William Faulkner conceived The Sound and the Fury from a mental picture of a pair of women’s underpants dangling on a clothesline. Speaking at the Toronto International Film Festival, Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) said that what sparked Margot at the Wedding was “a mother and her son riding on a train — that was the image I had in my head. I had a feeling about it, but I didn’t know what it would turn into.” It became the film’s opening scene, with the tense, competitive, neurotic novelist Margot (Nicole Kidman) traveling with her adolescent son, Claude (Zane Pais), to visit Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Margot’s younger sister, a teacher who is newly engaged.
NO UNDERPANTS: But the thought of Nicole Kidman on a train got Margot started.
“In the early part of writing, I work on characters,” Baumbach continued. “I don’t outline. I don’t like to know too much at too early a time. As I continue writing, I’m in the world of the characters, and it becomes infectious. I walk around with this world in my head. My father, Jonathan Baumbach, is a novelist; my mother, Georgia Brown, was a film critic for the Village Voice. I grew up around writers and teachers. I’m friends with them; and both in The Squid and in Margot, I find myself writing about people I know who are sophisticated and articulate and realize a lot about themselves, but that can hide chaos underneath.
“The Squid and the Whale was, in a way, a cozy family movie, easy to find your bearings. Margot is about not finding your bearings. The anxieties of the characters keep shifting. Margot is having a hard time being a mother, being married, dealing with expectations of herself and her expectations of people around her.”
The casting of Nicole Kidman? Baumbach laughed. “It’s safe to say that before Squid I would have been arrested trying to have coffee with her! But working with her was the easiest experience I’ve ever had in the movie business. She was my first choice for Margot. I did have coffee with her. We’re both shy, halting people. But the next day, she said yes. It was so nice! It took years to convince people to make The Squid.”
And Jack Black as Pauline’s underachieving fiancé? “Jack also was my first choice. Jack wanted to meet me after The Squid. We had lunch, became friendly. A lot of times people cast a comedian in a drama and then want him to be glum, not do comedy. With Jack, I wanted him to be funny and yet exist in the realm of the film.”
Margot at the Wedding was the first occasion on which Baumbach worked with his off-screen wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh, who accompanied him to Toronto. “I really love working with my husband, it’s the greatest time,” she said. “I read drafts of what he’s working on, and I went into the editing room on The Squid. I respect Noah so much. With Margot, I kind of wanted to show off a little for him. He’d never seen me on a set. I work really, really hard, and I’m good at what I do!”