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Noah Baumbach Explores Love, Resentment And Anger In 'The Meyerowitz Stories'

Oct 11, 2017
Originally published on October 13, 2017 9:36 am
Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Noah Baumbach is best known for writing and directing the films "Frances Ha," "Greenberg" and "The Squid And The Whale." His new film, "The Meyerowitz Stories (New And Selected)," is a comedy with a lot of real emotional pain. It's about the complicated mix of love, resentment and anger in a complicated family. It revolves around three adult siblings who share a father. The older brother and sister are from the father's second marriage. The younger brother is from the third marriage.

The father, who's now on his fourth marriage, is played by Dustin Hoffman. He's a self-absorbed sculptor who believes he's an important artist who's never gotten the recognition he deserves. He never paid much attention to his first two children, Danny and Jean, played by Adam Sandler and Elizabeth Marvel, but they're the ones who still live close to him in New York and look out for him. His youngest son, Matthew, played by Ben Stiller, has moved 3,000 miles away to LA, where he's a successful money manager. He's flown back to New York to arrange for the sale of his father's house and artwork, but he hasn't told his half-siblings. When his half-brother finds out about the plan to sell the house, he's incensed.

Here's Adam Sandler as Danny with Dustin Hoffman as his father and Emma Thompson as his father's fourth wife.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES (NEW AND SELECTED)")

ADAM SANDLER: (As Danny Meyerowitz) You're thinking about selling the house. Why?

EMMA THOMPSON: (As Maureen Meyerowitz) It's very expensive to keep this place up, and we're spending more time at the country house now.

SANDLER: (As Danny Meyerowitz) But the country's yours.

THOMPSON: (As Maureen Meyerowitz) Well, I had it before we got married, but it's ours. Everything is ours now.

SANDLER: (As Danny Meyerowitz) You're selling all the art. Dad, why?

THOMPSON: (As Maureen Meyerowitz) We don't have room for it.

SANDLER: (As Danny Meyerowitz) Do you want to sell?

DUSTIN HOFFMAN: (As Harold Meyerowitz) Oh, come on. Cabrera just grounded into a double play.

SANDLER: (As Danny Meyerowitz) Matt set this up?

HOFFMAN: (As Harold Meyerowitz) I told him it was a family discussion.

SANDLER: (As Danny Meyerowitz) I think it is. I don't think you should sell at all. I'm telling you.

HOFFMAN: (As Harold Meyerowitz) I didn't expect you to get so upset about it.

SANDLER: (As Danny Meyerowitz) I am. I am upset about it.

THOMPSON: (As Maureen Meyerowitz) Why do you care?

SANDLER: (As Danny Meyerowitz) I don't know. We've lived here for years.

HOFFMAN: (As Harold Meyerowitz) You haven't. This is where Matthew grew up. You lived in Queens with your mother.

SANDLER: (As Danny Meyerowitz) It's a Meyerowitz tradition, this house.

THOMPSON: (As Maureen Meyerowitz) Well, I guess I wouldn't know about that.

SANDLER: (As Danny Meyerowitz) I didn't mean it like that.

HOFFMAN: (Harold Meyerowitz) She gets sensitive about these things. She feels like an outsider. She doesn't have kids of her own. I tell her, technically you're their stepmother.

GROSS: Noah Baumbach, welcome to FRESH AIR.

NOAH BAUMBACH: Thank you.

GROSS: So I love this movie, and it's about what so many families are like now - different sets of parents and siblings and all the opportunities that presents for more resentments and maybe sometimes more love. And I would say you're very sympathetic to all of the characters in this movie except maybe - not so much the father.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: How would you describe his type of narcissistic personality? And this is the character played by Dustin Hoffman, who's an artist who has, like, the upmost confidence that his work is great, under-recognized but great.

BAUMBACH: Well, I think he has the utmost confidence in a certain way, but I think there's some aspect of him, too, that feels like a failure. And I think in that way, I do have a lot of sympathy for him and love for that character because I think he is in a lot of pain. He just can't access it.

