Filmmaker Noah Baumbach and actor Dustin Hoffman charmingly grilled each other last week at the Tribeca Film Festival. Their pairing anticipates the summer Cannes Film Festival premiere of “The Meyerowitz Stories,” in which Baumbach directs Hoffman as a complicated patriarch, with costars Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, and Emma Thompson. Cannes may be unmatched in its great film offerings, but Tribeca reigns as a host of engaging and revealing dialogues amongst the brightest of film folk.
The two shared a comically combative dynamic. The talk was billed as Baumbach being interviewed by Hoffman, despite Hoffman carrying the more well-known name and having won two Academy Awards. He was insistent we never forget this, as he jousted, “Wouldn’t this be better if I was talking about my stuff?” and sneaked in some great tidbits and anecdotes. In the most surprising of these, we learned that Hoffman has turned down roles in two Ingmar Bergman films. Other legends mentioned in his stories include Akira Kurosawa and Lawrence Olivier.
Hoffman seemed to feel his status exempted him from Baumbach’s on set demands and continually returned to his less than enthusiastic response to Baumbach’s multiple takes (up to 40) and insistence that his actors perform the screenplay word for word. The only other director to demand such loyalty to the page was iconic writer/director Mike Nichols, who launched Hoffman’s career by casting the then-unknown actor as the lead in “The Graduate.”
He recounted, “The script supervisor [of ‘The Graduate’] would come up to me after a take and say, ‘That’s not a period, those are three dots.’ And your script supervisor did the same fucking thing.” He emphasized that not even Woody Allen or the Bard himself was as opposed to improvisation. Hoffman’s particular annoyance likely stems from his poor memorization skills. To help him with this, Hoffman writes down his lines every morning before commencing work. It’s a habit he’s had since a schoolboy.
In his defense, Baumbach noted that while his films may feel improvised (and he’s asked if they are at every interview) he devotes a great deal of thought and time to scripts and wants to see them realized all the way through, even if the words themselves take on new life in the voice of the actor, as they inevitably do. He said, “If I have the script in a way that feels right to me, I’m more interested in seeing the actor find their way through what I’ve written.” Throughout shooting, Hoffman asked for line readings, which he finds essential; Baumbach acquiesced while remarking that Hoffman always improved upon his version.
In the end, Hoffman came around, noting that he eventually recognized a calculated rhythm to the dialogue. Always perceptive, Hoffman nailed what makes Baumbach’s films so memorable: a deliberate yet energized pace. The specificity of the characters playing out these highly calculated but zany scenes make Baumbach one of the most unique directors working today.
Baumbach, for his part, described how his 1997 sophomore feature “Mr. Jealousy” was his most difficult film, to both talk about and shoot, because of the “built-in self-consciousness” after the success of his debut “Kicking and Screaming.” He described an increasing freedom to his films, which he attributes in part to his collaborative partner and “very good friend” (in Hoffman’s words), actress Greta Gerwig. One can indeed see a transformation from a stifled immobility to the exalting buoyancy of 2012’s “France Ha.”
Hoffman and Baumbach share a highly disciplined work ethic that demands the best of themselves and their creative partners. An in-demand actor who has produced great work for over five decades, Hoffman has turned down many directors, including previously Baumbach. “I’ll never work with him again,” he smilingly affirms, either in jest or full earnestness. For now, we will soon have the chance to see their vibrant dynamic play out in “The Meyerowitz Stories,” this time with Hoffman on-screen and Baumbach deceptively silent behind the camera.
Photo Credit: Getty Images