path is. If someone has a path that they’re sure of that won’t take an hour to try, yeah, line up behind them and let’s see if they’re right.
John: Let’s talk through some of our frustrations with escape rooms and the things that would keep them from getting ten out of ten. For me it is when it is unclear whether a problem is solved or not solved. Where there is no visible sign. It’s not clear that you’ve actually done the thing. No change has happened when you’ve solved a particular puzzle. That is a frustration of mine.
Craig: Yeah. You will occasionally hear of someone come on the speaker. You’ve done something. Something should have happened. It didn’t. You think well I guess we didn’t do it right. And someone will say you did solve that correctly. Something has opened. And you go, oh, here’s a cabinet that had a magnet release latch and it opened, but it opened so silently and in such a small way how would we ever know. It’s such a problem with rooms I think when they don’t give you that feedback.
John: Absolutely. Or the thing opened but there was no sound cue. There was no light. Nothing told you that this was a thing that was possible to have happened.
Oftentimes in a room you will sense like, OK, there is a door. A door is going to open here. And so therefore I’m looking for that. But it’s something that doesn’t look like it could open that does open, as a designer you probably feel like that would be a wonderful surprise. But it’s not a wonderful surprise if none of us saw that as possible, or no one could have been possibly looking there.
Craig: Yeah. There’s this general technology issue. So you can sometimes walk into these very old school rooms in the way that rooms used to be done let’s say five years ago or so when they really started cranking up where it’s a lot of very analog stuff and it’s locks. Just a ton of locks of different kinds. Well, generally speaking locks don’t break. Although I have been in a room where the lock did not function well which was really frustrating and just sort of a time-waster where you’re like if the point is for me to figure stuff out, I figured it out, and now you’re just punishing me because your lock is crappy. How about this? How about just spend another ten dollars and fix the lock? Seriously. Just put a new lock in. So that drives me crazy.
There are rooms that are more technologically advanced which I love. I love rooms that have tricks. But then they have to work.
John: They do have to work.
Craig: They can’t not work. It’s maddening when they don’t.
John: So you and I both loved Lab Rat which is a room that we’ve mentioned on the podcast before. And one of the things – no spoilers – one of the things I loved about that room is that there were things you would encounter for a second time and like, oh, that’s how those things relate. And the context behind what that item was there and sort of how we might use it were clever on second viewing. So that’s an example of not just good narrative design but good sort of puzzle design. What we assumed was the reason for something being there actually had a very different purpose.
Craig: Right. So recontextualizations are great. There’s a lot of – I think I like it when rooms pull tricks that don’t use clichéd methods. So if you want to build a clichéd room at some point someone is going to discover a little flashlight that is a black light flashlight. And it will reveal black light stuff. As opposed to in some rooms where the entire light in the room changes. That’s cool. I mean, that’s fun. But, oh look, it’s the black light flashlight again. We found it. Again.
So there are things like that where I’m like, meh, OK. I also have a huge issue with rooms that require you to break something or push something with a lot of force, of any kind. Because one of the basic rules of escape rooms that you were told a billion times is please don’t break our escape room. So use two fingers of force, no more than that. If it feels like it’s not moving easily, don’t push it. Because people go in there and break the rooms.
And so that’s bad. Which means if you’re a responsible escape room escaper you don’t want to break things. There is one room in LA that I’m thinking of that is a very prominent escape room. And it’s a good one. But it does require you to break something at some point and I hate that. And I honestly think all escape room companies should get together and form some sort of consortium where they agree to not do that, because all they’re doing is training people to break shit in other people’s escape rooms.
John: Yeah. I would also say a frustration of mine is sometimes – like in an escape room you should look underneath things. You should turn stuff over because often that’s where you’ll discover important things. But where a chair will have like a number on the bottom of it, if it’s not actually a relevant number, it’s actually just some tag that indicates what room it goes into that’s frustrating for me. If you’re in a room where numbers seem important and there’s a random number 14 on the bottom of a chair, I’m going to assume that it’s important for some reason.
Craig: Yeah. You’ve actually touched on two things that drive me crazy about escape rooms. And when I see them I get angry. Thing number one. You put something in there that looks like a puzzle and it’s not. That’s not a red herring. That’s a time waster. So there is a room that I did recently and there was in the corner of the room there was an object that had a lock on it. There was a lock holding it flat down on a tube.
John: Oh no.
Craig: And we were just killing ourselves trying to figure out how to open that lock. And finally someone came on and said that’s not part of the room. Then label it. But if you’re going to put a lock in an escape room, hey guys, we’re going to try and unlock it. That’s why we’re there. So don’t do that. And the other thing that I just honestly loathe – loathe- are escape rooms where part of the thing is stuff is hidden. Like, oh, OK, the big puzzle here was that I had to look underneath the drawer in the corner and find this little key on the ground in the dust bunnies? Great? I feel so smart? What’s the point of that? It’s just – why?
