An Interview With the Real-Life Divorce Attorney Who (‘Maybe’) Inspired Marriage Story

laura dern laura wasser marriage story
“It was funny at the beginning when she said, ‘I’m sorry I look so schleppy today, but I was driving carpool,’” real-life attorney Laura Wasser says. “I actually have said that a couple of times.” Photo: Netflix

Two minutes into a call with Laura Wasser, and it’s obvious why she’s Hollywood’s go-to divorce attorney. She’s practical and thorough, and she has a sense of humor. (Would I get married and divorced just to hang out with her? Yes.) Throughout her career, she’s represented Angelina Jolie (in divorces Brangelina and Billy Bob), Britney Spears (v. Kevin Federline), Maria Shriver (v. Arnold Schwarzenegger), a handful of Kardashians, and more. She also represented Jennifer Jason Leigh in her divorce from Marriage Story’s director, Noah Baumbach. By at least a few accounts, she’s the basis for Nora Fanshaw, the divorce attorney representing Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) in her separation from Charlie (Adam Driver). As the high-powered L.A. lawyer, Laura Dern curls up on the couch and coos Goop-y life advice in one scene, and lacerates opposing counsel in the next.

Nora Fanshaw isn’t exactly like her, Wasser says, but they do share the same office; Baumbach shot scenes at Wasser’s actual firm. They might dress alike, too; Dern’s character is outfitted in body-con sheath dresses by costume designer Mark Bridges, while Wasser dresses in top designers and does fashion shoots. “There have been many people who have called and said, ‘Did you see it? Is that your office? That looks like your office. Do you think that was supposed to be you?’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t know,’” she says over the phone. Either way, she’s a fan of Marriage Story. “I certainly will be raising it to colleagues, because I think it’s important for all of us to see.”

How did you first learn about Marriage Story?
I found out about it because the writer-director, Noah [Baumbach], asked me whether he could shoot some of the scenes in our office. The larger conference room, that you referenced in your article about Adam Driver, being too big, and the super-small one, are both actually in our firm. Professionally and socially, I know so many of the people involved with the film. I have to imagine that I’m one of the few family-law attorneys that they all know. They all had some questions for me about the process. I’ve served on other films as a technical adviser. When you watch something and you’re like, “Wait a minute, that’s not how it would happen” — if you’re in the film industry, you want to make sure that nobody is saying that at home. For the most part, this movie was very, very accurate in its depiction of the process, and certainly of the emotional problems and issues that people have as they’re going through the process.

How did Noah pitch this to you, especially asking to use your office as a location?
He just did. I mean, I know him — our kids are in class together, and it’s kind of a small town. He just said, “Do you think we could film some of the scene from the office?” I already knew that he was writing something like this. I don’t know if you ever saw The Squid and the Whale, but it’s one of his earlier films, and it’s one of my favorite divorce movies. In the book that I wrote in 2013, I quoted it several times because it was so good, and the actors in that were also so good. [Noah] said, “Well, I actually did another one. There’s definitely some things I think you’ll find familiar in it. Do you think that we could possibly shoot a couple of the scenes in your office?” And I said, “Sure.” So we got the clearance from the building, and he was able to do that.

Were you on set when they filmed in your office?

What did you think of the Nora character? What was your first impression of her?
I love Laura Dern. I love her as an actor, and I love her as a person. I thought she was portraying a satirical family-law attorney. I thought, more than anything else, that she served as a good character in a cautionary tale: If you don’t want to end up like these people, and have somebody like this representing your spouse, you ought to really think carefully about how you embark upon the road to divorce.

There’s a very emotional scene when [Charlie and Nicole] are in court, and both of their lawyers are using a lot of personal anecdotes against the opposing party. Nicole goes over to his house afterward, and she says, “Why did you switch attorneys?” And he said, “I needed to get my own asshole.” So yes, obviously in these situations the attorneys are portrayed as assholes, and she did it very well, but also in a satirical and lovely way.