GROSS: The Dustin Hoffman character, the father - he's a sculptor and a college teacher, and he thinks he's worthy of much more recognition than he's received. His friend L.J. has just had a museum show at the Museum of Modern Art. And so the father kind of has to convince himself and everyone else that L.J. isn't really all that talented 'cause if L.J. is that talented, he's kind of, like, a threat to the Dustin Hoffman character. At least that's how I see it.

So he starts telling his son, you know, ultimately L.J. is a popular but unimportant artist. It's a disturbing commentary on the culture that truly ordinary work gets reverent reviews by the critics. I feel like you've heard that, that (laughter), like, you've almost, like, borrowed that from things you've read or heard people say.

BAUMBACH: Well, it was something that Dustin and I talked about when we did that scene, that, you know, because, you know - Harold goes to this opening of his friend's, you know, and it's this, you know, big retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, which would be the sort of the pinnacle of, you know - or a pinnacle of, you know, an artist's career. And you know, Harold is feeling unseen and unrecognized, and - but actually, all around him, people are being - you know, L.J. is very nice to him and trying to involve him and include him in the in the, you know, in the festivities and introduces him to Sigourney Weaver. He has, you know - he's - but Harold really only knows how to feel slighted I think.

But yeah, and to your question, I - you know, they're definitely a version of things I've heard - this sort of notion that someone else needs to be lesser-than so you can feel better, you know? I mean Harold, you know, definitely lives in that kind of mindset.

GROSS: So there's one more scene I want to play, and this is the scene between the two brothers who are the sons of different marriages. They have the same father. They have different mothers. They live on different coasts. They don't see each other very much, and they're back together again, uniting around their father who has been in the hospital. So they're catching up on each other's lives. And so in this scene, Danny, who's played by Adam Sandler, and Matthew, who's played by Ben Stiller, are going up the elevator in the hospital, catching up with each other.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES (NEW AND SELECTED)")

SANDLER: (As Danny Meyerowitz) Dad says you started your own company.

BEN STILLER: (As Matthew Meyerowitz) Yeah, a couple of other guys and me decided to...

SANDLER: (As Danny Meyerowitz) How does that work? You just tell your boss, like, I'm going to start my...

STILLER: (As Matthew Meyerowitz) Well, I was one of the partners, so I didn't technically have a boss.

SANDLER: (As Danny Meyerowitz) Right, no, I understand. So you got a better offer.

STILLER: (As Matthew Meyerowitz) No. There were no offers. That's what was so scary. We were creating our own opportunity.

SANDLER: (As Danny Meyerowitz) Because you wanted something smaller.

STILLER: (As Matthew Meyerowitz) Bigger - many of the firm's clients came with us.

SANDLER: (As Danny Meyerowitz) Which was surprising.

STILLER: (As Matthew Meyerowitz) No. We expected it. We can't legally ask clients to come with us for...

SANDLER: (As Danny Meyerowitz) But they don't have much choice.

STILLER: (As Matthew Meyerowitz) It's totally their choice.

SANDLER: (As Danny Meyerowitz) No, I know because you have their money.

STILLER: (As Matthew Meyerowitz) Well, their money is with the firm, but their money is in investments or...

SANDLER: (As Danny Meyerowitz) I understand. My buddy Ptolemy who lives across the street or lived across the street from...

STILLER: (As Matthew Meyerowitz) Dad told me about your (unintelligible).

SANDLER: (As Danny Meyerowitz) Ptolemy is like you.

STILLER: (As Matthew Meyerowitz) I'm sorry.

SANDLER: (As Danny Meyerowitz) He works in...

STILLER: (As Matthew Meyerowitz) But also...

SANDLER: (As Danny Meyerowitz) ...Arbitrage.

STILLER: (As Matthew Meyerowitz) Yeah, that's not what I do.

GROSS: (Laughter) The movie strikes me as being very carefully written. Every moment seems to count. It doesn't seem like there's much improvisation in it. It seems very planned in a good way.

