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Interview: Noah Baumbach Talks ‘Mistress America,’ Madcap And Screwball Movies, And More

Interview: Noah Baumbach Talks ‘Mistress America,’ Madcap And Screwball Movies, And More

Whether he realizes it or not, a gravitational nexus has been pulling filmmaker Noah Baumbach (“The Squid And The Whale”) towards some similar ideas. March’s “While We’re Young” explores notions about the evolution of authenticity in art and the schism of age, but it also examines when protege/mentor relationships go wrong and the dark side of ambition. Very similar ideas pop up in “Mistress America,” the second film that Baumbach has released in 2015 (yep, he’s been working at a quick clip of late).

But hardly anyone can accuse him of making the same film. If “Where We’re Young” is perhaps a send-up of aging hipsters and opportunistic millennials, “Mistress America” is very different. For one, it has female leads at its center, in Greta Gerwig and up-and-comer Lola Kirke (“Gone Girl”), a dreamy synth sheen by Britta Phillips and Dean Wareham, and it’s arguably the director’s first foray into something with genre elements: the manic energy of screwball comedy. “Mistress America” also plays with the idea of idolatry and sisterhood — Gerwig and Kirke’s characters are not related, but become fast friends. Arguably too fast. And as the elder, sophisticate woman’s facade begins to crumble away, the sidekick begins to exploit her for her creative writing classes in university. In short, it’s a very witty and exhilarating comedy with wacky energy, but as Baumbach and co-writer Gerwig are wont to do, the film chews on a lot of complex interpersonal dynamics (read our “Mistress America” review).

The Playlist recently spoke to Baumbach on the eve of the movie’s release and discussed his recent accelerated output, his possible discovery of a new ‘80s subgenre, working with his creative and romantic partner, Gerwig, and much, much more.

READ MORE: Interview: Greta Gerwig Talks Her Screwball Comedy ‘Mistress America,’ Working With Noah Baumbach, Todd Solondz & More

I was a bit disappointed, but also relieved to see when the Toronto International Film Fest was announced today that you guys didn’t have another secret film in the can.

[Chuckles] Right. I mean it’s actually not as fast a clip as it appears, it’s just that the two films ran into each other this year. We started [“Mistress America”], made “While We’re Young,” and then went back finish this one. [editor’s note: a semi-secret Brian De Palma documentary was announced just a day later]

Did shooting “Mistress America” first and finishing it later lend to some interesting perspective you wouldn’t normally have? 

I guess it did, I mean we knew we were not gonna finish it, and we didn’t change it that much after. But a lot of it was just kind of getting the score right. Things that we knew were important but didn’t have time for. 

“While We’re Young” grapples with themes of authenticity, age, and ambition. And this one has some of that too. What was on your mind when you were writing this film?

It started with Greta for me. We were writing the character Brooke, but as a kind of supporting character in this other thing we were writing. Greta would play out the part out loud and just hearing her say the lines, it made us feel like she should have her own movie.

All the other stuff, the actual plot, we really discovered as we went. Particularly the second half, there were a lot of ideas we had and detours we took that just got scrapped entirely.

Brooke is instantly recognizable. I feel like she reminds me of any very sophisticated person I met when I first came to New York and I was very insecure about my place in the city, and being bowled over by people who you don’t realize might be just trying a little too hard.
We all sort of have people like that in our lives, who at certain points seem kind of amazing. I definitely had that when I was younger. People I really looked up to I felt really kind of understood the world, and knew the rules in a way that I didn’t seem to know. And after a while in some ways, naturally, the power dynamic kind of shifts as you kind of outgrow them and there’s something maybe particular about early adulthood in that way where you’re outgrowing people older than you which is a kind of new experience I think for people. Because you grow up with that idea that you’re young, you become an adult, but you don’t think of yourself growing past people who are older than you.

It’s an interesting phenomenon, especially with millennials advancing so fast. I think you’ve said that these two films are sort of siblings.

It has a relationship to “Frances Ha” in that it was Greta and me writing it together again, and for Greta to be in it, and we were creating a central character for her to play. But thematically I stayed pretty ignorant to what similarities you could be drawn between the movies. Since I’ve started doing press for this movie I have been alerted to similarities between this and “While We’re Young.”

