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Interview with Jason Hartley

Army National Guardsman Jason Christopher Hartley. While serving in Iraq, Hartley kept a blog of his experiences until his commanders forced him to shut it down. He’s now back from Iraq, and has a new memoir, “Just Another Soldier: A Year on the Ground in Iraq” (HarperCollins).

21:30

Other segments from the episode on October 11, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 11, 2005: Interview with Jason Christopher Hartley; Interview with Noah Baumbach.

Transcript

DATE October 11, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Jason Christopher Hartley discusses his book, "Just
Another Soldier"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The new book "Just Another Soldier" is my guest Jason Christopher Hartley's
journal of military life. He'd been a member of the National Guard for 13
years when he was called to active duty. He spent 2004 in Iraq's Sunni
triangle. His journal originated as a military blog, but shortly before he
was sent to Iraq, he was told that his blog violated operational security and
that he was smearing his unit and the Army. His company commander asked him
to take down the blog. Hartley complied. He continued to keep a journal and
sent out his entries as e-mails.

Within two months--with two months left to serve in Iraq, he decided to put up
his blog again. This time he was punished with a demotion and a $1,000 fine.
Currently his blog justanothersoldier.com has photographs and deleted scenes
from his book.

Now recently the US Army chief of staff, General Peter Schoomaker, complained
that some soldiers have posted sensitive information on their blogs,
including, quote, "photos depicting weapon system vulnerabilities and tactics,
techniques and procedures." And he also expressed his concern about
protecting the Army's image, both in the United States and in other countries,
because he thought that some of these blogs were giving the Army a bad image.
Did these sound like legitimate complaints to you?

Mr. JASON CHRISTOPHER HARTLEY (Author, "Just Another Soldier"): They are the
closest to legitimate complaints anyone has made so far. He listed
specifically, for example, as far as photographs go, to not post photographs
of battle-damaged vehicles, like Humvees that had been hit by improvised
explosive devices. There is some merit to that. For the--for someone to
know the--you know, how effective their attacks have been, that's, you know,
one that I would even kind of have to think about. I mean, on--I
haven't--I--any photographs that I've had on my Web site that are similar,
I've actually--I'm taking them down because that's fine. You know, he says
that, I'll take them down.

And also, the image one, that's another like--that's, you know, a huge gray
area as far as I'm concerned. Yes, if you had every soldier putting up blogs
saying how much they thought the war was unjustified, yeah--OK, yeah, that
could definitely erode what little support there might still be. You know,
that's kind of a concern. But then it's like: Well, where does--where do
these concerns end and like, say, the First Amendment begin? I think his
arguments are the most valid that anyone from the military has made so far
about--concerning blogs. But I don't think they're exactly water-tight yet
either.

GROSS: Outside of the fact that writing a blog gave you a way to write and to
express what you and men around you were going through, what you were feeling,
what did you get back from it? Did you get a lot of response to it?

Mr. HARTLEY: I got quite a bit of response, and I think that was what--what
really kept me doing it was it was so rewarding. Every time I would post a
new story, I would get--you know, there'd be a lot of response back and most
of it positive. I would try to be sometimes as incendiary and as offensive as
possible just to try to get a rise out of somebody, and I really couldn't get
it. People were so supportive regardless of what I spoke about. And that
really became the motivation to continue writing it. It kept me sane and it
gave me a project. You know, it kept my mind active the entire time that I
was in Iraq and not on missions.

GROSS: You write about the first time you fired a grenade, and you were
basically on what you describe as ambush duty, looking for people who might be
driving down the road planting roadside bombs. How were you given the order
to fire on this specific vehicle that we'll be talking about?

Mr. HARTLEY: Well, in this case I wasn't given an order. We were part of a
very small team; we had give guys. This was something that we were just
beginning to do while we were--it was a tactic. These ambushes were a
strategy our commanders had come up with that was--ended up being very
effective, and this was one of the first engagements that we had as a result
of these ambush operations. And we had a vehicle at the time we believed was
definitely enemy. He was spotted planting 155mm artillery rounds in the side
of the road, which is the most common detonation charge in these improvised
explosive devices guys put out. And he was fleeing, so we engaged the vehicle
and--which included me. I expended about a magazine of rounds and a 40mm
grenade. Probably the most exciting thing--you know, one of the most exciting
moments of life was actually being able to engage that vehicle, making a
concerted effort to kill someone.

Turns out later the guy was a civilian. He wasn't an insurgent at all. His
vehicle was overheating. He was trying to find a bottle of water on the side
of the road, which, through night vision goggles and through thermal sights,
the shape of the water bottle looks exactly like an artillery round. So at
the time the decision to engage the vehicle was a sound one. The first team
that had fired on the vehicle was--they intended to disable the vehicle. By
the time the vehicle came to my location, we believed that we were engaging
the vehicle to destroy it, so there was a small communication breakdown there.
And in the end the guy was wounded. He lived, thank God.

But what made that particular engagement interesting was the fact that
emotionally I wanted nothing more than for that grenade to hit that bus and to
see the thing explode and burn. Even after the fact, knowing that it was an
innocent civilian who was in that vehicle, there's still a part of me that
wishes the grenade would have hit the vehicle.

