All the Ways Marriage Story Borrows From Noah Baumbach's Divorce From Jennifer Jason Leigh

The Golden Globe-nominated film about the unraveling of a marriage between a theater director played by Adam Driver and actress played by Scarlett Johansson can't help but have parallels

By Natalie Finn Jan 04, 2020 12:00 PMTags
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Countless movies have been made about divorce and the relationships between exes, some highlighting the comical aspects of an unraveling union while others go right for the gut.

Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story skillfully does both because, after all, life is never entirely funny nor, even in its worst moments, entirely heartbreaking, but rather somewhere in between. And while the writer-director has made it clear that his latest film, which is nominated for six Golden Globes, isn't autobiographical, of course he drew from the divorce he went through in real life to enhance what his characters—a theater director and actress played by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson—experience in the film.

Baumbach separated from wife Jennifer Jason Leigh in 2010 and they divorced in 2013. He and Leigh have a son together, as Driver's Charlie and Johansson's Nicole do; Baumbach and Leigh also collaborated professionally, like Charlie and Nicole; and after they broke up, Leigh moved back to her hometown of Los Angeles from New York, as Nicole does.

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"It's a good question, and I get versions of it on most of my movies, and I understand why people have it, because I do draw on reality and my experience for my fiction," Baumbach told the Los Angeles Times in November. 

He continued, "It is everyday experience that I find cinematic, and I'm compelled to find cinematic language for things that I've gone through, or things that other people have gone through, people around me have gone through. And to find expression of it."

But making a personal film isn't the same as making a film about himself, personally.

"What I'm always trying to do is, both with the actors in their performances and also in the writing stage, is keep a kind of emotional presence going at all time," Baumbach said. "It's like we all censor ourselves. So, [I] try to be as open and honest as I can, but that doesn't necessarily mean personal truth. It's kind of narrative truth."


At the Venice Film Festival, where Marriage Story premiered in August, he told Deadline, "Of course, I have a real connection to the material. But I was also at a time in my life where many of my friends were getting divorced.

"I saw it as an opportunity to do something more expansive, so I did a lot of research. I interviewed a lot of my friends, and friends of friends, and then also lawyers, judges, mediators."


Leigh met Baumbach in 2001 and they married in 2005, about a month before the release of The Squid and the Whale, which drew on his own parents' divorce (and also happened to vault Jeff Daniels—who wore a sport jacket in the film that belonged to Baumbach's father—back into the heavy-hitter conversation). Baumbauch was nominated for the Best Original Screenplay Oscar.

He directed Leigh in his 2007 film Margot at the Wedding and 2010's Greenberg, which was shot in 2009 largely at Leigh's mother's house in L.A. (Nicole's mother dotes on Charlie in Marriage Story)—and which also starred Gerwig.

Greenberg, based on a story the couple co-wrote, was released not long after Leigh and Baumbach welcomed son Rohmer in March 2010. Leigh filed for divorce that November, citing "irreconcilable differences" and requesting physical custody of their son with visitation rights for her ex.

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"Baumbach and Gerwig firmly place the start of their romance at a point after his separation," the New Yorker stated in a 2013 profile about the couple. The next line, incidentally, was: "Baumbach thinks that aspects of his divorce might eventually appear in his work."

When the divorce was finalized in 2013, court documents stated that he and Leigh had "equally divided all of their community assets and liabilities" and had a custody arrangement in place.

According to the New Yorker, Rohmer lived primarily with Leigh in Los Angeles, where she's from, while Baumbach continued to be based in New York but kept a house in L.A., and tried not to go more than two weeks without seeing his son.


The legal wrangling goes awry for Charlie and Nicole in Marriage Story when, after initially agreeing to leave lawyers out of it, Nicole ends up meeting with a tough and rather glamorous divorce attorney (played by Laura Dern) who is prepared to pull out all the stops to get her client exactly what she wants. 

Charlie has no choice but to hire his own pit bull attorney (Ray Liotta) after a kinder approach with an attorney played by Alan Alda doesn't work out, and the proceedings take a turn for the ugly.


"The system in a way is its own beast, and the lawyers aren't bad," Baumbach explained to Deadline. "They're certainly not villains. They're both products of the system, but they understand the system. They're there to help you maneuver the system and, given the system that we have, they're necessary.

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Public details of Baumbach and Leigh's divorce proceedings are, of course, scarce, other than that it took three years to finalize. They seem to be on amicable footing, though, with Baumbach telling the New York Times that he showed Leigh the script for Marriage Story before it was made and eventually screened it for her.

While he wasn't looking for notes, he would have still been able to make changes at that point if there was an issue, he said.

"But I didn't have any concerns about it, and she really liked it, because it isn't about our marriage," Baumbach added. "That's not to say that there aren't emotional connections, things that happened to me emotionally that are going to be translated in some way into this story, but I think that's true for every writer who's gone through breakups or been in love."

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"I don't think it's that important for people to know [about what happened]," Leigh told The Guardian in 2016. "We co-parent really well."

And that was that.

Meanwhile, Baumbach wasn't the only one on the Marriage Story set who had real-life inspiration to draw from.

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When he first approached Johansson in 2017, she was going through a divorce from her second husband, Romain Dauriac—which had nothing to do with the casting choice, however, because Baumbach didn't realize that was even happening at the time.

"Fortunately, and unfortunately, I didn't know this in advance," Baumbach recalled on The Daily Show in November. "I reached out to her, I sent her an email, I said I think I have something that maybe we might do together."

So they scheduled a lunch meeting, he continued, and when Johansson arrived a little late, "she said, 'Sorry I'm late, I was just on the phone with my lawyer, I'm going through a divorce.' And I thought [he exhaled], and then I'm like cycling through who else could do this movie. I didn't have a plan B."

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But he didn't chicken out and Johansson got on board, and now she's got a Golden Globe and SAG nomination, and is likely to be in the running for an Oscar this year too.

"To Scarlett's credit," Baumbach said, "it was a reason to do the movie and not not to do the movie."


"It was a really creatively rewarding experience making this film," Johansson, who's currently engaged to Saturday Night Live star Colin Jost, told Extra at the film's premiere. "I think I related to the material in the sense that I could understand what it's like to be a woman who has kind of lost herself in the sort of shape of a relationship that is not necessarily one that allows for growth.

"I mean, I think everyone in their life, one way or another, I'm not talking about any specific thing, but everybody in their life, in one way or another, has had that relationship where you just—you know, it's run its course."

Noting how Charlie and Nicole have a child, the mother of daughter Rose (with Dauriac) added, "I certainly could understand the emotional depth of what the character is going through and how complicated it is."


The film's five other Globe nominations include Best Picture, Drama; Best Actor in a Motion Picture, Drama, for Adam Driver; Best Screenplay for Baumbach; Best Supporting Actress for Laura Dern; and Best Original Score for Randy Newman (though of course the most memorable musical moments from the film are the homages to Stephen Sondheim).

Driver, Johanssen and Dern have also all been nominated for SAG Awards. 

And as the accolades have piled up, the parallels continue to be drawn to Baumbach's real life, though he insists the shared details are incidental.

"I think when people say autobiographical, they're assuming it's one-to-one, which none of my movies are in the slightest," he told the New York Times. "I might use autobiographical details at times, but any extrapolation beyond that has no meaning to the work or to me or anything else."

Ultimately, "I couldn't write an autobiographical movie if I tried. This movie is not autobiographical; it's personal, and there's a true distinction in that."