Noah Baumbach On The Best Movie Of His Career (And It Stars Adam Sandler)

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It’s a little jarring to think that Noah Baumbach has been directing movies now for 22 years. In some ways, he still seems like that fresh-faced kid who released Kicking and Screaming when he was only 26. Somehow, behind a curtain somewhere, Baumbach became a full-fledged “veteran director.” (To put this in perspective, Baumbach’s at the same stage of his career that Scorsese was when he was making Goodfellas and Cape Fear.) Baumbach, like contemporaries such as frequent collaborator Wes Anderson, have now been doing this a long time. They are no longer the new wave of directors, they are just “the wave.” And now, Baumbach may just have made his best movie.

And that’s not a claim made lightly. Baumbach’s filmography includes Greenberg, The Squid and the Whale, Frances Ha, Margot at the Wedding – and one of the best documentaries ever made about a filmmaker, De Palma (co-directed with Jake Paltrow). But with The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), he’s arguably made his deepest and most complete film.

Dustin Hoffman plays Harold Meyerowitz, the father of Danny and Jean (Adam Dandler and Elizabeth Marvel), and their half-brother, Matthew (Ben Stiller). Their stories are divided in half, which builds anticipation because we have two of the biggest mainstream comedy stars of the last 20 years finally in a movie together, yet for a good portion of the film, they don’t share any scenes. Of course, Baumbach knows exactly what he’s doing. When the characters finally come together for the final act it’s truly powerful.

Baumbach does not like doing short interviews. So we had plenty of time to take a deeper dive into what he was trying to accomplish with The Meyerowitz Stories. And Baumbach can get a little skittish when talking about his movies and himself – like any normal person would – but it’s pretty obvious even Baumbach knows this movie is special.

The Meyerowitz Stories is currently playing at the New York Film Festival, as well as his partner’s film, Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, a movie that is also getting rave reviews. This is the first time the pair has had competing films (after collaborating many times) and as Baumbach admits, yes, it’s weird. Ahead, Baumbach also discusses who else he’d have loved to have made a filmmaking documentary about in the same style of De Palma. (It’s a legitimate “what could have been” reveal).

And it wouldn’t be a Noah Baumbach interview without discussing the 1986 Ivan Reitman film, Legal Eagles. (That’s a joke, but this movie is, kind of strangely, featured in The Meyerowitz Stories and we do spend more time talking about Legal Eagles than I ever have before in my life.)

This has to be a movie in which, after, you think to yourself, “Pretty good.”

I had a great group. All those actors – you feel it in the movie – but working with them and their deep commitment, not only to the characters and the truth of the characters but also to the filmmaking process and just being open and available, it’s something as a director you feel grateful for. Some of them I was friends with beforehand, but we all did become friends from it in a real way, which does not happen often. You go around promoting a movie, pretending you all still hang out.

With your movies, I always have the illusion that the cast all seem to get along pretty well and it was a fun experience. Is that not the case?

That is true. No, that’s absolutely true. And I use a lot of people repeatedly, as you know, in films and I worked with my significant others. I mean, there is an intimacy, certainly, in all of that. I think with this one, there was so much exploration that could happen because people were so on point immediately that it makes it all so fun.

You’re making it sound like the actors in this one just came together and got it quicker than maybe past experiences? Is that accurate?

I wouldn’t even say that necessarily because every one’s different. But in response to your question about feeling a kind of pride about it, I was also working with Dustin Hoffman, who is somebody who I had great feeling for what he meant to me in my life as an actor. So then to work with somebody like that, and to then fall in love with the guy in reality and have this experience together, is a thrill. We did the premiere last night at the New York Film Festival and then I had Dustin Hoffman and Randy Newman flanking me up there, that’s a special thing.

In the past, you’ve had a lot of great casts, but this might be your best, pound for pound…

But, like Mistress America, a lot of the pleasure I think in that movie, or Frances Ha, is that you’re discovering people, you know? And the actors are these characters and it wouldn’t feel right for Candice Bergen to turn up in one scene, you know? That doesn’t fit in those movies. Whereas in this movie, I think there’s something about having people you have associations with like Candice Bergen…

Or Judd Hirsch…

Or Judd Hirsch or Adam Driver. I felt this movie, that actually enhances this movie as opposed to other ones I’ve done. And it’s not something I can totally articulate for you, but I think that you feel it. You know it when you’re making the movie and when you’re casting the movie. And this one, it was right. So I end up working with people like Emma Thompson, who I’ve loved for years and wanted to work with.

