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His and her arguments: The art of balancing ‘Marriage Story’

Editor Jennifer Lame and filmmaker Noah Baumbach teamed up for ‘Marriage Story.’
Editor Jennifer Lame and filmmaker Noah Baumbach teamed up for “Marriage Story.”
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Noah Baumbach has seen your memes.

Ever since “Marriage Story” began streaming on Netflix in early December, the film’s climactic argument between a divorcing husband and wife, played by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, has become something of an unexpected internet sensation. It has become a seemingly ubiquitous meme of the moment, right alongside Baby Yoda. One meme even combined the two so that Johansson and Driver were arguing about the origins of the lovable little surprise star of “The Mandalorian.”

And although Baumbach, writer and director of “Marriage Story,” admits he doesn’t spend much time on the internet, he has been shown a few of the meme variations. And he doesn’t mind them at all.

“I love that people are having a real response to it,” Baumbach said. “I like to hear about it. I mean any time we’re with Baby Yoda in any conversation is amazing.”

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The power of that scene in the film — the way it cuts exactingly from line to line, with both characters swept away by the torrent of anger and emotions they have kept in check for so long, only to reach a point where they each say regrettable things that there’s no coming back from — is in the precision of the directing, writing and performances, but it is also a showcase for editor Jennifer Lame.

Scarlett Johansson in “Marriage Story” on Netflix.
Scarlett Johansson in “Marriage Story.”
(Netflix)

“Marriage Story” is the fifth of Baumbach’s films that Lame has edited, and it has earned her an American Cinema Editors award nomination. Her other credits include Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea” and Ari Aster’s “Hereditary,” and Lame is currently working on Christopher Nolan’s anticipated “Tenet.”

The ongoing relationship between Baumbach and Lame has become one of the filmmaker’s most crucial creative collaborations. During a recent interview together in Los Angeles, the two quietly conferred over the best options from a hotel breakfast menu and ended up ordering the same thing. Baumbach joked that ordering lunch can be a key part of the process during many long days in the editing room.

The two first worked together on Baumbach’s 2012 film, “Frances Ha,” and have since developed a specific process that brings Lame in at the earliest stages of a film’s development. Baumbach shows Lame his screenplay for feedback very early on, then includes her in his preproduction work. Most shooting days, Baumbach called Lame before starting to go over what was being done, and she visited the set on occasion. (“Marriage Story” was shot by cinematographer Robbie Ryan.) She was already doing preliminary work as the film was shot and was ready to jump right into editing once production wrapped.

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Memes aside, “Marriage Story” has proved to be a real conversation starter, as nearly everyone who sees it has an opinion as to whether it is weighted to favor Driver’s character, Charlie, or Johansson’s character, Nicole. For Baumbach and Lame, it was key that the film played fair with both characters even as it showed them in unflinching, unflattering ways.

“And I think that’s why maybe people either think it’s balanced or don’t think it’s balanced,” she said. “We didn’t want to go at it in a way that felt phony. So we tried to make it balanced in a way that felt true to the characters in the situation.”

“The movie is structured so that you’re with one or the other,” said Baumbach. “And when you’re with them, you’re in there; the movie comes from their perspective, narratively and visually. So we knew when cutting it that the audience would naturally be with the character whose perspective they’re in. And then at a certain point it shifts from her to him and then it shifts to both of them.”

We tried to make it balanced in a way that felt true to the characters in the situation.
Jennifer Lame, editor of ‘Marriage Story’

Adam Driver in “Marriage Story.”
Adam Driver in “Marriage Story.”
(Netflix)

Baumbach is known for being exacting with his actors and with the language of the screenplay. He has very specific ideas about how a scene will be blocked and the rhythms of the dialogue and typically shoots multiple takes. But he also gives actors a fair amount of freedom regarding the direction in which they take the performances.

“Noah is very open to being like, ‘Well this is how I heard it, but actually this makes more sense.’ More so than any writer-director I’ve ever worked with,” said Lame. “So he’s both very specific, which I find refreshing, but then also very open to everybody’s ideas, which also really feels collaborative and relaxing to be around because you feel like you can speak up.”

