At Tribeca: Noah Baumbach and Dustin Hoffman on the Tyranny of the Writer-Director

attends Tribeca Talks: Noah Baumbach at BMCC Tribeca PAC on April 24, 2017 in New York City.“Wouldn’t this be better if I were talking about my stuff?” Dustin Hoffman asked Noah Baumbach, mostly in jest, I think, at the Tribeca Film Festival Monday night (this was part of the “Directors Series” at Tribeca Talks). It was a callback to Hoffman’s opening, where he mentioned that it took a while before he realized that “apparently, this is about your career”—a chat with writer-director Baumbach moderated by Hoffman, rather than the other way around. There was truth to this joshing, though; when they eventually opened up the floor to questions, audience members mostly wanted to ask about Hoffman’s classics. He obliged, and told the Midnight Cowboy street-crossing ad-lib story again. He talked about The Graduate. I was in the back, and also silent, so he couldn’t hear my prayer: “talk about Dick Tracy, talk about Hook, talk about Hero,” like a true 90s-raised idiot.

Really, though, I was perfectly happy before the audience steered things in Hoffman’s direction, because Baumbach is one of my favorite filmmakers and Hoffman asked him some pretty great questions. He began by asking which of his movies—ten, if you count Highball, which he doesn’t but I do, and the forthcoming The Meyerowitz Stories, starring Hoffman alongside Ben Stiller and Adam Sandler—was the hardest to make. The answer, which digressed into Baumbach’s experience making his debut Kicking and Screaming, landed on Mr. Jealousy, a movie Baumbach admitted he doesn’t always like to talk about. He explained that the newness of his experience on Kicking and Screaming gave him confidence that was unearned yet also a boon to his process, while Mr. Jealousy was a trickier project because he knew more. (It’s a totally decent movie, if, admittedly, Baumbach’s least successful—I do prefer Highball, the disowned, possibly straight-to-video follow-up to that movie, supposedly shot with leftover money/time/materials from the Jealousy production. I’m sure Hoffman hasn’t seen it. Nobody has. I’ve watched it, at minimum, twelve times.)

Hoffman also asked Baumbach about working as a writer-director—specifically, about Baumbach’s tendency to enforce the specifics of his dialogue on his actors. The last time Hoffman was asked to recite every line exactly as written, he said, was The Graduate. Their exchange, though playfully contentious with Hoffman’s evocation of being lectured on the difference between saying “a period or three dots,” was instructive on the mechanics of, essentially, writing and directing simultaneously (even if Baumbach stressed that his scripts are written and rewritten very carefully, and that none of his movies have involved improvisation, despite the frequent questions about it). Baumbach is a formidable all-around filmmaker—it was tantalizing to hear him to discuss camera choreography for Meyerowitz as an extension of what he tried with camera movement in Mistress America—but he’s an uncommonly specific and insightful writer, while Hoffman, despite his grumbling, knows a bit about extracting the musicality of the written word. They discussed the ways that the performance and filming of a screenplay by definition is not that screenplay—it’s something else that isn’t entirely the writer’s, even if he’s on set insisting that Dustin Hoffman not transpose any words. (Baumbach also observed that Hoffman writes his lines out on index cards, with Hoffman admitting that he is a “slow memorizer.”)

Hoffman also chided Baumbach for asking for lots and lots of takes, often owing to particular camera set-ups. Earlier, when discussing how green he was during Kicking and Screaming, Baumbach recalled an early screening for a producer, who pointed out that standard film grammar allows for cuts to elide the action of, say, a character walking into a room. In his youthful confidence, Baumbach claimed that “the movie’s about the walking into the room.” Hoffman related a related Barry Levinson story about Diner, a major influence on Baumbach: Told by executives that he could easily cut out a lot of incidental dialogue and chatter in his scenes, Levinson replied that those bits were the whole movie. Baumbach has grown more ambitious since his hangout-vibe debut, and no longer necessarily needs to show the character’s full journey into the room (the editing of Frances Ha will zip in and out of a scene in as little as ten or fifteen seconds). But his movies are still precise in their observation of certain turns of phrase, bits of behavior, and character dynamics. I can’t wait to see what Hoffman was subjected to.

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