In a talkback following the screening of The Meyerowitz Stories at the New York Film Festival, filmmaker Noah Baumbach addresses the process behind his “largest work to date.”
New York Film Festival is the last stop on Noah Baumbach’s tour promoting his new movie, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) starts streaming on Netflix on October 13. Before premiering on Lincoln Center’s main slate, the film premiered at Cannes to mostly positive reviews, where I saw it and delivered my initial thoughts.
The chance to watch the film again at today’s screening was twofold: Noah Baumbach’s presence at the press conference preceding the watch, but also the nature of his work itself. Primarily a writer by nature, Baumbach’s verbose, often ambiguous comedies appreciate the more times you watch them, and Meyerowitz is no exception. Like I said in my original review, the film’s transcendental promise is the greater unspoken details of these character’s lives, and the audience’s chance to watch them work through damages they’ll probably never fully acknowledge.
It’s a totally different story to watch their director acknowledge them, however. When Noah Baumbach appeared in the Walter Reade after the final credits rolled, he was met with widespread applause, and without prestige launched into an analysis of his work.
Though his new work seems to be his most ambitious in terms of budget and the all-star cast (Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Ben Stiller, and Adam Sandler among them), Baumbach challenged journalists’ claim that this production was more prominent than his previous works.
“I approached it the way I approach [all of my films] really,” he stated, “I think the story and the writing became broader because of the ideas I had and wanted to put in it. The things I wanted to do in the movie was to do something in a hospital – I hadn’t really seen in a movie before was a certain aspect of what it’s like to be in a hospital when you’re at such a vulnerable time in your life.” It’s an interesting starting point because while a good portion of the narrative revolves around a hospital, this only occurs in the latter half of the film. Baumbach also acknowledged a certain catalyst of the production in Adam Sandler, who called on Baumbach for a role a few years back; it became clear in preproduction that he should have a scene where he and Ben Stiller have a physical fight, another plot-point in the film’s second act.
Noah Baumbach: “I liked the feeling of something collected or put together, and got drawn in by some of the short stories within the idea, thinking of authors who return to the same family over time.”
Noah Baumbach’s was the first of several press conferences to come in the course of the festival, and my first opportunity to watch the dynamic of the corps of reporters. I was immediately surprised by the casual nature this took on – few hands jumped up when the time came for questions, and many were to congratulate his film, not as a critic but as a parent, or psychologist.
The nature of this director and this film surely affect that mentality; Baumbach has long presented his films as low-budget and humble meditations, and his lack of the stereotypical auteur’s ego is apparent early on. To view this film’s reception as more akin to a literary, as opposed to technical, unveiling, makes sense. And yet that’s also his most basic appeal: that he creates works that don’t provoke shock and excitement but contemplation.
Sitting in the second row, I got the chance to ask him a question relating to this effect. The Meyerowitz Stories, as a narrative, has a very cohesive and complete feeling to it (despite a penchant for long fades on the vignettes which finish the film), but for the first time, Noah Baumbach included a structural element of chapters into his movies, displayed on white title cards to showcase a new thread in the Meyerowitz tapestry. Even the subtitle of the film, New, and Selected, implies that the story is a selection of events and so I asked Noah Baumbach to speak to that, and to the possibility that these characters might have a life for him outside of the film.
“The structure was a way to access these characters,” Noah Baumbach replied, “I liked the feeling of something collected or put together, and of course I designed it as a complete meal – as you would say – but that was for me the backstory of it, and got drawn in by some of the short stories within the idea, thinking of authors who return to the same family over time.
There’s a John Updike collection that I read called The Maples Family which I found very affecting. The early stories were them younger, and then they get married and have a family and then they break up; I found something extra moving about the fact that these stories existed in real time and weren’t preordained. He arrived at these conclusions for these people that he didn’t necessarily have going into the story.”
Seeing the film in theaters twice, I got very different things out of it, similar to the feeling of putting down a story, or a collection of stories, and picking it up again later.
Though I know my situation was unique, even for the other reporters in the room, I couldn’t help but notice how elegantly the form of my screenings in the theater followed this functional aspect of Noah Baumbach’s story. Seeing the film in theaters twice, I got very different things out of it – my experience this time felt far more complete and realized as I got more out of characters like Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) who Baumbach cleverly elides without ignoring. The change in my experience is so similar to that of putting down a story, or a collection of stories, and picking it up again later, like the revolution I experienced on my second read-through of J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey (another seminal text for Baumbach).
Most films aren’t meant to be watched this way – the very notion of a screening in theaters implies the idea that the film is a single, temporary event. But I stand by my need to watch films like Baumbach’s multiple times, and am thankful other viewers get the chance to as well; the film’s release on Netflix gives it a quality of continued access to viewers which is still extremely new for movies. The director himself said today that he still thinks Meyerowitz, along with all proper films, are made first and foremost for the theater. But, unlike so many others in the industry, I think he made a smart move by letting the movie stream. This way, The Meyerowitz Stories are allowed to live in their humble grandeur.