Interview: Director Noah Baumbach on Timing in ‘While We’re Young’

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CHICAGO – Director Noah Baumbach is a master in creating cinematic atmosphere. Whether it’s the adolescent mood of “The Squid and the Whale,” the weird loneliness of “Frances Ha” or his screenplays with director Wes Anderson, Baumbach generates a worthy emotional imprint. His latest film is “While We’re Young.”

“While We’re Young” is a meditation on dichotomy, as Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts portray a childless fortysomething couple that are losing commonality with their baby producing friends. When a younger couple – portrayed by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried – come into their lives, there is a sense that the older couple is taking one more stab at the youth that chronologically has slipped away. Filled with the comedy of awkwardness and keen observations on the human condition, “While We’re Young’ is another expansive achievement from the mind of Noah Baumbach.

Naomi Watts, Ben Stiller
Naomi Watts and Ben Stiller in the Noah Baumbach directed ‘While We’re Young’
Photo credit: A24

He was born in Brooklyn, the third of four siblings by novelist/film critic Jonathan Baumbach and Village Voice critic Georgia Brown. He majored in English at Vassar, and after graduation made his first major film in 1995, the cult classic “Kicking and Screaming.” After directing a couple of minor films, he co-wrote the screenplay to “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” with his friend, director Wes Anderson (he also wrote the “Fantastic Mr. Fox” adaptation that Anderson directed). His breakthrough film came in 2005 with “The Squid and the Whale,” followed by “Margot at the Wedding” (2007), “Greenberg” (2010), and the sublime “Frances Ha” (2012). got the privilege of exploring the heart of Noah Baumbach’s elusive filmmaker soul, and his insight feeds that soul. What did you want to communicate about intergenerational relationships besides the obvious notion that a younger person has less life experience?

Noah Baumbach: I was interested in what the younger couple represented for the older couple. In some ways, it’s about the folly of projecting anything upon anyone – what Ben’s character wants Adam’s character to be is impossible. On another level’s it’s about the older man looking back, placing a bit of nostalgia on youth as he observes it, and it’s a detour from looking at his present circumstance. One of the dividing lines in friendships come when a couple has a child. What frustrations in your own experience with that situation did you want to express in ‘While We’re Young’?

Baumbach: I’ve been on both sides of that fence, I’ve been both couples, and I understand both viewpoints. There is a feeling on the non-parent side that you will lose your friends to the baby, because your common interests are no longer common. On the other side, there is the thrill of having a kid and wanting to tell everyone about it. I wanted basically to explore it both humanly and comedically. What fascinates you about the character of people in transition, or aimlessly lost types like Josh, Frances Ha and Roger Greenberg?

Baumbach: The thing about transitions is that they don’t always announce themselves, and people often are surprised by change, because it doesn’t always come in big moments. Then two years later you think, ‘I guess I was really depressed.’ [laughs] I’m interested in documenting those types, where the characters don’t know exactly what is happening, and highlighting that it comes in drips, not floods. How did the casting of Charles Grodin occur? How did you know he would establish the tone you wanted for the character and gravitas of the character of Leslie?

Baumbach: When I heard that Charles Grodin was interested in acting again, it would be amazing if we could get him, and we did. It was easier than I thought, my casting director ran into him at a benefit, and he expressed that he was open to looking at the script. He called, and we talked about it, and then he came aboard. There was some very interesting observations regarding the art of the documentary, represented by Josh, Jamie and Leslie’s past form. Were you making any particular statements about the art of documentary through those characters?

Baumbach: In a way, I didn’t want to take a side on the forms represented, I felt narratively it was a comedy of marriage and remarriage, I felt like I needed to resolve that primarily. The arguments about documentaries in the film were not about me ‘weighing in.’ I invested in whatever argument I was writing at the moment. [laughs]

Adam Driver, Ben Stiller
Adam Driver and Ben Stiller Share a Moment in ‘While We’re Young’
Photo credit: A24 The use and timing of soundtrack songs in a film takes on a life of its own. What do you admire about the music of Paul McCartney that you feels sets a stage for emotion in a couple of your films?

