Noah Baumbach has carved himself a recognizable niche since his 1995 writing-directing debut, Kicking And Screaming. Working with Wes Anderson, he’s scripted two dry-humored, lightning-fast wry comedies, which Anderson then directed: The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou and Fantastic Mr. Fox. On his own, though, Baumbach has leaned more toward writing and directing protagonist-centered, wry dramas, including The Squid And The Whale, Margot At The Wedding, and most recently Greenberg and Frances Ha, both starring his partner Greta Gerwig.
Baumbach’s latest bridges the gap between these modes. While We’re Young is an ensemble comedy with a livelier and less emotionally intense bent than his last four films, though it still maintains the wryness and the well of dissatisfaction that runs through his more dramatic films. Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts star as Josh and Cornelia, a childless mid-40s couple trying to cope as their best friends disappear into parenthood. When Josh and Cornelia meet Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried), a mid-20s couple living a more bohemian, analog, artistically free lifestyle, the older couple starts emulating the younger couple, reinvigorating their art and trying new things, but also slavishly adopting Jamie and Darby’s habits, mode of dress, and interests. The film seems amused at everyone—at Josh and Cornelia’s pretension and swayability, but also at some of Jamie and Darby’s sillier, more faddish lifestyle choices. Then it takes a slightly darker turn. The Dissolve sat down with Baumbach during his While We’re Young tour to talk about how the film plays out, how he feels about his “unlikable” characters, and how he’s never set out to direct a drama.
The Dissolve: While We’re Young seems more sympathetic to your protagonists than a lot of your films—less removed and observational, more understanding of their choices. Did it feel different for you tonally than your last three of four films?
Noah Baumbach: It does feel different, in that I was conscious in following a comic structure. I wanted to make something in a tradition, like my version of an adult comedy. When I was growing up in the 1980s, and starting to become old enough to see movies about adults, like Broadcast News or Working Girl or Tootsie—there were movies that were made by the studios that were very funny and had broad aspects, but were really character-based. I wanted to do my version of that, so I felt I had certain responsibilities. The screwball comedy—the 1930s, 1940s comedy—is the predecessor to that. The comedies of remarriage. That’s something I wanted to do, which was different obviously than what I was doing with Greenberg or Margot At The Wedding. I felt like those were portraits of these characters, and they didn’t follow structural ideas. In that way yes, it was different, but I wasn’t thinking about it. And I have to say, the idea of my characters being unlikeable was never something I even guessed until people started saying it to me. I understand that people might not like the characters themselves, but the idea of typing them as unlikeable was always surprising to me.
The Dissolve: Some of them, like Roger in Greenberg and Margot in Margot At The Wedding, may come across as unlikeable because they’re causing havoc for other, nicer people. Here, the problems Josh and Cornelia are having are more personal. They aren’t hurting other people, they’re just trying to find out who they are.
Baumbach: People can be very cruel to each other, but that doesn’t mean they’re not worth trying to understand. That was certainly what was interesting to me about those characters. That was why I wanted to spend time creating and documenting them.
The Dissolve: When you did find out people were seeing your characters as unlikable, was that a concern, or of interest? Is it relevant to you?
Baumbach: Well, it was interesting to me. It more became an issue in talking about the movies. I had this thing happen during the press tour for Margot At The Wedding—I was doing the umpteenth Q&A, so I found myself accepting this premise I’d been bombarded with, about unlikable characters, even though I had a responsibility to… And somebody in the audience finally said, “I don’t know what anybody’s talking about. This is what human beings are like.” And I was so thankful to that person, because he reminded me what the hell I was doing, and how I got caught in this ongoing discussion that I had no actual feeling for. But outside of that, it was that Jean Renoir quote, “The truly terrible thing is that everybody has their reasons,” which I’ve had to hang my hat on many times. But I really did believe these people had their reasons, and I was trying to show why. At the same time, I was also taking the side of the people who had to put up with them.
The Dissolve: You didn’t quite finish your thought about having a responsibility to your films. That came up with you in an interview about Frances Ha: You said you felt a responsibility to her as a director, to pay off her romantic view of the world. What were your responsibilities to the characters in While We’re Young?
