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Noah Baumbach On “While We’re Young” And The Wisdom of Experience

The writer-director of While We’re Young found fodder in the perspective of (gulp!) middle age.

Noah Baumbach On “While We’re Young” And The Wisdom of Experience
[Photos: Jon Pack, courtesy of A24 Films]

Noah Baumbach is in arguably the most prolific period of his career. “Since Squid,” he says of his 2005 film, The Squid and the Whale, “the scripts I’ve written I’ve made. And that’s great for the obvious reasons but also because it keeps you in a flow.”

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Noah BaumbachPhoto: Flickr user Sidewalks Entertainment

That hasn’t always been the case. There was a time, after his not-terribly-successful second film, Mr. Jealousy, when things got harder. “I was having trouble getting things made,” he says. “But that struggle . . . I kind of grew up during that time.”

Now 45, Baumbach has hit his stride. While We’re Young is the first of likely two releases from the writer-director this year. Mistress America, which he cowrote with Greta Gerwig, is expected to come out in the fall. He has also adapted Claire Messud’s acclaimed novel, The Emperor’s Children, to star Jeff Bridges.

Here, he shares some insights on perspective, personal growth, and letting your ability catch up to your ambitions.


OBSERVE WHAT YOU’RE OBSERVING

The last time Co.Create sat down with Baumbach, the director extolled the virtues of small ideas that lead to great storylines and have large reverberations. This time, he elaborated on that method.

“It’s conversations between characters that got me into this–it was finding the voice,” he says of exchanges he wrote for While We’re Young. One in particular: “A couple talking about the freedom they have because they don’t have a child, only to sort of reveal in the discussion that of course they’re not taking advantage of any of these things, and the freedom is actually something of a burden.”

It’s an idea essential to his story of a marriage at a crossroads. Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) have chosen to not have kids, and have found themselves separate from their friends who have. “It’s that kind of dialogue that helped me discover who these people are,” Baumbach says, explaining that it comes out of his observations of those around him. “There are things that can be literal observations, overheard. They’re also embarrassing thoughts I’ve found myself having and occasionally having the guts to write down.”

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It’s about noticing what’s unique–noticing what you’re noticing, observing what it is you’re observing–that helps to build a character.

“It’s always seemingly small things that get my attention. But they’re not small, they’re big–they’re just more everyday. They’re the things of our lives, and I think they’re just as cinematic as big moments, big breakthroughs–which I’ve yet to actually witness in my life,” he says, laughing.

OLDIES TRULY CAN BE GOODIES

The movie also addresses the gap between those in generation X, who can’t fathom generation Y’s co-opting of their elders’ cheesiest childhood artifacts, like, say, “Eye of the Tiger” or the work of Lionel Richie. “Discovering stuff out of context, just as part of the grab bag of cultural history,” says Baumbach, “they’re freed up to kind of like a lot of things that I might have resisted at some point in my life, particularly ‘All Night Long,’” he says of the 1983 Richie hit. “Now I think it’s great. It’s a great song, period.”

On the flip side, Baumbach muses, sometimes it’s hard to know whether the things we liked back in the ’80s were truly any good, or we just think they were because they held meaning for us at the time. “People make such passionate cases for things that are sentimental favorites, but it doesn’t make them any more or less good, and if you didn’t grow up with it, it might not have the same impact.”


LET YOUR ABILITY CATCH UP TO YOUR AMBITION

Looking back, Baumbach is grateful for the success he had early on with Kicking and Screaming. While he regrets none of it, he had a lot left to learn. “It happened for me very quickly,” he says. “My ambition and my enthusiasm in some cases exceeded not so much my talent but my ability. I hadn’t figured it out yet.”

Baumbach made the film soon after he got out of college. “In the old days, directors cut their teeth in television [or other roles on movies] before they would announce themselves with a directorial debut.” He cites Arthur Penn and Sydney Pollack as exemplars of this and models for his own career. Pollack, like Mike Nichols, Woody Allen, and James Brooks, made a kind of movie in the 1970s that Baumbach aspired to with While We’re Young–a kind that studios used to make, “kind of mainstream, but about human beings,” he says. “They were funny and deep and warm.”

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Unlike those directors, Baumbach was “dropped right in” with his first film. “I was learning on the case. That’s what’s good about my first movie is it’s got so many ideas and so many influences and so many ways I want to do things. But in a way, I didn’t have the support team to really execute things.”

How he leapt from that to his success of the last decade is a matter of personal growth. “I went through this period that’s been documented after my second movie, Mr. Jealousy, where I was having trouble getting [movies] made. It was a struggle, but I kind of grew up during that time. So when I made Squid, I was for the first time making movies where I had the ability to, as a director, translate what was in my head into an actual movie. And I’ve felt that way ever since. Now this is something I’ve done for a while. I’m good at it.”

How’d he make that leap? “I got into therapy. I learned about myself. It’s nothing exciting for the outside world,” he insists. “It was stuff that was huge for me, but it was all little things. In some ways, it’s why I invest in those moments, those are the moments that make up a life.”


SMALL MOMENTS CAN HAVE A HUGE IMPACT ON YOUR CAREER

Indeed, he amassed small lessons that added up to big growth. One of those was on the editing process of Kicking and Screaming. “On that movie, I was told, ‘While you make the movie, the editor makes an assembly and then you make your cut.’ It’s a kind of antiquated idea, and I suppose if you’re making a studio film and you’re not going to make a release date, that’s a necessary way of doing it. And,” he adds, “some directors might like doing it that way. So I’m not saying it’s not the right way, but I found that a totally baffling way to go about it. I watched the cut and I just felt bad. I felt like I was fixing the movie from the beginning.”

Since then, he’s done it differently. “I start from the beginning with the editor and we cut it together. That way you’re building the movie together. It’s small things like that that add up to a totally different way of making a movie.”

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About the author

Ari Karpel is a frequent contributor to Fast Company and Co.Create and an instructor at UCLA Extension. His writing about culture, creativity and celebrity has also appeared in The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, Men's Health, The Advocate and Tablet.

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