Growing up is hard to do — particularly for Noah Baumbach’s raft of characters. From the aimless postgrads of his 1995 debut “Kicking and Screaming” to the excruciatingly immature parents in “The Squid and the Whale” and “Margot at the Wedding” to one thrill-seeking vulpes in his script for Wes Anderson’s “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” the Brooklyn-reared Baumbach has always shown a knack for capturing the regressive, self-absorbed, juvenile side of the adult human condition.
“I’m always interested in how people, myself included, have ideas of themselves, of how they thought they would be, or of how they want to be seen,” explained Baumbach, on the phone from Los Angeles, where he now splits his time with his wife and collaborator, actress Jennifer Jason Leigh. “And the older you get, the world keeps telling you different things about yourself. And how people either adjust to those things and let go of adolescent notions. Or they dig in deeper.”
“And Greenberg,” added Baumbach, referring to the central figure in his latest film, “has obviously dug in deeper.”
Ben Stiller stars as the titular, dysfunctional protagonist, “Greenberg”—following in the footsteps of “Squid’s” Bernard Berkman and “Wedding’s” Margot, characters too full of themselves to notice their own self-sabotaging ways. Critics have used words like “repellent,” “demonic narcissist” and “pathetic” to describe such protagonists—not the type of pull-quotes you might see on video boxes. But Baumbach stays committed to probing the vulnerabilities and undersides of such characters. Stiller’s Greenberg is no less horrid than the others, tearing down friends and lovers, while simultaneously making desperate pleas for affection.
“I really feel these characters are a lot like people in the world,” defends Baumbach. “They’re only ‘difficult’ compared to conventional movie characters. I don’t think they’re difficult compared to real human beings. I’m surprised how people react so strongly. Their argument is, ‘Who is like this?’ But they don’t realize they’re using other movies as comparison rather than using their own parents or themselves.”
As much as “Greenberg” is a continuation for Baumbach, it is also a significant departure: It’s his first film in widescreen, with a more formally composed shooting style and impressionistic digressions that recall the experimental work of Gus Van Sant rather than the handheld naturalism of his previous films. “It’s an adjustment,” he admits, “but it was so much how I saw this movie.”
The Los Angeles setting for “Greenberg,” for example, wavers between realistic depictions of upscale West Hollywood homes and a strange sense of alienation. It’s a far different world from “Kicking and Screaming,” the last film Baumbach shot on the West Coast.
One near-surreal recurring image is a giant floating, flailing balloon figure outside a used car dealership. “I liked how it looked,” admits Baumbach, who says he, Leigh and her mother often passed the “balloon man” on La Brea on their way to brunch. “There’s something very dreamy and graceful about it, and there’s also something spastic and harsh about it.”
In another striking sequence, Greta Gerwig’s Florence drives in her car, as the light of the day dwindles, giving way to a fuzzy, otherworldly background of blurry evening lights. Baumbach credits in part his cinematographer, Harris Savides, who shot “Margot at the Wedding” as well as Van Sant’s “death trilogy” (“Gerry,” “Elephant,” “Last Days”) for bringing in a particular lens with a very narrow focus to use in the scene. “It throws everything around the focal point into this odd, dreamy blur,” says Baumbach. He also intensified the moment with the use of Paul and Linda McCartney’s melancholy 1971 song “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” (“We’re so sorry if we caused you any pain.”)
In preparing to direct, Baumbach looked at several films, many from the New Hollywood of the late 1960s and 1970s, including John Schlesinger’s “Midnight Cowboy,” and such L.A.-based films as Frank Perry’s “Play It As It Lays” and Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye.” He also evokes Francois Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel series and Eric Rohmer’s early cinema, with their “similar feelings of disconnection and loss,” he says. And though he doesn’t acknowledge it, it’s easy to see connections to Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall,” with its comparable story of a displaced New Yorker trying to navigate love and car culture in L.A.
“When I start a movie, there will be certain films that I watch again just because the vibe seems right,” he says. “I really loved how the stuff on the streets of Manhattan with Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman had so much energy,” he says of “Midnight Cowboy.” For Greenberg, he employed a similar on-location shooting technique in L.A. When the characters are doing their daily routine—shopping at the market, mailing letters—the production similarly hid the camera and “just put the actors out into the world,” explains Baumbach. “Midnight Cowboy” also inspired a fragmented party scene that is cut up into asynchronous bits and pieces, reflecting Greenberg’s profound sense of dislocation.
If Baumbach’s new stylistic turn marks a shift, fans of his work will recognize his continued emphasis on acerbic dialogue and painfully awkward relationships. Squirm-inducing scenes include Greenberg’s first romantic interlude with Gerwig’s insecure Florence and Greenberg’s reunion with an old flame who has long since moved on (played by Leigh).
Though Baumbach was offered a month of rehearsal time with his leads before the 35-day shoot, he chose not to “overdo it,” he says, instead working more individually with the actors. (The uncomfortable sex scenes, however, were all carefully choreographed.) “Ben and I talked a lot about how his motivation came from being afraid of humiliation,” says the director. “And Greta and I would meet every week and talk about where the character was at that particular point.”
“More than my other movies, the calibration of where these characters are at each step of the movie was just so important,” he continues, noting the post-production work he did with editor Tim Streeto to fine-tune the characters’ subtle arcs. “Nobody is changing radically. But changing a little in this movie is radical,” he adds.
Independent film aficionados will recognize Gerwig from her roles in such “mumblecore” no-budget films as “Hannah Takes the Stairs” and “Baghead,” where she first caught Baumbach’s eye. (“She has a preternatural way of getting inside the character,” he says. “Mostly I tried to just get out of her way.”) The film also co-stars mumblecore vet Mark Duplass, co-director of “Baghead” and the upcoming “Cyrus.” While Baumbach was hesitant at first to make such explicit links to the Generation DIY filmmakers in “Greenberg”—Baumbach helped produce Joe Swanberg’s “Alexander the Last” and says he admires the movement’s “spirit”—”I wasn’t trying to make a statement,” he says.
“But probably on some unconscious level,” Baumbach admits, making a link between his and Greenberg’s own generational angst, “I was addressing my own anxieties,” he adds, “looking over my shoulder.”
Still, Baumbach appears to be moving on himself: His first child is on the way any day now with Leigh; he is, as internet rumors have suggested, writing a heist movie for Brett Ratner; and he may be directing another of his own scripts in the fall.
He is also careful now not to get sucked into the critical flaps that provocative cinema can engender—witness the recent controversy surrounding his work and New York Press critic Armond White. When he was younger, Baumbach often discussed films and reviews with his parents, both of whom wrote film criticism—Georgia Brown for the Village Voice; Jonathan Baumbach for the Partisan Review—but he’s since removed himself from such debates. “When I started making movies, that changed,” he says. “I don’t want to say it took the pleasure out of it, but it made it more loaded than it used to be.”
“Starting two years ago, I stopped reading everything written about me,” he adds, “so I can stay blissfully in the dark.” How’s that for growing up?