The First Couple of Film: Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach Open Up on Their Personal and Professional Partnership
Photographed by Miller Mobley

The First Couple of Film: Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach Open Up on Their Personal and Professional Partnership

They've been together for eight years, and now, for the first time in Oscars history, romantic partners are both in serious contention for the best director trophy. In their first joint profile, the 'Little Women' and 'Marriage Story' filmmakers reveal how they are surviving the season and focusing on their future: "There's a sense of wanting to show off for each other."

Greta Gerwig is ordering breakfast. This will take a while.

"Scrambled eggs," she says, beginning a long slog through the menu, ordering, among other dishes, a full plate of avocado toast, a side of sauteed kale and a raft of bacon. "So many things," she marvels at her selections before adding a cup of coffee to the list. "With cream!" she shouts after the waiter.

By the end of this two-hour meal in the restaurant at the Marlton Hotel in Greenwich Village on a chilly November morning, Gerwig, 36, will leave not a single crumb uneaten. Meanwhile, her 50-year-old boyfriend of eight years, filmmaker Noah Baumbach, will sit quietly across the table, a bemused grin on his face, spooning into his own breakfast, a small bowl of Greek yogurt.

She's chatty and upbeat, her arms gesticulating wildly as she talks about her latest film — an adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's 1868 classic Little Women, which Sony is opening Christmas Day — with a rapid-fire delivery straight out of a Howard Hawks screwball comedy. He has the circumspect, buttoned-up demeanor of a character out of … well, a Noah Baumbach movie. In fact, he's wearing the exact same sort of light blue oxford shirt that Adam Driver gets all bloody in a pivotal scene in Marriage Story, Baumbach's latest film for Netflix that appears to be a cinematic deconstruction of his own messy 2010 divorce and custody battle with actress Jennifer Jason Leigh (the two have a 9-year-old son, Rohmer). 

Together today for their first joint profile interview, Baumbach is content to take the passenger seat, letting Gerwig steer the conversation where she will, even if she occasionally comes close to driving it off a cliff. "Am I rambling?" she asks him after a six-minute, mind-spinning monologue about superhero movies in which she invokes Plato and Duchamp. He assures her she is not.

Still, the two directors and life partners have something interesting in common (aside from their 9-month-old baby, Harold, who at the moment is supposed to be napping at their apartment not far from the restaurant). Both have well-reviewed films in this year's awards race. Competing films, some would say. Marriage Story just scored six Golden Globe nominations, the most of any film this year, and Little Women landed two. And though neither Gerwig nor Baumbach picked up Globe noms for best director, they both are expected to be in contention for the five Oscar slots. And that's a first: Never before have two directors who happen to be romantically involved delivered films in serious contention for the same trophies. The closest approximation was in 2010, when The Hurt Locker's Kathryn Bigelow and Avatar's James Cameron wrestled for that year's best picture and best director. But, of course, Bigelow and Cameron were long divorced by then (and Bigelow won both).

It's already making for some tricky awards-season moments, like at the Governors Awards in October, where Baumbach and Gerwig were seated at different tables. "They're asking me, 'Who do you want your plus one to be?' I'm like, 'What do you mean? Oh, Greta's over at the Sony table?' We just hoped we were close enough that we could reach over to each other," Baumbach says as he re-enacts the desire to physically connect by stretching across the table and touching Gerwig.

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Neither Gerwig nor Baumbach talks about the genesis of their romantic relationship. They deflect questions about how they fell in love with different tactics — she changes the subject with a blithe observation about an unrelated topic (Baumbach's inability to darn socks), he scowls and stirs his yogurt — each saying nothing in their own way.

Still, it's possible to piece together some of the story. They met in 2009 on the set of Baumbach's comedy-drama Greenberg, which he co-wrote with then-wife Leigh, who also played a supporting role. In previous interviews, Baumbach has said that his relationship with Gerwig began in 2011, a year after divorce proceedings with Leigh began. "I didn't really notice anything," says Ben Stiller of working with Baumbach and Gerwig on Greenberg — he starred as a loser brother who house-sits for his more successful sibling and ends up falling for a personal assistant (played by Gerwig). "She was kind of doing what she did and Noah was responding to it the same way he would respond to other actresses," says Stiller. "I was just trying to understand my own dynamic with him."

Adam Driver's character in Marriage Story — an $18 million film about a director's disintegrating relationship with his actress wife, played by Scarlett Johansson — wrecks his marriage by cheating with … a personal assistant. "It's not autobiographical," Baumbach insists when asked about the similarities between his life and the film. "It's personal. A David Lynch movie is the most personal filmmaking I could ever imagine. But nobody asks him if those things actually happened to him. It's all him. It's all his expression."