A detail I really appreciated is that the attorneys can be harsh and at each other’s throats in front of the judge, but outside the courtroom, they’re friendly and talking about dinner in Malibu and John Legend. Is that what it’s really like?
Yes, it is. When I was a very young attorney, an older attorney, probably somebody that was more like the Alan Alda character in the movie, said, “You and I are going to know each other and work together for much longer than you and this current client. These clients come and go. We have a collegial and a professional relationship that goes far beyond this.” I tell that to young attorneys all the time.

I don’t know that we need to be kissing each other in the hallways at court, or having dinner together, socializing, but to have a relationship with each other where we can trust each other and we know each other’s word is good, I think, is very important. We represent the clients for six to 12 to 18 months, but we’re going to see the same attorneys over and over. In our business, being the voice of reason and having integrity is extremely important.

I’d like to ask you what you think about some of Nora’s lines. In one scene, she’s telling Nicole about the double standard of parenting, and says that the idea of a good father was only invented 30 years ago. Do you think that’s accurate?
I don’t agree with that. That whole monologue, while extremely entertaining, I would like to believe did not come from me, or anywhere near a real case.

I believe that good fathers have always existed. I think parental roles have shifted as we’ve become a little bit more evolved as a society. California, where I’ve always practiced, has always been a state that has favored both parents having as much custodial time as possible. Not because it’s good for the parents, but because it’s good for the kids.

The other line of Nora’s is that “the system rewards bad behavior.” It seems like from your perspective, that’s not always true.
I don’t think that’s always good at all. Again, I am sure that there are people that have that impression, but I don’t really think that that’s true. But, certainly, clients can feel that way. I definitely think that, in the last five to ten years particularly, we have seen a shift in terms of more divorcing parties going to mediation, communicating more effectively, using tools like It’s Over Easy, which is an online divorce site that we created, joining communities, reading things, getting educated about the process, and really not exercising bad behavior as a way to get ahead. I don’t think judicial officers find that to be something that’s worthy of being rewarded.

There is a line in the movie that we’ve all been saying for years, by the way. “Family-law attorneys see good people on their worst behavior. Criminal attorneys see bad people on their best behavior.” I don’t think that that is true anymore; I think people are a little bit more enlightened. I’m so happy this movie came out because showing people what it looks like, I think, helps people from making similar mistakes. For many, many years, nobody wanted to talk about divorce. Now we’re talking about it, and we’re seeing what I call the “evolution of dissolution,” which is that if our kids are going to be going through divorces in 20 or 30 years, our kids are probably going to handle it better than we did, just like we’re handling it better than our parents did, if you watch movies like Kramer vs. Kramer.

Sure, a movie with such a different idea and depiction of a separation.
I think so, yes. Look, it’s still sad. No one is saying like, “Oh, divorce is great. You should get divorced! And if you use my product or read my book or watch my master class, it’s going to be easy.” It’s not easy, but it can be handled in a way that allows families to come through the other end of this kind of like you saw them do in the movie, in a much more evolved way. Better for their kid, better for them.

Wasser in 2016, appearing in court to represent Johnny Depp. Photo: Dave Mangels/Getty Images

In that particularly tense courtroom scene you mentioned earlier, the two attorneys used information that seemed pretty anecdotal — Charlie not strapping in the car seat, Nicole having too much wine with dinner — against the other party. In your job, how do you navigate knowing when to use sensitive information like that?
That part wasn’t super realistic for me, because I don’t think that would have been discussed at the counsel table, particularly the way the lawyers were talking to each other instead of talking to the judge. The judge would usually cut you off, but again, that’s kind of an artistic license. Those things would be things that were maybe in paperwork. I’ve had judicial officers say, even with pot-smoking before it was legal, “Everybody smokes a little bit or everybody drinks a little bit, and if the kid’s not there, I don’t really want to hear about this. You’re wasting my time.” Same with a car seat. That could happen to anybody that just flew into town.

