Mr Noah Baumbach
The indie film superhero talks about his and Ms Greta Gerwig’s latest film, Mistress America, and gets philosophical about hats
While many a New York film-maker who debuts on the festival circuit soon heads to Los Angeles to direct a studio movie, Mr Noah Baumbach has remained an independent. Nearly 20 years after his comedy Kicking and Screaming debuted at the New York Film Festival, he brought his latest movie, Mistress America – shot with a skeleton crew and no bankable star in the cast beyond Ms Greta Gerwig – to the Sundance Film Festival having only locked up a distribution deal for it after completing production.
This lack of cosseting has allowed him to remain that rarest of things in an era dominated by CGI creatures and stone-faced tough guys: a personal film-maker. In fact, if you were to watch his nine feature films back to back, the experience would be like a psychiatrist fast-forwarding through a patient’s existential dilemmas between the ages of 22 and 45. “Why should I sell out and get a real job?” (which seems to be the general thrust of Kicking and Screaming) gives way to “What do I do about my bum knee?” (this troubles Fletcher, played by Mr Adam Horovitz aka King Ad-Rock, in last year’s While We’re Young).
Since making his first and his current film, Mr Baumbach has received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay for The Squid and the Whale (a film loosely based on his parents’ divorce), published numerous humour pieces in The New Yorker (The Zagat History of My Last Relationship is a favourite), and co-written two of Mr Wes Anderson’s movies (The Life Aquatic and Fantastic Mr Fox). He was married for five years to Ms Jennifer Jason Leigh, with whom he has a five-year-old son Rohmer (named after the French Nouvelle Vague director). His current film is potentially his most commercial and screwball, which begs the question: is this purveyor of tragicomedies finally happy?
“I think there’s a truth to the idea that you can be making movies with a different tone because of what’s going on in your life, but there’s also a truth that I just kind of make my movies when they’re ready to go,” he says.
Mistress America fades in on Tracy (Ms Lola Kirke), a lonely freshman at Barnard College in Manhattan, desperate to become a writer. After she makes a glum phone call home, her mother suggests she contact Brooke (Ms Greta Gerwig), her soon-to-be-stepsister, who also lives in New York. Brooke, a hyphenate by trade (spin class instructor-aspiring restaurateur), leads Tracy through a raucous evening eventually settling in for a slumber party at the older woman’s grey market loft. When Tracy compliments Brooke on the décor, she responds, “I freelance as an interior decorator. Do you know The Bowery Hotel? Well, if you walk a block south of there, there is a laser hair-removal centre that’s very hip. I did the waiting room.”
Mistress America is the second film that Mr Baumbach has written with Ms Gerwig; the first was Frances Ha. The couple first met when she was cast in Greenberg, a 2010 release that Ms Jason Leigh received a co-story credit on. “Greta and I were actress and director, then friends, then collaborators and then off of Frances Ha we got together,” he says. “Frances Ha and Mistress America were very much generated by the two of us from the get-go, so they are a blending of our voices. A lot of the pleasure for me in the writing stage was imagining her playing the part.”
Even though Mr Baumbach has been the writer and director on many of his films, he enjoys collaborating. Mr James Murphy, the musician and producer known for his work in the band LCD Soundsystem, is a recent collaborator, having done the soundtracks for Greenburg and While We’re Young. “That was the only time I was listening to a musician’s record while writing something and thought this guy could score this movie. We had lunch and became friends.”
Collaborating with Mr Anderson, another writer-director, was a different process, particularly on Fantastic Mr Fox. “We were writing for animation, which neither one of us had done at that point, and we were really unsure of what the rules were,” he says. “It was an adjustment to think of physical comedy and puppets.” The work with Mr Anderson is different in other ways, too. “Wes is authorial as a film-maker. He controls his worlds, so when I’m writing with him, the best version of that collaboration is that I get absorbed into it.”
Watching Fantastic Mr Fox, which Mr Baumbach recently did with his son, he finds it hard to point to which lines are his and which are Mr Anderson’s. When I mention that I was nervous about letting my five-year-old daughter watch the film (particularly the scene where Mr Fox gets his tail chopped off), Mr Baumbach raises an eyebrow and defends the dark notes of Mr Roald Dahl’s children’s stories. “I feel all the good children’s stories have something scary in them,” he says.
The events leading up to Ms Jason Leigh and Mr Baumbach’s divorce coincided with a difficult patch in his career. He had put in a lot of time and effort working with the novelist Mr Jonathan Franzen on adapting his novel The Corrections into a potential multi-season series for HBO. The project got spiked in 2012. During that period Mr Baumbach got to know Mr Mike Nichols, a director whose work he greatly admired. Mr Nichols (no stranger to the vicissitudes of directing and divorce) and he became regular lunch companions. “Mike was very wise in a way that made you feel better about what was going in your life,” he says.
When Mr Baumbach was growing up in Brooklyn, the borough was not the global shorthand for all things artisanal, selvedge and Ms Lena Dunham-ish that it is today. There are swathes of neighbourhoods he walks through now where he feared to tread as a boy. Park Slope, with its tree-lined streets and brownstones, was a great incubator for a future film-maker. His was a family of moviegoers. His father, Mr Jonathan Baumbach, taught at Brooklyn College, published experimental fiction and wrote about film in Partisan Review. His mother, Ms Georgia Brown, also published fiction and was a film critic for The Village Voice.
After Mr Baumbach graduated from Vassar College and began working on scripts, he would regularly show his parents his work. With the script for The Squid and the Whale, which limned their divorce, he waited until he was further along in the process. “From the beginning they knew the subject matter and they were wary but OK with it,” he says, noting that his father even lent a corduroy jacket to the actor Mr Jeff Daniels, who played him in the film.
Mr Baumbach himself likes a jacket, but sleeker and less academic than corduroy. He favours dress shirts, jeans, New Balance sneakers and the occasional blazer from Mr Ned, the New York tailor patronised by Wall Street guys and popularised by his pal Mr Anderson. In his 2014 film While We’re Young, hats become a thing. Mr Ben Stiller’s character starts wearing one after he befriends and starts hanging out with Mr Adam Driver’s character, a younger and hipper version of himself. The fedora looks ridiculous on Mr Stiller, which prompts his friend to chide him about the age-inappropriate affectation: “You’re an old man with a hat.”
So, when exactly should a man stop wearing a hat? Mr Baumbach thinks for a moment and then responds, “Or start? In While We’re Young, the younger generation wears them to look more mature while Ben is wearing it to look younger.” It seems that in Mr Baumbach’s particular psychology, sometimes a hat is just a hat.
Fox Searchlight will release Mistress America in the UK and the US on 14 August.