About the Production
“It’s hard, I think, to find people in the world you love more than your family.”
Noah Baumbach's follow-up to his Academy Award®-nominated The Squid and the Whale is a daringly funny and bracingly honest exploration of the tender, absurd and sometimes excruciating relationship between siblings — and the fallout for those in their wake: children, husbands and lovers.
Margot Zeller (Academy Award®-winner NICOLE KIDMAN), a savagely bright, razor-tongued short-story writer who creates chaos wherever she goes, sets off on a surprise journey to the wedding of her estranged, free-spirited and unassuming sister Pauline (Golden Globe®-nominee JENNIFER JASON LEIGH).
Margot, with her all-too-rapidly maturing son Claude (newcomer ZANE PAIS) in tow, arrives with the gale force of a hurricane. From the minute she meets Pauline's fiancé – the unemployed artist Malcolm (JACK BLACK) – Margot starts to plant seeds of doubt about the union.
As the wedding approaches, one complication crashes into the next: vengeful neighbors, a debate about the beloved tree in the backyard and Margot's own marital turmoil. The two sisters find themselves at the precipice of an unexpected transformation, ultimately revealing that even when your family is about to implode . . . the one thing you can cling to for solace and comfort is your imploding family.
Baumbach in his wry, unique vision lays bare an aspect of human comedy in all its confounding, sustaining essence.
Paramount Vantage presents Margot at the Wedding, directed by Noah Baumbach from his original screenplay. The film stars Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Zane Pais, Jack Black and John Turturro. Scott Rudin is the producer, with M. Blair Breard as co-producer.
Bringing the Zeller family’s world to life is an accomplished team that includes director of photography Harris Savides (Zodiac, Elephant), Academy Award®-nominated editor Carol Littleton (E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, The Manchurian Candidate), production designer Anne Ross (The Squid and the Whale, Lost in Translation) and costume designer Ann Roth (Midnight Cowboy, The Hours, The English Patient).
Margot On The Train:
About the Story “This is why I hate games, I hate what it does to me.”
In 2005, Noah Baumbach came to the fore with one of the most intimate, emotionally turbulent and hilariously heartbreaking films ever made about a disintegrating marriage: The Squid and the Whale, which garnered Baumbach widespread acclaim as a writer/director and an Academy Award® nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Now, with Margot at the Wedding, Baumbach turns his lacerating wit and keen observations towards a different sort of family, one whose disparate members are trying to get closer to one another, even if it means disaster.
Full of raw veracity and searing humor, Baumbach blows open a window into a distinctively complicated family’s moment of transformation.
The inspiration for the story of the Zeller’s mounting crises in the midst of matrimony sprang from a single, enigmatic image that came to Baumbach almost like a dream: that of a mother and her son sitting on a train. It was in this fleeting, almost unconscious, way that the indelible character of Margot first came alive in Baumbach’s imagination, in turn sparking the creation of her sister and familial alter-ego Pauline, on-the-verge-of-adolescence son Claude and unwanted brother-in-law to-be, Malcolm.
This evolution is typical of the way Baumbach tends to work — writing his scripts from the inside out, starting with the most barebones, instinctual flashes of character and emotions and moving from the center outward, like a detective, to uncover the mysteries and human comedy of their relationships.
“After The Squid and the Whale, I started working on other ideas, but nothing was clicking,” explains Baumbach. “Then I had this image of a mother and son riding a train. I didn’t know yet who this mother and son were; I didn’t know where they were going; I just knew that I wanted to write about it. I’ve discovered that it’s better for things to remain fairly mysterious as I go along. I feel my way around in the dark, and as things come together, then they become much more fine-tuned. That’s when the more analytical part of the process comes in.”
As Baumbach began to write about Margot he started with the mother-son relationship, fascinated by the push-and-pull that occurs between a woman and a child who are both on the brink – one of ending her marriage, the other of diving headlong, perhaps past his mother, into adolescence.
“Margot and Claude are like a couple in many ways. We’re meeting them at a point where Claude is starting to outgrow his mother and Margot is starting to look outside the marriage. These individual changes are a threat to their, otherwise, tight bond.”
But when Margot and Claude’s destination turned out to be a family wedding, and Pauline came into the picture, Baumbach realized he was also delving into one of the most mystery-laden and difficult to nail of all relationships: that between adult sisters, especially those who share a tumultuous family history. In Margot and Pauline’s crisp, tart, fraught interactions, Baumbach found himself in a whirlpool of envy, need, adoration, secrecy, anger, resentment, self-possession, hope, fear and love – sometimes all happening simultaneously – which is just the kind of territory in which he flourishes.