I felt that way seeing Judd Hirsch. He’s such a big part of my television watching childhood.

Sure. And you’re even leaving out Ordinary People, you know?

Ordinary People was the second movie I ever saw in a theater, my mom took me to that after my first, The Empire Strikes Back. It’s a heavy movie when you’re five.

Yeah, even The Empire Strikes Back is a little old for a five-year-old.

That’s a good point.

Let alone Ordinary People.

I’m sure you’re getting a lot of, “It’s surprising Adam Sandler is really great in this” questions, but we all know he’s good…


I think the criticism is about some of the movies he makes with his friends, and that’s fine. But when he gets a role like this, he can just knock it out of the park.

Yeah, I mean, all those kind of things have no meaning for me. I mean, Adam had reached out to me a few years ago and said, “If you ever have something, I’d love to be involved in one of your movies.”

He reached out to you? I didn’t know that.

Yeah, yeah. And I always loved him in the crazier comedies and when he’s done stuff like Punch-Drunk Love. So I just saw that as what a great thing. And this was the time when I had something that felt right. And it was something, because Ben and I had worked together. I said something about them playing brothers and Ben said that’s funny because Adam and him had just reconnected and talked about wanting to do something together. And so, we all had lunch and the only thing that really came out of the lunch was that they should have a physical fight at some point, but that was enough for me to go home and start writing.

I don’t know if this is a good comparison or not, but that scene reminded of Heat when De Niro and Pacino finally meet, only for two of the biggest mainstream comedy stars of the last 20 years. And I know Stiller was in Happy Gilmore

Yeah. Well, I mean in the movie, inherent in the movie’s structure it plays to that buildup as well, because they’re both in the same movie, for more than half of it, and never appear in a scene together.

You’re going to hate this, but that’s like Godfather II

No, I understand what you’re saying, and you can’t not be aware of that. Like we were talking about before, you have actors that you know the audience has deep associations with, and I’m both playing with those associations and also ignoring them at the same time.

What do you mean by ignoring them?

Well, they’re playing these parts. I mean, I wrote the parts for these two actors that I wanted to work with; one who’s become quite a close friend in Ben, because we’ve done three movies together. So it’s also, for us, a further exploration of what we’ve done together. And the other one, for Adam, who I’m bringing into my world, in a sense. So I’m aware of those things, but I’m also writing two characters that feel real and true to me.

How would you define your relationship with Ben Stiller now? I know Sandler’s getting a lot of the headlines, but Ben Stiller is extremely good in this movie, he’s a lot more understated than we have seen him.

Well, I think part of what was exciting for me – and ultimately for Ben, but it took him a second to find that – was that he was playing a guy that, in a sense, is closer to him as a person than certainly any of the ones we’ve done together. With Greenberg, he really inhabited a character I wrote and he learned the guy and he brought himself. And it’s a very naked performance, but it’s also a guy that is very different from him in many ways. I mean, he found personal stuff in it, but it’s a very different part. While We’re Young, in a sense, I felt was my tweak on maybe what is his more traditional comic iconography. And this one, in a sense, was something that I wrote for the guy I know and am close to.

There’s a scene where Sandler and Dustin Hoffman are watching Legal Eagles and are having the time of their life. It was delightful.

[Laughs.] Yeah.

Why Legal Eagles?

I think because I like hearing somebody say it and it also felt like the random movie that would be on the videocassette from that time you taped it. So when I was a kid, we were in Brooklyn and we didn’t have cable in Brooklyn at that time. My father’s girlfriend lived in Manhattan and when he would go there we would give him videocassettes to bring and he would tape stuff off Showtime for us. But he would just leave it running, so we’d get whatever three movies happened to run together. And we would use, what is it, like the EP sort of speed on the tape?

