Noah Baumbach: The Acclaimed Film Director on Giving Directions

Noah Baumbach
I’m Alan Alda and this is C+V, conversations about connecting and communicating.
As soon as I know I’m going to work with somebody, I love to bring them in early, sometimes even when I’m still working on the script, because I feel like the more time we have communicating it’s only going to benefit what happens when we’re shooting on the set. And my hope is that actors will feel even when they first get the script, that they’re kind of in it already.

That’s writer-director Noah Baumbach. We got together a little while ago to compare notes on movie making in general – and to talk about our experience working together on his latest movie Marriage Story. I’d had a great time working with Noah, and I was curious about how he would describe his style of relating to actors.
Alan: 00:22 You know our show is about communication and relating and it occurs to me that as a director and as a writer, you’re so all about communication. And there’s a funny thing that happened on the way over here today. I was in a cab being driven by somebody who was from Russia and he kept telling me about his life story and I thought I got to get ready to talk to Noah. I got to think about this. And I realized he was preparing me for this conversation because he was telling me about what he learned about this country from our movies before he came over from Russia.
Noah: 01:04 That’s interesting.
Alan: 01:06 And he got … We don’t think of ourselves as communicating so much with other cultures, but he really got an impression of us from our movies. Do you think about who’s going to see your movie?
Noah: 01:22 I think about it probably in terms of how I just, maybe not unlike your cab driver of how I saw movies growing up.
Alan: 01:37 What do you mean? That’s interesting.
Noah: 01:40 Well, that what movies were to me-
Alan: 01:42 How they educated you about what the world was like. What were the movies that interested you as a kid?
Noah: 01:49 Well, they developed and early on, I mean, I think like Wizard of Oz and the Errol Flynn, Robin Hood.
Alan: 02:03 Yeah. Yeah, me too.
Noah: 02:05 Do you like that one with the Errol Flynn, Olivia De Havilland Robin Hood?
Alan: 02:12 Yeah.
Noah: 02:12 Yeah. I really loved that as a kid. And-
Alan: 02:16 Did you make movies as a kid? Did you have a camera? I had a wind up Bell & Howell and I made little three minute movies.
Noah: 02:24 It’s funny, I used the windup Bell & Howell in college. But before that, well, I guess VHS came into play when I was probably about 12, or at least we got our first VHS player and I got a camcorder right around that time also. So I started making movies with my friends and around the house then, but it was all on VHS and I didn’t have any kind of editing material, nor did I even fully know how to edit.
Alan: 03:02 Think about it. But you were aware of editing from watching, right?
Noah: 03:07 I was aware of editing from watching. And I actually borrowed my friend’s VCR and we edited between the VCR tapes and, which also meant pausing-
Alan: 03:22 And then taking and putting it in new cassette and-
Noah: 03:25 Yeah. And going back and forth in which case also wouldn’t … I know you remember like the early VCRs, when you pause, there was always that rainbow that would kind of wipe through it.
Alan: 03:38 Yeah. So you have that on every cut.
Noah: 03:39 You’d have that on every cut. It was-
Alan: 03:42 That gives you a nice style. It’s very-
Noah: 03:46 Yeah, it would be-
Alan: 03:47 So I remember reading something that Spielberg said in an interview that the director’s job is to decide where the camera goes and where the cut goes, where the scissors go. Do you think about that as you write, as you shoot or do you wait until the end and look at all the footage and say, “Here’s where I’ll make a cut.”
Noah: 04:07 I think about it in the writing and then definitely the most in the prep so that when I’m shooting, I have the cuts in mind.
Alan: 04:20 Because how you cut it, is how you’re telling the story. It’s how you’re communicating with the audience. You’re doing something to their brain with every cut.
Noah: 04:29 And when you cut as well. I mean, I think, if a cut can mean so many different things, a cut can be invisible if we’re shooting you and me across this table and we go back and forth and we’re talking by generally you’re going to want to see both of us talking at some point. So the idea is to kind of create a kind of seamless interchange between us if it was a scene in a movie. But if we just stayed on you talking for quite some time and you only heard me off screen or you didn’t hear me at all and we are wondering what my reaction is going to be, certainly that cut would have a different impact.