For beneath their lovely and intelligent surfaces, volcanic forces are at work inside Margot and Pauline, especially when hypercritical Margot meets, and witheringly dismisses, Pauline’s fiancé as unworthy on the eve of their nuptials, forcing both sisters to reconcile with what they want from each other, and themselves.
“Margot and Pauline are holding onto this idea that they’re best friends- each other’s closest confidante, but the events in this movie really put that to the test,” says Baumbach.
Part of the universal nature of Margot at the Wedding emerges from Baumbach’s skill at tapping directly into that familiar feeling of a family reunion verging ever closer to calamity, one small wreck at a time. "The characters in Margot are all going through transitions that are scary and new: Claude is going through puberty, Margot is leaving her husband, Pauline and Malcolm are getting married – all of these things can make you feel out of control, " comments Baumbach.
With such bitingly humorous and movingly flawed characters, Baumbach would now begin to assemble a cast of actors capable of nuanced performances. He notes that he never thinks in terms of specific actors while he’s in the midst of writing a screenplay – preferring to allow the characters their own organic life in his mind’s eye. But once the screenplay was completed, the director now turned his focus to finding a group of extraordinary performers who could breathe raw life into them with all the subtlety and verve they deserved.
Making Margot’s Family:
Casting the Film “Pauline, what are you doing getting married to him –
he’s like guys we rejected when we were 16.”
At the core of Margot at the Weddingis Margot herself, an alternately hot and cold storm of a woman with a whip of a tongue, an urge to diagnose everyone and a brutally honest opinion about everything. Though she brings her ability to unconsciously spread emotional wreckage to Pauline’s impending wedding ceremony, it is Margot whose life is on the verge of falling apart. To play her at full tilt, Noah Baumbach knew he would need an actress who would relish the dive into major emotional risks.
“Margot had to be played in an uncompromised manner,” the writer/director comments. “She can be destructive, but she’s also very fragile. She’s a character whom I find sympathetic; perhaps because, although she can be critical of people, she finds tremendous fault in herself as well. And I needed someone who wasn’t afraid to be that open.”
He found that spirit and that level of devotion in Academy Award®-winner Nicole Kidman, who has demonstrated a remarkable diversity, winning the Oscar® for her portrait of the writer Virginia Woolf in Stephen Daldry’s screen adaptation of The Hours, and starring in numerous celebrated roles ranging from the musical Moulin Rouge! to the classic psychological thriller The Others. Kidman is no stranger to sly comedy either, having garnered widespread acclaim in Gus Van Sant’s black comedy To Die For with her wickedly funny portrait of a woman obsessed with becoming a winning TV personality.
Once on the set, Kidman brought the ruthless honesty which Baumbach was seeking and gave the character an arresting quality of realism that set the tone for the entire production. “What Nicole revealed while we were filming is that Margot is always more sympathetic the truer she is to herself,” Baumbach comments. “The character would have felt dishonest if Nicole had pulled any punches. Nicole really understood that about her – she doesn’t ask for sympathy with this performance, but you understand her completely. Margot comes into this movie a bit like a wrecking ball, and I needed somebody who both had that kind of dynamism but, at the same time, could also really feel like a believable part of this family. And Nicole brought both. She’s also very funny in the movie. ”
Kidman, in turn, was drawn to Baumbach’s unwillingness to pull any punches in his incisive depiction of sibling rivalry. “The story was so funny and has this strange, beautiful, brutal honesty to it, while at the same time bringing a strong sense of affection,” she says. “What interested me is the way these two sisters are so tough on one another, pushing each other’s buttons like crazy, and yet they love each other through it all.”
Although Kidman has a sister, she notes that their relationship is nothing like that of Margot and Pauline. “There’s very little friction between us,” she says, “but I found references for Margot and Pauline’s relationship from many different parts of my life. And I think there’s also just a universal truth about families that Noah gets at in Margot at the Wedding. Each one of these characters is lost and reaching out for each other.”
Kidman was also fascinated by Margot’s complicated mix of motives and emotions when it comes to her son, whom she loves with a white-knuckled, over-protective grip that adolescence is about to tear asunder. “There’s an incredibly powerful connection between Margot and Claude, which Margot sometimes abuses,” she explains. “Yet as much as she’s very tough on this child, I also wanted to show her desire to love and protect him. I think Margot is just so complex in her emotions and she doesn’t really understand them, so she’s unable to control them.”
