Dustin Hoffman teases Noah Baumbach at enlightening Tribeca talk

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Dustin Hoffman was in a mischievous mood (no surprise, really) when he appeared with writer-director Noah Baumbach as part of the Tribeca Film Festival’s Directors Series last night at the Borough of Manhattan Community College Tribeca Performing Arts Center. The still-sprightly 79-year-old actor recently co-starred in Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories, as the artist patriarch of a family of estranged siblings who reunite for Dad’s career retrospective. Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller and Emma Thompson co-star in the Netflix pickup.

Hoffman was there to interview Baumbach about his directing career, but at one point he (half-jokingly) wondered why they weren’t talking about his storied career. Many in the audience probably felt the same way, but that’s not to say this wasn’t a fun, insightful and rewarding conversation.

Hoffman, of course, first became a star in Mike Nichols’ smash hit The Graduate (this year marking its 50th anniversary), and there’s an early Nichols connection in Baumbach’s life too: His family’s kitchen in Brooklyn served as the kitchen of Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson in Nichols’ 1986 film Heartburn; when he watches the film today, Baumbach can spot his family’s photos in the background.

Baumbach confessed to Hoffman that his second film, Mr. Jealousy, was his most difficult challenge. “I knew a little bit more,” he said, “but I didn’t have the naiveté…and confidence of going into my first movie thinking: ‘Oh, I can do this.’

Now, with acclaimed comedy-dramas like The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding, Frances Ha, While We’re Young and Mistress America behind him, Baumbach is so confident in his work that he insists (like the legendary Billy Wilder) that his actors stick very closely to his scripts.

Hoffman noted, “When we worked together, it was only the second time in fifty years…where a director wanted me to say every single word that was on the page. The last time that happened, it was The Graduate. The script supervisor would come up to me after the take and say, ‘That’s not a period, those are three dots.’ And your script supervisor did the same fucking thing.”

“Who was that famous actor who worked with Shakespeare a lot?” Hoffman asked the audience. “Yes! Burbage. He asked Shakespeare to change lines—and Shakespeare did!”

But Hoffman praised Baumbach’s dialogue. “It’s stylized, but it’s stylized in such a way that the audience is not consciously aware of it. It’s music.” Hoffman also found it “remarkable” that in Baumbach’s films “all the actors sound like they’re improvising, and they’re not.”

“I get asked that question in pretty much every interview I do: How much of the movie was improvised?” Baumbach interjected. “It’s a question I’m always insulted by. But maybe I should take it as a compliment, is what you’re pointing out.”

Surprisingly, Hoffman likes to be told how to speak his lines. “I’ve never understood actors who don’t want line readings,” he declared. “If the person who’s written it has an ear for what it sounds like, sometimes I want to know what’s in their head when they wrote it.” He mentioned a recurring line he had in Wag the Dog: “That’s nothing.” “I didn’t understand where’s the fun in that. I felt like I was missing it. He’s a producer who, no matter what you say is difficult…he’s kind of like Trump, he says, ‘That’s nothing!’ That’s the joke. And when I heard it [from writer David Mamet], I got it.”

Hoffman did complain a bit about Baumbach’s perfectionism and how demanding he can be. “He may go down in history as a director who does at least as many takes as Stanley Kubrick, who’s legendary for that reason. It’s not unusual to do forty takes on a two- or three-page scene.” But, he explained, those long single takes are intricately choreographed so that a master shot ultimately ends in a close-up. “The coverage is in the one shot. I’ve never worked with anybody who did that before,” Hoffman said. “I hope I never have to. It’s very, very difficult.”

But Hoffman could also be exacting—in a good way. Said Baumbach to his star, “You would push me to explain myself if it wasn’t in the script. And you would describe what was going on in the scene in a way that would crystallize it for me.”

“Yeah, but then you still said: Let’s do a take and hope we get it.”

“Then I knew to do it another twenty times.”

Despite his kvetching, Hoffman obviously feels tremendous affection for his latest director. He’s seen The Meyerowitz Stories three times and “you make me cry each time.”

It wasn’t all about Baumbach. Hoffman got a chance to talk about the clout of Mike Nichols that allowed him to shoot The Graduate—“basically a small movie”—over a luxurious 100 days. He spoke about the privilege and pleasure of hiring real retired opera stars to play elderly opera singers in his own 2012 feature directing debut, Quartet. And he told a great anecdote about one of his most celebrated movie lines: Ratso Rizzo shouting “I’m walkin’ here” at an oncoming taxi in Midnight Cowboy. He and Jon Voight were being photographed with a hidden camera on the busy streets of Manhattan, doing take after take and trying to coordinate their movement and dialogue with the traffic lights.

“We finally get it at about the fifteenth take and we’re so happy at this point in the dialogue, Jon and I, and we’re at the corner and [the light] turns green and we’re able to keep walking, and a fucking cab almost hits us. And the truth is, this is the way the brain works: What was in my head was ‘We’re making a movie here!’ but you can’t say that. So the brain changes it to ‘I’m walkin’ here!’ But really what was being said from me was ‘We’re shooting here!’”