Baumbach: In some cases, it’s emotional. It’s doing what feels right. We have all that feeling in a movie. There are movies where people get killed, and you just get so angry. Any filmmaker could kill anyone at any point. That’s always an option—anyone can do anything. The trick, obviously, is to create a situation where it feels like anyone can die, but at the same time, you feel taken care of by the movie. It’s what makes a great action movie or a thriller great. You’re so worried, and you’re caught up in it, but you also don’t feel taken advantage of.
There are some great movies that people have huge arguments about. They say, “Oh, it’s too cruel.” There are movies I’ve seen that I got so angry at, and then years later, I saw them again and came around on them. And it probably works the other way, too. In that way, of course I have a responsibility to the audience, even in a movie like Margot At The Wedding, to tell the story in as true a way as I can tell it. I want the ride they go on to seem worth it, even if it’s upsetting. In that way, I feel real responsibility. There were times with that movie where people weren’t reacting in that way. They just didn’t want to go on that ride, and that’s their prerogative.
The Dissolve: You’ve said you tend to return again and again to making movies about people who have an image of themselves they can’t live up to. That’s a strong theme here, too. What interests you about that dynamic?
Baumbach: The thing about the While We’re Young story that engaged me was that it had that idea—it hangs over the film, and it’s part of what these characters struggle with—just the notion of aging. Everybody at some point thinks, “I was just 25.” “I was just 18.” That feeling is very human. And I think this notion of becoming and accepting the person you are, vs. the person you thought you would be, or want to be—I think that’s also very human. I think everybody deals with it in some way. I guess that’s why it finds its way into a lot of my movies. Maybe I’m wrong, but I would be surprised if there is a person on this Earth who feels like, “Everything is exactly as I planned it, and as I thought it would be, and I’m totally fine getting older.”
The Dissolve: This feels a lot lighter than some of your other films, maybe because there’s so much banter, and it’s more about these universal problems rather than a close look at a specific individual. Were you shooting for a more comic tone? Does it come out of the screwball structure, or the ensemble cast, or other elements?
Baumbach: I think it goes back to the screwball. The scenes felt comic in more overt ways. It more showcased the comic banter. I didn’t really approach or think about it any differently. I start all my movies thinking I’m writing a comedy, and then shooting a comedy. Most scenes or characters I’m writing, I have this idea that there’s a comic element that I’m trying to get out. I guess with this one, because of the structure, and maybe the premise was a little broader than some of my other movies… It had more of what you might characterize as a story than some of the other things I’ve done. That allowed for this to froth up a little more.
The Dissolve: You’re the same age as Josh. I’m the same age as you. I suspect from the way you tell the story that the three of us all see Jamie and Darby in a roughly similar light. But have you gotten feedback from viewers who are their age, in terms of how they relate to the film?
Baumbach: I feel like the people I’ve shown it to who are younger tend to identify with Josh because he’s the protagonist. I always did that when I was younger. I guess it’s just natural that you identify with the protagonist, even if you’re not the same age. But that’s probably a small sample. I’d be curious what more of the twentysomethings might say. Though kids tend to watch ahead. When you’re 13, you like movies about 20-year-olds. You’re into like the next age group up.
The Dissolve: The complaint I’ve seen most in early reviews is that you end up in a very caustic place toward the younger generation. The early parts are more even-handed in spreading the mockery around, but toward the end, the film gets pretty bitter about the younger generation, which shuts some people out of the movie.
Baumbach: I haven’t read any reviews, but I would disagree with that. The way I see it is, you get invested in Josh’s unmasking of Jamie, but the fact is that it’s totally quixotic. I was thinking about Josh’s exposé as this low-rent thriller in his head. He goes and interviews the guy, and there’s this whole big thing about what really happened. I don’t know what critics specifically are saying, but I think they’re misreading what happens. The fact is, the other argument is given equal weight. Josh tries to insult people because he’s is barking up the wrong tree. No person can survive the projection he’s put on Jaime. And Jamie certainly can’t. Jamie is who he is. I don’t dislike Jamie. Josh is the protagonist, but I think the film also clearly underscores what the folly is in his venture. But then, I’m trying to answer you, summarizing some people, so… [Laughs.]
The Dissolve: The perspective seems to come from the idea that Josh and Jaime are stand-ins for their generations, that you’re setting up an inter-generational conflict, and then taking one side. Is it a mistake to see them as emblematic?