Right, you could slow it down and you could get a ton of movies on there. And they would look terrible, but they would fit…

Yeah, three movies. Yeah, we were into quantity, not quality. But growing up we had a bunch of these random three movies on tapes, and I was thinking of that. And I actually don’t think Legal Eagles was part of that. I think I saw that in the theater. Actually, I know I saw that in the theater. But I just liked how it sounded, so I wrote it.

And you used the most famous scene, when Robert Redford and Daryl Hannah are caught in bed together.

Is it? I didn’t even know that. Of course, that’s a thing you write in the script and then you’re tasked with actually selecting it, then what are they actually watching? Which scene? So I actually played around with a few of them, but I settled on that one. But I’m glad to know it’s iconic.

You mentioned the movies you’ve done with Greta Gerwig. Is it weird this year? She directed Lady Bird and you two are in direct competition.

Yes, it is.

Both are at New York Film Festival and both are beloved.

Yeah. Sandler was doing a whole bit of, “We’ve got to stop that juggernaut! What are we going to do to derail that train?” But I love her movie so much, so I’m excited for both our movies – but I am excited for the greater audience to see hers.

When it comes to a documentary based on a filmmaker, I’ve heard the phrase, “Well, it’s no De Palma,” used a few times. That’s got to be a nice feeling that you’ve made a documentary based on a filmmaker that’s so well received.

Well, it’s nice to hear. I love it. That’s a project that I can un-complicatedly talk about because I feel both proud of what we did with it, but also, obviously, it’s a celebration of Brian. Brian’s work speaks for itself. We didn’t create an advertisement for Brian, which some of these very entertaining documentaries sometimes feel like. You know, they’re there to remind you how important this person was. And I felt like, whether you know Brian or not, that would be clear by watching the movie. But also that wasn’t what we were setting out to do. But I loved working on it because it just meant picking cool Brian De Palma clips to go with what he’s saying – it’s a pretty good day at work.

Could you do something like that with someone else?

Well, yeah. I mean, it’s obviously singular to Brian. I think, yeah, there are people I wish I had actually done it with, people who I got to know who passed away who I loved talking to and talking about movies. Jake Paltrow and I and Brian are just very close, close friends. And the thing really is a document of our dinners, our hanging out, our asking him about what happened on this movie and what happened on this movie. I mean, we did it obviously in a more formalized way for the documentary, but it’s all stuff we talk about and talked about anyway.

So that’s obviously an important ingredient in why that feels so personal, in a way. I know from my own experience, and I know it from other people who I know who are well known and do interviews or whatever, it’s just, no offense, but you can’t kind of enter into the same kind of ease that you can with a friend – and a friend who does exactly the same thing as you. So that was really part of what makes that. I mean, you look at other great documents like Peter Bogdanovich’s interviews with directors…

Who you got to work with a couple years ago.

Yes, well, I’ve known Peter for a long, long time. And those are unbeatable, too, because they’re just so much about filmmaking. You have them answering the questions and talking about the things that are, I think, really about filmmaking. And that’s always, for me, the stuff that I’m most interested in reading or watching.

Who do you wish you would have gotten a chance to do a documentary with?

Mike Nichols. Bob Altman. I got to know them pretty well, and I think they both would have made – and very much in their own ways – you could have done an interesting, great version of what we did with Brian.

You said earlier that you work with a lot of the same people. Do you see yourself doing more films with Sandler? Because I really hope so.

I hope so, too. I love the guy and I loved going to work with him every day. I loved seeing what he was doing. There was always a certain percentage of what he was doing that I would marvel at. I just felt how deeply connected he was to the character. And there are things we’re talking about – adjustments I’m giving him; things he is doing or trying that he tells me – but there was always something else that would often just amaze me of how deeply felt it was. Dustin felt it too. So that’s a great feeling when you’re working with an actor and you feel like they’re working on some other level that even you can’t access.

I’ve mentioned this to you before, but it happened again this week. I was flipping through cable channels and I saw Kicking and Screaming and I got excited, but it wasn’t your Kicking and Screaming.

Well, I think it’s on Netflix now, so you can find it there.

You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.