‘While We’re Young’ Director Noah Baumbach Talks To Us About The State Of Modern Filmmaking

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You just never know when you might get a new Noah Baumbach movie. Honestly, the movies from the director of Greenberg and The Squid and the Whale — at least lately — just seem to pop up out of nowhere. Take this past Sundance, for instance. Just four months before, Baumbach premiered While We’re Young at the Toronto Film Festival to positive reviews, so imagine our surprise when he showed up to yet another film festival with a new film starring Greta Gerwig, Mistress America. (As an admirer of Baumbach’s films for 20 years now, I consider this to be a really great thing.)

When watching While We’re Young, it’s hard not to think of Baumbach’s first film, Kicking and Screaming. (No, this is not the Will Ferrell movie about youth soccer.) Even though Baumbach doesn’t see it this way, the two films almost seem to communicate with each other. Kicking and Screaming is about a group of 20-somethings trying to figure out their post-college life. Now, in While We’re Young, Baumbach (who’s 45) looks at those same 20-somethings with the eyes of an outsider.

Ben Stiller plays Josh, a New York City documentarian who, along with his wife, Cornelia (Naomi Watts), befriends a young couple, Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried). The new friendship leads the 40-ish Josh and Jamie to start accepting a, let’s say, younger lifestyle. What’s most surprising is that this isn’t Baumbach’s Greenberg-style Stiller. This is the more mainstream, likable, funny Stiller – which means that Baumbach has made his most commercial movie to date. And, yes, Baumbach realizes this fact.

While We’re Young almost feels like a bookend with Kicking and Screaming... I almost just prefaced that with, “not the Will Ferrell version.”

[Laughs] Right. “Oh, wasn’t that the soccer comedy?”

But when Kicking and Screaming came out, I was in college. Now with While We’re Young, I relate more to Ben Stiller’s character. It made me realize, “Oh, yeah, I’m getting old.”

I’m glad to have provided that for you.

Do you look at the two movies as related at all?

I wasn’t thinking about it that way… sometimes it appears by design in a way that it isn’t, really. On a sort of more general note, they are all coming from me and generated by me, so it stands to reason there’s some kind of ongoing conversation between these movies.

You’ve lived in Brooklyn. Was there something specific that happened, maybe someone being ironic about something, that gave you the idea for this movie? Adam Driver’s character making Ben Stiller’s character listen to Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” as if it’s a wonderful, unknown song comes to mind.

There wasn’t one; there were many, I guess. It’s the thing that happens when you get older. Suddenly, things that are part of your biography — your sort of cultural biography — start to take on different resonance when they’re discovered by people who don’t have the same association with them that you have. Although, it’s now actually “Eye of the Tiger,” not “Danger Zone.” It was actually written as “Eye of the Tiger,” and they were quoting us too high of a price and I ended up putting “Danger Zone” in, then I switched it back because they came down.

When it comes out on Blu-ray, it should have a third song.

Yeah, I know. You could, in a way. I was actually kind of happy with either one… and I had fun with the some of the songs or bringing The Goonies into the conversation and things like that. But then I felt like there were sort of more psychological or emotional versions of that that could be worked out in the movie as well.

Ben Stiller plays a likable “Ben Stiller” character in this movie, which is going to have a more wide appeal than when he’s playing a misanthrope in Greenberg. This feels like your most commercial movie. Do you agree with that?

That was conscious.

Oh, it was conscious?

Well, I mean in that when I was writing it, I was thinking it would be a good opportunity to bring Ben’s comic voice into my environment in some way. And as I was writing from the beginning, I saw it as a comedy, as a comedy about marriage. I mean, I was thinking about movies from my adolescence, when the studios would make adult comedies that were character-driven.

Which they don’t anymore.

They don’t. And as a result, there are way fewer of them because there’s a distinct difference between, say, things like Broadcast News or Working Girl or Tootsie. They’re not independent movies.

All movies that were nominated for Best Picture.

Yeah, exactly. They have emotional resonance, but they are also broadly funny. They’re mainstream, but they’re character-driven. And I think that was something I wanted to try my version of that.