John: Yeah. You’ll find stuff tucked into a jacket pocket. And I guess I’m OK with that, but I would prefer that if it was related to the narrative. That there was something about that person’s coat and therefore we have the idea that, oh, it will be important to search inside the coat. But like looking through every tag and every piece of clothing just doesn’t feel like a puzzle.
Craig: It doesn’t. Yeah. Like if we unlock – let’s say there’s like a high school locker. And we find the lock combination and we open it up and inside is a jacket, like a varsity jacket. And that’s all there is. Something is in the jacket. Or something is on the jacket. Totally fair game. But if there is a key for a box and that key just happens to be in the corner of the room under a rug. I did an escape room in Vegas and you couldn’t – it was a linear escape room. So if you hit a bump and you don’t know what comes next, you’re done. And what came next was that there was an area rug in the room and you had to lift it up because there was a key underneath it. No. No, escape room, that’s bad.
I don’t like it.
John: With that rug, if there were some piece of something sticking out from underneath the rug that gave you the sense of like, oh, this rug is not simply just there for floor covering. It is actually part of the puzzle, then that would be fair.
John: But it was not fair what they were doing.
Craig: Correct. So in my beloved Room games on iOS one of the things they’ll do is if there is something that you otherwise would not think would be movable they might if you examine it closely put little scratches in the metal around it as if to say somebody has been moving this. It is movable. Let me try and move it.
But if it’s just some random thing you just end up wasting time. Like OK there’s a bed. I guess we have to lift the mattress up, too. Do we pull the pillow out? And then they come on like you don’t need to do anything with the bed. Well then don’t hide stuff. How about we use our minds to solve problems instead of just go on some sort of dumb room cleaning assignment?
It’s funny. I love escape rooms so much that I actually do get angry when they fail you. But I wish that – so ideally escape rooms take these elements that we’re familiar with and they just reinterpret them in fun ways. The way that you and I in our jobs have to take stories that people are familiar with and reinterpret them in interesting ways. I’m not giving anything away. No spoiler here. There’s a terrific room in LA called the Stash House. And those of us who have done a lot of rooms have encountered a lot of locks. Well at one point you encounter some locks in that room. I don’t know if you’ve done Stash Room yet.
John: I’ve not done it yet.
Craig: You’re like, OK, not bad guys. Tip of the hat. Tip of the hat. And you go that’s pretty cool. And it’s because it’s like, oh, you guys have also played escape rooms. You also get angry at crappy escape rooms so you didn’t fall into any of the pitfalls which I always appreciate.
John: Yeah. I do look at escape rooms as kind of a new narrative art form. And so sort of like the early days of cinema or early days of television there are conventions that are starting and growing up and we are able to push against those conventions as well. So, I’ve loved the escape rooms I’ve done so far, but I’m actually really curious to see where we’re at five years, ten years from now with the possibilities of the format. So, that will be cool.
So the same folks who do Lab Rat, they have a new thing called The Ladder which sounds really cool. Where you can play it multiple times because there’s multiple endings. That sounds smart.
Craig: Yep. No, I’m totally on board for that. I have very, very high expectations for that. And I also like the fact that when I travel somewhere, whether it’s in the US or abroad, there are escape rooms. I’ve done I think most of the escape rooms in Vilnius, Lithuania, and there’s some good ones. There really are. I do escape rooms, if I’m just in some random city I’m always looking for an escape room. Always. And it’s fun.
And, you know, sometimes each city has its own flavor. I’ll tell you. Salt Lake City escape rooms brutally hard. I don’t know what’s going on there. My goodness.
John: It’s the altitude that makes it so much more difficult.
Craig: It is just – they are like – because they’re nice. They’re so nice. And they’re like, all right, good luck. Close. And oh my god, when you don’t get out, and usually I escape. I don’t think I’ve escaped a single escape room in Salt Lake City. And then when they come in they’re like, oh, you were so close. Here’s 4,000 other things you would have never known. I’m like, wow, amazing.
John: Yeah. Amazing. All right, to the future of escape rooms. Craig it was very good talking with you and I’ll talk to you next week.
Craig: Excellent. See you then, John.
- Read the script for Marriage Story here or watch Marriage Story
- APA Signed with WGA, congrats APA!
- Megan McDonnell, former Scriptnotes Producer, to write Captain Marvel Sequel. Congrats!
- David Byrne’s American Utopia
- Noah Baumbach
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Outro by Alex Winder (send us yours!)
- Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao and edited by Matthew Chilelli.
Email us at email@example.com
You can download the episode here.