Marriage Story – How we often define ourselves in relation to other people

Marriage Story is filmmaker Noah Baumbach’s incisive and compassionate look at a marriage breaking up and a family staying together.

“Sometimes, it’s only when something breaks down that you understand it for the first time,” says Baumbach. “Through the narrative structure of a divorce that I was able to tell the story of a marriage. The
legal system of divorce is set up to divide, necessarily. It divides people, family, property and time. It keeps everyone in their own story and obfuscates the other person’s point of view. But I wanted to construct another way of looking at it, a more generous offering. I wanted to find the love story in the breakdown. Marriage, of course, also continues in divorce — you’re married the whole time you’re doing it. And when a kid is involved, marriage continues, in a sense, after the divorce as well.”

Writer-director Noah Baumbach during filming of Marriage Story. © Courtesy of Netflix

The film was inspired by personal experience

“As I’m the child of divorce and I’ve been through a divorce as an adult. But divorce is something so many families go through, and I thought it would be an important and interesting topic to explore in an expansive way,” says Baumbach. “I did a lot of research for the movie. I spoke to lawyers and mediators, and I’d present scenarios and ask, “What would you do in a case like this? “What would a judge say here?” And I spoke with friends of mine, many of whom were women, about their experiences with divorce. These conversations were often revelatory and helped shape the story.”

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Baumbach had conversations with actors Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson when he crafted the script

“Adam and I had been talking about this movie for some time, way before we knew what this movie even was! I met with Adam, Scarlett and Laura Dern before I began the script. It was important to me to have these actors in my head while I was writing. It gave me confidence to push scenes in various ways, because I could imagine these particular actors playing these moments. I interviewed them all, in a sense, for the story as much as for their characters. In the cases of Scarlett and Laura, they both have been through divorce, so they had their own stories to tell. Adam was instrumental in making the Barbers people who work in the theater.”

“Adam’s the best version of everything I would want in an actor. There’s total preparation. He will call me months before we shoot with questions or ideas. He knows every line from the beginning of rehearsal forward, and at the same time is totally present and ready to see what it’s going to be on the day. He described acting once as “a benign rebellion” and with him, that is accurate. He’s the best collaborator you could hope for; there’s always something in him pushing. He might alter the rhythm of a line or change his physicality, all in search for a truer moment. And once he’s arrived there, he can live in that space for a while, take further direction, refine it. It’s conscious and unconscious simultaneously. It’s my favorite way to work.”

Adam Driver
Scarlett Johansson © Courtesy of Netflix

“We prepared a lot, rehearsed the whole movie in advance, and I like to do a lot of takes when shooting so we can get as much out of the material as possible. But if you don’t have two actors like Scarlett and Adam, it’s meaningless. They came at this material from a really honest and personal place. There are scenes that require so much from them, and in every instance they gave it. I’m in awe of moments of theirs in the movie. Adam breaking down in their fight, the look on Scarlett’s face when he tells her he’s taking a job in LA, there are so many moments.”

Azhy Robertson and Adam Driver in Marriage Story. © Courtesy of Netflix

I think my films all contend with our expectations for ourselves, for each other, for the world. And also, happiness: The presence or lack of it, the obstacles in one’s way to joy. It’s a human thing, but it’s also cultural, very American.

For Baumbach, one of the many sadnesses in a divorce is “that you’re not going to take the journey with this person you thought you were. Your plans for the rest of your life are permanently altered. For this reason, it was important to me that they be relatively younger people, married for the first time; they’ve gone into this thing with the best of intentions — they’re trying to do something big, which is what everybody does when they get married.”

My films are also about identity. They explore how we often define ourselves in relation to other people

© Courtesy of Netflix

“Whether it’s imitation, as it is for 16-year-old Walt in Squid and the Whale, or in opposition to the world at large, as it for 40-year-old Greenberg. Those movies are about the search for self, but at different moments in life. Frances Halladay, at 27, is looking for herself in various neighborhoods and apartments and people. In While We’re Young (2014) the search for identity is projected onto another younger couple.

In Marriage Story, Charlie and Nicole were defined by the marriage and the family unit, and without that, they’re seeking new identities. The movie is about individual happiness but also a collective happiness — the marriage is over but the family lives on. In the end, although driven to the brink of division, Nicole and Charlie find commonality in their need to be good parents to their son.”

Noah Baumbach  is an American film director and screenwriter. He is known for making comedies set in New York City, and his works are inspired by writer-directors such as Woody Allen and Whit Stillman.

Baumbach gained attention for his early films Kicking and Screaming (1995), and Mr. Jealousy (1997). His breakthrough film The Squid and the Whale (2005) earned him a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. He started with his long time collaborations with Gerwig with Greenberg (2010) and continued with Frances Ha (2013), Mistress America (2015), White Noise (2022), and Barbie (2023).

His other films include Margot at the Wedding (2007), While We’re Young (2014), and The Meyerowitz Stories (2017). His film Marriage Story (2019) earned an Academy Award for Best Picture nomination and Baumbach’s second Best Original Screenplay nomination. He is also known for co-writing with Anderson on The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) and Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009).