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Noah Baumbach on Career Moves, from Personal ‘While We’re Young’ to Comedy Breakout ‘Mistress America’

Noah Baumbach on Career Moves, from Personal 'While We're Young' to Comedy Breakout 'Mistress America'

New York director Noah Baumbach, the child of writers, writes consistently smart screenplays about that urban intellectual milieu, from his debut “Kicking and Screaming” to his Oscar-nominated “The Squid and the Whale,” arguably his most fully realized film to date, which broke out Jesse Eisenberg, followed by less well-received “Margot at the Wedding,” which was a dark, dead-on accurate portrait of a family of narcissists.

Baumbach is willing to show characters who are lost and flailing. Ben Stiller has portrayed his alter-ego twice now, in L.A.-set “Greenberg,” co-starring Greta Gerwig, which made me squirm with discomfort, and now “While We’re Young,” which debuted at Toronto 2014. Stiller plays Josh, a blocked and earnest documentary filmmaker stuck in a dead-end career and a tired childless marriage to Cornelia (Naomi Watts). The duo meet and become briefly infatuated by another couple (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried) who are younger, hipper and more ambitious than they are. Soon Josh is sporting a hipster hat and roller skates and helping out his protege–who’s as opportunistic as they come. 

Due to vagaries of scheduling, A24 is releasing “While We’re Young” March 27 after which Fox Searchlight will eventually open enchanting comedy “Mistress America,” which Baumbauch wrote with his partner and actress muse Greta Gerwig (who collaborated with him memorably on “Frances Ha”), creating Brooke, the most entertaining screwball heroine since Holly Golightly. Brooke is capable of such one-liners as: “Sometimes I think I’m a genius, and I wish I could fast forward to the time when everyone knows it,” and, “There’s nothing I don’t know about myself–that’s why I can’t do therapy.”

I sat down with Baumbach in a sunny room at the Four Seasons Hotel. 

Anne Thompson: Was landing an Oscar nomination for your second feature “The Squid and the Whale” ultimately a good thing? 

Noah Baumbach:  It was only good. Why would it have been bad?

I’ve seen it go to people’s head, in a way, as though their expectations become enhanced for what they should be able to achieve and do. Do you feel like you’ve been able to do most of what you’ve wanted?

I have pretty much the career that… since then, every script I’ve made has been one that I’ve written for myself to make.

Are there any sitting in a corner somewhere?

No. I’d actually made “While We’re Young,” and then I did “The Corrections,” then “Frances,” then “Young,” then “Mistress.”

Very quickly. That must’ve been insane.

Well, I had a window where I was between “Frances” and “Young,” and Greta and I had been working on this other script. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to finish it all, so we shot it, and then I started editing, but stopped and made “While We’re Young,” and then came back and finished “Mistress America.” I knew I was going to do that.

Would you have liked more money for some of these movies?

No. I made these exactly the way they’re supposed to be made.

What kind of push-pull tug-of-war goes on between the projects you do for yourself and those done for other people?

Well, I mean, they’re all for me, really. I don’t have any that —

“Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted”?

I guess “Madagascar.” I’ve done some adaptations, I’ve done the work at DreamWorks, which is for things that I really like, but are not mine.

That’s hard to do, comedic writing. A lot of your writing is funny.

Yeah. I have fun doing it. When they brought me on to “Madagascar,” I thought I was doing two weeks or something. I didn’t realize how animated movies are made, because the one I’d done with Wes [Anderson, ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox”] was made differently than the traditional. They just keep working on them until the end, and I stayed with it. And I had a great time doing it. I had Ben [Stiller], and Chris Rock.

Well, you’re always expanding your skill set.

Yeah, and you kind of get better by doing it. I think it’s important to do it. It also gives me the freedom. It puts less pressure on the movies I’m making, because I often am not taking big salaries, or any salaries on these movies, because I want as much to be on the screen as possible.

And you know that you’re following your idiosyncratic way of doing things. It may be commercial or it may not be.

Right, and it takes some of the pressure off. But of course, I mean, if you look at pretty much everybody who makes their own idiosyncratic movies, they dabble somewhere else, whether they’re directing commercials or something.

Well, here Ben Stiller plays a great neurotic character — off-putting, in some ways.

Well, it depends on how you see it.

It made me uncomfortable. [Laughs] But I might’ve identified too closely.

I have real compassion for him. He just was, you know, caught. He was stuck.

Getting in his own way.

Getting in his own way, yes.

In “While We’re Young” you tackle your own universe, as Woody Allen does. Are there elements of you as well as real people you were involved with — like Joe Swanberg — in there?

Somebody said that to me, but I never thought of that.

You didn’t mentor Joe Swanberg?

I helped him with a movie and produced a movie that he did, but I wouldn’t say I “mentored” him. He’s sort of a juggernaut. He doesn’t need mentoring. But, you know, in the way that Adam Driver’s character was a kind of projection… it’s Ben’s character’s projection, but it was almost like my own projection of what would I, you know, if I was going to fall in love with some other version of myself, or my fantasy idea of what the freer version of myself would be, I built this character out of those feelings.

