Jury Coordination and Notes

2020 Directors Close Up * Week Two

Acting allows a script to transform from words on a page into an emotional and three-dimensional performance. So, Week Two of Film Independent’s Director’s Close Up delved into the relationship between actor and director by hearing from Marriage Story director Noah Baumbach, actress Martha Kelly (Nancy Katz) and casting director Francine Maisler.

Before actors can bring characters to life, a screenplay must be written for them to inhabit. Noah, who also wrote the screenplay for Marriage Story, spoke in detail about his unique writing process. Unlike most writers, Noah includes his actors and crew in the writing process allowing him to “have a dialogue with them.” This included interviewing every actor, so he can tailor the characters to their personalities. At the end of the film, when Adam Driver (Charlie) plays the guitar, Noah explained that the moment had been specifically written for Adam. Similarly, one of Laura Dern’s (Nora Franshaw) monologues directly came from conversations between Noah and Laura. 

Noah focuses on ensuring the script resembles reality as much as possible, so he tends to interview people who have experienced similar things to what the characters experienced. For Marriage Story, he interviewed many individuals who have had experience with both marriage and divorce to ensure that the story maintains as much realism as possible. To add more realism, Noah collected stories that he heard from friends and families and found “the right place for it at the right time.” In a scene from Marriage Story, Charlie accidentally cuts himself. Noah states that the inspiration came from a real-life event that happened to a friend of his. 

While these strategies help ensure the film flows naturally, casting the right individuals has a large influence on the quality of the film. Casting director Francine Maisler spoke on their process, saying Noah treats “every part like it’s the lead.” Noah takes time to find the right actor for each role and works with them to ensure they understand the character. Noah and Francine will sometimes save the names of actors they meet so they can work with them on future projects, one example is Merrit Weaver (Cassie), whom they met years ago and decided she would be perfect in Marriage Story. During the audition process, he wants the actors to not know the lines, to be slightly unrefined, or even “raw.” This allows him to work with the actors to develop a strong character.

After casting and writing have been completed, he conducts rehearsals not to practice the lines but the “blocking and rhythm of the dialogue.” This also helps the actors learn the character. An example is with Alan Alda’s portrayal of Bert Spitz. Alda told Noah that he didn’t understand the Bert’s character until he saw the set for Bert’s office. Onset, Noah avoids saying “action” to push the actors to perform the same way they would off-camera, which he believes allows a more natural performance. He would also does many takes or slightly adjusts the blocking of the actors or gives the actors little things to do during the scene to help naturalize the performances. 

Noah also took inspiration from previous films. He watched “screw-ball comedies from the 30s and 40s such as Persona (1966) and Dr. Strangelove (1964) to prepare for Marriage Story. When working with actors, he collaborates with them instead of ordering them. “They give me ideas in their performance,” he explains. Even with writing, Noah states that when he begins writing any script, he feels that he’s “just an amateur all over again.” Noah’s process speaks for itself, with the film receiving five nominations at the 92nd Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Screenplay, and being honored as one of the best films of the year by the American Film Institute.

Marriage Story is streaming on Netflix now. For more information on Film Independent, go to https://www.filmindependent.org/

By Gerry O., KIDS FIRST! Film Critic, Age 17

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