Noah Baumbach’s latest comedy, While We’re Young, is one of his funniest and most accessible efforts yet in a vibrant 20-year filmmaking career. The entertaining social satire explores what happens when a fortysomething couple (Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts) facing a midlife crisis befriends a young hipster couple half their age (Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried) whose passion for life reinvigorates their humdrum existence. Trouble begins when Stiller’s character, a once promising documentary filmmaker whose career has stalled, realizes he’s been eclipsed by his talented and ambitious protégé (Driver). Charles Grodin, Maria Dizzia and Adam Horovitz also star.
In this exclusive interview, Baumbach talked about what drew him to the project, the intergenerational aspect of the story and its rich thematic elements, the ability to reinvent oneself at any age, how Henrik Ibsen’s play The Master Builder inspired him, what the cast brought to the film, his musical choices and collaboration with composer James Murphy, his friends and family screening, how filmmakers like Woody Allen, Sydney Pollack, James Brooks, Mike Nichols and Paul Mazursky have inspired him, his upcoming comedy Mistress America starring Greta Gerwig which recently premiered at Sundance, and his untitled documentary in development with Jake Paltrow.
Check it all out in the interview below:
NOAH BAUMBACH: I’d had an idea about couples. I wanted to do something with couples and I had written some false starts even a few years ago. After The Squid and the Whale, I’d thought about this idea, but I never figured it out. For whatever reason, when I was thinking about middle age, I realized myself that there was now a generation of people that had seen movies of mine when they were surprisingly young, at least surprising to me. I started thinking about the intergenerational aspect of the movie, and that was a way for me to revisit this couple’s idea.
What was it about this story and the search for artistic validation and the themes of friendship, ambition, failure and reinvention that really resonated with you?
BAUMBACH: I was interested in this idea of both things that you can do, like you can reinvent yourself at any age. I find that is definitely true. I found Ben’s pursuit of or his investment in Adam’s character very moving in a way. Even though it’s quixotic too, his heart is in the right place. But, there are things that you become maybe after forty, to generalize, where there are doors that do close to you. Obviously, a big one in the movie is pregnancy, and that at least maybe the way you imagined it or fantasized about it is not going to happen. That, of course, is true about other things as well, like if you’re going to play professional sports. So, thinking about that and observing it in my own life and other people’s lives, that reverberated in ways that informed the script and the movie.
I love how the film opens with the exchange of dialogue from Henrik Ibsen’s play, The Master Builder. What inspired that?
BAUMBACH: I’d actually written the script before I saw a production of Wally Shawn and André Gregory’s. They did a production of the The Master Builder that they’d been working on for years. As they do, they work on these plays for ten years. They’re ongoing workshops. It was actually Wally’s translation of it particularly that I really loved. Just when I was watching it, I heard that exchange and I thought about this. I asked Wally if he would send me his translation. I used it to open the movie because it kind of says everything.
The film is optimistic and fast paced; you’ve got characters we can really relate to; and there’s comedy, compassion, and very human moments. How hard was it to get the script to the place to make that all happen?
BAUMBACH: The elements of the story, that was all kind of in the story as I discovered it. So, I tried to be receptive to it as it came up. I did ultimately feel compassionate about all of these characters, but there was also anger in it. I don’t know exactly, except I guess I just keep rewriting these things over and over again until it seems ready.
You have a wonderful cast. What was it about these actors that made them right for the roles?
BAUMBACH: Ben Stiller and Adam Driver I had worked with before. Ben is in every frame of Greenberg, I think. We’d had a really great experience on that. When I was writing this, it just felt like this would be a great part for Ben. Also, I thought Greenberg as a character is very different from Ben as a person, but even different from Ben’s comic persona and that sort of archetypal comic persona. I thought it’d be interesting to write something that felt in some ways like a Ben Stiller character, but in my world or in maybe a more realistic context. From early on, I was thinking of Ben. And Adam Driver I worked with on Frances Ha and I just love him. He’s such a presence, and I thought this is somebody Ben’s got to fall in love with in some way. Adam is so compelling. Everything he does is so interesting. The way he says anything is so interesting. When we were doing Frances Ha, he was in just one section of it, and I really wanted to do something else with him. And then, Naomi Watts is just one of the best actresses out there. I’ve always thought she could be so funny and it would be nice to see her. Because she’s such a great dramatic actress, she tends to get cast that way a lot, but I thought she was really funny in I Heart Huckabees and even in Mulholland Dr. I wanted somebody too, who like in the hip hop scene, you wouldn’t expect that, and she went for it.
Charles Grodin is such a terrific actor and it’s nice to see him back on the big screen. How hard was it to convince him to join the cast?