GROSS: Does it disturb you that you feel that way?

Mr. HARTLEY: You know, I--intellectually, yes, it does disturb me. But
honestly, emotionally it doesn't disturb me, and I don't really know why.
This is the thing that I'm trying to reconcile as well as--why would a--even
knowing the guy was innocent, why would I still on a visceral level want the
thing to have exploded, you know? I don't have the answer to that question.
I don't know.

GROSS: You write a little bit about times when you had to oversee Iraqi
prisoners in a jail on your base. And you say that you found yourself walking
a fine line between proper Geneva Conventionesque humane treatment of enemy
combatants and being made a fool of by the same guys who had been making fools
of your unit for the past few weeks by hitting the base with almost nightly
mortars. Can you talk a little bit about walking that line, about, you know,
wanting to observe the Geneva Conventions; on the other hand, not wanting to
be made a fool of or being taken advantage of by the people who were your
prisoners?

Mr. HARTLEY: Well, this was a duty that I think that we were very, as
infantrymen, unprepared to do. Dealing with detainees is something
that's--military police, that's more their job. They're the people who are
trained to do this. They kind of know what they're getting into. As a grunt,
you know, that was--we were kind of thrust into this situation, where
sometimes we'd have to pull duty on guarding detainees. And I think that
between not being prepared to deal with detainees and also just by virtue of
the fact that I was raised in a pretty authoritarian environment--I was raised
in Utah as a Mormon. It's very patriarchal, you know, my upbringing. And
discipline is something that I suppose is programmed in me on some basic level
(unintelligible) because of the way I was raised. And having detainees, in my
mind, I'm thinking like, `Well, there should be a certain level of discipline.
These guys shouldn't be goofing off. They shouldn't be making fun of me. I
mean, I'm the guy with the gun, right?'

So when sometimes we would meet this kind of resistance with the guys that we
had in our cells, it was--I felt like, `well, you know, what do I do? Do I
sacrifice--should I allow myself to be humiliated by the guy who I'm supposed
to be in charge of, or should I try to assert some kind of authority?' And
then when I do assert my authority, how do I do that effectively?' And I
think in situations like that, at least for me personally, it's really so easy
to take things a little bit too far in an attempt to do things more correctly.
And sometimes the feelings that I felt--you know, the things I felt myself
thinking in situations like this, when I'm trying to deal with a really
difficult detainee, was very disturbing. And when you have that much power
over someone, it's sometimes hard to deal with frustrating situations and
still be humane.

GROSS: One situation where you thought maybe you had taken it too far is when
you were taping up a detainee's face with duct tape. Would you describe why
you were doing that?

Mr. HARTLEY: At the time, the policy that we had--we had enough guys in the
jail at the time that it was, I--you know, whoever makes these decisions felt
that it was important that these men remain blindfolded. So, OK, it's my job
to make sure that, you know, these guys stay in their cells; that their
blindfolds remain on and that they don't--there's not a whole lot of chitchat,
you know, the idea being to silence them. You don't want them sharing
information or getting, like, their stories straight or whatever.

But I had one guy who was particularly defiant, and he kept on--his blindfold
kept on falling down, or he kept on figuring out, like, a way to get his
blindfold down, even though his hands were bound. So I took him out of his
cell. You know, I tied a really tight blindfold on him. He managed to pull
that down with his teeth, so, you know, I felt like such a jerk. The soldiers
that I'm working with--I'm being made a fool of by this guy. All the other
detainees were looking at me, like, you know, `Ha, ha, we got a guy here
who's, like, making you look like a jerk.' So I figured, you know, `I'm not
going to be made a fool in this situation.' So I grabbed a bunch of duct
tape, and I gave him a duct-tape blindfold, you know. Basically it was like,
`OK, let me see you pull that down now, guy,' which of course, you know, he
couldn't. But it's just in that situation, I didn't feel good about myself
afterward. It's like, `Why am I dealing with this guy like this? Why am I,
you know, compromising my own sense of humanity just to assert some kind of,
like, baloney authority I'm supposed to have right now?'

GROSS: Were there other times when you felt like you had compromise your
sense of what was right in order to assert your authority or, you know,
maintain or regain control of a situation?

Mr. HARTLEY: Well, there were a few times. And what's the irony of it, too,
is the things that you usually find yourself doing, try to, you know, grapple,
to try to gain control of a situation, ultimately you're not gaining control
of the situation. For an example, we were in this town of Dujail quite a bit,
you know, performing various security missions. And what's basically entailed
is standing around a lot, just kind of like, you know, trying to not be
attacked. While somebody else did something, we were guarding them.

There was one day when a couple of kids were in a truck. There's no, like,
driver's license age in Iraq. These kids--they couldn't have been more than
10 or 11--were driving a truck. And they thought it was funny to, like, drive
right at us and then swerve at the last minute. Now had that been an adult
doing that, I probably would have shot them and felt fine about it. But in
this case, I got two 10- or 11-year-olds. I can tell they're goofing off.
They just--they want to see, you know, if they can press the soldiers'
buttons, and it worked. And it's like, `What am I going to do? I'm not going
to shoot those kids. I mean, technically they're putting my life--they're
definitely a threat. What if, you know, the kid doesn't swerve correctly at
the last minute, or what if he does want to kill me? I don't know.' But
he--the kids did this twice. The second time I actually--you know, I pointed
my weapon at the kid, and like, you know, `What am I going to do? Shoot the
kid? Honestly, I'm probably not going to do it.'