Gerwig jumps to her boyfriend's defense, revealing a difference between Baumbach and his onscreen alter ego. "Noah would never sing," she points out, referring to a scene in Marriage Story in which Driver belts out a melancholy rendition of Stephen Sondheim's "Being Alive" in front of supportive friends. "There's a few things."

The line between fact and fiction is one that Brooklyn-born Baumbach has straddled many times before. He explored his own post-college ennui in 1995's Kicking and Screaming, his parents' divorce in 2005's The Squid and the Whale — which earned him an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay — and his midlife crisis in 2014's While We're Young. It's a line Gerwig is familiar with, as well, having earned her first two Oscar nominations (director and original screenplay) for her autobiographical 2017 film Lady Bird, about a Catholic school girl coming of age in Gerwig's hometown of Sacramento, California, in the early 2000s. To hear her tell it, her new film contains elements of autobiography, too, despite the fact that Little Women was first published 115 years before she was born. "I've hidden things in there that no one will ever know how personal they are," she says.

Alcott's beloved novel about four sisters growing up in post-Civil War Massachusetts was a project that Gerwig had her eye on long before she'd written a word of Lady Bird — she'd been reading and rereading the book since she was a kid. "It was just a part of me," she's said. "These girls felt like my sisters, and their memories felt like my memories." So, when she heard from her longtime agent — UTA's Jeremy Barber, who, coincidentally, has also been Baumbach's rep since well before Baumbach and Gerwig met on Greenberg — that Sony was developing a remake, Gerwig finagled a meeting with Amy Pascal and convinced the film's producer to let her take a crack at the script. Two years later, after scoring five Oscar noms and $79 million in worldwide box office for Lady Bird, Sony's film chief, Tom Rothman, offered Gerwig the directing job, too, with a budget of $40 million. "She has two things — a very original vision and the conviction to execute it," says Rothman. "What made it exciting was her authorial vision, in the same way you can't really separate Quentin Tarantino as a writer and director."

Shooting Little Women in Massachusetts meant that Gerwig — then pregnant with Harold — and Baumbach had to spend the fall of 2018 mostly apart (he traveled back and forth by Amtrak on weekends as much as possible, and the two would walk the perimeter of Walden Pond together). But they're used to long separations. Just before Gerwig began scouting locations for her production, Baumbach was finishing up shooting on Marriage Story, which made even 2018's Oscar night something of a drag, despite Gerwig's Lady Bird noms. Baumbach had to be on a Los Angeles set at 6 a.m. the next morning to shoot a scene in which Driver's character picks up his son, who happens to be having a ball playing laser tag with his ex-wife's new boyfriend.

One of the advantages of directors dating each other, however, is that both parties are equally aware of just how draining a job it can be. Explains Baumbach, "You come home at 3 in the morning and you climb into bed and the other person's half asleep — you feel …"

"Lonely," Gerwig finishes his sentence.

"Wrecked and lonely and you don't even know if you got [the best footage]," he continues.

"The thing you want more than anything is for someone to just take care of you because shooting a movie is so much," Gerwig goes on. "But because we're both doing it, we haven't necessarily always been able to be the person who was there. Sometimes it's not completely possible."

And yet, sometimes it is. In the early years of their relationship, Gerwig and Baumbach collaborated on several projects. In 2012, they made Frances Ha (he directed, she starred and they wrote the screenplay together). In 2015, they made Mistress America (ditto). And right now, they're about to start working side by side on a film that will require both of their authorial visions to pull off: a screenplay for Warner Bros.' planned big-screen adaptation of Barbie. Yes, that Barbie, not exactly a prototypical indie film muse. With Margot Robbie set to play the iconic doll, Gerwig is loosely attached to direct. "Too early to talk about," she says of the project before tantalizingly hinting that "Warner Bros. is open to strange." Baumbach also is tight-lipped, though he brushes off concerns that co-writing a tentpole based on a plastic toy with improbable bust dimensions might tarnish his indie cred. "You're talking to the guy who wrote Madagascar 3," he quips, referring to his 2013 gig scripting lines for a lemur and other animated animals.

The couple joke about their brushes with mainstream moviemaking — Gerwig insists that studios "kind of don't bother" approaching them with tentpoles — but the fact is they are both more in demand than they let on, particularly these days. According to Barber, the two "are regularly approached for four-quadrant projects," separately and together. "They almost always get an early look," he says. "And while they have not yet chosen to make one of these movies, I wouldn't be surprised to see them at some point soon make one as a team or on their own."