Baumbach: Yeah, I think it is. If anything, I think the movie’s about the folly of trying to turn anybody into some symbol for your own youth. Jamie and Darby are surrogates in so many different ways for Josh and Cornelia. They’re younger selves. They’re like other selves. They’re surrogate children. They’re all these other things in the place of Josh and Cornelia coming together. I think it’s really about a marriage, and about a couple coming back together, and it’s really about their connection. And Jamie and Darby are who they are. I certainly don’t see them as representative of anything.
The Dissolve: The confrontation between Josh and Jamie is shot in a very unusual way that doesn’t feel entirely of a piece with the film. You pull far back, and you have them moving around this large space opposite each other, like they’re onstage. How were you thinking about that particular scene?
Baumbach: I wanted it to almost be like a confrontation between Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty. Put it in this big space. We worked with [LCD Soundsystem’s] James Murphy on the score for that, and the piece he picked for that has an almost Michael Mann feel. I wanted it to feel like the stakes were grand, because I think that’s how Ben feels. I just felt like it was a thriller that’s half asleep underneath the comedy of this whole movie, and for that little moment, it wakes up and shows itself. And then once he goes into the banquet room, it goes back down. That’s what I was thinking. And I really liked that space, and I wanted to use it. And I liked the way Adam had his coat over his shoulder, like a cloak.
The Dissolve: Are there other moments in the movie that do that for you, where you’re stepping more into one character’s head for perspective on how to shoot?
Baumbach: Not really. And I didn’t feel necessarily that we’re in Ben’s head in that scene. But I felt like the movie was flexible enough to go that way, to let it become that. I always like when movies do that, if it feels earned, like the way Something Wild changes in the second or third part. It becomes really scary. And I wasn’t going that far, but I felt that because we see the movies Josh and Jaime are working on, the film has this element of the movies. They’re all making things, so I felt like While We’re Young could hold that slight shift in tone. It was really a feeling than anything else.
The Dissolve: Some writers have tried to tie this film to autobiographical elements for you, but IndieWire published an interesting piece that says Joe Swanberg was a clear inspiration for Jamie, and it teases out the details they have in common. Can you speak to that?
Baumbach: It’s funny, someone mentioned this to me in an interview a couple of weeks ago, and I hadn’t heard it, so it was all new to me. And then somebody else asked me about that today. No. Jamie was a totally made-up person in my mind.
The Dissolve: There are lot of little specifics, but it did take some detective work. It’s not like Jaime’s name is Schmo Schwanberg.
Baumbach: Yeah, well, it’s like Josh unearthing Jamie, I guess. I certainly was not thinking about Joe.
The Dissolve: You have said you were thinking about younger people that you’ve hung out with through Greta [Gerwig] and her crowd. Can you point to a direction of inspiration there?
Baumbach: Not really, in terms of who the characters were. I was thinking of it in the things I was seeing. I was seeing analog vs. digital. I was very impressed with the record collections in a lot of these apartments of people who I would meet, and the design elements. It wasn’t in terms of like who Jamie and Darby are.
The Dissolve: Is it true that Darby was originally written for Greta?
Baumbach: No. That was something the Internet decided, but it wasn’t ever true.
The Dissolve: It does feel like toward the end of the film, you’ve drawn a line as to what’s appropriate at certain ages and what’s not. There’s a feeling that Josh and Cornelia finally achieve happiness by doing the “right” thing for their age. Are you expressing an opinion there?
Baumbach: No. I don’t see it like that. I think of it more as two people who are letting things happen to them. I think they’re making some decisions for themselves, and that’s growth. It doesn’t mean—I don’t have some general ideas of what is, I wouldn’t say appropriate. But there are certain things you just can’t do in your 40s. It was about reaching a point in your life where not everything was possible, and acknowledging that it can be freeing in its own way, and that resisting it can be very upsetting. And that’s where they get to in acknowledging that you can relax a little more. You can feel better about yourself. Greenberg was really a document of this thing where people resist aging so much. What if you just stopped? The knots are just getting tighter around you. But when you’re in it, people don’t see it. It’s very interesting to me, and I think when people can get to the other side of it and survive it, it can be wonderful.