So I'm trying to assert some kind of authority again in a situation that I
can't get a handle on. And in the end, what do I feel like? Well, one, I
feel like a jerk that I let some kids, you know, play me like that, basically.
And then another part of me feels bad that like, you know, I pointed my rifle
at a kid.

GROSS: You write about how you were often surrounded by children; that, you
know, a lot of the troops were often surrounded by children. Were there a lot
of children who were walking that line between being mischievous and genuinely
threatening?

Mr. HARTLEY: Well, I think it's probably safe to assume that none of the
kids were actually a threat, but they definitely knew how to walk that line.
I think--you know, these were kids who--they grew up on the street. They were
tougher than me. I hate to admit that, but they completely were. I mean, I
grew up in the suburbs of Utah. I'm not a tough kid. I know how to fight if
you give me a rifle, but, you know--I got in a staring contest with a kid one
time, and I lost. Why, these kids, they're tougher than me, and I'm just
like, kind of like, `Damn it, this kid's nine. Why is he tougher than me?'

But sometimes they were and they really--they knew--and when you do--sometimes
we could even get like a little bit physical with the kids, like grab their
arm or--like I even like threw small rocks at some kids one day. It's like
these things don't faze them. They're slapped around by their parents. I
mean, the culture in Iraq is--they're pretty physical with punishment.
There's nothing that I can do to these kids that they don't already know how
to endure to no end. And it became--to try to remain tactical in an
environment where you're dealing with two dozen kids, you know, wanting like
your sunglasses and candy and water and food and, you know, they want your
latest issue of Maxim magazine or something is--it became so difficult to
remain professional in an environment where you were basically a baby-sitter
for juvenile delinquents.

GROSS: So what did you do? I mean, did you try to stay away from the kids?
Was that possible?

Mr. HARTLEY: There really was no solution. You basically try to pawn the
kids off on somebody else. Maybe you have somebody new to the group who
hasn't been in town many times or this was their first time in town: `Go bug
that guy. He has tons of water. He's got lots of candy.' There really
wasn't a solution. You just tried the best--I'm like, `Well, I guess I'm
going to have to become less tactical because these kids right now are
winning.' There's--you know, the Iraqi police, they were actually pretty
good. These guys were cruel enough that if we really had troubles with kids,
we just grabbed some of the IP guys, and they had no compunction about
swatting the kids. And the kids were actually pretty afraid of them. But in
most cases we just put up with it. It's all we could do.

GROSS: My guest is Jason Christopher Hartley. His new book is called "Just
Another Soldier." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Jason Christopher Hartley. His new book "Just Another
Soldier" is based on the blog and the e-mails that he wrote while serving in
Iraq in 2004 in the Army National Guard.

Now you were raised in Salt Lake City. You were brought up Mormon. You spent
time in a platoon in Utah, where you say 99 percent of the platoon was white
suburbanites. Then you moved to New York City and ended up in a unit that was
largely Hispanic. You say you were one of two white members of your unit.
How do you think ethnic differences affected, you know, friendship and
cohesiveness within the units that you served in?

Mr. HARTLEY: I tell you what, the Army is an incredibly integrated
organization, and I think that's probably one thing we can definitely be very
proud of. But despite that integration, the cliques that guys hang out in are
still always down racial lines, just simply because it's the most--you hang
out with people that you have the most common, you know, background with. And
I just sort of found--and I'm not trying to make any kind of, you know,
judgment on things. But I have definitely found that it's the Hispanic
soldiers who are the most enjoyable to be around, and the white soldiers tend
to be really insecure and uptight and are less fun to be around.

When I moved into this unit in Manhattan, it was all Puerto Ricans and
Dominicans, and I didn't know the military could be so much fun. And so I
happily re-enlisted because these are the guys that I wanted to be with. I
mean, what was interesting was when we deployed to Iraq--is we had to sort of
smush two companies together, one that was primarily white and one that--my
unit that was primarily Hispanic. And that was kind of a continual source of
conflict within platoons, within the company--was problems that involved, you
know--they didn't involve race directly, but they could be drawn down racial
lines.

GROSS: You write, `The chances of my personally capturing Osama bin Laden are
slim, but I'd like to do something a little more than just simply being in the
Army and sometimes sending money to the ACLU.' Do you feel like the work you
did in Iraq helped stop terrorism? Do you feel like the war in Iraq is
helping to stop terrorism?

Mr. HARTLEY: I want to give you a direct answer, so I'm going to say this:
No, it's not helping it. It's a phenomenal training ground right now. If
you're a terrorist or you're an aspiring terrorist and you want to learn how
to fight a guerrilla war, go to Iraq, I mean, because it's an awesome place to
do it right now. And all those people who are probably going to hate me for
saying that--but as far as, you know, actual, quantifiable results on this
war on terror, what we're doing in Iraq at this moment in time, today, it's
not helping. Maybe 10 years from now, if we can like, you know, start
thinking constructively and creatively, it can be. If we can stabilize Iraq,
set up shop over there and maybe the Middle East will be less of a problem for
us as far as a breeding ground for terrorists, yeah, then the end will have
justified the means, and the answer to that question will be yes, it was
effective. But today, no, it's not.

