Hey, nobody ever said that being a grown up was easy. Hell, nobody ever said even KNOWING what a grown up is was easy.
Noah Baumbach has made a (very wonderful) career for himself out of portraying people who no matter how sophisticated, well educated or otherwise (seemingly) grown up, are deep down more immature then their younger on-screen counterparts. Age, per se, doesn’t matter, even if one can’t help but notice (and wonder about the fact) that Baumbach always writes male leads approximately his own age.
You can see Josh Hamilton’s recent liberal arts grad Grover in Kicking and Screaming being a foreshadowing of Eric Stoltz’s insecure 30 year old Lester in Mr. Jealousy (who, lets face it, was the original Hannah in Girls, whether or not Lena Dunham will ever admit to it or not) who could, depending on which particular turn that Iowa writer’s program took become Malcolm (or Margot herself, a rare Baumbachian female alter ego) in Margot at the Wedding, or Jeff Daniels’ Bernard in Squid and the Whale. Or, for that matter – Ben Stiller titular fuck-up in Greenberg or his Josh in Baumbach’s latest While We’re Young (which opens this weekend in finer movie theatres everywhere). It is always the younger characters (the high school girlfriend, the son, the brother’s assistant…) that serve as a maturity litmus test for these angry young-and-not-quite-so-young men-anymore and it is in this latest effort, more so than ever, that Baumbach allows for that relationship (and tension) to be front and center.
And it just so happens that this latest movie finds us finally getting an opportunity to sit down face-to-face with Baumbach, who at 45 (and ensconced for the day in a room in a Georgetown hotel which, according to him, “has definite True Detective” vibes (the room, not the hotel or Georgetown itself)) looks great (and younger than his 45 years of age would have you anticipate), is in a loving working-and-life relationship with a woman some thirteen years his junior (Greta Gerwig, star of Greenberg and Frances Ha and his collaborator on the upcoming Mistress America) and, by the time we get to him, seems a little tired and weary of this whole publicity three ring circus he finds himself in.
I inform him of our site’s name and how we started it when we were substantially younger than what we are now, and he smiles. Sort of poignantly. And when you see While We’re Young you’ll know why.
The storyline is seemingly simple enough to relay: a 40-something couple (Josh and Cornelia (Stiller and Naomi Watts) he a once promising now sort-of-stuck documentarian, she a documentary producer for the superstar filmmaker Father, played wonderfully by Charles Grodin) grappling with what it means to be 40-something and childless and “just” married and “just” successful enough, meet a 20-something couple (Jamie and Darby, (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried) he a fledgling documentary filmmaker himself, she a craft ice cream maker) and, well, develop a massive crush on their youthful energy. A whirlwind coupledom romance ensues, and then, of course (OF COURSE!) disappointment strikes. And everyone needs to face their own realities, all the while entangled in the putting other people’s realities on the big screen for mass enjoyment. The movie is both laugh-out-loud funny and almost uncomfortably tense at times, and occasionally uneven, just like these people’s lives.
BYT: The first thing I would like to mention is that I was surprised by how dark the movie was. At times, especially as the second half unravels, it feels almost like a thriller. You are a master of capturing inter-personal tension on the screen but I am curious: where on the genre spectrum do you feel this movie falls?
Noah Baumbach: I still view it as a comedy. We certainly FILMED IT as a comedy, but we did feel there was maybe a “comic” thriller line underneath it. Mainly because of the nature of the younger couple. They are in a way … well, almost a projection of Ben and Naomi’s. In some other film, one could have chosen to almost have them as ghosts, conjured up to fix something they don’t even know needs to be fixed.
BYT: And later on, as they are revealed to be flawed…. as Ben and Naomi’s characters force them to admit to their flaws, their attitude is “We were what you needed us to be”
NB: Yes, and in other ways they just couldn’t be what they needed them to be. Because no one can. In a way, it is not Adam & Amanda’s fault that they aren’t who Ben & Naomi need them to be. The love affair is over and it is heartbreaking and possibly thriller-like in some ways, when these people show themselves that they simply are who they are, not reflections of your misspent youth or whatever.
BYT: And their physicality adds to the ominousness and the tension, certainly. Adam Driver is such a tall man, and Ben Stiller is such a not tall man, and at times it almost seems as if Adam’s character could envelop him, swallow him whole.