BAUMBACH: I'm glad to hear you say that (laughter).

GROSS: Yes, very composed in a good way.

BAUMBACH: Yeah.

GROSS: So what's it like to have somebody like - to have people like Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller on the set and not - and discourage improvisation (laughter)?

BAUMBACH: (Laughter) What fool would do that? Well, first of all, I also will say I'm glad that's your observation because I think pretty much every Q&A, I get asked how much improvisation was in the movie, and I can't help but feel somewhat insulted by it because I think I'm working very hard on these things. And they are very planned and very structured. And it was something Dustin was very articulate about. I think he even kind of even helped me understand kind of what I was doing and what I've been doing in a more explicit way because he would talk about how stylized the writing is but that when it's done right, it doesn't actually feel that way. It feels maybe more naturalistic. But actually it's all rhythmic and very specific, as you say.

And that's true also of the blocking in the movie and the camera work. And you know, it's all, you know - I think of them as very stylized and constructed in a certain way, but when actors come now to work on my movies, I think they all kind of know what they're in for, so they - you know, nobody's like trying to slip in new lines and things. They're all prepared extensively and want to do, you know, what's on the page.

GROSS: So since this movie is so much about the children of divorce and of half-siblings from two separate marriages, when your parents divorced, did they marry other people and have children with those other spouses?

BAUMBACH: They didn't have children, but they both married again.

GROSS: I'm wondering if your parents became different people when they were no longer a couple 'cause I think most people change depending on who they're with. I think most people have, you know, like...

BAUMBACH: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Like, code - I think most people have some kind of personality code switching in addition to maybe language code switching where you're funny with one person and you're more serious with another and...

BAUMBACH: Sure.

GROSS: You know, you talk more with one person and less with another person. You know, you're more quiet and introverted with one person than another. So, like, did your parents change when they became couples with different people, and did you change when you became part of those different units?

BAUMBACH: Yeah, I'm sure they did. And I mean, I observed it, and I'm sure they did in ways that at that time I didn't even see. I mean, I remember, like, the first Christmas after they separated and both of them got these big, bushy trees. And we'd always had these really bony trees. And I remember thinking, like, why didn't we do this when we all lived together? Why now do we have the good tree, which is maybe a symbolic version of what you're saying (laughter), you know?

GROSS: Do you think that watching your parents' divorce and remarriages made you any more or less enthusiastic about the prospect of becoming a parent yourself?

BAUMBACH: I've thought about that. I mean, and also I'm divorced now myself. You know, consciously, I'd say no, actually. But you know, I think it has to have affected things. I didn't really - I mean, I remember people asking me that because I got married around the time that "Squid And The Whale" came out and people saying, oh, how ironic. You know, maybe they didn't quite phrase it that way to me, but they were thinking (laughter) probably of that, you know, you've just taken this leap, and yet you're telling this story of a marriage falling apart. And I - you know, it didn't seem strange to me at the time. I wanted to get married.

GROSS: So when you did divorce and it wasn't long after your son was born, did you feel like, oh, how can I do this to my son? You know, like, my parents did this to me; how could I do it to my son?

BAUMBACH: Yeah. You know, it's such a bad time, and you just - I just - you know, I just felt bad all over. I mean, I didn't even feel it that kind of dramatically. Like, oh, no, I've done the same - you know, I just felt like I wish this wasn't happening.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah. So let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Noah Baumbach, and his new film is called "The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MGMT SONG, "ELECTRIC FEEL")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Noah Baumbach. He directed the films "The Squid And The Whale," "Frances Ha," "Greenberg." His new movie, which he also wrote and directed, is called "The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)."

So part of what happens in your movie is that the father is hospitalized. And I don't want to give away too much of the story. But the two sons and the daughter and - the older son and daughter are from one marriage. The younger son from another marriage, but they all have the same father. They're all in the hospital, you know, trying to watch over their father and deal with the doctors and the nurses and all the medical issues you have to deal with when someone's in the hospital. Had you had a hospitalization experience with someone who you're close to or yourself?