You mentioned those movies from the ‘80s. There a dramatic scene when Ben Stiller’s character confronts Adam Driver’s character, and it’s weirdly reminiscent of an ‘80s movie. There’s a synth track playing.

Well, James Murphy did that piece. Somebody compared it to a Michael Mann movie, and I hadn’t thought of that.

Risky Business came to mind.

Yeah, well, James and I were thinking about those kind of scores… and it’s the way it’s staged, too: Adam has this coat on like a cloak and it’s sort of like two animals kind of going at each other. I was even thinking of a Sherlock Holmes’ Moriarty.

Obviously, you didn’t know it at the time, but Adam Driver in Star Wars could work now too.

[Laughs] Right! And I didn’t know that then. He’s awesome. And I felt, in some ways, casting him made a lot of sense of the movie for me; it’s obviously a funny idea of Ben falling for this guy, but I never wanted to sell Ben out. I wanted you to invest in it as well, even if you think it’s ridiculous that you kind of go there with him. With Adam, it makes sense because Adam is so interesting and so compelling and so substantial. No matter what that character is up to or turns out to be or think he might turn out to be, he’s always compelling.

The way you make movies is fascinating. Frances Ha showed up out of nowhere at TIFF in 2012. I knew a little about While We’re Young before it premiered at TIFF in 2014. Then Mistress America comes out of nowhere at Sundance two months ago. Your movies just seem to pop up.

Well, I’m glad it seems that way. For me, it was a very kind of a deliberate… Greta [Gerwig] and I had been working on this other script…

Mistress America?

Yeah. And we felt ready to do it. At the time it was unorthodox, but I felt like, “Why don’t we shoot this? I’ll start cutting, then I’ll just put it aside and make While We’re Young all the way, then go back and finish Mistress America.” And that’s what we did.

Mistress America is a unique movie for you. The first half feels like a New York City Noah Baumbach movie. The second half feels like Clue.

I do like that in movies. It happens in aspects of While We’re Young, as well. Mostly, it’s instinctual, at least in the writing process. But I’d like if a movie feels flexible enough that you can bend it and see what happens.

The characters work in both parts.

Yeah, I mean, it has to be satisfying as an overall thing, obviously. In Mistress America, I was thinking of movies like Something Wild or After Hours. Not that it’s anything really like those movies, but the sort of movies where people are taken out of their comfort zone, usually one person takes another on some wild ride with them. And I love how Something Wild changes tone in the last third or something when it becomes so violent and scary. And that obviously does not happen in Mistress America, but I thought it was an opportunity to sort of bend the movie in another direction.

If one of the characters in the second half had started singing, I wouldn’t have been surprised.

It’s funny you say that, there was a dance number. We never shot it. It just always slowed down the momentum of it, because that movie has so much momentum. So we had this idea at one point that there was going to be a choreographed dance.

I would have loved to see a Noah Baumbach choreographed dance.

Someday, I will figure out a way to make it work. I just haven’t been able to at least justify it to the point I can get away with it.

I realize this is a broad question, but what is the state of movies right now? The three movies you mentioned earlier, Broadcast News, Working Girl, and Tootsie, can they even get made today by a studio?

Obviously the way movies are being released is changing in ways that none of us understand. The studios are not getting behind a certain kind of filmmaker type movie the way they used to, which is too bad. There are so many good directors working now and really great, interesting, personal movies being made. For me, it’s sort of like, when I’m making something, I’m always kind of connecting back to my childhood in someway, whether it has a specific relevance like The Squid and the Whale or not. I’m always kind of connecting back to that; it’s a source of creativity inside me. That’s where I tend to be looking.

Speaking of The Squid and the Whale, I’ve always wanted to ask this. When Jesse Eisenberg is performing his song, how had nobody in that audience heard “Hey You” by Pink Floyd before?

[Laughs] Well, I guess I always justified it as some people obviously must have known, but that the judges didn’t know at that point or that he would have been teased the next day or something. But, I was also probably fudging a bit to tell the story the way I needed to tell it.

Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.