The Meyerowitz Stories: Press conference with Noah Baumbach, Dustin Hoffman, Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller and Emma Thompson
The Meyerowitz Stories is the first Noah Baumbach feature to be shown in competition at Cannes. It is a story of an estranged family reunited to celebrate the work of their difficult father, played by Dustin Hoffman. The film includes an all-star cast of Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler and Emma Thompson, but Baumbach was first keen to give praise to cinematographer Robbie Ryan.
“He was just brilliant. I have loved his work before. You click with somebody and he’s the right fit. I wanted new eyes on New York, an outsider to my insider way of looking at the place. I wanted to develop a camera movement and feeling of mise en scène. Ryan is an artist and a special person.”
A fight between the brothers, played by Stiller and Sandler, is one of the most memorable scenes in the film. Baumbach wryly explained its significance: “We thought a physical fight should occur in the movie. So I reverse-engineered the whole movie from the fight.”
Sandler mentioned how he found the going tough in this particular scene. “It was a lot rougher than I wanted it to be. Ben was a lot stronger than I expected. I had one of the biggest bruises I’ve ever had on my arm. Ben kept hurting the same place!”
The Meyerowitz brothers’ relationship is a large part of the film’s appeal and Baumbach noted that he wrote the roles specifically for Stiller and Sandler, and the script combines several moments of humour and poignancy. Baumbach stated that this combination came about organically. “Funny and serious are indistinguishable and it’s all part of the same thing. When I’m directing I’m looking for a feeling. It’s not a checklist.”
Of the music that features in the film, the director emphasised its ability to act as a form of oral history: “These are half-improvised songs you create with your family, they’re refined over time and they have an inside joke quality to them. And if you have Adam Sandler in your movie you’d like him to sing and play piano.”
The film is ultimately about the perception of failure and success in public and family. Baumbach stated the significance of this theme to his work. “I’m interested in the gap between who we think we are and who we are and how wide that gap is. Success is a way to explore that. What does success mean? Danny [Sandler’s character] feels like a failure but he’s a hugely successful father and his family doesn’t value it. Andy [Stiller’s character] feels like a failure because he makes money but isn’t considered an artist. And Harold [Hoffman’s character] isn’t happy because he isn’t a successful artist.”
On the Netflix controversy dominating this year’s Cannes, Baumbach spoke warmly of his film’s producers. “I made this movie with independent money. I want this to be shown on the big screen because it is a unique and singular experience. Netflix acquired it in post-production and they’ve been hugely supportive and I feel very appreciative towards them.”
Sandler was effusive towards Baumbach and the film: “I couldn’t believe it when I read the script. It was the most amazing thing. I couldn’t put it down and it gripped you. I knew it was funny and emotional. I was very attracted to my character. I was misty-eyed and laughing. I couldn’t believe we were going to be able to do this story.”
Known for his critically panned comedies, Sandler explained the difference in playing occasional serious roles: “It’s different for a comedian when you get an offer like this. I don’t want to let anyone down and I need to know the material. I felt very close to the character. The goal was not to let these guys down… I’ve known Ben since I was 22. I’ve known Dustin forever. We were close immediately. He came to my wedding and he’s been in my life a long time. Now I’m glad to tell my kids that I’m tight with Nanny McPhee [Emma Thompson].”
Stiller had some reservations about the project at first, however. “I was happy that Noah wanted to work with me again after a couple of times previously. I thought the first 40 pages of the script were pretty slow. I’m not in it until page 41,” he joked. And of his co-stars, Stiller was full of praise: “I never take it lightly to be in the presence of Dustin. For me growing up he was such an important actor. And Adam and I have known each other for years and years. It was special to connect like this. Playing brothers was one of the best experiences I’ve had.”
Thompson was frank about the difficulties of her role. “I was going to play an American, which is quite hard, but also I was playing an alcoholic, which isn’t hard. All these characters are operating from a position of shame.”
Hoffman drily remembered how Baumbach convinced him artistically, and how he eventually came to take the role. “All of us would work for him for nothing. He’s quite expert. I was required to say every single word, which pays off because there is a music to his writing. I don’t know if I want to work with him again. But you can’t overstate his talent.”
And on the topic of fatherhood, so prominent in the film, Hoffman had the last word: “I first read the script and I passed. I didn’t want to play an old man. My son, Jake, talked me into it. And then Noah and I compared our fathers. I think we are all our fathers at certain points.”
Photo: Stephane Cardinale – Corbis / Getty Images
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