Hoffman and Baumbach

The star and director go head to head.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Tribeca Talks: Directors Series with Noah Baumbach and Dustin Hoffman
Tribeca Talks: Directors Series with Noah Baumbach and Dustin Hoffman Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Noah Baumbach, Mistress America and Frances Ha director and co-director with Jake Paltrow of the Brian De Palma documentary De Palma, took the stage at the BMCC Tribeca Performing Arts Center for a Tribeca Talks: Directors Series with Dustin Hoffman, who stars in Baumbach's latest, The Meyerowitz Stories alongside Emma Thompson, Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Elizabeth Marvel, Candice Bergen, Rebecca Miller, and Mickey Sumner.

Jane Rosenthal:
Jane Rosenthal: "He's known for his roles in The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, Lenny, Tootsie, Wag The Dog and so many others. But, of course, to me he will always be Mr. Focker." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Jane Rosenthal, co-founder of the Tribeca Film Festival, first introduced the star of The Graduate by quoting from the actor's own notecards that she was given by him after he received the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Chaplin Award in 2005.

Jane Rosenthal: What I'm about to say actually comes directly from Dustin's speech. I want you to know that Dustin Hoffman began his career after taking an acting class because he was failing in school. Having barely graduated high school his overall grade average was a C- or a D+, depending on one's point of view. It put him euphemistically in what you'd call Junior College. After a near fatal first semester, a friend suggested he take an acting class.

When Dustin asked "Why?" - the friend answered: "Because you'll get three credits and no one flunks acting. It's like gym." He took the class and he did the scenes and he read his lines and he rehearsed and he rehearsed and, wow, aren't we all lucky? Because he's known for his roles in The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, Lenny, Tootsie, Wag The Dog and so many others. But, of course, to me he will always be Mr. Focker. Soon you'll be able to see him in Noah Baumbach's new film, The Meyerowitz Stories.

Noah Baumbach:
Noah Baumbach: "Well, I think, since I'm sitting on this stage with you talking to me, it's gone pretty well." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Now, Noah Baumbach, we have been trying to get in Tribeca for years and years. The guy lives in New York. You'd think we would have been able to get him here sooner but finally Paula Weinstein [Executive Vice President of Tribeca Enterprises] persevered and here he is. He was born and raised in Brooklyn and we're happy he is able to join us. He was nominated for the Best Original Screenplay Academy Award for The Squid And The Whale in 2006 … Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Noah and Dustin.

The two come on stage and Hoffman clears up all possible confusion about this evening for him regarding The Meyerowitz Stories, which will have its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival next month and will be released on Netflix later this year.

Dustin Hoffman: This is supposed to be a Q&A. When I was first told about it, I felt it was odd because I thought all you people would have seen Noah's [latest] film. But this is not the case. So, apparently this is about your career. So my first question is, what do you think about your career?

Noah Baumbach: Well, I think, since I'm sitting on this stage with you talking to me, it's gone pretty well.

Dustin Hoffman:
Dustin Hoffman: "When we worked together, it was only the second time in 50 years, for me, that I worked with a director who - you want an honest answer?" Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Here are some of the highlights from Noah and Dustin's discussion.

NB: I had never really been on a movie set before. I'd grown up going to lots of movies. I had parents who loved movies. I had this sort of idea that I wanted to make movies but I had never seen a movie get made. I didn't know anyone who made them. Except the movie Heartburn, directed by Mike Nichols. They had scouted our house in Brooklyn in Park Slope. They ended up shooting in our house, which was so thrilling for our family back then.

Now that I've made movies, the idea of having a movie shot in your house is horrible. At the time it was like being in a movie. There's this scene at the end of the movie where Meryl Streep puts a pie in Jack Nicholson's face. And that was the house I grew up in. I watched it again recently and there's like photos of my brother in little league [baseball] uniform. That was the only movie set I'd ever seen and there was a hurricane warning.