BAUMBACH: Yeah. I mean, I've - that experience was, you know - in some ways came from my own experience being in the hospital - I mean, being with somebody who is in the hospital and, at the time, I mean, that just horribly vulnerable feeling. But I did find something also sort of comic about it, too, just how the nurse that you - you know, you think, you know, understands and is the caretaker is suddenly relocated to another floor. And you get a new nurse who knows, you know - doesn't have the same information and, you know, might be passive aggressive and just that sort of frustration of trying to deal with all of these complicated emotions in an institution like a hospital.

And it was after I made "The Squid And The Whale." And I met Mike Nichols, and he said - it was one of the better compliments I've gotten in my career. But he said, you know - reminded me of why I got into movies in the first place, which is revenge.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BAUMBACH: And (laughter), you know, in a way, I think you could say in some way particularly it was my - not revenge on an individual but my revenge on a time in my life.

GROSS: So one of the issues for the sons is, is it, like - is it OK to leave for a while? (Laughter) I know when, like, the Ben Stiller character...

BAUMBACH: Right, right.

GROSS: ...Says to the nurse so, like, I have a meeting with a client. Is it OK for me to leave (laughter)?

BAUMBACH: Yeah.

GROSS: Like, asking the nurse for permission. But I've been in that situation with my parents. And like, you don't know if it's OK to leave. First of all, you feel guilty about just even walking out of the room. And second of all, like, you don't know, like, is there going to be drama if I leave for an hour or two...

BAUMBACH: Right.

GROSS: ...Or even longer? Like, are they going to still be alive? Is there something that terrible is going to happen? Are we at a transition point? Like, what's going on? But then the nurse or the doctor looks to you, like, that's your choice, you know?

BAUMBACH: Yeah, yeah. That - well, I was thinking in a way that the hospital sort of takes the place of a kind of parental role in a way for them because it is like in - you know, in absence of having the parent there, you're looking to all these other people to tell you it's OK. And you know, what should I do? You know, you don't know what the protocol is or the process is. And you know, at the same time, you're, you know - I think there's almost this sort of, like - for some people, it's like they get angry and confrontational. And for other people, they get kind of, like, overly polite, you know, and sort of, like, they don't want to say the wrong thing for fear of some kind of retribution or something, you know, that...

GROSS: Absolutely. Like, if you're the model relative (laughter), then...

BAUMBACH: Right, right. You know, they...

GROSS: And then maybe they'll treat, like, your loved one, like, extra nice or at least not badly, you know...

BAUMBACH: Right, right, exactly, yeah.

GROSS: ...Because, you know, in all honesty, there's so much, like, sloppiness in hospitals. It can be really frightening, you know, whether it's getting the wrong medicine or not getting the medicine or disregarding certain symptoms that, like, you see this change, but no one else seems to have noticed it. And you have to point it out and then point it out in such a way so that, like, you're being nice about it and you're not challenging their professional credentials by saying, look; they were better yesterday, and they're worse today. Something's wrong.

BAUMBACH: Right, which happens in the movie, that thing of - you realize you know more than they do in some cases. And that's a scary thought, you know, because you can't make them better.

GROSS: I - there was a great doctor once when my mother-in-law was in the hospital. He said, like, you know her really well. What do you see that's different? And I thought, like, wow that's really great...

BAUMBACH: Yeah, that's what you want to hear.

GROSS: ...To ask us and not just, like, tell us (laughter). He was - he was really terrific.

BAUMBACH: That's what you want to hear. Yeah, I mean, I - you know, it's true of hospitals, it's true of the legal system, you know, going back to what you were saying about divorce, you know, of these times in your life where you're at your most frayed and afraid.

GROSS: Then there's also the thing when it's a parent, as it is in the movie, seeing a parent who had been this very powerful figure when they were younger, and, when you were younger now be in a hospital bed. And to be, like, an older, weaker person in a hospital bed, it's such a turning point in your relationship with your parent when you see them in that kind of condition. And I think the adult siblings in the movie are going through that. Is that something that you went through too with whoever it was that was in the hospital of seeing them in a different way because they were in a weakened, vulnerable state from which they may never return to who they were before?

