Tribeca 2017: Noah Baumbach and Dustin Hoffman Talk Process, Casting, and Sticking to the Script

Hoffman: "Wouldn’t this be better if I was talking about my stuff?"

Part of the fun of the “Tribeca Talks” panels at the Tribeca Film Festival is that they don’t just get interesting filmmakers, writers, and actors – they also match them up with entertaining (and sometimes counterintuitive) moderators, who bring their own backgrounds and stories to the table. For example, most of us who were there last night to see filmmaker Noah Baumbach be interviewed by Dustin Hoffman would’ve been just as happy to have watched the conversation go the other direction. Hoffman even joked about it halfway through the hour-plus talk, after telling a story about Arthur Miller. “Wouldn’t this be better if I was talking about my stuff?” he deadpanned, which got a roar from the audience.

“Well, I was gonna say one thing ,” Baumbach offered, “Which, maybe you could segue into Midnight Cowboy or something…”

It was a pairing that made sense, however; Hoffman co-stars in Baumbach’s next film, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), which has been acquired by Netflix. It will play next month at Cannes, but is not playing Tribeca, which caused some confusion; the actor began the talk by explaining, “I thought all of you people would’ve seen Noah’s film, but this is not the case, so… [the topic] is your career. So my first question is, what do you think about your career?”

Baumbach smiled. “I think, seeing as I’m sitting on this stage with you talking to me, it’s gone pretty well.”

What followed was a chatty walk through Baumbach’s career, and through his creative process – a talk that was informative and instructive, but most entertaining when the actor and his recent director gave each other the business. Al Franken coined the term “kidding on the square,” for that thing when you’re joking with someone, but it’s about something you’re genuinely annoyed by, so you kind of mean it but you’re placing it in the protective coating of good-natured ribbing.

For example, Hoffman asked Baumbach how much rewriting he does after casting, to reconfigure a character for the actor playing it. “I think, 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,” Baumbach replied. “It doesn’t mean we won’t change little things here and there, but if it’s cast right, even if they’re not fitting right away, we have to stay with what’s been written to find it, rather than scrap it and try and rewrite the dialogue. I mean, did you find that, when we worked together?”

Hoffman smiled. “When we worked together, it was only the second time in 50 years that I worked with a director that – you want honest answers?”

“Yes,” Baumbach insisted.

“Where the director wanted me to say every single word that was on the page,” Hoffman said, with both a grin and the tiniest bit of an edge. “The last time I had been asked to do that was The Graduate. The script supervisor 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.”

“But we had so much fun doing it!” Baumbach insisted.

“Yes,” Hoffman deadpanned. “But I think that – who was that, who was the actor who worked for Shakespeare a lot? Anybody?”

“Burbage,” called out a helpful audience member.

“Yes, Burbage.” Hoffman continued. “Well, he asked Shakespeare to change some of the lines, and Shakespeare did!” Again, the exchange was pleasant, comic even, but you did get the sense that this was an annoyance to Hoffman on the set, and he seemed positively gleeful for the opportunity to bring this up: “Finally I get a chance to assail you…”

“I’m sure we’ll have a long press tour and you’ll get to do this daily.”

Hoffman wasn’t done, though. As they worked their way through Baumbach’s filmography, Hoffman noted, “I looked at all your films, when I found out we were going to do this…And I thought, you know, these poor actors had to go through the same thing I did. In fact, I asked Ben Stiller, Is he like that on all the movies? And he said, Yes.”

“And he was back for the third time!” Baumbach pointed out, not inaccurately.

“Yes,” Hoffman conceded. “I know, Ben, he has problems.”

Yet for all of that talk, both agreed that in filmmaking, the script is one thing, and the movie is often something very different. “It’s never what you’ve written,” Hoffman noted. “It’s either better after you photograph it and decide what angles to use and what kind of lighting and how to cut it, or it’s not as good. But it never represents what you’ve written.”

“I think it can’t,” Baumbach agreed, “and I think it shouldn’t.”

But for Baumbach, that’s part of the process – and in fact, the one thing he wishes he’d have known from the beginning was that it’s okay to have a process that’s one’s own.

“You’re inheriting, in making movies, a lot of stuff that’s been going on a long time, and a lot of it’s done that way for a reason. But it isn’t one size fits all, and if you want to do your own thing, and you want to make it comfortable, and you want to create an environment where you feel you can do your best work, you have to retrofit it for yourself… You have to both respect and understand that this machine is built this way for a reason, but a lot of things are not necessarily right for you. And it’s okay to change that.”

Photo credits: Mike Hull / Flavorwire.