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Greenberg: A conversation With Writer-Director Noah Baumbach

By Drew Tewksbury; Photo By: Wilson Webb on March 23, 2010


Greenberg: A conversation With Writer-Director Noah Baumbach

Few directors can tackle insecurity, existential crises and serious emotional baggage with the lighthearted finesse of Noah Baumbach. Whether it’s a well-dressed fox who can’t give up chicken thieving, an overeducated ’80s family with underdeveloped communication skills or college grads who just want to hang, Baumbach deftly switches between melodrama and humor like a tennis pro switches from forehand to backhand. In short, Baumbach makes melancholy marvelous.

In Baumbach’s latest effort, Greenberg, Ben Stiller plays an emotionally fractured New Yorker, Roger Greenberg, who tries to regain his mental balance by house sitting his younger brother’s lavish Los Angeles home. Greenberg’s only goal: do nothing. But instead of rediscovering his emotional center, Greenberg’s life is upturned when he becomes romantically involved with his brother’s personal assistant, Florence (Greta Gerwig). Almost half Greenberg’s age, the aimless Florence looks to him for stability, but together they’re an awkward, slightly endearing mess. Back in L.A. after a long absence, Greenberg’s past reemerges as he confronts the friendships that faded as well as the lover he lost, played by Baumbach’s wife and Greenberg producer/co-writer Jennifer Jason Leigh. When Greenberg contacts his old bandmate, Ivan (Rhys Ifans), Greenberg obsesses over his decision to break up their band on the brink of success. Surrounded by the effects of his choices, and a now unfamiliar youth culture, Greenberg is an anachronistic man trying to withstand the inertia of time.

Like all of Baumbach’s movies, Greenberg’s soundtrack acts as both character and setting. At times it antagonizes, drawing attention away from the action, while other times it carries the story. For a film about musicians, Greenberg’s soundtrack could not be an afterthought, and Baumbach put the important task of scoring the movie into the hands of LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy. Baumbach worked closely with Murphy, who is a newcomer to the art of film scoring, to find the right sound for the Greenberg’s unique vibe.

Baumbach was not hesitant to bring in other up-and-coming players, including Mark Duplass—actor, director and one of the founders of the lo-fi “Mumblecore” film movement—and Greta Gerwig, Duplass’ friend and frequent co-star. In the end, both left behind the largely improvisational, one-take ethic of their Mumblecore background for the detailed writing of Baumbach’s introspective and absurdly funny meditation on identity, aging and second chances.  Here, we visit with Baumbach to talk about being in bands, resuscitating friendships and when to give up on your dreams.

One of the central themes of Greenberg is deciding when to relinquish your dreams. Do you encounter this problem often in your real-life experiences?
I’ve seen it with friends and in my own life. People deal with it all the time. There are the bigger ones: people who wanted to be a rock star but became a computer programmer. I think the movie deals with the smaller, more hidden aspects of your hopes and idea of yourself, as opposed to how you really are or how things have turned out. I think it’s a major thing for a lot of people.

Why do you think being in a band is such an important, and sometimes emotional, part of young men’s lives?
At some point, most boys and young men fantasize about being in a band. I know lots of people in artistic professions who have been in bands, no matter what they went on to do later. It’s something that they start or pretend to start but never finish. I say this although I’ve never been in a band—I have no talent, that’s why. If I had some talent, maybe I would have…

Have you seen friendships dissolve over band conflicts?
I think a band is a good way to explore the intricacies of friendship, particularly male friendships that turn into commerce. I have a lot of experience with young friendships that, as we started to inch into the professional world, became really affected and hurt by the transition. We were all too young to handle it. We all got into these things as friends, as potential artists with the right intentions, and then something else happened when the air of professionalism dissolves.

The landscape of this movie is very L.A. With The Squid and the Whale it was very Brooklyn. How did the landscape influence this story, or was it the other way around?

The goal was to make it in L.A., but to make L.A. look like a real city, in the way I experience it. My wife, Jennifer, was integral in making that happen. She grew up here and in a lot of ways my acclimation to the city comes through her seeing it as a hometown. I think it’s helped me appreciate Los Angeles a little more.

How did you get involved with James Murphy?
When I was writing Greenberg in L.A. and missing New York, Jennifer and I were in the car and Murphy’s song, “New York, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down,” came on. I think I was intimated by the song, because it addresses something so directly. I was like, “Who does this guy think he is?” I loved it. I hadn’t heard of LCD Soundsystem and somehow missed the whole “Daft Punk is Playing at My House”-era. I started listening to Sound of Silver a lot when I was working on Greenberg because it felt like another Greenberg-esque voice. Murphy was dealing with a lot of things—aging, identity, self-consciousness—things that I was tackling in Greenberg. It was an inspiration in that way.

Greta Gerwig’s character in this film, a woman in her 20’s trying to find herself in the world, is pretty dead-on for people dealing with quarter-life crises. It’s almost too close to home for a lot of us. How did you develop her character?

She’s a person I knew really well but I hadn’t seen in movies. I didn’t know exactly how to get her in the movie, but when I figured out that she’d be a personal assistant, then it expanded the character. Greta understood it implicitly. She was incredible in her past movies, which were unscripted, but I didn’t know if she would act the same way in a scripted movie. I didn’t want any improvising, but she was so prepared and knew all the lines that I didn’t have to worry. She was so in tune with the character that I often just got out of her way.
In the film, Gerwig does embarrassing scenes with great ease. How does one manufacture awkwardness?
The script is the root of the awkwardness, and I try to lay the script out as true as I can. If the actors are being truthful, it takes care of itself.Greenberg is so afraid of embarrassment and so much of what he does is a way to hide and protect himself. Florence, on the other hand, is ready to take people at face value and rolls with the punches. She is open to embarrassment because she is not afraid of it. So when you have two characters in a room like that, it makes awkwardness more likely.

Ben Stiller has been described as a meticulous actor. In what ways did that present itself in the making of this film?
Ben is super prepared and works as hard as anybody. You want everybody to work that hard, and I think it rubs off on people. I chose Ben because I wanted someone who knew what was funny even if he wasn’t playing funny. He had to see the funniness underneath. Jeff Daniels was the same way in The Squid and the Whale. 

For the characters, the scenes are extremely serious, but for the audience, we think it’s funny. Is that absurdity intentional?

I’m trying to get to what’s authentic in a moment. I am interested in how smaller moments in our lives have huge impacts. It’s all about the little moments, not the big ones.  I had so many friends who moved to L.A. to live their rock and roll dreams and it just didn’t happen. I think Noah, as a writer, addresses the periphery of emotional flux. Most writers invest in the opera or the intense cacophony, but Noah observes a change in the human psyche that happens on the periphery. That’s what I responded to with this script. To play a guy with broken dreams who was trying to address his future with a limp of the ambition of his past. It’s a huge conflict to jettison your dreams and address your reality. F