Alan: 05:11 Yeah. You bring up an interesting point for me. I saw a movie that had Al Pacino in it and it was edited by that, sorry, it was edited by that famous female editor whose name I can’t remember right now.
Noah: 05:28 Well I guess where there’s like Dede Allen-
Alan: 05:31 I’m pretty sure it was Dede Allen. And there was a long shot where Al caught up with somebody and they had a couple of lines of dialogue still in the long shot. And finally she cut in to one of them. And that was a lesson for me because I wanted to see that face when just around the time she cut. She didn’t cut until I wanted her to cut.
Noah: 06:02 Right. And had she done it earlier, that cut wouldn’t have meant anything. Or it would-
Alan: 06:08 No, it would be her or the director telling me what to look at. I always think about that with inserts. I think in the movie we did together, Marriage Story, which is such a beautiful movie and I’m so proud to be in it. I don’t think you used inserts. Maybe one insert I can remember.
Noah: 06:29 Yeah. Well, because also when we kind of, I suppose a featured insert in the movie is when they sign their divorce papers. And that’s another example how do we use inserts throughout the movie. And you’re used to looking at all these add-on screens or pages or things. It might not have-
Alan: 06:55 Have the impact.
Noah: 06:55 Have the impact. We also see it when he’s signing a check, he’s writing actually your character a check for $25,000.
Alan: 07:02 Oh, I missed that. I have to see the movie [crosstalk 00:07:05].
Noah: 07:05 There’s an insert there too.
Alan: 07:06 Well, we got to explain to anybody who doesn’t know that an insert is a shot that is very close to a little bit of action or an object that moves the story or explains part of the story. But to me, like I guess an example would be if the sheriff is talking to the villain and the sheriff you see a tight shot of the Sheriff’s hand moving his coat back to reveal his gun, that’s an insert.
Noah: 07:38 That’s a great use of an insert. I mean, yeah, I mean, you see like for instance like the psycho shower scene being like obviously a kind of maybe iconic example of a scene.
Alan: 07:57 Those are little 30 sum cuts or a hundred cuts [crosstalk 00:07:59].
Noah: 07:59 Yeah. It’s entirely made of edits. And it’s so that your experience watching it is there’s this sort of feeling that you’re seeing much more than you really are.
Alan: 08:11 The interesting thing about that shot that, pardon me, the interesting thing about that sequence is unlike most inserts, because it tells a story in a sequence of inserts, it’s not like the director is saying, “This is what I want you to look at.” He’s telling you a whole other story. And you’re bombarded with this and it’s not like what I always worry about with an insert is the scene is going along and the director says, “This is important. Look at this.”
Noah: 08:47 Right. That’s true. I think yeah, sometimes an insert is purely practical. You have to see the thing that somebody’s writing or the thing on the screen. I mean I find now in the digital age, there’s nothing more boring than shooting phones and computer screens. It’s just such a-
Alan: 09:12 For a while it was exciting. The letters are showing up on the screen.
Noah: 09:17 I know, I know. And-
Alan: 09:19 That was a terrible cliche.
Noah: 09:20 Yeah. It’s just and just put that off till as long as possible when you’re shooting a movie. There’s like the last day you’re shooting like 10 computer screens. So I always try to minimize those. But sometimes you have to do something like that because it’s part of life. It’s part of a thing. But then there’s the insert like your sheriff example or psycho or where the fact that you’re seeing this moment-
Alan: 09:52 It really does move the story.
Noah: 09:56 It’s storytelling. Exactly.
Alan: 09:58 In terms of storytelling, how much are you aware of what the audience is thinking as you tell the story? Are you involved in your own understanding of what’s coming up from the back of your head more than you’re thinking about how it lands on them? Or which way does it go? Both ways.