BAUMBACH: Yeah, absolutely. And you still have - you know, in the case of a parent, you still have all the, you know, complicated feelings, you know, of love and - but also whatever else, you know, with the strong, formidable figure that went in. And they're all put on hold, you know, because they're in this other state, you know. And, you know, in the movie, Harold is also such a verbal character and, you know - and he's actually in the hospital, can't speak the same way. You know, it's this sort of like aphasia or whatever he has there and he - Ben's character, Matthew, has this, like, highly verbal fight with him, which ends in screaming at him.

And then, you know, in the next sequence, he's, you know, at his bedside and the father is being gentle and inarticulate and that's, you know, sort of trying to play out that just what you're saying there. You know, I also thought about it in movies, too. I mean, this will give stuff away. We can - I guess people can turn down the volume for a second. But I think it's worth pointing out. I think in movies death often is a catharsis in a movie that it isn't necessarily in life. And I thought, well, what if the parent doesn't die? You know, in a way, doesn't that highlight sort of something else, which is you went through this whole experience and then they're back out and they're the same as they were when they went in.

GROSS: Exactly. And you're back to dealing with the same resentments again. Like, you did all the forgiveness thing. You made your peace with everything. And then the person recovers. The father recovers and, like, you're back to the same annoyances and resentments and like nothing's change.

BAUMBACH: Yeah, absolutely. And that to me I thought dramatically and for the movie highlighted kind of what I wanted it to be about, which is that you can't - this is the stuff you've internalized. You know, your parents are in you now, so you've got to now - you know, you have to deal with this on your own, you know. And they may be there, may not be there. But, you know, this is up to you to - you know, you've got to handle it yourself.

GROSS: My guest is Noah Baumbach. His new film, "The Meyerowitz Stories: New And Selected," opens in select theaters Friday and will also be available on Netflix starting Friday. We'll talk more after a break. And I'll talk with the author of a book about the making of the classic film "Casablanca." Next month marks the 75th anniversary of the film's opening. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Noah Baumbach, who wrote and directed the films "Frances Ha," "Greenberg" and "The Squid And The Whale." His new film, "The Meyerowitz Stories: New And Selected," will open in select theaters and be available on Netflix starting Friday. It's about the complicated relationships in a complicated family. It stars Adam Sandler, Elizabeth Marvel and Ben Stiller as adult siblings who have the same father but are from two different marriages. Dustin Hoffman plays their father, a self-absorbed sculptor who teaches at Bard College.

The Dustin Hoffman character, the narcissistic father who's so wrapped up in his art and thinks his art is really great and that he's unrecognized, he's such a recognizable father figure. Did you base it on anybody in your life? And is that an uncomfortable question to answer?

(LAUGHTER)

BAUMBACH: Well, my grandfather, who was named Harold...

GROSS: Oh, like Dustin Hoffman's character.

BAUMBACH: Like Dustin Hoffman's character - was a painter. And we used to go to - this is back where you could be a painter and teacher and have a townhouse in Brooklyn Heights and - but we would go to their home on Henry Street, and he would take us up to his studio, and he would put up the new work for us to see. And, you know, he would say things like, I think this one's a masterpiece. And then, you know, we would all nod and, you know - and I remember feeling very intimidated by it because I couldn't understand. You know, he was painting abstractly at that point, and I couldn't understand it as a kid, but I heard all about, you know, stories of him and, you know, his supposed - you know, he was contemporaries with Milton Avery and Rothko.

And there were all these sort of reasons given why he wasn't kind of on their level and - success-wise. And it was his sort of irascibility, his - you know, he was known for taking work down off walls if people didn't - you know, gallery walls if people didn't appreciate it correctly or - he died when I was in my 20s. And he had, like, a show at Brooklyn College that we all went to when I was in my 20s. And so I - a lot of that kind of I guess was inspired by him.

