Noah Baumbach’s method of self-reflection is as wide-eyed and astute today as it was when he broke onto the scene with Kicking and Screaming back in 1995. The search for identity is a common theme in his work, as is the subject of truth in art. After aiming his lens at a late twentysomething finding herself in New York in Frances Ha, with While We’re Young he now regards a childless couple, Josh and Cornelia (played by Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts), simultaneously struggling to stave off the realities of middle age by grasping desperately to lives of the youthful hipsters in their midst. While the characters played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried indulge in neo-analog pleasures, Josh and Cornelia use their various electronic devices to temper the angst they feel in their work, their relationship, and their age. Baumbach, on the eve of the film’s theatrical release, sat down with me to discuss the film’s documentary style and the search for truth not only in his own art, but also within himself.
There’s a really funny discourse on documentary filmmaking in While We’re Young. I was wondering what led you to toy with the subject?
I think I initially picked documentary filmmaking because I wanted something that was an occupation for these characters that was visual and also physical, because when they go to film something, they all have to travel there, and it’s collaborative, so it was a way to involve each other in their work. But once I kind of found myself writing about that, I felt a certain responsibility to engage in this kind of argument about truth in art—the things that come up in the movie. But I also felt like, “Well, I’m not gonna solve it.” It’ll be an argument that the characters in the movie have and the movie creates, but my responsibility is to create a satisfying conclusion, in terms of the movie, to the marriage, but not to the philosophy of documentary film, which I don’t have an answer for.
Trying to find truth within your identity is something that runs throughout your filmography. What draws you to this theme?
It’s people’s ideas of themselves versus how life is really turning out for them. It’s like trying and hitting those points in your life where your actual self isn’t falling in line with the fantasy of yourself, and what that means. Is the fantasy of yourself really that ideal anyway? It’s based on some childlike idea of what an adult is. But I think everybody has that to some degree and so it worked in this case, as you’re pointing out, with the notion of documentary and truth and art, because in a way, it was a kind of a representation, rather than having Ben [Stiller] trying to figure out himself, he’s trying to figure out Jamie [played by Adam Driver]. He has a kind of quixotic, outward journey, which could also help create a plot and drive for the movie.
I love the parallel in there.
Yeah, but really what he’s looking for is answers for himself, and I thought once I kind of found that, it felt like a compelling way to write the story. I wasn’t necessarily thinking of it as a conversation with the other movies, but, as you point out, I suppose it is.
Did you model Naomi Watts’s father’s character on any particular documentary filmmaker?
Not his personality or anything, but I was thinking of him in relation to the Penebaker/Maysles tradition.
Now, Frances Ha was very much inspired by the French New Wave. Did you have any particular stylistic inspirations for While We’re Young?
I thought about Broadcast News, Working Girl, and Tootsie—these adult comedies of my adolescence that studios used to make, that great filmmakers made, but that were more in the mainstream.
It’s interesting that you bring up Broadcast News because it similarly examines the intersection of work and life.
It’s a great movie, and it does what I was sort of attempting to do here. It’s a movie about relationships, but it also brings you inside this culture, this news world that feels so knowing and accurate—and does both brilliantly. It has satiric qualities to it, but then it also feels very authentic and honest. And it’s moving.
Did any of the tracks you chose for the soundtrack impact the trajectory of the screenplay or the characters?
I think the two songs that were in the screenplay were the 2Pac “Hit ’Em Up” song that Amanda and Naomi had to learn to dance to. And “Eye of the Tiger” was also in the script, but, you know, some of the music came from thinking about the taste of the characters, continuing with that sort of the technology joke that the younger people are analog and the older people are struggling to be up to the moment digitally. I also felt that some of the younger people would play music from Ben and Naomi’s generation, so that’s where “All Night Long,” the Lionel Richie song, and Psychedelic Furs came in—that they were, again, presenting this culture back to the older people in a new form that suddenly makes them sort of think, like, “That was a good song.” And that actually did happen to me with “All Night Long.” I really sold that song short. When I was a teenager I didn’t like it. But now I think it’s great.
You worked with James Murphy on the score and he did a particular cover of David Bowie’s “Golden Years.” How did that come about?
The movie always started with a lullaby version of “Golden Years,” which is this thing when you have kids, you end up being introduced to all these compilations, which are all these lullaby interpretations of all your favorite songs from childhood. You’ve got Lullaby Beatles, Lullaby Stones, Lullaby Bowie—and it felt to me like the right fit for the movie, to be starting off with a kind of commodification of what was like a purely great rock song from the ’70s, now as a baby lullaby, and how the parents’ generation wants to bring their own thing into the baby’s world. And that kind of felt like that was what was gonna start happening anyways in the movie with Josh and Cornelia and Jamie and Darby [played by Seyfried]. But I couldn’t find a lullaby version of the song that sounded right. They always felt like the lullaby was playing a different melody. So I had James do his own baby lullaby version of it.