Noah: 10:18 I think both ways. Both are kind of running simultaneously because on one hand, I find clarity is such a big, it’s such an important part of storytelling. It’s such an important part of visual storytelling also, is do we know where we are? Do you know what the room looks like when if we’re going to return to this place later, are we shooting it from the same angle so that we know it’s the same place? Because it’s that thing you discover of course, when you’re shooting on a location or something, you think, well we all know what this looks like. So we know that the kitchen’s over there. We know the bathrooms are there. But you have to remember what does the audience know? And you know when I started out, I think I would find myself sort of assuming that people would know this was the same location or this was the same characters. And discovering in the editorial maybe that, oh, I shot it. There’s no way to know that this is the same place.
Alan: 11:23 Yeah. You know when I was starting out on film as a young actor, the director said to me at one point, this is a geography shot. We’ll go from here to … And I had never heard anything like that before. And they started to laugh, a geography shot? I thought we were in a movie. It sounded like a travelog, but hewas establishing in the audience’s mind where everything was taking place.
Noah: 11:50 And of course you want to do that in a way that doesn’t maybe feel too expositional-
Alan: 11:56 Too much like a geography shot.
Noah: 11:57 Too much like a geography shot. And I’ve done, I shot, I made a movie Margot at the Wedding where part of what we did deliberately, we never had establishing shots. The whole thing was to keep you off balance. But I find while always looking at sort of clarity and not just clarity-
Alan: 12:17 When you say establishing shots, somebody might not know what that means.
Noah: 12:20 Say it’s like, yeah, a shot of the house. Like sort of a geography shot, I guess would be a wide shot of the house they all live in. So you see it and they know-
Alan: 12:31 [crosstalk 00:12:31] cut right into the scene.
Noah: 12:32 We would go right into the scene.
Alan: 12:34 Right away where they are, which is always fun to find out where you are a little later.
Noah: 12:39 Yeah. And it was a kind of perpetual feeling of discovery. And we also did that editorially in that movie. We would cut in and out of scenes, often in the middle. So that I always felt that the next scene you didn’t need reaction shots too like, I mean, you might have a reaction shot within the scene, but you didn’t need like to end a scene with a reaction shot to see how somebody was feeling. The next scene could answer that for you. But it’s all … I’m also think about it in the script stage and rehearsals and is clarity of narrative and in that way, I have the audience very much in mind in that I want them to the degree that I think it’s important, I want them to have the bearings I feel they need, given that there’s going to be complexities and emotional content that might be more open for interpretation.
I think in a sense it leaves the stuff that you want maybe to be more open for interpretation is it gives that kind of a chance to kind of exist in a more pleasurable way because the audience has enough of their … they know what they need to know. So the stuff that maybe they’re discovering or the stuff that they’re feeling can be more pleasurable.
Alan: 14:14 And yet you do it in a … you provide this clarity in a very … and almost, it seems almost effortless, which is a clue that it’s probably not in the sense that I don’t see your movies full of a lot of explaining where we are, how we got here and that kind of thing. You understand it in the doing of it. Exposition, do you struggle with expositions to keep us clear about where we are and what the backstory is without having somebody explain it to us?
Noah: 14:54 Well, that is a challenge and often you’re hoping it’s kind of invisible, but at the same time it really needs to be in there. I mean even just basic things. I mean, what we had in Marriage Story, which was helpful was you had both Charlie and Nicole, Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson’s characters, meeting with lawyers and by design and interview, like you’re seeing with Adam when he’s first meeting with you. By design and interview is people explaining themselves and explaining the situation. So that was in a way, a gift because I could build it into the scenes. I could build both exposition or explanation, but also character and story in a way that felt organic to the scene itself.
Alan: 15:55 There always was a tradition, I remember in movies in the forties that I grew up on where there would be the best friend to whom everything would be explained. The best friend or somebody particularly stupid who needed to have the whole thing explained.
Noah: 16:12 Yeah. Yeah. I don’t think that’s changed so much in movies. I was watching a movie not long ago where somebody said like, “Oh, you know how dad is, he’s …” and then they say the whole thing. And I thought, wow, you didn’t even really try, did you?
Alan: 16:31 I was in a play once that lasted I think one night. Opening night was the same as closing night I think. And the exposition was handled by the maid who came in putting props down all around the room. And each prop was a chance for her to explain a different aspect of the leading character’s personality. And on opening night, the prop man forgot to set out the props. The whole routine of explaining the guy went out the window because she had no props. So she just looked at [inaudible 00:17:07] on stage. She said, “Well I leave you to your own devices.” And she left.