GROSS: So what did you do with that thought during the year when you were in
Iraq risking your life? So you were doing this for a war against terrorism,
but you felt that this was more contributing to terrorism, to training more
terrorists, than it was preventing the spread of terrorism.

Mr. HARTLEY: Well, I most definitely, absolutely did not have that thought
while I was in Iraq. I've been s...

GROSS: You didn't?

Mr. HARTLEY: No. There's--this is--I've been back for nine months, and I've
had a lot of time to kind of mull things over. And that's something that
I've--that's a conclusion that I've come to personally since I've been back,
not while I was there. I've been staunchly apolitical my entire life. I
mean, that's because I hate the conundrum of these types of--these arguments
that seem to not really go anywhere. And I think, in my opinion, to be an
effective--the most effective soldiers are ones who are able to divorce
themselves from these ideas.

I mean, the guys that we were fighting, they were fighting for a cause. I
didn't want to fight for a cause. You know, if anything, I fought for
fighting's sake. I just like to fight. I'm a soldier, and my country, I
believe, is a decent country. And I'm hoping that if it's going to go into
combat, they're going to choose a good reason to do it. So I felt as though
I'm relieved of a certain amount of, you know, moral decision-making. And
then from there I just wanted to do my job, do it well and try and do it
humanely.

So, you know, these were not thoughts that I had while I was there, and I
didn't to have to worry about it. I didn't want to--I was afraid that I might
come to the realization that I have now, which is that it was a mistake to
invade Iraq and that I could potentially be doing something completely wrong.
If I was worrying about that kind of thing there, that could have seriously
degraded my effectiveness as a soldier and, therefore, you know, degrade my
ability to defend myself and my friends.

GROSS: When you did get home, some people would come up to you and say, `I
don't support the war, but I support you.' What was your reaction to hearing
that?

Mr. HARTLEY: My--I felt good about that. I felt--it made me proud for them.
It made me proud that today in America, you know, it's--this is--it's not like
Vietnam. And the soldiers talk about this a lot, too. It's--we always say to
each other, you know, `Thank God this isn't Vietnam.' We come home, people
might say, `I think this war is garbage, but you're not. You don't represent
the decisions of the administration. I respect you; I respect your service,
but I disagree with this war.' And I thought, `You know, that's a person who
is--has intellectual integrity and a lot of respect for a person who might be
doing a job that they wouldn't want to do.' And every--you know, I never got
tired of hearing that. It made me feel good.

GROSS: You got into trouble for keeping a military blog. Are there military
blogs now, or has everybody been forced to take them down?

Mr. HARTLEY: No, there's probably--I would--probably more now than there ever
has been, which is really kind of interesting. There's--you know, when I put
my--when I started my blog, there was only one other blog I was able to find
that was by an infantryman. And it was really--the guy was--you know,
he--I'll give him credit. The guy was a grunt; he wasn't--his English skills
weren't phenomenal. So I thought, `Oh, this is cool. I mean, maybe he and I
can actually, like, blaze a new trail and you know, write a blog from an
infantryman's point of view that hasn't been done before.' But now it's like
there's--you know, every other guy carrying an M-4 right now has a blog.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. HARTLEY: Thanks, Terry.

GROSS: Jason Christopher Hartley's new book is called "Just Another Soldier."
He's still a member of the Army National Guard in New York. I'm Terry Gross,
and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

(Announcements)

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, screenwriter and director Noah Baumbach talks about his new
film, "The Squid and the Whale." It's loosely based on his memories of how
his parents' divorce changed his life. The film stars Jeff Daniels as a
pretentious and self-absorbed writer and professor and Laura Linney as his
wife, who's establishing her own writing career.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Noah Baumbach discusses his new film "The Squid and
the Whale"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

In the '90s, my guest Noah Baumbach wrote and directed the films "Kicking and
Screaming" and "Mr. Jealousy." He co-wrote the screenplay for last year's
film "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou." Baumbach's new film, "The Squid
and the Whale," is loosely based on his experiences when his parents divorced.
His father is the writer Jonathan Baumbach; his mother, the film critic
Georgia Brown.

"The Squid and the Whale" stars Jeff Daniels as Bernard, a pretentious,
self-absorbed English professor and novelist who's starting to feel a bit
overshadowed by his wife's new writing career. It's the wife, Joan, played by
Laura Linney, who's decided the marriage is over. Bernard is miserable about
this and so are the two children, 16-year-old Walt and 12-year-year-old Frank.
The film is set in the 1980s in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, where
Baumbach grew up. In this scene, the parents have sat the kids down for a
family meeting.

(Soundbite of "The Squid and the Whale")

Mr. JEFF DANIELS: (As Bernard) OK, your mom and I--OK, yeah. Mom and I are
going--we're going to separate.

Ms. LAURA LINNEY: (As Joan) You're not going to be leaving either of us.

Mr. DANIELS: (As Bernard) We're going to have joint custody. Frank, it's
OK. I've got an elegant new house across the park.