GROSS: So did your grandfather pay attention to you?

BAUMBACH: Yes, but I think it was clearly on his terms. You know, I mean, it was...

GROSS: Was it your job to admire him?

BAUMBACH: I think - I kind of knew that intuitively, but - I posed for him once, you know. Like, I wanted to get my painting done. I remember that was something that meant a lot to me because other people in the family had gotten their portraits. But by the time I was doing it, he was - again, things were much more abstract, and I felt like I wanted mine to look like me, and it didn't whereas he had done portraits earlier in his career that kind of looked like, you know, they were more realistic. And mine looked like some kind of ghost or something.

GROSS: You grew up in Park Slope and the home that you grew up in was also used as the home in the movie "Heartburn," which has a screenplay by Nora Ephron, and it's based on her divorce from, I want to say, Dustin Hoffman (laughter).

BAUMBACH: (Laughter) Yeah. Carl Bernstein.

GROSS: Carl Bernstein, yes. He plays Carl Bernstein in "All The President's Men" and her - Nora Ephron's actual divorce was from Carl Bernstein. So that's hilarious. Did you feel six degrees of separation from Dustin Hoffman before you started working with him?

BAUMBACH: Well, I mean, I had great love for Dustin Hoffman before I knew him because of, you know, all the movies I'd seen him in. I mean, he felt very much part of my childhood, you know. But Mike Nichols directed "Heartburn," who I got to know and become friends with, which was great, so I did have that sort of, like, connection. And it also was a movie that sort of had like so much talent in it. It was like - it was Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson and Catherine O'Hara and Stockard Channing. And then also, like, Milos Forman was in it, and Nestor Almendros was the cinematographer, who I - shot all these great French New Wave movies I later would love. And so when I look back on, like, all those people who are in our kitchen, it was kind of amazing.

GROSS: So did you learn anything about filmmaking when "Heartburn" was shot in your home? Were you on set? Did Mike Nichols let you watch what was happening? How old were you?

BAUMBACH: I think I was, like, 16 something. Well, one thing that happened was there was - a hurricane came that weekend or at least it was going to come. I think it was - it was downgraded eventually. But they couldn't shoot. They were supposed to only be in our house for a few days, but then they had to break down and wait. So all the equipment was left in our home, including the hot set, which had all this, like, lobster and stuff on the - and so we kind of lived for a few days sort of in and around the movie (laughter) while we waited out this hurricane.

But, you know, I don't know that I consciously did except it was the only time I'd ever been on a film set until I made my first movie. So when I did make "Kicking And Screaming," which was my first movie - I was 24 when I made it - that was, like, what I thought, well, I remember this from this or that from "Heartburn." I remember the PAs - like or how the AD talked or how - it was sort of my only, you know, instruction manual for, you know, the sort of protocol of a movie set.

GROSS: Why was it your house that was chosen?

BAUMBACH: It was totally random. It was also a double for a Washington, D.C., home. And we - at the time, it was, like, being cast in a movie. I thought - I was so excited about it and I really couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe - because movies - you know, I loved movies, and I went to movies all the time. My parents loved movies. We all talked about movies all the time, but making movies was not - we didn't know anybody who did it. And I had no inside knowledge of movies or how they got made or anything. And so it really seemed like this kind of dream come true that this movie would be made in my - in my home. You know, now the idea of a movie crew coming into my home sounds horrible. I would do everything to avoid it. But then it was like - you know, it really did feel like we were cast somehow. You know, like, somehow we got to be in a movie.

GROSS: Well, Noah Baumbach, thank you so much for talking with us.

BAUMBACH: Thank you.

GROSS: Noah Baumbach wrote and directed the new film "The Meyerowitz Stories: New And Selected." It opens in select theaters and will be available on Netflix starting Friday. After we take a short break, we'll talk about the making of the classic film "Casablanca" with Noah Isenberg, the author of a book about the making of the film. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.