NB: (laughs) True. I think it is safe to say I would have probably cast them no matter what their height was but I can see how that works as a visual dynamic. There are scenes where it is more obvious and scenes where it is less obvious, obviously. One thing I talked to Adam about is that his physicality is like water: he can both slip through you and engulf you. Casting Adam made sense with the movie. It is humorous that Ben falls so hard for this guy, I didn’t want to sell Ben out, I wanted you as a viewer to get why this might happen. And casting Adam made sense in that context. He made that situation believable. He is so compelling, you can’t help but pay attention to him when he is in a room. And when things change at the end of the movie, you can read so much into it. And Adam, as an actor, is not afraid to be THAT GUY. He felt no need to defend him, he was ok to just be him.
BYT: One of the probably most memorable scenes in the movie is the parallel montage of the two couple’s relationships to technology. Nowhere else is the age discrepancy quite as obvious, and maybe in non-obvious ways. People who are in the mid-20s in 2015 don’t even remember a time without internet. And yet, you show them as the ones rejecting it, while the couple in their 40s is a slave to it, having gone through the full cycle of exchanging the walkmen for a discman for an ipod too… Is this something you’ve noticed with a younger generation, or do you, as a person in your 40s feel a certain amount of shame about your own dependency on technology?
NB: (laugh) Oooh, we don’t have enough time to discuss my personal technology shame. I certainly have strong feelings about the level of distraction it has brought to our lives. And you HAVE TO work on your computer. It is as if we had to work on our TV’s. Which basically working on our computer IS these days. It is kind of like working next to a crack pipe all the time. You MIGHT get curious and then… next thing you know… But I don’t see the young people in this movie as rejecting technology per se. I mean, they use their phones and…
BYT: Yes, but, for example, they’re anti-facebook as well, almost something that LAME (or gasp, OLD) people do…
NB: Well, that DID kind of happen to facebook, didn’t it? Is just not cool as it used to be. It is sort of THE ESTABLISHMENT right now. And the younger generations feel sort of freed up from it to explore those past music (…etc) mediums. Which I do think is what being young is all about, and always has been. For a certain type of young person, definitely. I know when I was in my 20s, I was certainly more into music from the 60s and 70s and I was growing up in the 80s. It is maybe just more pronounced now that the technology is changing so rapidly. I see it less as projecting, it is just THEIR way of doing things, ONE way of doing things. And the older generation has tried the crack and just can’t stop.
BYT: Speaking of the older generation … the movie itself is BRIMMING with very cool people in their 40s. Adam Horowitz (Ad Rock of Beastie boys) is one of your co-stars, James Murphy did the music, Dean Warenheim plays the guru. These are all people of a certain age who people in their 20s still have coolness crushes on, so to speak, while I am sure they in some ways are grappling with the loss of their youth too. How differently would have the movie been if Ben’s Josh was one of those people, if he was more successful? What made you make the decision of him being exactly where he is career wise? Still being sort of at a start, despite having worked for twenty years, and having received some modicum of recognition early on. It seems very instrumental to the overall dynamic he has with the world?
NB: I wanted the character to be stuck in some ways. The sensibilities of many of those successful 40-somethings you mentioned are also interesting to me. Ben certainly has a history, and not just in my movies, of connecting well to that state of non-success. James writes very poignant lyrics about being middle-aged while still writing a great dance song. Dean, in his own way, does that to. All these people are very connected to who they are, and who they are in the time they are now, and also connected to the feeling of NOT being successful all the time.
BYT: And there is also the cyclical nature of success. The need for reinvention. And being in your 40s in 2015 is very differently perceived than what being in your 40s in some other decade may be. Somehow, 40s is now both a time for arthritis and babies right now. And you being that same age right now/as you were making the movie – it is obviously poignant to you personally as well. So, I guess, the question is – why those ages in particular? Why not a little younger or a little older.
NB: Naomi’s aged mattered biologically. And when I was writing it, it just felt like this was a time and age when some of these situations would suddenly feel more relevant. It doesn’t mean that they couldn’t happen at some other age. But there’s a big difference in turning 40 and then BEING in your 40s. It can be from a biological standpoint, but definitely from a psychological stand-point too. I kind of wanted to be at a place where they are … functioning.
BYT: There is a great line Ben has in the movie: “When we got married it was just SO EXCITING to be married. And now…. we’re just married”
NB: Exactly. And now…. you’re just in your 40s.
BYT: And you have to … just deal with it.
NB: (laughs) Exactly.
Consider yourselves warned, BYT readers.
While We’re Young is playing all over right now (and you can win free tickets to it in DC right here). The t-shirt in the feature header is from the A24XDeerDana collaboration for the movie. We kind of love it almost too much.