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Editor Jennifer Lame on Managing the Many Layers of “Marriage Story”

As Noah Baumbach’s longtime editor, Jennifer Lame started working on the Netflix feature well before principal photography, spending hours with the director breaking down the script shot by shot.

Following a high-profile festival run and limited theatrical engagement, Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story burst onto Netflix on Friday, Dec. 6, dominating online conversations over the weekend and beyond as viewers offered their take on the sensitive and sharp-witted bi-coastal narrative. The film, an incisive and compassionate look at a marriage breaking up and a family staying together, stars Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, with Laura Dern, Alan Alda and Ray Liotta rounding out the cast.

Written and directed by Baumbach, and beautifully shot on 35mm film by director of photography Robbie Ryan, Marriage Story was edited by Baumbach’s longtime collaborator Jennifer Lame. Daron James, writing for the Motion Picture Association‘s The Credits, notes that “Lame is tuned to the auteur, having previously edited The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), Mistress America, While We’re Young and Frances Ha. For this project she admits, ‘The challenge was interweaving a two-person story while keeping it interesting and sustainable for two hours and twenty minutes. Baumbach’s films tend to tout flawed characters capable of growth in stripped-down settings. The pace is rarely mixed with cross-cutting action sequences. Marriage Story was done so, even more, leaving the editor with little to hide behind.”

Lame is closely involved in the filmmaking process with Baumbach even from the script stage and will oftentimes help with the pacing. “I bring Jen in at the writing stage and she’ll give me ideas for what to cut or what to add. She was instrumental in helping me cut down the script before production. But this length is new for me. I’ve been slowly climbing up. Meyerowitz was an hour and 50, I think. Before that, all my movies lived around the 85-95 minute mark. That always felt like a comfortable length to me,” Baumbach says. “Something changed with this one — I think because the material demanded it. And I was taken out of my comfort zone. The scenes were longer. They somehow needed to be. And there are more silences. My previous movies have tended to move at a clip and this one has its own pace. Jen kept reminding me, ‘It’s OK to slow down.’”

From “A Marriage Story,” courtesy of Netflix

Speaking to Karen Idelson in Variety, Lame says “It was hugely important to Noah that the film wasn’t weighted toward either [main character] Nicole or Charlie. We talked about that constantly. In the end we ended up cutting some scenes that were in the script that we liked to make sure the film felt even, that we were spending equal time, narratively, with each character. We made sure that in the opening monologues it was clear that they loved and respected each other.”

One of Lame’s favorite sequences, she tells The Hollywood Reporter’s Carolyn Giardina, is a comedic back-and-forth between Nicole and her sister (played by Merritt Wever) that takes place right before Charlie — freshly arrived from New York at his mother-in-law’s home in Los Angeles — is served divorce papers: “It was one of those things where you watch the dailies and you laugh, and then you cut it together for the first time, and you’re like, ‘Oh, it’s not funny anymore.’ So then I was so obsessed with making that part funny, and then once he gets served and Nicole walks in, I was like, ‘Oh, wait, this is also heartbreaking.’”

Lame calls the film’s opening montage sequence “layered,” noting that the scene was “challenging and exciting to cut” because it had to feel like a love story montage even though it really wasn’t. “For Nicole, we wanted to capture her love for family and introduce who she is,” she details in an interview with Jazz Tangcay for Variety. “Charlie tells her story and how she gave up her theater work to be with him. In Charlie’s section, she talks about things that are perfect and annoying. They’re love letters to each other and if you listen to the tone, there’s something telling about what’s going to unravel.”

For more insights into Lame’s editing process, watch Netflix featurette “Marriage Story: Making the Cut with Jennifer Lame” and Avid’s “Behind the Scenes with Marriage Story Editor Jennifer Lame” in the videos below:

Known for his meticulous approach to detail, Baumbach took two days to film “an intense, carefully choreographed fight scene that ran 11 pages in the script,” Rebecca Ford writes in The Hollywood Reporter:

“Because he shoots so many takes, there were truckloads of footage to work with in the editing room. ‘There’s so much material, I feel like one could get lost in it,’ says Baumbach’s longtime editor Jennifer Lame, who started working on the film before a single frame had been shot, spending hours with the director breaking down the script shot by shot. ‘But what’s so fun about Noah and our process is that we talk about the movie and the characters and the story so much that when I go through the 50 takes, I know exactly what’s right. I’m like, ‘Oh, there she is — there’s Nicole.’

“Nevertheless, splicing together the 136-minute film was — like everything else in a Baumbach production — a painstakingly precise process. ‘I’ve never seen anything quite like it,’ says [producer David] Heyman. ‘He begins at the beginning and he’ll go forward, and then he’ll go back to the beginning — he doesn’t go to the end. It’s one step forward, one step back, two steps forward, two steps back.’

“There was a world where the film could have been finished in time for 2018’s fall festivals, but once they pushed past that deadline, ‘we really pressured ourselves to take breaks,’ says Lame. Even after the editing was mostly complete, they decided to take yet another step back, spending a couple of months just sitting with their cut. ‘There is something about living with something,’ says Lame.”

Principal photography, under Ryan’s supervision, began on January 15, 2018 and lasted for 47 days through to April 2018, taking place in Los Angeles and then New York City, according to the Kodak blog:

“Deploying ARRICAM ST cameras and Panavision Primo Prime lenses, Ryan framed Marriage Story in 1.66:1 aspect ratio to yield the intimate portraiture Baumbach wanted in the touching storytelling. To fulfill Baumbach’s desire for a naturalistic look, Ryan selected KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219 for the production’s night time exterior/interior sequences, with KODAK VISION3 200T Color Negative Film 5213 for day interiors, judiciously harnessing LED illumination to deliver the true-to-life aesthetic. Film processing was done at FotoKem in Los Angeles.”