Is there a lullaby version of “Modern Love”? Because if so, I need to get that.
Probably! I mean, you should look it up, there’s Lullaby Bowie, definitely, so I bet there is.
I said I would only have children if I can, like, indoctrinate him or her into liking certain films, so I guess that’s like a weirdly similar version: trying to bring whatever my interests are to them.
Right, which is a natural thing to feel. It’s like, at the same time, there’s something inherently humorous about that.
To what degree do you share the Stiller and Watts characters’ fear of digital natives? The final shot of the film is a child holding a device and they’re kind of looking with confusion and kind of scoffing a little.
Well, at the same time we see them on their devices throughout the movies. You know, it seemed like it was in some ways just a joke, but based on actual observation: that the younger generation that’s grown up with this kind of technology is freed up to explore analog and older technology, whereas the couple that grew up the other way is always just addicted to their phones. So I felt it deserved a kind of featured montage because it seemed like a funny enough joke.
There’s a vulnerability that underpins your humor, however caustic or screwball in nature. How has your style and sense of humor evolved since you started filmmaking and writing?
I don’t know that I have a sense of it, really, except that with each one of these movies I’m kind of trying out new ideas, things that I’ve been sort of tossing around for years in my head, and, you know, once they sort of lock in, you kind of figure out the story you want to tell. I wanna be as true as I can to the characters and the story, and that’s usually how the tone reveals itself. The final product might kind of vary in terms of tone, but I felt with Frances Ha, and this one, and Mistress America, which is coming up, that they really felt like comedies to me in that they should be told as such.
How have you seen your writing process evolve over the years?
You mean, just like my routine? I mean, it’s changed probably some ways, of course, relevant to this movie, I’ve had to, like, deal with the distraction of the Internet, which I didn’t used to have to do. [laughs] I guess I’m probably more comfortable thinking out the movie as a whole in my head before I write than I used to be. I used to be more easily intimidated. If I knew too much too soon, it would scare me, whereas now I don’t mind having a road map a little bit before I start writing.
In terms of the road map, do you think there are any similarities between you and any of the characters in the film, in having that fear of having it in your head or that process?
One thing I’ll say is, and this because I’ve been asked, “Are you Josh?,” and we’re the same age: I don’t have his trouble with productivity, and I’m more comfortable with my ambition than he is. In a way, I’m more like Jamie that way. But, on the other hand, I generate these things myself. Every time out, I’ve got to start again and write a new one. It’s horrible, you know, you’ve got this blank screen and you’re starting with nothing. And it seems impossible every time. And I convince myself it’s impossible every time, that I have to get through that. I never feel as if I’ve inherited the confidence from the last one. I just start again, totally amateurish.
What’s the drive in you, then?
Well, I have a story I kind of want to get out and tell that’s there. But how I’m gonna do it and how well I’m gonna do it seem to be the major challenges.
Going back to this kind of adolescence within your characters in some of your films, is the Adam Driver character at all a kind of offshoot of the one he played in Frances Ha?
Anthropologically, they’re actually very different, because his character in Frances Ha is wealthy, the son of an artist, kind of very much a New Yorker. Frances feels like so much of an outsider, so part of that dynamic there was that he’s so comfortable and has a car. And Jamie’s kind of much more self-made, not from New York in a very specific way, and one of those people who kind of comes to New York and makes it his own. And I think it’s a distinct difference.
And you’re also able to bring this ebullience to New York in a very unique way. How are you able to do that?
Well, it helps if you have Greta [Gerwig] running and dancing through the street and “Modern Love” playing. That’s gonna do it.
I may or may not have done that once or twice here.
[laughs] Does it work the same way in real life?
It does! That’s the wonderful thing about your work. It really does have that kind of vigor about it.
For me, it’s about having a personal relationship/connection to the city, having grown up here and lived here for so long. And I like bringing that into whatever I’m creating because, for me, all these movies, whether it’s in any kind of literal way or not, they’re all kind of connecting me back to my childhood. That’s sort of wherever creativity comes from for me. And so anything, location being a big part of it, reminding me of some inarticulated feeling of my childhood is helpful. So, obviously being in the city provides a lot of that for me.
Are there any seeds of your childhood that you’ve wanted to inject into your work, but haven’t come to fruition yet?
Sure, I’m sure there are many, some I’m aware of and some I’m not.
You’re bringing back the screwball comedy, which I love. Naturally, then, I’m really excited for Mistress America. Did you do any research in terms of trying to get that style?
I’m very familiar with those movies. I don’t think that I watched any one in particular for Mistress America, or for While We’re Young, but I definitely had them in mind. My friend Peter Bogdanovich, I think he was quoting Buster Keaton when he said, “It’s not funny unless you can see the feet.” And while that’s not literally true, I did feel in both of these movies that there was merit in staying back and observing the humor, certainly with the physical comedy, like Ben pulling his back on the bike, from a distance. And obviously those movies were shot in a kind of presentational way.