Interview: Writer/Director Noah Baumbach of “While We’re Young”

Posted on April 2, 2015 at 3:18 pm

Writer/director Noah Baumbach talked to me about his new film, “While We’re Young,” starring Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts as a middle-aged couple. They befriend a young couple played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried, and the movie has a wise and humorous take on the dreams and delusions of all four of them.

What do you miss about being younger?

I miss going to the doctor and being able to raise somewhat extreme worries about health or something. The doctor used to laugh and say, “You are fine, don’t worry.” Now when I go to the doctor I brought up something and he was like, “Maybe we should get a MRI.” I thought our thing was when I would bring up something and he would say it was nothing. I miss that.

Is there anything you don’t miss about being young, that you are glad you don’t have to do anymore?

I think I feel more myself than I did then. I wouldn’t say I’m relaxed but I feel less urgency in a funny way than I used to. I think in my 20’s I felt like: this is happening so I’ve got to get something done, there is no time, everybody’s doing something, what am I doing? I feel more at ease, maybe that’s not the word, but I feel better in that way.

Copyright 2015 A24
Copyright 2015 A24

Why are we so fascinated with the effortless coolness of young people?

It’s like the basis of body switching movies. We think we all could be better 25 year olds now or better 18 year olds now than we could then. It does work that way, so that’s totally understandable.

When do you feel a generational disconnect?

A lot of my friends who are in their 20s or 30s tend to have a kind of old-soul quality, they sort of feel older than their years. It comes up more in those conversations like “Where were you when…?” Like when Clinton was first elected, that’s always striking if they were kids then. My first election that I voted in was Dukakis. And then the reverse which is the movie obviously engages in which is them introducing me to stuff, in some cases stuff that I lived through and they didn’t but they are somehow in the way that they listen to music or whatever I’m able to appreciate it in a different way because it is sort of removed from its context.

Why do you think this film is being described as your most “accessible?”

Well, my last film was black and white. And this time I was trying to make my version of a kind of comedy of marriage and there’s more of tradition of those kinds of movies. And so even though it might be my kind of perverse version of that I still felt like I wanted to follow some sort of template, not that there is a template but at least that I had a responsibility to tell a story with a married couple that goes on various detours and comes back together. They have learned and there is hope.

This is the second time you’ve worked with Ben Stiller. What does he bring to your projects?

When Ben saw “The Squid and the Whale” he got in touch with me and we both sort of quickly connected. I think our sensibilities or backgrounds may be different in some ways but we were both born and grew up with creative parents in New York and we like a lot of the same movies and comedies and things. So we recognized something in each other. “Greenberg” was a great experience and for me. I wrote this thinking of Ben, and thinking of Ben’s voice, and I felt like Ben’s calming voice was an important element in this movie too. Since Greenberg was kind of a different role for him and very different from him this would be a way to kind of use his iconography because more comic iconography in something that was more my territory.

How do you see the young couple that your main characters find so fascinating?

I was having fun with this idea that these young people seem too good to be true in some way. I mean they are ultimately projections for Ben and Naomi. They could be younger versions of themselves or romantic versions of themselves but they are also like surrogate children and I felt like in another movie they would have conjured up ghosts, something that kind of comes at the right time. Because Ben and Naomi don’t know that they need this but they do. So that is how I initially came to them and then as I wrote them it got more real. The thing with Darby is that you kind of discover that she is in some ways as much a victim of the sort of experiences Ben has and they have their scene where they kind of bond in a way. People have reacted differently to Jamie and Darby. Some say, “Do you hate hipsters?” And some say, “That’s such a sympathetic portrait.” I felt like whether you like Jamie or not no human being should bear that kind of responsibility that Ben basically gives him. And Ben really hands him the keys and then gets angry when he doesn’t do what he kind of imagined he is going to do.

Do you think couples fall in love with other couples?

Yes, I think they do and that was one of the things that I had in my head because I thought about that for an earlier movie, a script I started years ago after “Squid.” It is very interesting and understandable and I think the way couples project on one another. In this movie you see it even in a more casual way with the two couples at the beginning of the movie, the couple who had a kid and the couple who hasn’t, and I find that very interesting and funny, moving and understandable. And potentially tragic.

You worked with the legendary Ann Roth, who did the costumes for this film. How do you design clothes for characters who are supposed to be very much of the moment when you have no idea what will be cool by the time the movie comes out?

The thing that Ann and I knew early on was that there we would never would be able to actually document Brooklyn youth culture in terms of wardrobe. I mean we would be chasing it forever. The thing about working with Ann is that she sees the whole movie and she talks about characters. She will have back story for characters that I have not even thought about. I worked with her first on “Margo at the Wedding” and she would start talking about one of the characters and her ideas and I was kind of scared because I didn’t have any answer because I haven’t thought about this stuff. And actors love her for that reason. After a fitting with Ann, an actor will come out having all these ideas and all this understanding of themselves as a character that’s a kind of unique experience. With this Ann and I kind of just made up our own ideas. There is this hair groomer movie I love called La Collectionneuse from the late 60s. The actor Patrick Bauchau kind of looks like Adam, or Adam looks like him in that movie a lot. We actually kind of parted Adam’s hair like his and we dressed him in some cases like him too, the long leather jacket that he has that feels like John Lurie in Stranger Than Paradise. There are just things that feels right to her and she’s a great collaborator too. That’s the thing you want in all collaborators — they see the whole movie, not just their department.

I know she sometimes brings in pieces from other movies. Did she do that here?

Naomi is wearing Jane Fonda’s bag from Klute.

What are some of the great “marriage movies?”

The Awful Truth with Cary Grant and Irene Dunne. I love Holiday, too. Twentieth Century was a great marriage movie because it’s crazier, I guess. To Be or Not to Be also. I miss the kind of movies studios used to make that were mainstream but they were character driven. They would have broad humor but then they would be very moving like Broadcast News or Working Girl or Tootsie. . They are all different kinds of movies but they were all about adults. You know, as a viewer I miss those movies because they are not made really much anymore and I wanted to try to do one.

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