Indeed Margot’s impulsive competitiveness gets her into serious trouble when she attempts, upon goading from Pauline, to climb the sizeable oak tree she had once scaled as a child -- in what becomes an hilarious and humiliating incident. Kidman, however, admits she felt little of the vertiginous fear that suddenly afflicts Margot. “I actually felt pretty good up there, I have to say,” she laughs. “I must have a little monkey in me because I quite liked sitting up in a tree for an entire day.”
For Kidman, perhaps the biggest challenge of the film was simply building the yin-yang rapport that seems to lie at the heart of each of Margot’s relationships. This, she notes, required building tremendous intimacy with the rest of the cast and crew. “It was very interesting because Noah’s shy, I’m shy, and Jennifer’s shy so you had these three shy people who somehow had to come together and reveal an enormous amount of themselves to each other. That required a lot of trust and, also, some bravery,” she summarizes.
When it came to casting Pauline, the sister who Margot once tried to bake in the oven but now with whom Margot yearns to be close, Baumbach was struck by the idea that the role was a great match for his wife, the award-winning actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, though he did not write it specifically for her.
“Jennifer read every draft of the script as I worked on it and had great feedback,” he explains. “Maybe I was inspired to write about these sisters because semi-consciously I wanted to work with Jennifer.”
Kidman was thrilled with the choice. “I thought ‘gosh, that’s a good match’ for sisters because there are even similarities in our faces. And I’ve always thought she was extraordinary – raw and alive and brilliant to watch,” she observes.
Leigh has won awards and accolades for key performances in a sweeping variety of film styles ranging from the gritty Last Exit To Brooklyn to the stylish thriller Miami Blues, from the narc drama Rush to the Coen Brothers’ classic The Hudsucker Proxy, from Mrs. Parker And The Vicious Circle in which she played literary legend Dorothy Parker and Robert Altman’s Oscar®-nominated Short Cuts to the chilling Stephen King adaptation Dolores Claiborne and Sam Mendes’ Road To Perdition as Tom Hanks’ doomed wife. But she has never played a character quite like Pauline – the sister who simultaneously yearns for and is sent reeling by Margot’s pointed affections.
“I think Pauline thinks of herself as someone who is very grounded and has gone a completely different way than her sister and has kind of made peace with her past – but that all goes to hell when Margot arrives,” Leigh muses.
Key to Leigh’s approach to the character was latching on to the longing that drives Pauline’s attempts to smooth things over with Margot, even as Margot meddles in her imminent marriage. “I think Pauline really adores Margot, almost in a worshipful way, and she yearns for a kind of idealized best-friend relationship, and now with this reunion and Margot’s arrival, she starts out with a lot of hope that this might happen,” Leigh says.
She continues: “But the closeness that they have is very complicated and destructive. It’s also all that they know of love. That’s what gives the story so much power because I think that mix of desire for family closeness, along with the equally strong desire to escape from it, is pretty universal.”
When Margot arrives, she immediately breaches the peace with her disparaging of Pauline’s jobless, ennui-stricken fiancé Malcolm. Leigh believes that Pauline never had any serious doubts about Malcolm – until Margot planted them. “I think they are kind of a great couple,” says Leigh. “Malcolm’s very, very, very funny and even though he’s kind of like the bitter guy who hasn’t had a chance yet to make his mark on the world, he’s also really lovely. But when Margot arrives, the dynamic changes and Pauline starts to see what Malcolm looks like through her sister’s eyes, and that’s what changes everything.”
Leigh especially loved working out at the edges with Kidman. “Nicole is so incredibly generous and it is very exciting to act opposite her because you get completely drawn in and you have this feeling of creating something together moment by moment,” she remarks. “Everything feels so charged and effortless and very real and it’s exciting because you feel as if you don’t know where the scene is going. Obviously, intellectually we know what is happening in the story, but you never know emotionally where the scene is going to end up, which is a thrill.”
As for collaborating with her husband for the first time, Leigh had a great experience. “We respect each other so much and I really trust him and he knows me so well, both how to push me and how to talk to me, so it was great and I loved it,” she says.
Another joy for Leigh was working with Jack Black as Malcolm, the hapless interloper in the Zeller sisters’ fiercely competitive and unnervingly impenetrable relationship. Black, better known for his outrageous and larger-than-life roles in such comedy hits as School of Rock and the Peter Jackson action-adventure King Kong, might be unexpected casting, but with Malcolm he gets a chance to disarm audiences with a more restrained, low-key, yet still devastatingly funny performance. In Black’s hands, Malcolm becomes a veritable underdog, trying in vain to charm Margot, who sees him primarily as a serious waste of space.
“Jack was really open and committed to doing something that would honor the script and he knew he could do it,” says Noah Baumbach. “Malcolm has forged this bond with Pauline and then suddenly once Margot arrives he feels like an outsider.”