You have to be careful, as an attorney and a client, using sensitive things like that, so that you don’t come off sounding petty. The bigger issue is that the kid actually gets to spend time with each of his parents, and how do we work that out? It was interesting that they didn’t seem to really talk about what the custody plan was going to be, if the kid and the mom stayed in California. How do we work out every other holiday and weekends and everything else? [The movie] didn’t touch on that too much, and maybe that’s because in the end, he got the job at UCLA.

I work with people that are a little bit more high profile. If you put something into the record, either by saying it in court or putting it in paperwork, then the next thing you know is all kinds of media are going to pick up on that. You have to be very careful about what you say. Not only because a judicial officer could take that the wrong way, but also because at some point a kid could see that. It lives forever in print and in computers. If we really do care about making sure that the kids are okay, probably best not to bad-mouth their parents in the public record.

I have to ask you about Nora’s costumes, which were crucial to her character. What did you think of them?
I thought they were fantastic. Very well dressed, and I appreciated that. It was funny at the beginning when she said, “I’m sorry I look so schleppy today, but I was driving carpool.” I actually have said that a couple of times. I probably looked more schleppy than she did when she said it. But I thought it was funny, and I thought that her outfits, particularly because she’s got such a gorgeous body, were amazing.

Do you feel like the Nora character is based on an idea of you, or see her as a satire of yourself?
Maybe. [Pauses] I mean … maybe. I don’t know. It’s very hard to see oneself that way, but because of the amount of people that have called and texted me about it, I can’t completely ignore that that may be the case.

You mentioned The Squid and the Whale earlier. What’s your favorite movie about divorce?
I think it used to be The Squid and the Whale, but now it’s probably this. There was a moment in time where I liked The War of the Roses, but that was probably before I was a practicing divorce attorney. I think [Marriage Story] is a really, really good educator for people about this. I think it raises things fairly accurately that people might not think about — not necessarily the legal part or the court part, but certainly the discussions that are had between the parties. It’s really true how things that you would never even think about all of a sudden become issues [in a divorce].

I also thought, in the end, it was a love story. Maybe not a romantic love story, but a familial love story, and I think that’s important. I tell clients all the time, “You may not be married to this person anymore, but this person, particularly if you have kids, is still in your family. You better figure out a way to deal with them and not burn too many bridges.”

I love that answer. This is my last question: Do you think, really, that Charlie and Nicole and their son were a New York family?
In the movie?

Yeah. That’s always Charlie’s line: “We’re a New York family!”
I think they were a New York family in the movie.

Here’s the thing — again, not to get too legal and complicated — coming here for two weeks to work on a pilot for a TV show would not have enabled her to even file a divorce petition in the state of California. It’s another poetic-license kind of a thing. She didn’t have a residence here. You have to be in California for a certain period of time before you can even file here.

This is the greatest jurisdiction to file in when you are looking for child support. I used to have to go speak to the Lakers and then to the Clippers, probably once a quarter or once a year, about not impregnating anybody in the state of California, because then they would have a baby here and they’d be asking for child support here. Forum shopping [when litigants file claims to a jurisdiction that is likely to provide a more favorable judgment] is a big-ticket item, and the movie, of course, did not touch on that.

But if you’re asking me my honest opinion, they were a New York family in the movie. They lived in New York. She came here for two weeks, and then she filed a petition! That’s not very realistic. The other things that happened afterward — enrolling him in a school — all of those things would have definitely swayed a court’s opinion. But my guess is, because of the timing of it, like the first meeting he had with the Ray Liotta character, he would have said, “Well, take him back, and don’t let her enroll him in school.” So again, you see by how being really reasonable, Adam Driver’s character continued to get deeper and deeper enmeshed to become a California family. That’s, I think, a metaphor for something that really does happen to people when they’re going through this. You’re not concentrating on what may be the legal important things.

Talking With the Lawyer Who (Maybe) Inspired Marriage Story