Noan Baumbach is on a roll. That’s not to say the writer-director has ever flagged in the quality of his output. Since his arrival on the scene with his 1995 debut “Kicking and Screaming,” Baumbach has managed a pretty remarkable track record — from “The Squid and the Whale” to “Margot at the Wedding” and “Greenberg,” his movies never cease to generate acclaim. But since partnering up with his current romantic partner Greta Gerwig on their beloved 2013 comedy “Frances Ha,” Baumbach has picked up the pace. Before “Frances Ha,” audiences had to wait two to three years for a new Baumbach effort. Since “Frances Ha,” he’s already gone on to premiere two projects over the span of two years: his second film with Gerwig, “Mistress America,” which premiered at Sundance earlier this year, and “While We’re Young,” which reunites Baumbach with his “Greenberg” star Ben Stiller for a comedy about middle-aged couple (Stiller and Naomi Watts) coming to terms with growing older.
With “While We’re Young” opening in theaters this Friday, Indiewire sat down with Baumbach to discuss this productive stage in his career and his recent fascination with the younger generation.
It’s not often I interview a filmmaker having seen the follow-up feature to the film we’re discussing.
[Laughs] It’s not often that I have a follow-up.
Let’s talk about that. Since “Frances Ha,” you’ve directed two features. Back in the day, we’d have to wait two to three years for a new project of yours. At this rate, you’re releasing one a year.
Well, it just sort of happened that way. The whole order of these movies wasn’t planned. I had written “While We’re Young” and was thinking we were going to make it before “Frances.” Then that didn’t happen for various reasons, so then we made “Frances.” I was waiting for Ben [Stiller] to finish “Walter Mitty” to then do “While We’re Young,” so we had a window that was big enough to shoot another movie, but not big enough to finish it.
So at that point it was very deliberate. Greta [Gerwig] and I had the script and I thought, let’s do this, I’ll then make “While We’re Young,” finish it, then go back and finish “Mistress America.”
It was unusual, but I had a lot of the same crew and people working on it, so in a way it was more fluid than one might have thought.
Given that you didn’t plan to make them in that order, how did completing “Frances Ha” first inform the making of “While We’re Young”? Both kind of share a similar lightweight sensibility. They’re more comedic than your previous films.
Yeah, I don’t know if you saw “Mistress America,” but that also has a comic tone. In some ways the stories felt like this was the way they should be made. With “While We’re Young,” I really was thinking in some ways of almost a traditional comedy of marriage and remarriage. I was telling this story, not unlike screwball comedies of the 1930’s and 1940’s. There wasn’t any question in my mind that this wasn’t going to, at least in terms of the story of that marriage and that relationship, not end on a kind of hopeful note. I also felt like it just had a comic tone, so I followed that because it’s what felt right for this material.
Many critics have pegged “While We’re Young” as your most mainstream effort. What do you make of that?
Well, I was thinking of more mainstream comedies like those screwball comedies, but also the more mainstream comedies from my childhood that studios used to make. They were more character-based and about adults and adult concerns, but they also could be broadly funny and maybe sort of pleasurable in a more mainstream way. I felt like I was kind of working within that template, so in that way I understand it. But it wasn’t deliberate. I mean, I’m making them all to be seen. I was hoping people would find “Margot at the Wedding” pleasurable…or satisfying, or at least a worthwhile experience. I wasn’t trying to turn people off. [Laughs]
What is it about youth that’s fascinating you so much at this point in your career? You romanticized people from my age bracket in “Frances Ha.” I found “While We’re Young” much more critical of today’s 20-year-olds — it’s more cynical in nature. And “Mistress America” is centered on people of the same age group.
That’s a good question, I don’t know exactly. Obviously, the ones with Greta are written with her and for her, so the character’s going to be the age she is. But I guess there’s something about being in your forties where you’re looking forward and backward simultaneously. Well, not simultaneously, but alternating and there’s something interesting about that feeling.