Black was attracted first and foremost to Baumbach’s trenchant screenplay. “I think anyone who’s got turmoil in their family history will be able to relate to it. It’s probably the equivalent of about 28 sessions with your psychiatrist,” he laughs.
However, at first, Black admits he had his problems with Malcolm and his, well, unattractiveness. “This movie is so much more realistic than movies I’ve been in before,” Black confesses. “I said to myself, wait a second, it’s not me, this is a character I’m going to inhabit.’”
That character, Black notes, finds himself in quite a predicament. “Malcolm already has a lot of mixed feelings about himself when Margot arrives – and she doesn’t really hide the fact that she thinks Malcolm is a total loser. He really tries to impress her with lots of things, especially with the art that he does on the side, but ultimately of course, he doesn’t impress her at all.”
Black’s devotion to the role was further intensified by the company he was keeping. “I knew I had to bring my A game to keep up with Jennifer Jason Leigh and Nicole Kidman,” he says. “There were times when I would get so caught up in what they were doing, I’d almost forget my lines.”
For Kidman, it turns out the awe was mutual. “I thought it was so great to see Jack deliver these lines and he was perfect for the role,” she comments. “He’s very funny but, at the same time, the self-loathing he gets to at the core of his character makes him sort of heartbreaking.”
Rounding out the Zeller family are two rising young actors as Margot and Pauline’s respective children – promising newcomer Zane Pais as Margot’s son Claude; and Flora Cross, who recently starred with Richard Gere and Juliette Binoche in Bee Season, as Pauline’s daughter from a previous marriage, Ingrid.
Finding the right young actor to play Claude, the funny, awkward boy who is finding the tables turned as he increasingly has to parent his own mother, was no easy bill to fill, so Baumbach began an extensive nationwide search. Meanwhile, Zane Pais auditioned for the part on a lark. His mother, actress Lisa Emery, already knew Jennifer Jason Leigh from having recently appeared with her in the play “Abigail’s Party,” and it was Leigh who suggested to Baumbach that Pais might have that very rare, unaffected, naturalistic quality that he was seeking.
“I’d already auditioned a lot of kids, but we brought Zane to our apartment—he got the more ideal audition treatment-- and gave him some sides,” recalls the writer-director. “And he was amazing right away. Zane, like Claude, was very much on the cusp of adolescence, right at the point where you become more interested in the outside world beyond your parents. Zane really connected to what’s going on with Claude and we knew very quickly he was the right person.”
“I really didn’t think I’d ever get the part,” confesses Pais. “So when I found out they wanted to cast me, it was kind of crazy, you know—I was stuck to the ceiling. And at that point nobody had told me about who the other actors were in the film; my mom didn’t want me to know unless I actually got cast, because she didn’t want to make me feel stressed out!”
Ultimately, however, Pais would have to work about as closely as is possible with the global star Nicole Kidman, portraying the son to whom Margot is so tightly bound. “I was pretty much just thrown into it but once we started shooting, it was a lot of fun,” he says. “Claude really loves his mother, but he’s starting to find her very annoying which is an interesting situation. He’s starting to realize a lot of things during this movie, including that his parents are in the middle of breaking up.”
Some of Claude’s realizations are brought to the fore in his own complicated relationship with his adoring cousin, Ingrid, Pauline’s daughter from her first marriage. To play Ingrid, Baumbach cast one of today’s most acclaimed new faces.
On the set, Flora Cross became so close with Jennifer Jason Leigh, she even sent her a Mother’s Day present. “Flora was just very loving and very open to the make-believe part of being mother and daughter,” says Leigh. “I wanted her to be very, very comfortable with me, and especially to be very comfortable with me physically. When you’re a girl of that age, you’re pretty physical with your mom, because it’s that time where you still want to cling; where you don’t really want to grow up yet. And so that attachment needed to be established very early and I was very lucky that Flora was so available for that, because a lot of kids aren’t—they’re already starting to get cool and hip and wanting to be a bit on their own. Flora is still just very loving and warm.”
Completing the main cast are John Turturro as Margot’s embattled husband Jim, Ciarán Hinds as Margot’s writing partner and lover Dick and Halley Feiffer as Dick’s teen-aged daughter Maisy whose babysitting job for Pauline has disastrous consequences.
For Baumbach, the mix was as volatile and electric as the Zeller family themselves. “The movie is about the family you have and the family you choose and the clumsy, strange ways that people define themselves in the world,” he says, “and to have the cast embrace the challenge – to feel invigorated by it – was amazing. It made each scene feel truly alive.”