The funny thing, too, is that, if you ask me who I identify with more in terms of their ambition and their drive, I’m more like Adam Driver’s character in that I’m much more ambitious, or at least more comfortable with my own ambition than Ben’s character, who’s been stuck on the same movie for ten years.

That sequence heading to the showdown at Lincoln Center was hilarious.

Well, he’s so sure. It was a fun idea to think that the movie, for ten minutes, is like a thriller, but it’s a thriller he’s concocted for himself. I mean, in some ways it’s like his projection of Adam. For whatever Adam’s faults are, nobody should have to carry the burden that Ben has.

We all have writer’s block, or moments where we don’t feel productive. You must’ve felt that.

Yeah. And every time I start a new script, I think, “Well, you get no credit for what you did the last time.” You can’t use any of that material again, so you’re starting all over again, and it’s agonizing.

You’re alone in a room. That’s the issue any writer-director has to face. Which brings up Greta Gerwig. I find your collaboration on “Frances Ha” and “Mistress America” magical, but of course it’s not. It’s work, even though it’s fun to think of her as this sparkling muse, which you may do. Allen used to have his leading lady be his muse. You’re inspired by a writer with a strong individual voice as well.

Yeah. Both movies have been, in their own, different kind of ways, really fun to do together. I get so much pleasure out of seeing what she’s going to write. It’s the opposite of what you were saying about being alone in a room. Actually, not only in a situation where you have somebody with you, I’m almost looking forward to it like installments of a serial, or something. “What scene is next?”

Tell us how it’s done.

Sometimes, we do it separately; sometimes, we do it together. “Mistress America,” actually, was more together. She works. I work.

But you live together, in New York, most of the time.

Yeah. But if she goes, “I’m going to work on the dinner-party scene; you work on a scene with Sophie.” Then we would switch, and I’d always feel like, when I got what she wrote, I’d want mine back.

Do you have ego issues with this? Some men might not be so cool.

Well, I mean, maybe if it was the first scripts I’ve written.

You’re pretty confident.

Yeah. I’ve done it by myself, too, and I’ve worked with other people, too, but it’s a really… fun, writing and knowing she’ll play one of the parts. Writing “Mistress America” was a very different kind of character than Frances, and it was a very different kind of movie, in a way, too. Even though it had the feel of “a piece.”

It feels like an entirely different genre. You said so at the Sundance Q & A. That scene where you have the entire ensemble tumbling over each other in one room — it’s worthy of Howard Hawks. 

That was really fun. It was fun to cast that movie, too.

One project I’ve always been fascinated by is your adaptation of Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections.” HBO, when you make something for them, keeps it. There is no turnaround, right? Now there’s a war between HBO and Netflix. There are more players. 

It actually was a kind of collective… HBO made the decision, obviously, not to go forward, but we were also at the point where we realized it would’ve been too difficult. It was too ambitious. It was too expensive for what kind of show it was going to be. That was there reason.

Was it going to be a 13-episode thing?

It was going to be longer — like, four years or something. The idea was that we’d spend long times on each section of the book, but we’d been cutting between different generations, you had different actors playing the same characters. Things I’d tried to avoid, like different actors playing the same characters. People in age make-up, both younger- and older-aged.

But there are computer effects for that now.

Well, you can’t make it really look great. You know, there were really good things about it, and I think, maybe if it had been conceived differently, it could’ve worked. But, the way it was conceived, it was right before the Netflix idea. Maybe do an 8-hour thing. But it was kind of right before that was being done, the sort of long-miniseries idea.

What’s the Jake Paltrow project?

It’s a documentary we’re working on, but I’m not ready to talk about it.

What role has Scott Rudin played in your career?

He’s great. It’s like talking about a friend, too, you know? Since “Margot,” we’ve done all of them together. He’s a great reader. He’s a great watcher.

His ideas about casting are often very good, and he’s a great protector.

He’s a great protector, and what’s necessary in a great producer is that he has very individual relationships with all the people he works with. It isn’t one-size-fits-all. He knows what makes people work.

He pushes you to do better?

He pushes me, sure. I mean, he’s very honest and everything, but he’s immensely supportive of what I’m trying to do. He’s not trying to make me someone I’m not.

Are you done with adapting “Emperor’s Children”? Lake Bell is directing for Imagine? 

“Emperor’s Children” is an old script of mine that’s being made now.

What’s the next thing?

I’m writing now, so whatever that turns out to be.

Are you thrown things that you turn down?

Sure. At this point, people kind of know I’m not looking, but I still get stuff that I… turn down. [Laughs]

“While We’re Young”: where did that title come from?

There’s a Rodney Dangerfield line in “Caddyshack” where he’s telling the golfers to hurry up, and he says, “While we’re young!” Somehow that came to me, I thought of it not so much coming out of Rodney Dangerfield’s mouth, but because it’s something I’ve said and probably inherited from that movie over time, or that friends have said. In a way, it’s both “hurry up,” the idea of “let’s get this going,” and also reflective in that way of, “Let’s do this while we’re young.”

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