Eric Kohn, Indiewire’s executive editor and chief film critic, writes, “Reuniting with his Meyerowitz cinematographer Robbie Ryan (whose recent credits include The Favourite), Baumbach developed an intimate look with 35mm and a 1.66 aspect ratio. The technique takes hold from the opening moments, as Johansson bounds into center frame at the start of an absorbing seven-minute montage set to Randy Newman’s vibrant score. Though Marriage Story begins with the divorce already underway, it manages to recap the history of the couple’s affection in sharp visual terms.”

From “A Marriage Story,” courtesy of Netflix

Watch “Academy Conversations: Marriage Story,” a discussion with Baumbach, actors Alan Alda and Julie Hagerty, and producer David Heyman at the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater in early November:

In many ways, Baumbach took his cues from filmmaking giants such as Ingmar Bergman, whose film Persona had a major influence on Marriage Story. “Baumbach and cinematographer Robbie Ryan looked at director Ingmar Bergman and his DP Sven Nykvist’s use of portraiture in ‘Persona,’ not only to see how they captured close-ups, but faces in relationship to each other,” Chris O’Falt writes for Indiewire:

“With ‘Marriage Story,’ location…plays a key role, as the bicoastal divorce finds Nicole (Johansson) settling into her native Los Angeles, while New Yorker Charlie (Driver), finds himself trapped in the extra space. Baumbach, Ryan, and production designer Jade Healy talked extensively during pre-production about how the grandeur of Los Angeles would be present in frame, most of it would be experienced through interiors.

“‘There’s all this talk of the space in Los Angeles, but we often see it out the window. It’s kind of an illusive, it’s almost like a painting or something,” [says] Baumbach. “And it’s magnificent, you are in these conference rooms or lawyers’ offices and something that on one hand might feel so hermetic, there’s even a sense of menace in those rooms. …Their marriage is being spelled out on the table, but you’re in these rooms that feel like they could almost be in science fiction movies, and yet there’s this promise of landscape outside.’”

Noah Baumbach filming “A Marriage Story,” courtesy of Netflix

Loren King, writing for The Credits, says Marriage Story might be Baumbach’s “most personal, and most ambitious, movie yet,” noting that “Writer/director Noah Baumbach’s substantial body of work has often explored families in all their painful, darkly funny dysfunction, evolving from the perspective of an adolescent witness to the break-up of his parents in his 2005 second feature, the Oscar-nominated The Squid and the Whale, to the poignant, middle-aged observations of a son coming to terms with his estranged family and self-absorbed father in 2017’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected).”

“Baumbach said he was inspired by classic divorce movies such as Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) and Shoot the Moon (1982). But it was Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966), not the Swedish director’s more obvious Scenes from a Marriage (1974), that served as Baumbach’s touchstone. ‘The visual references were useful for [cinematographer] Robbie Ryan and me…the closeups, overlapping faces and profiles, two people in a room together or people in a landscape together,’ he says. ‘I knew close-ups would be very important in this movie. I used an aspect ratio I had not used before, 1.66, for a more narrow frame. It works better for portraiture…and I knew at that point that Scarlett and Adam were going to be in the movie and both have such wonderful faces, movie faces, that also convey such inner life. They do so much without saying anything.’”

Read more: Cinematographer Robbie Ryan on the “Privileged Space” of Marriage Story

Ryan Lattanzio, in Indiewire, calls Marriage Story “Baumbach’s most accessible and emotional movie to date,” writing: “The writer/director plumbed the depths of his own divorce to tell the story of a couple shattering — which is in line with his highly personal body of work, from his other divorce movie The Squid and the Whale to While We’re Young, also about a couple at a crossroads and starring Adam Driver.”

While there are parallels between Baumbach’s biography and the events of Marriage Story, the director insists the story wasn’t taken from his own life. “Would you believe it if he told you that even though the movie’s central characters, Charlie (played by Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), share biographical details with Baumbach and Leigh, their actual stories don’t have all that much in common?” Reggie Ugwu queries in the New York Times:

“I couldn’t write an autobiographical movie if I tried,” Baumbach said when we sat down for a conversation at his favorite Italian bistro in Manhattan’s West Village. He was wearing a dark, wool suit, and a strand of his silver-streaked black hair fell over one eye, framing the dramatic angles of his jaw. “This movie is not autobiographical; it’s personal, and there’s a true distinction in that.”

In his review for The Atlantic, film critic David Sims the emotion course of Baumbach’s career as a filmmaker:

“In his 25 years as a director, Baumbach has made spiky, small-scale comedies about every miserable stage of adulthood. Kicking and Screaming (1995) remains a definitive text on not knowing what to do with yourself after graduating from college, and Frances Ha (2012) and Mistress America (2015) focused on that strange blend of energy and listlessness that comes with being a 20-something still searching for purpose. The underrated comedy While We’re Young (2014) was about a married couple struggling to let go of their fading youth. The Squid and the Whale (2005) was an acerbically funny divorce film told from the perspective of the children caught in the turmoil. Marriage Story is another comedy, but it’s less caustic than most of Baumbach’s other scripts. It’s sad and sometimes angry, with a heartfelt view of a relationship’s dynamics that some of the director’s prior works lacked.”

Listen to Baumbach on IndieWire’s “Toolkit” podcast, where he talks about designing the film’s climatic 10-minute fight scene, how François Truffaut’s use of score influenced his collaboration with composer Randy Newman, and the unique role his long-time editor Jennifer Lame played in his screenwriting and shooting process, in the audio player below:

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