Certainly in “While We’re Young” on one hand that feeling of being sort of enamored with how youth culture and how people seem to be doing it in stress free ways, at least for Ben’s character. But then also the ego kicking in and being like, “Well, I’m not ready to get off the stage.”
It was all sort of baked into this material because they were artists. In terms of when I was figuring it out, I didn’t have to do a lot because I just let these dynamics play out.
Are you enamored of the younger generation?
No, but I have very good friends. I don’t really think of it in generational blocks so much. To a certain point, we’re all adults.
You know, I have friends who are younger and friends who are in their 70’s and 80’s. It only becomes relevant when you realize how old somebody was when Clinton was elected or something. Those are the only markers where you’ll say, “Oh, I guess I’m older.” [Laughs] But, no. I don’t have any particular feeling about twenty-somethings beyond friendships.
What’s it like to be friends with younger filmmakers who look up to you — like Adam Driver does to Ben Stiller in “While We’re Young”?
I have older filmmakers who are friends who I’ve felt very privileged to have met and know. I wouldn’t call myself a mentor to anybody. At a certain point, you’ve just done it longer, so you sort of realize, “Oh, this person saw my movie on home video.” [Laughs] So it’s kind of archival for them and there’s a kind of pride in that too. It doesn’t feel bad; it can feel good, too.
Does it feel a little surreal to know that you’ve inspired a new generation of filmmakers?
To the degree that I have, I don’t even know that I know or have any sense of that. Sometimes somebody will say this seems influenced from a movie of mine, but it’s harder for me to see it than other people.
In “While We’re Young,” Ben Stiller plays an established documentary filmmaker in the midst of trying to complete his supposed masterwork, but he can’t can’t come to grips with finishing it. Meanwhile, you just churn out one well-received film after another. What about Ben’s character spoke to you as a writer? Have you ever felt stuck before?
Well, I feel that way with every movie I start because I generate them myself. Every time I sit down to write a new script, even if I have notes and ideas about it, it feels like, “How is this ever going to happen?” You get no credit for what you did before because you can’t use the last 50 pages from the previous one. [Laughs] Also I think there’s a certain sort of amnesia that sets in because it all seems so fully formed. You’re like, “How did I get this movie, the previous one? How did I end up figuring this out?”
I guess for whatever reason, I think a general human psychology of squaring yourself with where you are in your life versus where you thought you’d be with your life is something everybody comes to terms with, no matter how successful you are. In some ways, even if you have success and you’re productive, you have to adjust all the time. Compromise is a huge part of it. But you’re faced with that every day anyway.
So I tend to have empathy for people who feel caught in maybe some kind of netherworld between how they wanted their lives to turn out and how they actually are turning out. I think with this movie it was sort of to produce the fact that how you fantasize it’s going to happen isn’t necessarily the best way for it to happen anyway.
“While We’re Young” wasn’t made under the radar like “Frances Ha” or “Mistress America” were. When “Mistress America” premiered at Sundance, nobody really knew what to expect given the secrecy surrounding the project. Same with “Frances.”
[Laughs] Well the sort of model of “Frances” was to try to do something that would be no less a movie, no less beautiful, no less big — to whatever degree these movies are big — than any other movie, but do it with a smaller crew. The fact that it remained under the radar became a kind of source of pride later, but that wasn’t the idea behind it.
You know it’s harder when you have Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts. [Laughs]. People recognize something’s happening. It’s nice if you can have it to do your work and present it when it feels ready, as opposed to sort of answering to things before you quite know what you’re making.
From a working perspective, the two modes of filmmaking bleed into each other in a way. I don’t think of one as that different anymore from the other. They have more in common than they are different, but they both have benefits. If you’re under the radar, you can hide more and shoot in the city in ways without the difficulties of people looking in the camera. But it’s also having the support.
I think also you try to figure out the production for what’s right for what movie. Like I was saying, I was sort-of modeling “While We’re Young” on something that used to be done by the studios. You want it to have maybe a gloss to it that in a way would be inappropriate for “Frances.”