Just like the characters in any one of his movies, Noah Baumbach emanates love and knowledge of movies and music from the past and present. But lacking the bombastic affectation of many of his characters, Baumbach is actually quite pleasant to talk with about art and pop culture.
After a friendly quip about staying in “the mindset” for press interviews, Baumbach delved into his latest dissertation on the ubiquitous obsession with youth, “While We’re Young” which stars Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts as an older couple who become enamored by a vibrant youthful pair of artists played by Amanda Seyfried and Adam Driver. The film also co-stars Charles Grodin, former Beastie Boy Adam Horowitz (aka Ad-Rock — read our interview with him here), as an aging dad, and the movie is a wickedly funny look at youth, aging, art, and more (read our review).
The writer-director spoke readily about creating his latest and funniest film, allowing elements of contemporary culture, musical history, and the timeless tenets of the human psyche to comprise the story.
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Anyone who has seen a few of your movies would guess that you have an interest in youth and adolescence. What about that subject is fascinating to you?
I don’t think of it so much as youth in particular. I guess it’s kind of human psychology and human emotion. My movies tend to be character-based, I suppose. So in that way, the way it is for all of us as human beings, age has some relevance. As we also know, there’s a difference between getting older and actually growing up. I guess these all become relevant things as I’m telling a story about people in their adult life.
This conversation about reaching new points in your life — “Kicking and Screaming” was very much about that, “While We’re Young” is about it from a different perspective — have you seen it change as you’ve got older, or as time and culture have changed?
Essentially, I don’t think it has changed. Obviously this movie, “While We’re Young,” takes place now, so I had to engage in things that are specific to now: technology, and seeing my childhood appropriated in youthful ways. But I don’t think that’s actually… the specifics are true to the generations now, but I don’t think the actual appropriation is new. When I was a kid I was always looking backward. I was more interested in what style and music and movies had come before me than in what was happening right then and there.
Why do you think that is?
That’s another thing that the movie is about; it’s sort of about identity. I think it’s sort of hard to be who you are and where you are, particularly when you’re younger. Particularly in adolescence, and “Squid and the Whale” is about that a lot. But I think also in your ’20s, [when you get] this sort of feeling like everything is happening too slow and too fast. You feel like you’re running out of time already, which is crazy. As Josh says to Jamie in the movie, when [Jamie] says, “I don’t think I’m ever going to die,” [Josh] says, “That’s crazy.” But I think that’s true, that you have that feeling of invincibility, but also that you’re getting rapidly older. At least I did.
You’ve said you didn’t want to attach to any specific tangible pieces of contemporary youth subculture, but were there any parts of that world that you discovered while making this movie or “Frances Ha” that you found particularly interesting?
I think by not having particular associations with cultural events — whatever it is: music, movies, books — if you’re finding it all after the fact, it can free you up to just like what you like. When I was a kid, I would resist Top 40 music, because I was that kind of kid. But now I hear whatever was on the radio when I was a kid and it makes me want to cry, it’s beautiful. [Laughs]
And I think that happens with every younger generation — you’re finding things. I remember liking music and talking to older people, people in their ’20s, about it, and they’d be like, “Oh, that’s terrible.” My older brother [told] me about when they heard “Hey Jude” for the first time. I guess it was played live on ABC or something, releasing a “new Beatles song!” And they all got around the TV, and they watched it, and he said he and his friends were like, “What a piece of shit!” [Laughs] I think that kind of says it all.
On the topic of music, with Adam Horovitz of The Beastie Boys and Dean Wareham both appearing in “While We’re Young,” is there a particular reason why you’re drawn to casting musicians not particularly known for their acting?
Well, they’re friends of mine, first and foremost, and I do like casting my friends. And I think that musicians tend — because they’re performers, obviously — often to be good actors. I think something that I’m good at spotting now, amongst people I know or friends of mine, is who can handle it and who can’t. I’ve got extremely entertaining, dynamic friends in life, [but] I just know if I put them in front of a camera they’d freeze up. And then there are people you know who are comfortable.
Dean actually acts in “Mistress America,” the movie I’m coming out with later, too. We’ve been friends for quite some time now, and he’s had involvement in most of my movies at this point. Adam is somebody I’ve always been friends with, and have kind of always felt that someone was going to be smart enough to cast him. I’m glad it was me.