OWEN KLINE: (As Frank) Across the park? Is that even Brooklyn?

Mr. DANIELS: (As Bernard) It's only five stops on the subway. It's an
elegant block, the filet of the neighborhood. We'll have a Ping-pong table.

JESSE EISENBERG: (As Walt) I don't play Ping-pong.

Ms. LINNEY: (As Joan) And we'll both see you equally.

EISENBERG: (As Walt) How will that work?

Mr. DANIELS: (As Bernard) We're splitting up the week, alternating days.

KLINE: (As Frank) Why?

Mr. DANIELS: (As Bernard) Because I love you, and I want to see you as much
as your mother does.

EISENBERG: (As Walt) But there's seven days.

Mr. DANIELS: (As Bernard) Right.

EISENBERG: (As Walt) So how will you split evenly with seven days?

Mr. DANIELS: (As Bernard) Oh, I've got you Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday
and every other Thursday.

KLINE: (As Frank) Every other?

Mr. DANIELS: (As Bernard) That's how we each have you equally.

Ms. LINNEY: (As Joan) That was your father's idea.

KLINE: (As Frank) Don't do this.

EISENBERG: (As Walt) How will we get to school?

Mr. DANIELS: (As Bernard) There's a subway four blocks from the house, four
or five, no more than six blocks.

KLINE: (As Walt) And what about the cat?

Ms. LINNEY: (As Joan) (Censored) cat.

Mr. DANIELS: (As Bernard) We didn't discuss the cat.

Ms. LINNEY: (As Joan) Your father will pick him up on those days when you're
switching houses.

Mr. DANIELS: (As Bernard) I'll have to drive here two additional times a
week?

Ms. LINNEY: (As Joan) You got a place on the other side of the park. If
you'd gotten a place near here, it wouldn't be a problem.

Mr. DANIELS: (As Bernard) This neighborhood's gotten very expensive. Joan,
it's very painful for me to stay in this neighborhood. You know that. Don't
be difficult. I feel banished.

Ms. LINNEY: (As Joan) Oh, pickle.

EISENBERG: (As Walt) So, Dad, what will happen with the cat?

Mr. DANIELS: (As Bernard) We'll figure something out.

GROSS: Noah Baumbach, welcome back to FRESH AIR. In your movie, the parents
divorce, and they want to do joint custody. And joint custody always seems
like such a kind of civil, reasonable thing to do instead of fighting over
custody. But, of course, the kids really don't like this idea at all because
they're going to be having to go, you know, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays
to one house and Monday, Wednesday and Friday to another. And so I guess it
was easy for you to see it from the kids' point of view because that's the
point of view you saw the divorce from when your parents separated. Did they
do joint custody with you?

Mr. NOAH BAUMBACH (Filmmaker): They did. And that's--actually my actual
joint custody arrangement in the movie is--was the one we had. They were--as
you said, they were very reasonable, rational people. They had it all figured
out. And I think probably until I actually wrote it down, I didn't realize
how bizarre it was.

GROSS: So how did it work for you going back and forth?

Mr. BAUMBACH: Well, I was a teen-ager, and I was, you know, sort of also at
a point in my life where, you know, in some ways, having a separate life from
your parents is starting to become important to you. It's part of your own
sort of sense of self and identification. So to be sort of, you know, trapped
in this arrangement, where I couldn't--didn't have the power to break a
night--you know, if it was more convenient for me to--I was nearer to my
mother's and wanted to go there, I still had to go to my dad's. And it
became--you know, it was so incredibly rigid, so I hated it, you know.

I think I was often told at the time, you know, that I had--you know, was
actually more, you know, deeper, more painful feelings, that I was probably
sort of sublimating with more of this sense of annoyance, you know, in the
joint custody arrangement. But in, you know--and I think part of the thing I
realized when I wrote this script is that actually these little irritations
weren't so little. This was a big deal. It was a huge imposition, you know,
on the kids. And, you know, so, you know, I--it's something, in a way I then
became more attuned to as I wrote the script and then made the movie.

GROSS: You grew up in a house where, you know, your parents were writers;
they were intellectuals. The film is filled with the kind of problems a child
would face growing up in a home like that--for example, the difficulty of
developing your own opinions when your parents' opinions are so strong,
particularly about the arts. For example, in the movie, the father will say,
when talking F. Scott Fitzgerald, `Oh, "Tender Is the Night," that's minor
Fitzgerald.' And so if anybody asked the teen-age son if he's read "Tender Is
the Night," he'll just shrug his shoulders dismissively and say, `Oh, that's
minor Fitzgerald.' And, of course, he's never read Fitzgerald, and he has no
real opinion of his own of Fitzgerald, but he knows what he's supposed to
think based on what his father thinks.

And it's obviously going to be very hard for him to develop a sense of
intellectual independence, and that's the kind of issue, I think, that's not
really brought up a whole lot in movies, you know, developing intellectual
independence when you're around strong intellectual parents. Can you talk a
little bit about trying to address that in the movie?

