Filmmaker Noah Baumbach is hitting that middle-age groove

Filmmaker Noah Baumbach on his current productive writing-directing output as he's reached age 45: "I feel in a groove."
Filmmaker Noah Baumbach on his current productive writing-directing output as he’s reached age 45: “I feel in a groove.”
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Both the exchange from Ibsen’s stage play “The Master Builder” that opens the film and the lyrics to Paul McCartney’s jaunty song “Let ‘Em In” that close it point to similar questions about aging with grace and wisdom while remaining receptive to new ideas. “While We’re Young” may not have answers, but it is open to possibilities.

The same could be said of its writer-director, Noah Baumbach.

“I feel in a groove,” Baumbach said recently. Though he has often been portrayed as some cynical prince of glum misanthropy, and the dark discontent of films such as “Margot at the Wedding” and “Greenberg” might support that, after 2012’s jubilant “Frances Ha” Baumbach seems unburdened, unexpectedly upbeat.


He is also busy. Along with “While We’re Young,” opening March 27, and “Mistress America,” opening this year, there is also a program of his films traveling the country under the title “Growing Up Baumbach” including 1995’s “Kicking And Screaming,” 2005’s “The Squid and the Whale” and “Frances Ha.” Wearing cords and retro running shoes, a button-down and Ray-Bans, he could be in the uniform of a teenager or a retiree, so it may catch one off-guard to realize the 45-year-old Baumbach has been making films for 20 years.

“There was a break,” he noted, between 1997’s “Mr. Jealousy” and “The Squid and the Whale” as he struggled to get projects off the ground. “So it feels like the rhythm I’ve got going since ‘Squid,’ I just personally feel like I’ve been doing this consistently now for 10 years and then I have these movies that I made when I was younger.”

Which has now led to “While We’re Young,” a film that contains at once a lightness and a gravity, a comedic exploration of one couple’s travails alongside a deeper look at being not yet old but no longer young.

Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts are Josh and Cornelia, a childless, middle-aged New York City couple who seem either in a rut or at a crossroads. Into their lives come Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried), a young couple who appear to be an idealized version of who the older couple might once have been. Suddenly Josh and Cornelia’s lives are filled with ayahuasca ceremonies, spontaneity, new experiences and listening to Lionel Richie unironically, their world turned upside down.

But as their new friends create tensions with old friends Marina and Fletcher (Maria Dizzia and Adam Horovitz), who have a newborn baby, as well as with Cornelia’s father (Charles Grodin), the couple are forced to reexamine themselves and their marriage.

“In my head I wanted to make a kind of adult comedy like I would have seen as a teenager in the ‘80s,” said Baumbach, “like ‘Broadcast News’ or ‘Tootsie’ or ‘Working Girl.’ That was in my head, and I was thinking of it as a traditional comedy of remarriage, a married couple take a detour to come back together.

“I think that was maybe a new idea for me. ‘Greenberg’ and ‘Margot’ were very much for me the characters kind of leading the story and this maybe I had more of an idea of structure and story ahead of time.”

“While We’re Young” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September to glowing reviews, where it was picked up by distributor A24. Then it was announced that another film from the director, “Mistress America,” would screen at the Sundance Film Festival and was sold to Fox Searchlight Pictures ahead of its premiere.

As was “Frances,” “Mistress America” was co-written by and costars Greta Gerwig (also Baumbach’s girlfriend) in a semi-screwball knockabout. Baumbach compares the film to a different set of ‘80s references, including “Something Wild,” “After Hours, “Lost in America” and “Broadway Danny Rose,” movies where in his words, “people are taken out of their comfort zone into a darker edge of America … thrown into the counterculture.”

It seems unusual for a filmmaker as meticulously exacting as him to wind up with two films seemingly landing on top of each other, which can lead to a presumption that one must be the real new Noah Baumbach picture and the other some sort of experiment, sidebar or B-side.

If only it were so simple. Baumbach nearly made “While We’re Young” before “Frances Ha.” Then after “Frances” but before scheduling allowed him to shoot “Young” there was a small window of time where he could shoot “Mistress” — but that wouldn’t allow him enough time to finish post-production. So he then set aside “Mistress” to make “While We’re Young” in its entirety and then came back to complete “America.”

For Baumbach the films have become intertwined, and it’s difficult to unravel the connections between the production similarities of “Frances” and “Mistress.” Both were made with small crews — “people refer to it as guerrilla filmmaking, and I’m too old to do that,” he deadpans — while he is still discovering the thematic connections between “Mistress” and “While We’re Young.

One thing is certain, that in production Baumbach will shoot many takes to find exactly what he is after in a scene, a mixture of performance and choreography, and he prefers his actors to express his dialogue exactly, capturing the precise language from the script.

“He is absolutely hell-bent on every single word,” said Watts. “It’s really a good sign of how good his dialogue is, because it’s actually easy to remember. Like when you have these long, long shots and pages of dialogue it’s a little scary, but rhythmically it all works, you really don’t need to change it.”

Born in Brooklyn to a literary family — his father a novelist, his mother a film critic — Baumbach received wide acclaim while only in his mid-20s for his debut, “Kicking And Screaming.” He was nominated for an Oscar for original screenplay for “The Squid and the Whale” and collaborated with Wes Anderson on the screenplays for “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou” (in which he had a cameo) and “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” Baumbach, who splits his time between Los Angeles and New York, also contributed to the screenplay of the animated film “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted.”

People have often worked hard to pick apart what elements of Baumbach’s films are drawn from his own life, this character representing that person and so on. He has often bristled at the notion, preferring to focus on their fictional elements. Yet even within the comic universe of “While We’re Young,” it’s tempting to play who’s who.

“I’ve done some interviews where people are like, ‘Well, you’re the Ben character,’” Baumbach said. “And actually I have more in common with the Adam character, in that I’m very productive and I’m very driven and very ambitious and will devour — when I’m working on something I’ll take any good idea I hear or someone says. Friends of mine know to keep quiet if they don’t want it in there.”

“He puts everything into the characters, and I don’t think it’s ever that simple where he’s one character or another,” said Stiller, who also starred in “Greenberg.” “He’s able to put himself in the heads of the other characters, and every character has their own voice. I think there’s possibly elements of himself he puts in all the characters.”

Among the supporting cast is a lively turn by Horovitz, best known as a member of the Beastie Boys. Horovitz was thrown at first by the way Baumbach prefers to start a scene, with the gentler “begin” or simply “and…” so sometimes the director would come over and whisper “action” just to him.

“He was understanding that I was kind of freaked out,” said Horovitz of his first proper film role in many years. “And he just had a real professional balance as to what he wanted to do and what he wanted us to do. It’s just really nice when you’re working for somebody that they know what they want.”

With a traveling 20-year retrospective and two finished films on the horizon, Baumbach is now working on a few projects but is also trying to enjoy the moment of accomplishment. It might also be a version of what some would call relaxed maturity.

“I actually feel there are good things about middle age,” said Baumbach. “You kind of feel more OK about what you’ve done and at peace with that, and there’s a sense of pride in having built these things and having them out there.”

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