Arrested Development


TORONTO—“In a way, I feel protected by the movie,” says writer-director Noah Baumbach, who based his plangent, painfully funny The Squid and the Whale (opens October 7) on memories of his parents’ divorce. “It has a life of its own; I don’t feel like I’m exposing myself in any way, because it feels reinvented.” Set in 1986, Baumbach’s fourth feature casts Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney as Park Slope literati whose angry split leaves their precocious but bewildered sons, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and Frank (Owen Kline), ricocheting between houses and allegiances. “I did make sure I kept an emotional connection—that’s why Jeff is wearing my dad’s clothes and I used my mom’s real books,” Baumbach says. “It’s all blurred; I don’t know anymore what’s real and what’s not. You can fictionalize something and make it more emotionally real than the actual true thing would be.”

Born in Brooklyn in 1969, Baumbach shot The Squid and the Whale
in just 23 days, using a friend’s Park Slope apartment as a principal location. “The idea was to film with a handheld camera but as steadily as possible,” Baumbach says, “so that you’d have some feeling of a human hand in there. I wanted it to feel lived-in but also very immediate and not awash in nostalgia. Super 16 feels old, but it doesn’t have any kind of sepia-tone gloss. I was Walt’s age during the mid ’80s when people like Jim Jarmusch and Spike Lee shot their first movies on Super 16, and I thought it connected me to when I first got interested in current directors.” Baumbach’s film mordantly recasts the art house must-see of 1986, Blue Velvet, as a howlingly inappropriate date movie, especially when your father tags along (“That scene was inspired by a friend of mine who first saw Blue Velvet with his grandmother on Martha’s Vineyard,” Baumbach says wonderingly), and also makes a hidden link with a decidedly less epochal film of that year. “Heartburn was shot in our kitchen in Park Slope when The Squid and the Whale takes place. I rented Heartburn to look at clothes and things, but also to say to the production designer, ‘Look, that’s my house.’ ”

Son of novelist Jonathan Baumbach and former Voice film critic Georgia Brown, the director grew up in a household of voluble cinephiles. “My dad had been a film critic for the Partisan Review, but when I was younger and not aware of those kinds of things. Then my mom started reviewing around the time I was finishing high school and starting college, and I was so excited—I felt like the family finally had a mouthpiece, that she could write about all the stuff we’d been discussing for all these years. What interested me about my mom’s film criticism was that she really valued an emotional reaction to a movie. I remember she gave Indecent Proposal a good review, and she took a lot of flak for that from me and other people, but she allowed herself to fall for it, and that’s OK. Certainly, in context with the way I grew up, I find that very touching. I feel that with this movie I learned the value of an emotional approach to filmmaking. I made an emotional movie about intellectuals.”

Baumbach has cited Murmur of the Heart as a key influence on The Squid and the Whale, which shares with Louis Malle’s film a spry verbal wit and a startlingly candid purview of pubescent and teen sexuality. “In our completely crazy auteur-theory family that we had going, Louis Malle was always lesser New Wave. It was Godard first, then Rivette. But I saw Murmur of the Heart when I was trying to deal with divorce in a script, using older characters”—two brothers in their thirties looking back on their parents’ separation—”and flashbacks. It was getting all glued up. On some level I knew I should be writing it firsthand, and instead I was putting up all these filters. Watching that movie, it suddenly seemed so obvious to me that I should just write about kids. What’s so great about that movie, and a lot of the New Wave movies, is that there’s something so deceptively laid-back about them. Things seem sort of frivolous, and then suddenly this sadness emerges. Murmur of the Heart ends with a shocker, but then in the very last scene, the family is together laughing. When people talk about The Squid and the Whale, some people think it’s an outright comedy, and some people think it’s absolutely harrowing. I like that.”