Mr. BAUMBACH: Well, I think it is interesting, and, you know, I found it in
my life--you know, my own life but also people I know who come from similar
backgrounds, this sort of idea of opinion as definition in a way, you know;
that you kind of define yourself by what you like, you know. And so if lots
of people like one thing, you know, it becomes harder to define yourself that
way because it's like, `Well, if everybody likes "Titanic," you know, I can't
be the guy who likes "Titanic,"' you know. So you need to then pick the thing
that fewer people like, you know, the thing that fewer people have seen in a
way. And so it becomes a way for you to be defined by this work of art, you
know, whether it's a book or a movie or, you know, music.

And, you know, I think you're right. I think--on one hand, I think growing up
among intellectuals and people who are, you know, interested and sophisticated
about art can be terrific. I think it's great for kids to be introduced to
all these things. But I think there is that danger where you suddenly are
skipping so far ahead, you know. I mean, as a kid, I used to, like, dismiss,
you know, Kurt Vonnegut and Tom Robbins and Jack Kerouac, you know, as sort of
adolescent, you know, when, you know, meanwhile, I was an adolescent.

GROSS: Yeah, right.

Mr. BAUMBACH: And so I was sort of jumping ahead to books that were more
sophisticated and, in a lot of cases, too sophisticated for me to even read.
So it kind of left me, in some ways, paralyzed, and that's something I really,
you know, went into with Walt in this movie--is that exact problem.

GROSS: Jeff Daniels as the father, I think, does a really terrific job. Did
you give him any advice about how to play this character?

Mr. BAUMBACH: Yeah. Jeff and I had a--I had a great experience with Jeff.
I--Jeff has these kind of great sad blue eyes, and I sort of imagined, you
know, if we gave him a beard sort of surrounding those eyes, it could be kind
of incredible. So I told him to grow a beard, and, you know, I've been
telling people I feel like the beard he grew, in a way, symbolizes his
commitment to this character because when he showed up, his beard was so huge
and his hair was so long it was almost, you know, out of "Grizzly Man" or
something. And he--we had to trim it back even. But, you know, I have a lot
of sympathy for that character, and it's interesting because it's a character
that really polarizes people. I mean, a lot of people see the movie, and
they're like, `Oh, the father's a bad guy. What a bad father.' And then
other people really, you know, care for him and recognize his struggles and
how hard it is for him.

And, I mean, I was at a--I had a Q and A in Toronto, where I ended up sort of
putting together some strange sentence telling someone that unsympathetic
people need our sympathy more than sympathetic people. And I was not exactly
sure what I was saying, but I knew it meant something. But I talked to Jeff a
lot about all the various sort of walls and boundaries that Bernard puts up
around himself, I mean, all the sort of--the talking that, in a way, is smoke
screen. You know, it's the, you know--whatever--like animal spray to kind of
keep you away from them. I think Bernard is so vulnerable on some level, but
he's created such a thick barrier around himself that I think he's afraid that
any chink in it is going to just take him down entirely. And I think this is
largely unconscious, by the way. I don't think Bernard is aware of this.

But I think Bernard's ideas of success and, you know, failure are so out of
whack with any kind of real success--I mean, I don't--I've seen people write
about Bernard and refer to him as a failed novelist. And, you know, it's true
that in the movie he doesn't have an agent, and he, you know, clearly thinks
it'd have been better for him, but he's still doing OK. It's not like
he's--you know, in a way, I feel like when they write that, they're taking
Bernard on his own terms. And so I talked to Jeff a lot about that. I also
think that Bernard makes--and this is, again, unconscious, but he makes people
feel sorry for him. You know, I think part of the reason it's really hard to
confront him, particularly for his kids, is I think that there's always
something there that makes you want to protect him.

And I think Joan, in a way, had to become ruthless to get away from him, you
know--I mean, to break up with him. And that's what Walt is reacting to.
He's very angry at his mother, from his perspective, you know, being so mean
to his father and, you know, rejecting him. But I think in some ways Bernard
makes it impossible to sort of rationally separate from him or to even just
take a break. I think he so makes you feel like you need to be there for him,
and it's a very strange thing because it's--on one hand, I think he makes you
feel like you need to take care of him, and on the other hand he wants you to
idolize him.

GROSS: My guest is screenwriter and director Noah Baumbach. His new film is
called "The Squid and the Whale." He also wrote and directed the films
"Kicking and Screaming" and "Mr. Jealousy" and co-write "The Life Aquatic with
Steve Zissou." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Noah Baumbach. He wrote and directed the new film "The
Squid and the Whale" about an intellectual couple in Brooklyn and how their
separation changes the lives of their two children. It stars Jeff Daniels and
Laura Linney.

You know, we've been talking about the father in the story, but the mother, as
you've written her, is very interesting. You know, she is not as
self-involved as the father is and doesn't seem to have as big and complex an
ego. At the same time she's apparently very talented. She has a book that's
published during the course of the movie, and her career might actually be
overtaking her husband's. And she also--you know, she's having affairs, and
the boys find out about this. And so there's times when you were really with
her emotionally, watching this movie, and other times when you feel like, `Oh,
she shouldn't be doing this,' you know, and, you know, `It's not good for her
sons.' So did you find yourself on her side or ambivalent about her?