Noah Baumbach and I continue our conversation after this short break. And when we do I’m surprised to find out about an important decision he made before the shooting of Marriage Story even began. It was a decision that affects how audiences experience the film and it was one that I wasn’t even aware of: what exact shape the screen was going to be!


This is C+V, and now back to my conversation with Noah Baumbach.

Noah: 17:12 That’s amazing.
Alan: 17:16 Thank God you can’t do that in a movie. When we were talking about how you communicate with the audience, I heard you say sometime once that take a pause and clear your throat. I’ll do the same. Graham was listening. We’ll cut this out. Graham is the producer. When we were talking about communicating, talking about communicating with the audience reminds me of how you handle close-ups. You don’t do a lot of close-ups. You choose them very carefully. Right?
Noah: 17:53 Right. Yeah. And-
Alan: 17:55 What does a close-up mean to you? Why do you use one at all?
Noah: 18:01 Well, in some of my previous movies, like Greenberg or Francis Ha being two examples where, I mean even the title of the movie is the name of the character. You kind of have a single character that’s kind of bringing you into the story. And part of the story is their emotional journey as well as their physical journey. And in those cases for some similar and some different reasons, I felt like particularly there, the close-ups should be used sparingly because I thought these were both characters who were part of their obstacles are themselves and which is both a common human challenge for some people or all people to some degree, some people more than others.
But also I almost related it to like a silent film with like a silent comedy or something like a Buster Keaton movie or Charlie Chaplin movie where you’re always seeing often those stories are these individuals kind of at the fate, they’re sort of at the mercy I should say of it could be a storm. It could be, there’s often a big comic set piece that they’re … Charlie Chaplin in the factory in modern times or the gold rush with the cabin coming off the … they’re going to go off the cliff. And even though I was telling sort of a different kind of comedy in a sense, I thought of … I often wanted to show the characters in the world.
So there were a lot of wide shots. I mean, also both Ben Stiller played Greenberg and Greta Gerwig, who plays Francis. They’re great comedians and great physical actors. So again, seeing them, seeing their bodies in the world, in the case of Francis, she plays a dancer too. So I often saw scenes, there are dance sequences in the movie, but scenes even when she’s not even dancing, I thought of her sort of a performer or a dancer in the world. With Marriage Story it was different because it was a two hander and two characters in a sense who go on a kind of journey. I felt the internal life was something that I wanted to document and so I felt close-ups were going to be very important. And I even used a different aspect ratio, which is the frame itself of the movie. I mean we know widescreen framing-
Alan: 21:16 The letter box and then the old fashioned square.
Noah: 21:20 Yeah, the old, yeah. What they call the academy, which is 13:3 and the numbers are the sort of the ratios or the dimensions of the-
Alan: 21:28 So you changed the ratio?
Noah: 21:29 Well, I have shot previously Greenberg actually was widescreen. But most of my movies are 18:5 which is sort of a fairly common aspect ratio for movies. I mean-
Alan: 21:47 So what was Marriage Story?
Noah: 21:48 Was 16:6. So it was a slightly more narrow on the sides.
Alan: 21:52 So now this is very interesting. This is a real question of you communicating with the audience and they don’t even know it. I mean, the aspect ratio, the shape of the screen is a way, part of the way you tell your story. Tell me more about that because I really … that’s almost foreign to me. I mean, I remember reading Sydney Lumet’s book where he talked about during testimony in a courtroom, every couple of lines, he changed the focal length of the lens. He was sure that that was having an effect on the audience. And I wasn’t sure I saw what the effect was. But tell me how changing the shape of the screen matters. Why did it tell the story better?
Noah: 22:43 Well I think it created a sense of portraiture when we were in close-up and-
Alan: 22:51 Oh, I see. So the face wouldn’t have allowed the space leftover on both sides.