There are similar ideas of the dark side of ambition and protege/mentor relationships.
In a way I didn’t really think about it, and it maybe seems naïve, but I guess it’s there in a different package.

I would assume you didn’t set out to write a screwball comedy.

Yes, but I think we did want to do something that felt kind of elevated in a way — that sort of comically and energetically and structurally maybe felt somewhat heightened. And we were thinking about movies from the ’80’s [like] “After Hours” and “Something Wild.”

Right, they’re not quite screwball, but they have their own manic energy and are part of their own sub-genre of sorts.

Yes. What they share with screwball comedies is those movies often involve someone being taken out of their comfort zone and thrown into some sort of more madcap experience, like “Bringing Up Baby.” Those movies all came out when I was kind of just starting to see movies for grown ups that were R-rated. As opposed to R-rated movies I saw with my parents. And I was also becoming aware of filmmakers in a more kind of specific way. It also kind of played into my fantasy of Manhattan and what that world was. I could kind of feel part of it in those movies in a way that didn’t actually feel part of it in my real life.

I think between “Mistress America” and those two films, “After Hours” and “Something Wild,” we’ve landed on a set-in-New-York madcap sub-genre. We just need to name it now.

[Laughs] We had also thought of a movie like “Shampoo,” which also sort of involves a striver and somebody who has ambition beyond what they’re doing but he’s kind of up against it culturally. That movie also ends with some parties and long scenes where the characters are all kind of meeting and coming together. I don’t know if it’s part of that sub-genre — someone would have to write the book [laughs] — but the ’80s definitely had that thing of [Ronald] Reagan era yuppies vs. the feeling of what we were losing in the sort of counter-culture, and downtown vs. uptown. I even include movies like “Lost in America,” where you have this attempt to get back in touch with the cooler aspects of your life and the people of the ’60s who are now grown up. “The Big Chill” even had a little of that but that’s another era. “After Hours,” “Desperately Seeking Susan,” “Something Wild,” even “Into the Night” had a little of [that sub-genre element].

What about Peter Bogdanovich? I know you produced a film of his and he’s obviously an influence. He must have been on your minds at least a little?

Yeah, well Peter obviously did “What’s Up Doc,” which is a great retro screwball, and in aspects of “Nickelodeon” and “They All Laughed” and later “Noises Off,” he’s definitely played in that world. His new film [“She’s Funny That Way”] also has those kinds of elements. He also does movies that have a real a feeling of family in the casting and that feels very warm. His movies feel very handmade, with a “lets all get together and make a movie” quality, which is very appealing.

To switch gears a little, I wonder how much you think about places like Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, outlets of which are releasing films by Spike Lee, Terry Gilliam, Jim Jarmusch. I feel in some ways you’re one of the few remaining indie directors who can pull off a theatrical release that doesn’t have to worry about VOD immediately or things like that.

To the degree that I’ve thought about those places I’ve thought more about an idea — and maybe this is outdated thinking — [of a] six hours mini series like “Fanny and Alexander.”

Like when we were making “The Corrections” [for HBO] I feel like that wasn’t even really viable, people weren’t doing narratives that had endings, it was still open ended. This wasn’t that long ago and now things have shifted. I think had I done “The Corrections” now it would have been a totally different design and might’ve been more sustainable, certainly budget wise. I haven’t thought about it all that much really, but for whatever’s happening right now, it’s essentially new companies getting behind filmmakers and movies, so that’s only a good thing.

I read that you and Greta were writing an animated movie at one point?

We were at one point, or rather we did it, but I’m not sure what its future is. I think it’s probably not going forward. 

You had written for them with the “Madagascar” films.

Yeah, I loved working with them. It was a whole new thing. The amount of time you spend on these things and develop them is really really interesting and actually very appealing to me because I like taking time on stuff, even if it doesn’t seem that way with all these recent movies [laughs].

Are you and Greta cooking up anything else?

We don’t have anything on the docket right now, but definitely I really love writing with her. We’re obviously very involved in each others work anyway, [given] we live together. It’s really inspiring for me to both work with her as a writer but to also think about her as an actor creating a part for her to do. It’s a good enough reason to write a movie: just to think what could Greta play.

“Mistress America” opens in theaters in limited release via Fox Searchlight this Friday, August 14th.

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