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Baumbach returns to roots with ‘Squid’

Story of divorced parents recalls the filmmaker’s own childhood
/ Source: The Associated Press

It’s taken Noah Baumbach 10 years to get back to where he started.

The director of “The Squid and the Whale” was considered a wunderkind at 25 when his 1995 debut, “Kicking and Screaming,” played at the New York Film Festival. A decade later, the native New Yorker finally returned.

“When I look back on it, I think I was like a deer in the headlights,” Baumbach remembers. “In a way, ‘Squid and the Whale’ feels like my first film as an adult. To come to the New York Film Festival again, I feel like I got a chance to make my first movie again.”

The film is a highly personal story about the divorce of Baumbach’s parents, played by Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney. Set in the 1980s Brooklyn of Baumbach’s childhood, it’s told mainly from the perspective of the older of their two sons, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg of “Roger Dodger”). (Owen Kline, son of Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates, portrays the younger boy, Frank.)

Baumbach’s parents — mother Georgia Brown was a film critic for the Village Voice and father Jonathan is a novelist and film critic — had the foolhardy idea of alternating custody by the day. It was a situation rife with dramatic and comedic potential, Baumbach eventually realized.

But it took years for him to evolve from the hyperverbose wit of “Kicking and Screaming” to the funny but emotional terrain of “The Squid and the Whale.” In the intervening years, Baumbach honed his craft and found a collaborator in Wes Anderson.

From ‘new face’ to nowhere to ‘Squid’“Kicking and Screaming,” which documents the inertia of postgraduate slackers, has evolved into a bit of cult movie. It was a modest critical hit and Baumbach was hailed by Newsweek magazine as one of 10 “new faces of 1996.”

Instead of taking any of numerous directing offers, Baumbach again wrote his own material — 1997’s “Mr. Jealousy,” which starred Eric Stoltz. Though a better produced, more structured film, it was a box office and critical dud. (He also made “Highball” the same year, an experimental film that he dissociates himself from, shot in six days with much of the same cast.)

“‘Mr. Jealousy’ was a real disappointment for me,” he says. “‘Kicking and Screaming’ was my first movie out and a lot of the time I thought, ‘This movie could have done a lot better.’ I didn’t really appreciate how well certain things had gone. But when ‘Mr. Jealousy’ came out, I was thinking, ‘Three-star reviews are good to get.”’

A down period followed. He wrote scripts, including pilots for sitcoms, which taught him better working habits and how to be “less precious” — more willing to cut a joke if it didn’t aid the story.

As the script for “The Squid and the Whale” emerged, he felt a “personal breakthrough.”

“I realized that I was writing in a different way than I had been ... it was much more character-based,” he says. “I was writing a comedy, but I was writing it in a different way. It was less censored, it was rawer, it was more immediate — and that was exciting.”

Friends lend a handBut, once completed, four years of finding financing lay ahead.

Thankfully, he had some friends to help.

Stoltz, who met Baumbach when he became the “name” attached to “Kicking and Screaming,” got the script to Linney and helped find backers.

“I think everybody who knows Noah and who cares about his work somehow tried to help as much as we could,” says Stoltz. “He’s been paying his dues for years and he’s been kicking around for a long time — despite his age — and he deserves enormous success.”

Baumbach also became good friends with Anderson, the director of “Rushmore” and “The Royal Tenenbaums.” Together, they wrote “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” — which marked Baumbach’s first resurfacing in years. Anderson urged Baumbach to explore the personal story of “Squid” and even co-produced it.

“Wes made (his debut) ‘Bottle Rocket’ with James L. Brooks kind of overseeing it,” Baumbach says, referring to the Academy Award-winning director of 1983’s “Terms of Endearment.” “I think Brooks pushed Wes a lot, being a first-time filmmaker, not to indulge in certain things, being mature about it. I think Wes in a lot of ways was able to do that for me, to push me.”

“The Squid and the Whale” is referred to as “autobiographical,” but Baumbach, who recently married actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, prefers to temper that label.

“Somebody could easily go through and link everything to different points in not just my family, but people I know — but I don’t even really care. For me, the movie is a protection — a completely reinvented film,” he says.

Baumbach and Anderson again collaborated on a screenplay — for “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” a stop-motion animated adaptation of a Roald Dahl story.

He’s also working on a screenplay solo, which has him thinking “I’ll have to rediscover myself again as a writer.

“The change that occurred in me for this movie was about this movie. It’s sort of what’s the next step,” he says.