It was one of those maybe, maybe not, and we all taped our windows and it was pretty mild but they had to stop shooting, so we lived with the equipment for a long weekend and the hot set which was all this lobster which we'd all just go and stare at and imagine moving it around slightly to break continuity. I remember I watched the premiere of the second season of Miami Vice surrounded by all that film equipment around our TV. So that was my first experience on a movie set. And then the second one was making Kicking And Screaming.

Noah on Dustin wanting him to read the lines:
Noah on Dustin wanting him to read the lines: "It was interesting also going through the rushes when I was cutting it, because often, there'd be you saying 'You say it' off camera." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

He continues talking about his process.

NB: If I have the script in a way that I feel like it feels right to me, I'm more interested in seeing the actor find their way through what I have written. It doesn't mean we won't change little things here and there. If it's cast right, even if they're not fitting exactly right away, you have to stay with what's been written to find it - rather than scrap it and try and re-write the dialogue. Did you find that when we worked together?

DH: When we worked together, it was only the second time in 50 years, for me, that I worked with a director who - you want an honest answer?

NB: Yes.

DH: … where the director wanted me to say every single word that was on the page. The last time I had been asked to do that was The Graduate. And 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!

Hoffman prefers that the authors and directors read the lines to him.

DH: I like authors to read it in fact in front of me.

Welcome to the Tribeca Film Festival at the BMCC Tribeca Performing Arts Center
Welcome to the Tribeca Film Festival at the BMCC Tribeca Performing Arts Center Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

NB: You would do that. You'd say "You do it!" And then I would do it, which put pressure on me, because I would have to get it kind of right. Sometimes I'd be off, also. Because I can't say it a lot of times the way I'd written it. I can maybe kind of approximate it. It was interesting also going through the rushes when I was cutting it, because often, there'd be you saying "You say it" off camera.

And you'd hear me kind of trying to do it and shout it. And then you would do it and often your first reading would be maybe like a very good imitation of what I just did. And then your second reading would somehow come out of you and would be very personal. It would be what I wanted more than what I could do for you.

They talked about editing and choices of what you see and what you hear.

NB: Sometimes you remember the line better if you use the person listening. The line becomes more memorable coming from the person talking because of the person listening. Even though you think you need to see the person talking. I find that stuff fascinating. I love editing because you're playing around with that. A lot of it is feel.

Dustin Hoffman on Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate:
Dustin Hoffman on Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate: "Maybe one of the most courageous things a director in films has ever done was to cast me as this Robert Redford part." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

DH: I've often wanted - but there's never time though - I wanted a director to take a scene that we've done, and he or she is satisfied with, and suddenly say, "Now let's do the scene and no one says a word. Say it silently and the other one knows it's their turn to talk. Because once you get into the cutting room, you may want a lot of those unspoken ones.

NB: If I did 41 takes, we would have done that.

Hoffman recalls The Graduate and his director Mike Nichols.

DH: He was coming from a very personal place, which I didn't know, until I read in an interview he did years later that I was an alter ego and why he cast me. Maybe one of the most courageous things a director in films has ever done was to cast me as this Robert Redford part. You know, Benjamin Braddock, six feet tall, blond hair - that's what was written in the novel. And he went the other way.

NB: Mike always knew what everything was about. He said it's about a guy who saves himself through madness. I thought that was a beautiful way to describe this movie but also it's a good way to talk about the psychology of a character put into action in a movie.

In closing -

DH: When 9/11 happened, I was living on 74th Street. My kids were at NYU, I said get out, get out. They got cabs with about eight people in it. Another kid, who was at Columbia or Barnard [where my class was waiting for me that morning], she walked all the way back to the house and we got all these requests from parents whose kids were there but they weren't there.

And we took them all out of the city. No one knew what was going to happen. And it was Robert De Niro, who, I think, within two weeks said "We are going to have something called Tribeca" and he started this in the wake of that.

The 16th edition of the Tribeca Film Festival presented by AT&T runs through April 30.

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