Baumbach said the way he worked with Lame and the way he worked with actors was “actually very similar.”

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“The script is the guide to the edit,” he said. “And the way it’s shot is so specific. ... But given that, if Jen has a new idea for something, I’d like to do it, try it, lift out that line, because I know it’s going to be great.”

By the time shooting has finished, Lame is already well on her way to having a complete rough-cut assembly of the film. But she never shows that version to Baumbach, as the two of the them start over completely.

“Just for my own brain, I need to start at the beginning ... in order to kind of get inside the thing,” said Baumbach. “I find it very hard to watch a rough edit cut of something.”

For her part, Lame also doesn’t mind starting over.

“Most directors I either encourage to do it, or certain ones just do it too, because this idea of me having a cut of a movie two weeks after it’s been filmed that’s going to be good is just insane,” she said.

But, Lame said, it’s great when the pair begin to work and “it’s like I’ve done this before. It’s like I’ve already written a rough draft of it and now we can write the fine cut [of the film] together. There’s no reason to watch the rough draft — let’s just get down to it.”

marriage-story-_DSC4795_rgb.jpg
In “Marriage Story,” Laura Dern is a divorce lawyer for Nicole, played by Scarlett Johansson.
(Wilson Webb/Netflix)

The movie opens with both Charlie and Nicole reading letters they’ve written about the other, accompanied by footage that illustrates what is being talked about, deftly interweaving voice-over and dialogue. That sequence is an early showpiece for how closely Baumbach and Lame work together, but it is the scene where Johansson first visits a divorce lawyer, played by Laura Dern. That scene was among the film’s toughest challenges.

It builds to an extended monologue by Johansson about her feelings regarding Charlie and their marriage, one that frames much of the drama that is to follow. And although what audiences see is from the same long take, Lame and Baumbach decided to use cutaways to Dern to break it up because of their effect on the overall rhythm of the scene.

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“The difficult part of that scene was making sure that when you got to the monologue, it was as great as it is,” said Lame. “So much happens in that scene. That’s when everything changes. She decides to hire the lawyer, she’s being seduced by this lawyer, we’re introducing this element. You find out all about their relationship because up to that point you haven’t heard verbally what the problems are. ... It was just such a big scene.”

“Not editing is editing,” noted Baumbach. “It was [about] getting that rhythm right so you could lift off into the monologue; you don’t know that’s coming. ... Everything going up to that really does need to feel like you’re creating momentum. That’s where great editing happens, those slight adjustments, or making an adjustment in a scene after that helps the scene before.

“The problem in front of you isn’t always what’s actually not working, it’s something around it,” said Baumbach. “It’s being open and sensitive to those things.”

What Jen is brilliant at is translating psychology and emotion into editing, into rhythm.
Noah Baumbach on ‘Marriage Story’ editor Jennifer Lame

That meme-worthy fight that provides the movie with its emotional crescendo isn’t actually at the end of the movie, where a traditional climax might go. And although its placement within the story’s structure was where it was always intended to be, it did present a challenge for the scenes that came after.

“Once that fight happens, you feel like everything that happens after it has to be very earned and meticulous because it does feel a bit like a climax,” said Lame. “So you don’t want to belabor anything after that.”

That constraint, she said, “is kind of fun. ... People might even think this is the end of the movie. So whatever we do after this better count.”

“It changes the rhythm of the movie,” added Baumbach.

Those challenges, both working the internal dynamics of a given scene and keeping a sense for the feel and flow of the movie overall, is part of the film editor’s art and craft. And for both Lame and Baumbach, “Marriage Story” has been the continuation of a productive partnership.

“What Jen is brilliant at is translating psychology and emotion into editing, into rhythm,” said Baumbach. “It’s not unlike how I’ve talked to Adam and Scarlett or Laura, and she’s so good at feeling a scene, but it’s specifically structured and thought through and she can actually translate that into an editorial decision.”

“That’s why I like doing what I do,” said Lame. “To me that’s the interesting part, how you translate all this stuff. How can I interject these feelings that I’m feeling, that’s making this interesting to me, to everybody else? And it’s not always possible, but that’s my goal.”


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