Noah: 22:57 Yeah. It’s more narrow on the sides. I think also because of audience’s expectations were used to, widescreen is particularly right now, I think is used a lot. And 18:5 which is like I said, not wide, 18:5 is not widescreen. It’s almost sort of like what a TV shape is or TVs now it’s more rectangular, are more maybe an audience’s sort of expectation for an image currently. So by narrowing it slightly, I don’t know, I guess I felt like maybe it would kind of focus you in more and particularly in these close-ups. It was you as more in the 60s, 16:6 was some in the 70s. But yeah, it becomes a kind of mostly invisible kind of way of slightly changing your perspective when you’re watching the movie.
Alan: 24:09 Yeah. I love it that it certainly was invisible to me. I had no awareness that you would change the shape of the screen and it probably had some effect on me. How do you know it’s having the effect? Is there any way to test the idea?
Noah: 24:25 Well, I think I just go more off visually. When we did tests and we did tests in different aspect ratios, camera tests, I loved how the close-ups felt in 16:6. I felt it just held the face in a really beautiful way. And that was kind of what Robbie, Robbie Ryan who shot our movie and I went to, was that going with that feeling I should say. But I also actually like how the wide’s looking at two. I think it’s … I like the frame. It’s an interesting frame and I wouldn’t have done it if I felt it was going to be distracting to people. I mean academy which is the 13:3, what old movies were shot on is more, I think a more notable change. I mean it feels-
Alan: 25:26 I would have noticed that.
Noah: 25:27 Yeah. And some modern movies have done that beautifully. But I felt like that would be too much, that would call attention to itself for this story.

Alan: 25:42 Right. It’s interesting especially as a young actor-film maker, I love to watch, I used to love to watch movies made on small budgets and see how they solved the problems. There was that one movie, it was a western made by a director who made them whole movie for $3,000, and he raised the money by being a subject for drug trial. I don’t think he even needed the drug, and-
Noah: 26:21 What movie was that, do you know?
Alan: 26:23 I think it was the director, Rodriguez, I forget the name of the movie, but what I loved-
Noah: 26:28 Mariachi was-
Alan: 26:29 Yeah. I think so, yeah. What I loved about it was almost the whole movie was in close-ups because he lit the movie with two bulbs. He couldn’t light a whole room, he didn’t have any equipment. So he told the story in totally almost totally in close-ups except when he was outside and he had the ambient light and he could shoot larger scenes. And that fascinated me how he was able to use the constraint to tell his story through the constraint.
Noah: 27:07 I think having limitations in probably in all art forms, but I can speak from my own experience of making movies, can be in some ways I think it really can up your game. I mean, I think in the way you described being a perfect example of it, style can be born out of these limitations that actually … that you might otherwise not have otherwise found in yourself. I mean, when I made Squid and the Whale, we had very little money and very little time and the movie is all handheld. And part of it from an, you could say from an aesthetic and narrative standpoint, an emotional standpoint, you can say, “Oh, but it brings a kind of intimacy. It feels kind of almost documentary. You’re kind of in the family life in a way that you wouldn’t be if you were standing back.”
Alan: 28:26 And again, that’s under the level of consciousness.
Noah: 28:28 Right, right. And that’s all true. But it actually, given the time constraints we had, it actually was a practical decision as much as anything, which was, I knew then we could kind of swing around and shoot this side and this side and we wouldn’t have to kind of stop and turn around. That it just, the immediacy actually helped us get more done. And that was an example of what is the necessity is the mother of invention or it can be the … is where I kind of discovered a style based on the kind of constraints that I was up against.
Alan: 29:12 When you talk about being on the set, you’re reminding me that we’ve been talking about communicating with the audience and what I was aware of on the set with you making Marriage Story was how you communicated with the actors. The director has to communicate with so many people. The crew, a couple of hundred people often. And when you talk to the crew, do you talk in terms of the story you’re telling or do you talk in terms of the effect you want to create?
Noah: 29:47 I think generally the story telling, although sometimes, maybe there’s, if you’re dealing with something like a makeup effect or something or we have some blood in this movie that there might be, you talk more about in terms of effect. But generally storytelling, I mean it’s also why I like to as soon as I know I’m going to work with somebody, I love to bring them in early because, and sometimes even while I’m still working on the script. Because I feel like the more time we have communicating, it’s only going to benefit what happens when we’re shooting on the set, on the day, on the set with the light fading or whatever, you know, all the crazy things we put up with in movie making.
