Sometimes the inspiration for a film isn't as obvious as it may first seem. Noah Baumbach's "The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)," for example, centers on two brothers (Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller) and a sister (Elizabeth Marvel) who are trying to find peace with their highly opinionated and brusque father (Dustin Hoffman). Like much of Baumbach's work, it feels semi-autobiographical, but it was actually an idea that he fostered over a decade ago while working on what eventually became his breakthrough film, "The Squid and the Whale."
"It's not like I thought, 'Oh, I'm always going to revisit that initial concept.' I wasn't thinking that consciously," Baumbach says. "But clearly, for whatever reason, I wasn't really ready to write it then and then it sort of resurfaced, but resurfaced also with other things, which is I guess how this generally happens for me when I have an idea for a movie."
Those "other things" started with tackling that period where people often see themselves as both a parent to your parent as well as their child. And, almost as important, Baumbach wanted to chronicle the often surreal experience of being in a hospital that he hadn't seen on the big screen. Experiences with medical professionals are a constant, but the filmmaker still found a perspective rarely explored in modern media.
"I kind of always thought, the hospital became kind of a stand-in for the parental figure," Baumbach says. "It's like you want to believe this place is there to take care of you and has your best interest in mind, and what you're discovering at every turn is that it has its own logic. It doesn't revolve around you. I think that's also a discovery the siblings have about their own father, too, is that he's not going to change. This is the person that they have in their life."
Another key theme Baumbach wanted to explore in the October release was success and how people define what that is. In the film, Harold Meyerowitz (Hoffman) is introduced as a notable artist of the '60s and '70s who never reached the heights of some of his peers. Instead, he spent most of his years as a professor seemingly exaggerating his accomplishments beyond their true impact. Now retired, is that why he seems embarrassed that his oldest son Danny (Sandler) spent most of his life as a stay-at-home dad instead of pursuing a musical career or why he appears envious that his youngest child, Matthew (Stiller), reached financial security all the way across the country in Los Angeles?
"Families often have their own kind of arbitrary and somewhat self-serving notions of what a successful life is," Baumbach says. "In this case, being a success as an artist is the kind of pinnacle. I felt that Danny's character, while he struggled, he actually couldn't put himself out there as an artist, so by Harold's standards he squandered his musical talent."
The idea of pairing Sandler and Stiller in a movie together sounds like a pitch every producer has made to every studio executive in town for the past two decades, but it simply had never come to pass until now for one reason or another. Baumbach was conveniently speaking about working with both talents on separate projects when the idea for all three to collaborate was broached.
"You know, they've known each other a long time but had actually started to talk about, 'Oh, we should do something together,'" Baumbach recalls. "And then I came to Ben and said, 'What about you and Adam playing brothers in a movie?' We all had lunch and had a kind of wide-ranging conversation about what this movie might be or could be."
Baumbach also had the rare feat of having two accomplished screenwriters in Oscar winner Emma Thompson, who plays Harold's third wife Maureen, and Stiller on set. Obviously, Sandler has his share of comedic experience to draw on, but Baumbach makes it clear there was absolutely no improv on set. The actors stuck to the words in his script and they do so for a reason.
"A lot of it comes from the rhythms of the dialogue and getting the overlaps at the right point, and it becomes kind of musical in that way," Baumbach says. "For sure, Emma and Ben have a lot of experience now with it in my movies. Of course, they're incredibly articulate people and I feel like [it may have been] an easier fit maybe than somebody else might be, but anybody who I cast is sort of in for that experience and it's somewhat self-correcting in that way. I mean, if somebody's not kind of engaged in learning all these lines, and the rhythm of everything, then it's just not the right fit."