At the moment, as their films collect critical accolades and compete for statuettes, their stock in Hollywood has never been higher. But, of course, over the years they have both suffered their share of setbacks. In 2012, HBO opted not to move forward with a series based on The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen's acclaimed novel, after Baumbach had shot an expensive pilot with an all-star cast (including Gerwig in a supporting role). And Gerwig had to wait those long two years before Sony would trust her to direct her own script for Little Women.

"We're both just grinding it out," Gerwig sums up how she views their current career status.

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Those close to the couple — like Laura Dern, who co-stars in both Marriage Story (as a cutthroat divorce attorney) and Little Women (as Marmee March) and who celebrated this Thanksgiving at their home — tend to marvel at their synchronicity. "They work so beautifully together, even when their work is separate," Dern says. "With Greta and Noah, you can't separate out the impact and influence [they have on each other] and how it impacts their individual work."

Stiller is equally awed. "I'm fascinated with them as a couple, that they're able to find a way to have a family and to make their own movies and to do it all at the same time," he says. "Pretty incredible."

Right now they’re also vying for directing Oscars at the same time. The race for best director already looks pretty crowded this year, with Tarantino, Sam Mendes, Martin Scorsese and Bong Joon Ho emerging as especially strong contenders (all four landed Golden Globe directing nominations). That could leave Gerwig or Baumbach to snag the fifth and final slot. Adding to the pressure, Gerwig has a shot at making history. Only five women, including Gerwig and Bigelow, have ever earned a best director nomination (Sofia Coppola, Jane Campion and Lina Wertmüller are the others). And no one has ever repeated the feat. No matter how much Gerwig and Baumbach downplay the potential stress the awards frenzy might put on their bond, it’s likely going to be a busy couple of months.

"It's exciting to have mutual acknowledgment of the work that he and I have both put into [our movies]," insists Gerwig when asked about professional rivalries between them. "There is a sense of wanting to show off for each other. At least on my part. I remember when I showed Noah cuts or drafts of Little Women. He's my favorite filmmaker and my favorite writer. It means everything to me that he thinks it's good."

Adds Baumbach, "When we're working on our own projects, we're always talking about them and showing each other things. I always feel very much a part of what she's done. [Little Women] is absolutely hers, but it's not like I woke up one day and this movie's in theaters. She's been talking about it for a few years. It feels like, 'How great that this is being recognized in the way that you hoped it would.' "

Still, only Marriage Story received a Golden Globe best picture nomination. On the morning that nominations were announced, Baumbach offered a diplomatic take. "Well, Greta made my favorite movie of the year, and I can't speak to the process beyond that."

Ironically, the one thing that could help them navigate a fraught awards season is the very fact that they're such different people, even as they share similar artistic ambitions. Baumbach is self-contained — even ordering that bowl of breakfast yogurt seemed to require an excruciating internal debate. Netflix's Scott Stuber, who became friends with Baumbach while he was promoting his first movie for the streamer, The Meyerowitz Stories, describes the director as "a deeply feeling, emotional person, even if he doesn't always show it." Gerwig, on the other hand, lets it all hang out, even if it's not always appropriate. During the Little Women shoot in Concord, for instance, Pascal threw a dinner party at the house she was renting. At one point in the evening, Gerwig got up from the table and fell asleep on a sofa in front of everyone. "Amy said, 'I've never seen someone just sleep like a child,' " Gerwig recalls. "But I felt fine about it."

Two wildly different directors, romantically involved, who happen to have critically acclaimed films competing for the same Oscars — it's not a bad premise for the sort of mainstream romantic comedy they've so far both avoided making. But given how deeply these filmmakers have drawn from their own personal stories to create their movies, it's not at all preposterous that someday a whip-smart rom-com might get made. Indeed, Baumbach and Gerwig say they expect to collaborate again on something personal at some point, and it sounds like it could be soon. Toward the end of the meal, as the waiter clears away the picked-clean plates, they start reminiscing about a road trip they once went on in Denmark. Gerwig being Gerwig, she suggested that they take a spur-of-the-moment detour to visit a castle that wasn't on the itinerary. Baumbach being Baumbach, he insisted that they call ahead to make sure the castle was open to visitors.

"It ended up being the perfect combination of his need to plan and my need to do things without knowing how they'll go," says Gerwig. "We ended up having a great time, which never would have happened if he hadn't embraced my 'let's just go' attitude. But if I hadn't embraced his 'let's call ahead,' then there might not have been any rooms for us to stay in. And it led to one of the funniest tours we've ever been on. There was this tour guide …"

"Don't tell the whole thing," Baumbach interrupts her. "We're going to put this in a movie."

"Yeah," Gerwig says, laughing, "we're putting this in a movie. Never mind."

This story first appeared in the Dec. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.