Alan: 30:45 When they know exactly what you’re doing, what and why you’re doing it, then they’re collaborators rather than just-
Noah: 30:53 Yeah. And my hope is that then actors will feel when they even first get the script that they’re kind of in it already. That when they go through their process of learning their lines and preparing on their end, that it not feel entirely unfamiliar what they’ve received. And the same thing for crew members. I mean, sometimes you just don’t know. You don’t have the luxury of knowing everybody who you’re going to be working with. Somebody is not available, something changes. But when you do, for me, I think it’s of great importance to have everybody kind of know as much as possible at the earliest possible stage.
Alan: 31:51 So as we’ve been talking to the press, you and I about the movie, I’ve often praised you for not only not being a tyrannical director, but being there, collaborating and watching the thing develop, watching the character in the scene develop as a kind of collaborative observer almost, and not having a secret agenda that you’re manipulating the actor into. Now, I never heard from you. That was my impression. Now it’s time to come clean. Did I miss it? Were you manipulating me?
Noah: 32:33 I was manipulating you the whole time. I manipulated you into that thought. No I don’t work that way. I mean, I wouldn’t know how to work that way. I mean, I think of what happens so often while we’re shooting and it certainly happened on Marriage Story and in our scenes, your scenes in the movie, is I know a certain amount going in. I know I have all my ideas, all the planning for the scene and everything is quite mapped out and thought through and shot listed and we’ve rehearsed and all of that’s there. The script is the script. But that’s all because I know we’re all going to learn so much in the moment it and during the course of shooting the sequence and so often, sometimes I find it a funny question. Sometimes like the AD might say to me like, “Do you have it?” You know, like because-
Alan: 33:55 Like did you get what you decided you wanted?
Noah: 33:57 Right. Right, exactly. And you know, I tend to do a lot of takes and sometimes that there might be something more concrete that you’re looking for that you know you got or didn’t get. But I find a lot of the time it’s, you’ll do something in the scene that gives me an idea, a new idea for the scene or a new idea about what the scene could be about.
Alan: 34:22 And then my impression was if that happened that you would then explore that for four or five takes and see it could develop into something even more than either of us had thought of.
Noah: 34:33 Absolutely. And end in a sequence where there are going to be cuts. A scene two people across a desk or when the mediation scene, when there’s four people in the room together, actually six people including your associates who are sitting behind you. You might get in those four takes a couple of moments that you wouldn’t have gotten otherwise that you can include in the course of the scene that it’s going to just sort of been enrich the whole thing. And also the hope is too that from your perspective in discovering things, it’s going to also give you more too.
And I think it’s such a pleasure in, I mean, in our jobs I think is getting to play with these things. I mean, I think for me the thing that I am so clear about when I’m shooting is having the time because if you don’t have the time, if you’re rushing, and I’ve had to do that too. I mean Squid and the Whale being a good example. I tried to get as much time as I could, but then you’re more … I think it puts everybody more in the mindset of did we get it, as opposed to have we explored it satisfactorily? Do we all feel like we tried all the things we wanted to try? Have we all gotten everything from the day so that we don’t all go home, which you inevitably do anyway when you’re shooting a movie. You always go home and think, oh, what about … but at least to minimize that as much as possible.
Alan: 36:37 Ask yourself and do that on the way home. Play the scene 10 more times with different variations.
Noah: 36:44 Right. And I’m trying to hopefully minimize that so that … but of course-
Alan: 36:48 Getting variations on film.
Noah: 36:49 Yes, yes, exactly.


Alan: 36:51 You have such respect for the acting process. And I read someplace that you did, you studied improv?