BAUMBACH: Charles Grodin, I love to see him. He’s so good. I was thinking of people for that part. My casting director, Doug Aibel, said that he had just seen Chuck at some event and he seemed open to acting again. So, I sent the script to him, and then he came and met with me.
The music really captures the mood of the moment. What inspired your musical choices? Also, how did you collaborate with your composer, James Murphy?
BAUMBACH: James did Greenberg with me. He did a bunch of songs for Greenberg. I had asked him because I had been listening to his band, LCD Soundsystem, when I was writing Greenberg, and I thought, “Why not try and find this guy?” Since Greenberg, we’ve actually become very good friends. I didn’t know initially. I said, “I want you to do some music for this. I don’t know what it is yet.” I also had this idea of Vivaldi. There was something about the Vivaldi. It certainly has a more timeless feel, but it also reminded me of Kramer vs. Kramer which has a lot of Vivaldi in the soundtrack. It reminded me of another era of films, films even from my childhood. That was my initial idea, but it worked so well in the movie so I elaborated on that. And then, James brought in a more contemporary counterpart to that. For me, music choices always tend to be emotional decisions.
How did the finished film compare to what you originally envisioned? Were there any surprises?
BAUMBACH: They’re always surprising in some way. Part of the experience of directing movies and making movies is you know on some level that as much as you try to micromanage and control that there’s this chaotic undercurrent that always gets out, as it should. Part of it is allowing for it, and when to allow for it, and when not. Part of that comes from the cast. Once you bring in these great actors, they’re always going to do things that surprise you. In a way, at this point, I don’t even have a specific expectation. It’s almost like I have a color in my head when I think about what the movie’s going to end up like. It’s an abstraction of what it feels like to me. So, when it actually is a movie, it’s like a new being. It’s not something I even could have envisioned. It’s like it has its own [life]. When I was younger, I think maybe I had more specific expectations, but now I don’t.
How long was the first cut of the movie?
BAUMBACH: It was pretty close to what it was. The way I tend to work is I will go back. When I’m cutting, I tend to just keep refining as I go so by the time I get to the end, it’s pretty close to the final cut. I don’t cut it long and then [refine it].
So there aren’t a lot of deleted scenes that will end up later on the Blu-ray?
BAUMBACH: No, there are a couple little pieces that actually got cut but not much.
What did you take away from the experience of making this film?
BAUMBACH: That’s a good question. It was a lot of fun to do. I’m not sure what I learned about myself. It probably takes a few movies later to go back and then realize. It was just a very enjoyable experience and for the most part very smooth. I even got along really well. It was just a lot of fun. I laughed a lot on the movie which is great.
Did you have a friends and family screening for this and who did you invite?
BAUMBACH: Yes. On all of them, I tend to have some kind of screening. I try to get together a little crowd to see it. I have my people that I tend to show things to, filmmaker friends of mine or old friends of mine who I trust who have been really helpful to me over the years. They tend to watch it with me. I’ll show it to them in the editing room. They’ll just come in when I’m first ready to show it. And then, usually after that, I’ll have some kind of screening and maybe get 30 people together, friends who maybe don’t work on movies, friends of mine who I think are good viewers, and then I get a sense of it from the room.
What’s been their reaction so far?
BAUMBACH: It seems good. I saw it at Toronto and I saw it in New York and it’s played really well. I was very gratified.
What are you working on next?
BAUMBACH: I have another movie coming out in the early fall that we just had at Sundance called Mistress America with Greta (Gerwig), again that Greta and I co-wrote and she’s in. It’s the next thing after this. That’s a rare thing to have two movies in one year.
What’s the status of The Emperor’s Children and also Flawed Dogs, the animated feature you were working on?
BAUMBACH: The Emperor’s Children is an adaptation I did a few years ago, but I haven’t done anything since I turned it in then. Flawed Dogs was something that I developed at DreamWorks, but I don’t think that’s going to happen, or at least not now.
You also have a documentary in development with Jake Paltrow?
BAUMBACH: Yes. I’m working on something with him, but we’re not ready to talk about it yet.
Which directors have influenced you as a filmmaker? Who are your inspirations?
BAUMBACH: I watch so many movies. For this movie, I was thinking a lot about a certain kind of movie that I felt the studios used to make, like the movies in the 80’s that people like Sidney Pollack or Mike Nichols or Jim Brooks made and certainly Woody Allen. Paul Mazursky made them at some point. They’re films that used to be made in a more mainstream way that were comedies about adults that I always really responded to. Even as a kid, I would see movies like Working Girl or Broadcast News, things that were not about me, but I found I totally related to them. I liked the sophisticated comedy of it all. I wanted to do my own version of that kind of movie.
While We’re Young is now playing in limited release.