American auteur Noah Baumbach believes the best way to recount a love story is by looking at it through the prism of divorce. That may sound contradictory, until the director of offbeat, bittersweet, wryly observed pictures such as The Squid and the Whale and Frances Ha explains the method to his madness. "I feel like it's when something is not working that we can actually see it in a new way," he says.
"It's like if you go to a door and it doesn't open, you look at the door and see what it looks like, and think, how am I going to get in? Whereas if it opens straight away, you don't even think about it."
The 50-year-old writer-director has first-hand knowledge of what it feels like to be divorced, after all. His first marriage to actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, with whom he has a son, lasted eight years, and this experience fed into his excellent new film Marriage Story, which tells the story of a director and an actress going through an acrimonious divorce.
Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson play the feuding couple, Nicole and Charlie. Laura Dern and Ray Liotta are their respective lawyers. It's a modern-day Kramer vs Kramer, but with many more laughs.
But it's the mutual love between the central couple that makes Marriage Story so heartbreaking. They try for an amicable divorce, but when actress Nicole moves from New York to Los Angeles, the city where she grew up and where she now wants to pursue a career in film, it's inevitable that there will be a custody battle over their son.
Baumbach uses many elements to highlight the growing chasm between the two. Director against actor. Man versus woman. East Coast fighting west Coast. This is America, and it is broken and divided.
And yet, despite the similarities to Baumbach's own past, Marriage Story is no thinly disguised autobiography. The director knew that he wanted to make a love story, and he also knew that he wanted to work with Girls star Driver again. The actor played an aspiring documentary filmmaker in Baumbach's 2014 film While We Were Young. In Marriage Story, Driver portrays a director who prefers New York theatre to Hollywood movies.
The idea for the film grew as Baumbach and Driver sporadically met up for dinner. And over time, that dinner party grew. The main topic of conversation? Relationships. "Noah started to invite me along, too," recalls Dern. "Noah and I were friends at that stage, but we hadn't worked with each other before. This went on for a year and a half."
Despite acting since she was a teenager and finding fame young, it's hard to argue that Dern has had a brilliant career renaissance of late. As well as star turns in Twin Peaks: The Return and Big Little Lies, her work as a shark-like lawyer in Marriage Story is the crowning glory.
Already a two-time Oscar nominee, many have her pegged to finally win in 2020. But there was a personal connection with this role, too. Dern was married for eight years before divorcing musician Ben Harper, with whom she has two children. Of her similarities with Baumbach, Dern adds: "We also share the fact that we are both the children of artists, and now we are artists who are parents."
The final member of the supper club was Johansson. "We had these basic outlines for the script, and then I reached out to Scarlett," says the director.
"I had known her a little bit and wanted to work with her for a while. I sat down to lunch and started talking, and she goes: 'Well, I'm actually going through a divorce.' I thought, well, you're either going to love this story or hate it."
At the Venice Film Festival, Johansson gave her version of this particular lunch: "I just kind of blew into the room, ordered a glass of white wine, and started complaining [about my relationship]. And he was just listening, very attentive. And then he just cut it short and said: 'Funny you should mention it …'"
“It felt very personal for everybody,” says Driver about the resulting script. “I think the movie is about how love can transition and how painful that can be. They’re mourning for a loss of their love. In the process, she is building herself up while he is breaking down.”
The use of divorce lawyers brings out a win-at-all-costs mentality, as the couple forget why they fell in love in the first place. “He wants to win for his own client and his own ego,” says Liotta of his lawyer. “If I win, that means more money. It’s ruthless.”
The story seems particularly pertinent at a time when America seems so divided, politically, gender-wise and financially. "There are a lot of angry girls in America," says Dern. "I think any time there is an advancement, fear rises at the same time. We had a mixed-race president, and we thought we had advanced so much, but then you've never seen so much racism in America. It's tragic that these things go hand-in-hand."
It’s this picture of America that Baumbach creates through this divorce that is almost as devastating as the story of a couple breaking up. But Baumbach also acknowledges that even in the darkest times, there is another version of reality to explore. “Often, when you go through a divorce, there is a sense of failure, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t wonderful. And I thought just because a marriage has an ending; it doesn’t mean it wasn’t a marriage, it doesn’t mean there isn’t still love.”
Bizarrely, the Oscar race may create a relationship dilemma for Baumbach, as his partner and collaborator, Little Women director Greta Gerwig, with whom he has just had a baby, is one of his main rivals for Best Director and Best Film. It just goes to show that both love and awards work in mysterious ways.
Marriage Story will stream on Netflix from tomorrow