Noah: 37:00 Yeah, I did improv in college. And in those days, there was probably even a part of me thought, well, maybe I would want to be an actor. I always wanted to write and direct, but maybe I would want to act as well. But I loved improvisation. I liked, I love doing that, working that way. It was something, I was talking about improv once with Mike Nichols and who obviously did it at its highest level, with Elaine May and the Compass Players in Chicago and Second City. And he said he always thought of improv when he was directing actors because he thought, when you’re improvising, you’re not thinking about like, what’s my character’s motivation? Would I say this? How do I say this? Am I happy, sad? He said, “You’re just so excited to have thought of the thing that you’re saying in that moment that you just say it.” And he said, “I always want to try to get actors to that point where they’re just saying it.”
Alan: 38:22 And saying it because the other character, the other actor makes you say it.
Noah: 38:27 Absolutely.
Alan: 38:28 Makes you say it in a certain way.
Noah: 38:29 Absolutely.
Alan: 38:30 And that changes … that’s one of our phones.
Noah: 38:37 I probably turned mine off.
Alan: 38:38 I don’t know what I did with mine. I think it’s me.
Noah: 38:42 It’s you Alan.
Alan: 38:44 I told you to set it on airplane mode and I didn’t. Wait a minute. I can’t get it out of my pocket. I’m now going to set it on airplane mode. Okay. You know, we started late. Okay. What the hell was I going to say?
Noah: 39:26 You were talking about you reacting to the other actor, the other actor makes you say it that way about improv. Do you remember the last thing that was said? It was a good, you were making a good point.
Alan: 39:47 You say your line because the other actor makes you say it and makes you say it in a certain way. And that changes from take to take and on stage, it changes from night to night.
Noah: 39:59 Absolutely. And again, that’s why I like to do many of them because if you find something new, inevitably Adam’s going to find something new. If Adam find something new, inevitably you’re going to find something new. And I might have a direction to sort of turn you all in and other times it’s almost … Other times there could be a take where you feel like you feel it going in a direction, but it didn’t quite go there. And then sometimes it’s my job to point that out and maybe sort of nudge it in that direction. Other times I can tell you’re going to get to there. So I won’t say anything. We just run it again. And then you go in that direction.
Alan: 40:42 Yeah. You know, everybody I’ve talked to Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Renee Fleming, in that field, the field of music, has the same thing to say about the performance, the moment of performance where you’re as prepared as you can be. And then you take off and you don’t exactly know where you’re going to go, but you’re going based on what’s happening right now in reality. Right now is so much better than last night when you decided how you were going to do it.
Noah: 41:17 Right. And being open to that. I mean, that’s what it takes is people who are open to that because you can feel when people are restricted, when they’re afraid or unwilling for whatever reason to change, to adapt to the right now, that real moment. And I’ve worked with actors, in some cases very good actors, but that they want to do it the way they have planned it. But I think the music, the comparison to composers and players, I mean it’s an apt one because it is the thing, if they have the score, the score is the score. They’re playing those notes.
Alan: 42:09 And yet every performance is a little different.
Noah: 42:12 Yeah.
Alan: 42:13 Well our right now includes the idea that we have to come to an end of our conversation.
Noah: 42:17 No, I don’t want to stop.
Alan: 42:19 I can talk shop with you all day.
Noah: 42:20 Me too.
Alan: 42:22 We always end our conversations with seven quick questions. And they’re not embarrassing, don’t worry.
Noah: 42:29 Okay. All right.
Alan: 42:31 Okay. What do you wish you really understood?
Noah: 42:39 Oh wow. Well, I was going to say my own mind but-
Alan: 42:39 Nobody said that yet, that’s pretty good.
Noah: 42:53 But then I was under, do I really want to?
Alan: 42:55 Well if you figure it out, let me know. Number two, how do you tell someone they have their facts wrong?
Noah: 43:05 How do I tell them?
Alan: 43:06 Yeah. Or do you?
Noah: 43:10 Well, that’s, I mean, that’s where directing actually is not a dissimilar thing, although there’s no right or wrong. I would say gently, perhaps offering a … not presenting it as a separate right. But maybe just introducing the right into the conversation and hoping that maybe they will take the right and-
Alan: 43:49 Another way to look at it, not necessarily right, but absolute.
Noah: 43:53 Right, exactly.
Alan: 43:56 This is hard to get around that if you know it’s a fact. And it kind of is either yes or no.