Baumbach: I love The Beatles and Paul McCartney, and I find that those songs do have a lot of emotion for me, and it’s what I listen to anyway. It’s a personal thing, something I have a connection to outside the film, and I’m including it inside the film.

I used Paul’s song ‘1985’ in a particular scene in the film because I really love how the instrumental beginning is in the tune, like something is building. He sings it with a sense of humor, and somehow it delivered on the momentum I wanted for the scene, but at the same time we see Ben bicycling in Manhattan, so the sense of humor that is embedded in the song plays in that side of the scene. If a writer is distilling his own personality into his characters, which trait and character in the film is most positively you, and which one is most negatively you?

Baumbach: It’s interesting, I court this notion of autobiography whenever I get feedback. With this film, people were assuming I was Ben’s character, and I thought ‘you see me as a stunted filmmaker?’ [laughs] That doesn’t mean that there isn’t elements of me in the characters, but they’re not all extensions of me. I was looking for characters that fit in the narrative and comic form. Your films deal a lot with the timing of your characters as you put them into certain situations. How much do you think that luck plays into a person’s timing, as far as which direction they eventually go into? And do you want to keep that out of the equation, essentially, when creating your characters?

Baumbach: In a movie, or really any piece of fiction, you have to earn luck. I can create luck for them at any point, but persistence is also part of it. In terms of ambition, that persistence is more true. When a script is really working, you instinctively know when you can create luck for your characters. When the script isn’t working, it seems like cheating to give it to them. How does an actor connect with you, in the sense that you want to collaborate with them again. What is the vital spark that creates that type of connection?

Noah Baumbach
Director Noah Baumbach in Chicago
Photo credit: Patrick McDonald for

Baumbach: It’s about the experience, and liking what they do. There are certain actors that are well suited to my style of writing, and take to it in a way. Likewise, the chemistry that I have with them, can bring out new directions in their careers. If we talk about Ben Stiller, the big difference is I wrote this film with him in mind, and I didn’t do that with ‘Greenberg.’ So for this one, thinking about how Ben could handle the character was useful for me in helping to define him, and where that character went in the context of the story.

Casting Adam Driver in the film also made sense to me. I didn’t want to sell Ben’s character out, and Adam has just the right amount of appeal and interest. The mystery of that character is something that Adam was not afraid of, he was happy to morph with the film, and that really helped me formulate the story. You grew up with the concept of film as a life and advocation. Which film experience, passed to you by either of your parents, later became a divining rod for who they were as people, and when did you have that realization?

Baumbach: I don’t know if I had that kind of experience, there were definitely films that I experience probably younger than I should have, and later I realized they were great. I was into ‘Stripes,’ ‘Star Wars’ and all the Steven Spielberg films of that era. What I appreciate in that context was I staked my own claim as a kid to the movies I loved, and both my parents would find a way to love those films as well, because I loved them. That was very meaningful as I was growing up, to have my father invest in ‘The Man with Two Brains,’ for example. That’s a great childhood memory. What can you tell us about Wes Anderson that the rest of the world doesn’t know?

Baumbach: Geez, I don’t know what the rest of the world knows. [laughs] Do we know anything? If you watch that American Express commercial, for example, that is exactly what he’s like. I’ve known him for so long, and we’re close friends, so it’s hard to describe your friend. I don’t know what people think they know.

“While We’re Young” continues its limited release in Chicago on April 3rd. See local listings for theaters and show times. Featuring Ben Stiller, Naomi Watt, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried, Dree Hemingway, Charles Grodin and Peter Yarrow. Written by directed by Noah Baumbach. Rated “R” senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Writer, Editorial Coordinator

© 2015 Patrick McDonald,

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