Mr. BAUMBACH: Yeah. Well, that's an interesting question. I mean, I think,
you know, on one hand, I did not want to judge either parent at any point.
But I do think her character reveals itself, you know, in a different way than
Bernard's does. I mean, Bernard, in some ways, is revealing himself or trying
to reveal himself or actually trying not to reveal himself at every moment.
But he's very present. And we, in some ways, learn a lot about what Joan has
done or, you know, has said off-camera as the movie goes and I think partly
because, you know, she's--you know, her intentions, you know, or her
motivation in some ways, is, you know, a mystery to these kids.

And, you know, I think, you know, what I like about the movie is that--I think
at any point that you can start to feel like, `Oh, this guy'--or, `I'm behind
this person. I'm behind--oh, I get'--you know, you identify with people. I
mean, that's what it's about to some degree. `Oh, I identify with them.' And
then suddenly they do something where you're like, `Oh, God, you know, I
don't'--you know, that behavior is not--was unexpected in some way, but, you
know, hopefully it's part of, you know, the whole package. And also, in some
ways, it's also more identifiable because we all act, you know, in complicated
bad and good ways all the time.

GROSS: The older son, the teen-ager in "The Squid and the Whale," takes a
song by Pink Floyd and passes it off as his own, takes credit for writing it.
And it's easy for a while for him to get away with that. What made you think
about that?

Mr. BAUMBACH: I had actually had a friend in college who told me a story
about how he had tried to pass off The Who song "Behind Blue Eyes" as his
own to his parents and how they'd bought it and how he lived with this kind of
guilt, you know. And then he had the kind of funny story of how it came on
the radio when they were all in the car together, and his father turned around
and said, `I thought you wrote this?' And I always found it such an amusing
story, I think, partly because it felt like some alternate version of me. You
know, it was like I didn't do--you know, I wasn't as sort of maybe bold as
that to, you know, do that. I also wasn't good enough at guitar.

But I--you know, somehow when I was writing it, it seemed like, you know--I
mean, it's that thing. It's that thing when you're--you know, you take things
from your own life, and then you take things from outside, and somehow, you
know, it's--you know, in some ways, it felt like, `Well, that's almost more my
story than my--like some of the real stories I have.' So I brought that in.
And I picked Pink Floyd because I was--I felt closer to Pink Floyd and--than I
did to that Who song. And, also, it was a song that is so intense and
dramatic, and I just thought it was really funny that a 16-year-old would have
written it or claim to have written it.

GROSS: Writers and critics, like your parents or the parents in the movie,
tend to really value honesty when it comes to their writing. And sometimes
that requires almost a brutal honesty, in which you might feel like you are
betraying somebody that you love. But to capture the reality of the scene,
you know, your genuine reaction to the movie or to the book, you have to be
honest, and that's part of your job. But writers who subscribe to that ethic
of honesty don't necessarily enjoy being written about honestly themselves.

Mr. BAUMBACH: No, that's true.

GROSS: So how did your writer parents react to the portrayal of parents in
your movie? Now, I mean, you are not writing about your parents; the movie is
fiction. But we will all assume that, to some extent, it's based on the
reality of your life. So what was it like for them to watch these portrayals,
these not-always-flattering portrayals?

Mr. BAUMBACH: Well, you know, I do think it's affectionate at the same time
that, you know, certainly it's critical. And both my parents are fiction
writers, so--and they've both written about their parents in fictional ways.
So, you know, I think that--you know, as best as you can in a situation like
this, I really think they see it as a movie. They actually both just saw it
for the second time on Monday, and I could tell like, you know, by their faces
afterward--I mean, there's--they really, you know, enjoyed, you know, being
there. And I think they're also proud of me, you know, and excited for me,
you know. And I think now they could see it--you know, the first time they
saw it, I'm sure there was, like, this sort of--you know, like you're watching
a movie with your foot on the brakes. You're wondering like what--you know,
`What's going to happen here?'

But I think seeing it a second time, at least they--you know, they knew what
to expect, to some degree, and were able to kind of, you know, let go a little
more, you know. But that's--I'm sure it's weird. But it is--it's a funny
thing because it's--I do believe that if I hadn't fictionalized the movie as
effectively as I have, it wouldn't feel as real as it does. And a lot of
people have a very kind of raw, you know, experience watching the movie, which
I love. I want that to be, you know--you know, I want that to be what the
experience is. But, you know, for me--and I think subsequently for them now
at this point--you know, the movie is almost protective. It's not raw. It's
another thing. It's a movie.

GROSS: Did you talk with your parents about the portrayal of the parents
before writing the movie?

Mr. BAUMBACH: No. I really--I kept them out of the writing process
and--which, you know, in some ways--you know, which makes this whole--the
reality of this movie great for a therapy session--is that I had also--before
this--you know, writing this film, I'd always shown my parents everything I
wrote and--you know, I mean, to even get notes from them. And in a way, you
know, probably it was the side of me that wanted to write something that, in
some ways, by definition, I couldn't show them.

