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The Magical Pas de Deux of Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig in ‘Mistress America’

The Magical Pas de Deux of Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig in '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 in “While We’re Young.”

This Friday, Fox Searchlight opens 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: “There’s nothing I don’t know about myself–that’s why I can’t do therapy.”

READ MORE: 6 Things to Know About Sundance’s Women’s New Wave

This is not writer-director Woody Allen creating comedies as vehicles for his muses Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow. This is director Baumbauch co-creating with a writer-actress with a clear, identifiable voice. Clearly, having already opened the movie at Sundance Searchlight is taking out “Mistress America” –in which lonely New York college freshman Tracy (Lola Kirke) is taken in by her almost stepsister, Brooke (Greta Gerwig), a dangerously entertaining urban sophisticate who draws her into her crazy schemes–in the quieter August corridor rather than taking it on the more congested and expensive fall festival route. If audiences embrace it–and I think they will–then the distributor will assess its awards chances–Best Actress and Original Screenplay come to mind.

READ MORE: Greta Gerwig Directs Again

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.

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? N
ow 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.

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]

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