The Dissolve: You’ve mentioned the screwball structure, and this also has a bigger cast than your directorial work usually has. In that sense, it’s more like the films you’ve worked on with Wes Anderson, which tend to be broader and work with larger casts. How did the structure affect your writing?
Baumbach: I think it just found its way in. It does go to some of those comedies that we were talking about, the screwball comedies. There’s often a lot of great side characters in them. You know, like Holiday has the drunk brother, and like Cary Grant’s intellectual friends. Then often, parties bring these people together. I saw To Be Or Not To Be again recently, and there are always a lot of great side parts. I’m now thinking of it that way because you asked. It was pleasurable for me to write those people, like Ben’s editor, who Matt Maher plays. It was just bringing in these great, castable parts who would bring all these colors.
The Dissolve: Do you have a single favorite screwball movie, like one that you recommend to somebody?
Baumbach: I really do love Holiday. I really do love The Awful Truth, which might be my favorite, just because it also has the least actual plot. They basically divorce and fight. It’s very tricky. Every time I see that movie, I realize I totally forgot about a part of the movie. It has all the elements of screwball comedy. It has Ralph Bellamy, but it doesn’t have an obvious hook except that it’s a comedy of remarriage. They divorce, and they get back together. But Holiday is one I really love too, because I love the whole vibe of that house, and when they have the party, and the upstairs room where they do the somersaults and Edward Everett Horton is his friend. He and his wife, I really like. His friends are great, and how much they care for him, they’re so protective of him. I always liked that one better than The Philadelphia Story. I like The Philadelphia Story, but there’s something more pleasurable to me about Holiday. And then I like all the Lubitsch ones—To Be Or Not To Be, Shop Around The Corner, and Trouble In Paradise. All the Lubitsch ones are great, so many good ones.
The Dissolve: Maybe the most daring moment in this movie is the line toward the end when Adam Horovitz’s character says, “Having a child didn’t change me as much as I hoped it would. I’m still the most important person in my life.” That’s something parents have probably experienced, but they’re just not supposed to say it, especially not in a film, especially not in a comedy. Did it feel transgressive when you wrote it?
Baumbach: I didn’t think of it that way. I’ve been on both sides of it. I’ve had friends who had kids before I had a kid, and I felt like Josh and Cornelia at the beginning of the movie, where they feel they’ve lost their friends to the baby. I couldn’t bond with them. I couldn’t get as excited about it as they were. And then you also feel jealousy, and both feeling the loss of a friend and feeling the absence of a child. And then I’ve been Adam and Marina, where all I want to talk about is my kid. I felt like in a way, that line was a way to reward Ben’s character a little. Josh and Cornelia are feeling the absence of a child in some ways, and it helps to hear that it isn’t going to solve everything. And I also think it’s important because of the way the film ends. I don’t think having a child does solve everything. It’s an amazing thing, but you are still the same person, and I felt like that needed to be said in some way. The movie addresses this notion of modern parenting a little bit, these pressures to be good parents. I think now people feel it more than they used to, and certainly more than my parents’ generation. And while that’s great, it also creates this anxiety as well. You ask yourself, “Am I doing it right? If I feel these things, is that okay? Can I still love my kid and also worry about my own crap?” It was stuff I felt had a place in a comedy.
The Dissolve: What’s your working relationship with Ben Stiller like at this point? How do you work together?
Baumbach: We certainly have developed a shorthand. For me, it was a luxury to write this thing for Ben. When I wrote Greenberg, I didn’t necessarily know I was going to cast Ben. This time, I wrote it for him, and I was thinking about him. That was useful in the writing, and important because I think it informed the character and how I was going to tell the story. In terms of working together—we’ve become very close. I like working with friends. And it’s gone one direction, where I’ve cast people I’m already friends with, and then we find a working version of that friendship together. And it’s gone the other way, where I became friends with people I’ve only ever initially met professionally. I think it only makes it easier, because the better you know someone, it makes it easier to direct. It makes it easier for me to do whatever I can do to guide them and their performance. And it probably makes it easier for him in terms of understanding what I’m trying to do and what I’m trying to say. I tend to talk to in half-sentences and detours. If nothing else, Ben has just learned what the hell I’m trying to say.