And so--but it was important to me in some--you know, I think to just make
this my own experience, writing this thing, and not have--not worry about
feelings and trust in some way that, you know, I was, you know, in control of
it both from a fictional standpoint but also just from an honesty standpoint;
that that was going to--you know, it will kind of take care of itself; that if
it was--I did bring my parents into the process later when I was in
preproduction because I--then it was different. It was, `OK, well, now we're
actually shooting. I want'--I mean, some of it was practical. I wanted to
get, you know, props from their homes, and, you know, I dressed Jeff Daniels
in my dad's clothes. And I wanted to sort of, you know, then use them as
resource and, again, not as like resource in the kind of, like, `Oh, because
they're playing them,' but as resources because they were there, too, and
they, you know--you know, they could contribute.

GROSS: My guest is screenwriter and director Noah Baumbach. We'll talk more
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Noah Baumbach. He wrote and directed the new film "The
Squid and the Whale."

You have written and directed your movies, but there's one movie that you
wrote that you didn't direct that was directed by Wes Anderson, and that's
"The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou," which starred Bill Murray and Owen
Wilson. And Wes Anderson produced this new movie that you wrote and directed.
How did you end up in partnership with him?

Mr. BAUMBACH: Well, our sort of professional relationship came out of our
friendship, which had started in sort of the late '90s. I think we both
initially had started hearing about each other because our first two
movies--or his first movie and my first movie, "Bottle Rocket" being his and
"Kicking and Screaming" being mine, came out around the same time. It was
around 1995, and both underperformed brilliantly at the box office, and--but
they often both had very committed fans. Those who had seen it were very
committed about them. And so we both heard a lot about each other.

So when we met, we sort of, in some ways, felt, I think, some kind of kinship,
and we became really great friends. And it's a funny thing sometimes to be
asked about our professional relationship, like, `How does Wes influence you,
and what have you gotten from Wes?' And that's what's so enjoyable to me
about it, I mean, both his work as a producer on this movie and my work as the
co-writer on "The Life Aquatic." It feels so much like an extension of our
friendship, and so it's a nice thing.

GROSS: It seems, in some ways, that your sensibilities are really different,
and yet you've collaborated on movies.

Mr. BAUMBACH: Yeah. I mean, again, that's sort of--in some ways, it's harder
for me to see it that way because, as friends, we have so much in common. I
mean, we love talking about movies and books and, you know, people and
psychology and whatever you talk about as friends. And, you know--but, yeah,
I do think--you know, I think we're distinct, both of us, as filmmakers, and I
think, you know, that's what I love about him as a filmmaker and what I loved
about working on "Life Aquatic" because I think it was like here was my chance
to participate in a movie that I would never have made, you know, on my own.
I wouldn't have even, you know, approached that subject matter, you know.

I mean, so it was a kind of--you know, a pleasure. It was sort of like being
able to, you know, enter someone else's movie, you know, and something that,
you know, I guess, you know, I do as a viewer all the time. But here I was
able to do it and actually participate and contribute, and I think a similar
thing for him, too. I mean, I think with this, it's not, you know, a style of
movie that he would necessarily approach on his own, and it was his--you know,
but it's something he really appreciates and values. So he was able to, you
know, be a part of it and contribute to it likewise in a way that, you know,
gave him pleasure.

GROSS: The actor who plays the 12-year-old son in your movie has to say a lot
of dirty language, bad words. And did his parents object at all to having to
say that stuff in the movie?

Mr. BAUMBACH: Well, it's funny because his parents are actually friends of
ours. His parents are the actors Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates, and...

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. BAUMBACH: ...my wife is Jennifer Jason Leigh, and...

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. BAUMBACH: ...she and Phoebe have known each other since "Fast Times," so
we, you know, often would have Sunday dinner. I mean, they're like family in
a way. And I, at the time, had been auditioning all these kids, and, you
know--and as you point out, it's a difficult role. And it's also a difficult
role to audition people for because you don't want to turn them off of--their
parents off of it too fast. And I was having a lot of trouble. I mean, it
was a very, you know--I mean, it's one of those parts that if you don't get it
exactly right, you know, it's trouble. And Jennifer kept saying to me, you
know, `Well, you need someone like Owen.' You know, Owen has this kind
of--just this genuine openness, but he's so bright and he's--you know, there's
something just so very natural and soulful about him. And it was one of those
things that one day at--or one evening at dinner, I just got the guts to ask.
And they had already read the script because they were friends and I'd shown
it to them, and so they knew what they were getting into.

And, you know, I think it's sort of not unlike--you know, you were asking me
about what my parents think, and I say they're writers. I mean, I think in
this case, they're actors. You know, they know--you know, they know all the
fakery of it. And, again, Owen is such a sane kind of amazing kid, and his
relationship with his parents is so, you know, close and wonderful that, you
know, saying those bad words and things, it wasn't like, you know, he--you
know, he was prepared for it. He knew them. He knew he was acting. It
wasn't like, you know, there was any danger of him, you know, running around
town saying those things.

GROSS: Well, I could see this really awkward situation develop where he'd say
that at the dinner table or something, and his parents would have to say, `You
can't talk that way at the dinner table. You can only talk that way in the
movies.'

Mr. BAUMBACH: Right, right. It's a very rarified conversation.

GROSS: Noah Baumbach, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. BAUMBACH: Thank you. It was fun.

GROSS: My guest is screenwriter and director Noah Baumbach. He wrote and
directed the new film "The Squid and the Whale."

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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