I spoke to Adam earlier. He couldn’t think of a possible reason why you thought he’d be good for this role.
[Laughs] The sound guy would come up to me a lot and say, “Could you ask him to speak up?” Of course, that’s the worst thing to say to an actor, so I wouldn’t. But he is so soft-spoken. I had to remind myself of his presence in the Beastie Boys, where he’s often the loudest one.
Beyond just the casting of musicians like Adam and Dean, music plays an especially prominent role in each of your films. That said, I don’t know if I hear people talk about the role of music in your movies as much as they do in regard to the films of someone like Wes Anderson.
In some of the movies, maybe it’s integrated in such a way that it’s not showcased. You don’t go away humming the song like you might with another movie. Wes uses music as well as anybody. I feel like [he does so] in that kind of Scorsese way, where the music and the camera and the moment are all so beautifully matched. It could be a song you’ve heard before, and suddenly it’s like you’ve never heard it before. He’s done it over and over, but in “Darjeeling Limited,” the use of those Kinks songs. Those were songs I had loved, and then I was like, “Oh goddamn it. Now I can’t use them.” [Laughs] But I couldn’t have done it like that. I personally hear about people talk about the music to me, but you never know what people are specifically going to take away from one movie to the next.
It’s interesting that James Murphy wrote the score for “While We’re Young.” The relationship between Josh and Jamie and Murphy’s famous song “Losing My Edge” actually share pretty similar themes.
I was writing “Greenberg” listening to [Murphy’s music]. It was the first time I had heard James’ music. I came kind of late to it. I had heard some of it, I’d heard “Losing My Edge.” But I was listening to the Sound of Silver record. I was so taken with it, and I kind of had it on repeat while I was writing. A thing I had never done before, I decided to approach [Murphy]. Sometimes it’s too close. What you’re listening to when you write has nothing to do with the music you’re going to put in the movie. But I felt like we shared some kind of sensibility. And then we became very good friends off of that movie. He was much more of a part of this process, or got to be a part of this process. I showed him the script very early on, and talked to him about it. That song — maybe I just thought it but I think I’ve joked with him that this was the movie version of “Losing My Edge.”
Your movies always have a sense of humor, but I feel like I laughed out loud most in this movie. And his song is very funny! Is there an innate comedy in talking about this subject matter?
I was also in some ways following a more — or, my version of a more traditional comic structure. Thinking of these comedies of marriage and remarriage, screwball comedies of the ’30s and ’40s, but then other movies from my childhood. Movies that used to be made with more frequency: adult comedies. So, I think in following that template, it allowed for more humor. They’re all kind of meant to be comedies, but in this one, there was more room for, maybe, more jokes. But that’s what I love about James’ music. It sounds really cool, people can dance to it, and then you’ve got these lyrics of middle-aged angst. [Laughs] It’s a great combination.
This is a movie about documentary filmmaking, and I know that you’ve worked on a documentary with Jake Paltrow. Did your experience working on that inform “While We’re Young”? And is that a movie that you’re interested in finishing?
Yeah, we’re working on that now. But no, it wasn’t any kind of relation to that. I was looking to find a visual occupation for these people, and a collaborative occupation. It kind of fit for the story and how I wanted to tell the story. But it didn’t relate to my own experience.
And if I may ask, after 1997, there was a good period of time when you didn’t direct any films. Now you’re making them with much greater frequency. Is there a reason that you can account for in terms of this shift?
I started very young. In some ways, I feel like my ambition was ahead of my ability at that time. Not that I don’t like [my early] movies. But also, I made two movies, and I was having difficulty getting a third made. So it wasn’t by design. In having trouble getting a movie made, it sort of forced me to, I guess in some ways, evaluate what kind of movies I wanted to make. By the time I made ‘Squid,’ it was like a second career, but if I was on a normal schedule, I may have just started that way. [Laughs] It was a hard period. At the time, I was very frustrated, and I wasn’t doing what I wanted to be doing. But, in retrospect, I think it helped me get better.
“While We’re Young” opens this weekend on Friday, March 27.