Noah: 44:01 But it’s actually a good question for me. I often, I can be very sensitive to somebody particularly, I mean, it depends on the person too. But somebody, if you feel like a fragile ego or in some way, or I will maybe just let them be wrong-
Alan: 44:21 You may be right. The earth may be flat.
Noah: 44:23 Right. I’m not going to push it because I feel like it’s going to maybe provoke-
Alan: 44:29 Right. You don’t want to get into a whole other thing.
Noah: 44:31 Right.
Alan: 44:31 Okay. Here’s one. What’s the strangest question anyone’s ever asked you?
Noah: 44:42 Well, actually a question that we get a lot, which is in our travels, is what is the genesis of this project? Or how do you write or how do you film? I find it strange because I feel like there’s no way to answer it. But it’s so common and I’m always taken with how often I’m asked these kinds of questions that I have absolutely no answer for. Because I always think of it like conversation. It’s like you sit down to dinner and you all start talking and if somebody said at the end of the dinner, “How did this begin? Or why did you get on this subject?” Nobody knows because it’s all been created, it’s like improv. It’s all just happened on its own.
Alan: 45:45 How do you stop a compulsive talker?
Noah: 45:50 By pointing out their facts are wrong.
Alan: 45:55 Okay. I’ll take that. How do you … you mentioned the dinner parties. You’re at a dinner party. How do you start up a real conversation with the person next to you who you’ve never met before?
Noah: 46:09 Yeah, and that can be treacherous because some of the, like the maybe questions of that you think are innocuous suddenly are not.
Alan: 46:19 How did your nose get like that?
Noah: 46:21 Right, right. Yeah. You don’t want to do that one. Yeah. It’s always safe to just sort of start about the food I suppose, or how do you know the host? I guess that’s always a good way in, right?
Alan: 46:38 And that eventually can lead to real conversations. Alright, here’s one. What gives you confidence?
Noah: 46:49 That is a good question. Because sometimes it’s just there isn’t it? I mean you just have it. And we wouldn’t do what we do if we didn’t have confidence.
Alan: 47:13 And we need a lot of it.
Noah: 47:14 Yeah. I mean I’d say Gretta. Having a great spouse partner, who when I’m feeling less confident, I can bring that to. She’s often very helpful in restoring my confidence.
Alan: 47:38 That’s great. I have that same experience. Not with Gretta, with my [crosstalk 00:47:41].
Noah: 47:42 Say what?
Alan: 47:44 I thought I’d finally tell you right? Show’s almost over.
Noah: 47:49 I’m going to call Arlene.
Alan: 47:51 Here’s the last one. What book changed your life?
Noah: 47:56 Okay, that’s good. Well often the things that I find changed my life came from childhood. And those sort of books that have major impacts on you. This is a funny one, but actually it was Bernard Malamud’s The Natural. I read was like the first book I read I think kind of like that felt like a grown up book.
Alan: 48:37 How old were you?
Noah: 48:38 I was pretty young. I think I was like 10. And we were allowed to pick our own. You know at that point you’d been assigned books, and I’d love To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, Great Gatsby, all the books that were part of the school curriculum at that time. But then we were allowed to pick a book and I picked it because it was baseball, but it’s really about mythology and about American mythology. And it’s a book that’s just stayed with me my whole life. And they made a very good movie of it, but they changed it in the movie.
And I like how they changed it as like as a separate thing. But the book has always stayed with me as a kind of, I feel like there’s a lot in it about the world and about ambition and success, but also the American kind of dream and what that really is and what … and he sort of links it also to mythology and the Arthur legend and Greek mythology. And it was very interesting, but I think also it was the book itself, but it was also the fact that I was reading something that felt like it was from the adult world when I was still a kid and that I understood it and liked it so much. It gave me confidence in a way.
Alan: 50:20 You answered all the questions twice.
Noah: 50:22 Yeah, I know right. I found better answers in the next question.
Alan: 50:26 Well, I know you like a lot of takes.
Noah: 50:28 Yes.
Alan: 50:29 Thank you so much. Noah, I really had fun.
Noah: 50:31 Me too. Thank you, Alan. This is great.