Bringing Margot Home:
The Design of the Film “The roots are growing into our property. It’s rotting, it’s killing our plants.”
-- Mr. Vogler, Pauline’s neighbor
With the cast in place, Baumbach next assembled an equally creative crew including director of photography Harris Savides, production designer Anne Ross, costume designer Ann Roth, who won an Oscar® for her nuanced work on The English Patient, and editor Carol Littleton who garnered an Academy Award® nomination for the cinematic classic E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, to bring a visual wit and truly raw, lived-in quality to the story. With a nod to the gritty and deeply personal filmmaking of the 1970s, their aim was to present these highly stressed-out characters and their messy emotional lives in-the-rough, largely unadorned, as they play out against the ironic, perfect loveliness of an East Coast seaside landscape.
Savides set the tone with his natural lighting and strong hand-held camerawork that lend the visuals a visceral, home-movie-like immediacy, which in turn stand in stark contrast to his rich autumnal palette. “I’ve always wanted to work with Harris and I think the film looks the most like what I initially saw in my head of any film I’ve made,” says Baumbach. “We had a lot of long discussions about the look of the film, about the look of old family photographs, and the kind of real life feeling I wanted. While the entire film is shot hand-held, we kept the camera as still as possible, which gives it just a little of that human touch.”
Ann Roth built on that stark realism with clothing that is at once familiar yet delineates the at-odds personalities of the characters, with Nicole Kidman’s buttoned-down knits contrasting in every frame with Jennifer Jason Leigh’s flowing cotton peasant blouses.
Then there were the locations. Margot at the Weddingtakes place at the memory-laden Zeller family home, yet in a state that is never named. “I never had one particular place in mind as I was writing it,” notes Baumbach. “It was kind of a collage of different places I’ve been during the course of my life—basically, an island somewhere on the Northeast coast.”
The filmmakers began by combing the Eastern seaboard for a lovely, atmospheric house-by-the-sea . . . but one that could also accommodate a 75-member crew. That meant parking for dozens of trucks and rigs had to be readily available, as did space for catering, dressing rooms and production offices.
Anne Ross filled the house with objects and furniture that reflected a mix of Zeller family history and Pauline’s present state of mind. “Anne Ross did such an amazing job with the production design, and every detail was so exact and beautifully done that it truly felt to me as if I lived in this house as Pauline,” comments Jennifer Jason Leigh.
Baumbach invited the actors to do their rehearsals at the house, helping the entire cast to build the authentically subtle, albeit emotionally tense, bonds of an actual family unit in transition. “Noah was very smart in fighting for that rehearsal period,” says Kidman. “During that time we basically just kind of spent the days together, lying around on couches, talking and getting used to each other in a very intimate setting that really made a difference.”
But even as the house came to life with the Zeller sisters’ arguments, angst and affections, the search continued for one of the film’s most important elements: the contentious, looming dead tree, once the childhood refuge of Margot and Pauline, which drives the story of Margot’s visit to Pauline’s wedding to its emotional climax.
Unable to find the perfect tree on the property, Baumbach decided to have one shipped to the set and replanted – a task that would involve far more than anyone imagined. First, greensman Will Scheck was recruited to hunt for the right arboreal presence. “We literally went door-to-door, knocking on people’s houses and asking to look at the trees in their yard,” recalls Scheck. “In the end, we found exactly what we were looking for on an industrial property about a mile from our location.”
The tree, already dead, was a forty-foot-high Red Oak, a variety that grows straight and tall, with stout branches that angle off from the main stem. But the question was how to get this once-formidable behemoth to the location, no easy prospect with standard transport vehicles on the area’s narrow country lanes. The solution was to avoid the roads and head for the water.
First, the tree was rigged to a forty-ton crane. Then it was methodically cut down—a slow process with many safety considerations (none of which are echoed when Malcolm fells the tree in the film) in order to keep both the tree and the people around it intact. Once it was down, the oak was transferred from one crane to another before finally being gently lowered onto a barge for the one-mile trip down the bay to the location. When it arrived at its new home, it was raised once again by crane out of the barge and then carefully replanted on the property, as if it had been there all along.
The arrival of the tree on the shore drew a crowd of onlookers and carried the giddy air of a small-town carnival, making the oak and its problematic roots even more significant to cast and crew.
While the house, tree and landscape all play a role in forging Margot at the Wedding’s distinctive atmosphere, for Baumbach, the design of the film always went back to impact of the characters. He says, “I want the movie to feel like an experience for audiences -- not something that washes over them but something they participate in. I don’t care if people see Margot at the Wedding as a comedy or a drama or both – so long as they participate in the story.”