Noah Baumbach has been making movies for more than 20 years, and in that time, has developed a distinctive voice in American cinema. His stories of neurotic New Yorkers are loaded with memorable moments of self-obsession and narcissistic showdowns. But Baumbach didn’t become a filmmaker overnight; he learned much about filmmaking from watching other movies. Raised by novelist Jonathan Baumbach and film critic Georgia Brown, Baumbach grew up surrounded by cinema, and it played a critical role in his evolving love for the medium.
The filmmaker looked back on some of these key influences during a conversation at the Film Society of Lincoln Center shortly before a screening of his latest effort, the ensemble comedy “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected),” which Netflix releases later this month.
The Movie Brats
Baumbach was born in 1969, which placed on the younger end of the spectrum of moviegoers influenced by the movie brat generation — the collection of mainstream filmmakers who produced iconic studio movies at a transitional moment in Hollywood history. “I’m the age of ‘Star Wars,’ and everybody’s the age of ‘Star Wars,’ but I was actually seven when it came out and grew up with it,” Baumbach said. “At that age, I wanted to make all kinds of movies.” He was also a big Steven Spielberg fan. “I could see all these movies — not ‘Jaws,’ I [wasn’t allowed] to see that — but all the others. They were so meaningful to me… ‘E.T.’ was my favorite film.”
Baumbach’s cinephilia blossomed in the late eighties and early nineties. That’s when he first discovered another ‘70s-era breakout, Martin Scorsese. “Like everybody, you’re seeing the luck of the draw,” he said. “It’s like, who’s your James Bond? What was your first Scorsese? I saw ‘King of Comedy,’ then ‘After Hours’ and ‘The Color of Money.’ Those were my Scorseses. Of course, then I went back and saw the others.”
These days, Baumbach’s favorite filmmaker from that generation may be Brian De Palma, the subject of the documentary “De Palma,” which Baumbach co-directed last year. “I’m friends with Brian, but I couldn’t see those movies at that age,” Baumbach said, referring to his childhood. “I couldn’t go to ‘Dressed to Kill’ or ‘Blowout.’ Those I caught later. The first Brian movie I saw was ‘Wise Guys,’ which was a strange one, a comedy.” However, De Palma’s meta gangster drama “The Untouchables” hit theaters in 1987, a sweet spot for the young Baumbach. “I was lucky that he made that one right when I could see it,” Baumbach said. “Even though my parents would tell it was ‘lesser Brian,’ I was like, not in my mind. It was great.”
Baumbach was a big fan of Steve Martin’s 1979 comedy “The Jerk,” but because it was rated R, he couldn’t see it when it came out. That was an issue for a lot of comedies that appealed to him later on. “When I was a kid, things that were forbidden were R-rated movies, and I couldn’t stay up late enough to watch ‘Saturday Night Live,’” he said. “So when ‘Saturday Night Live’ people were in R-rated movies and I could start going, I was admitted into this thing. So I loved anything with Bill Murray, Steve Martin or Chevy Chase.”
But those iconic figures had a fresh context in Baumbach’s household. “Because I had cinephile parents, I’d try to turn this into an auteur thing,” he said. “I’d pick up on Ivan Reitman and Harold Ramis, trying to make some kind of argument with my parents — which people now do seriously, I guess.”
Baumbach’s chatty stories about intellectual New Yorkers have been compared to Woody Allen movies for decades. Unsurprisingly, during his college years, Baumbach was heavily influenced by the filmmaker. He developed strong feelings for “Manhattan,” and inevitably began exploring other works. “I saw ‘Broadway Danny Rose’ and ‘Zelig’ because I’d missed them before,” Baumbach said, noting that his Brooklyn upbringing played a role in his relationship to Allen’s world. “When I saw Woody Allen movies, I obviously related to them.”
Asked about his comedic instincts, Baumbach turned to an unlikely source of inspiration: German director Max Ophuls, best known for his brooding melodramas released in the early ‘50s. In particular, he cited “The Earrings of Madame de…” and “Letters From an Unknown Woman” as key influences. “They’re not comedies, they’re serious movies,” Baumbach said, “but in a way, he approaches them as if they were comedies. They’re not that different from the way Lubitsch might shoot something.” He singled out one scene in “Madame de…” that stood out to him. “There’s a sequence where they’re at the opera, she’s missing her earring and they go in and out of the opera,” he said. “There’s two guys sitting outside the door and they have to keep getting up to open the door. It’s that thing where you’re getting it all from these incidental characters. They keep getting up. It’s funny, but it’s also a tense, serious moment in the movie for this marriage. Seeing that in somebody else, I could identify that — consciously or not — he’s shooting it like a comedy. It lifts up what could be serious stuff.”