Q&A: Noah Baumbach


Brooklyn-born Noah Baumbach turns to Los Angeles for the first time for the setting of his new film "Greenberg." Using an original story he devised with his wife, actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, the film follows a forty-something character, Roger Greenberg, played by Ben Stiller, who claims to be "doing nothing." He's given up on his early dream of a career as a musician when he agrees to housesit at his brother's Hollywood Hills home, where he meets a young, aspiring singer, played by Greta Gerwig, who works as a personal assistant to his brother's family. Baumbach talked with THR's Gregg Kilday about casting Ben Stiller, the films he looked at for inspiration and his first visit to the Berlinale.

The Hollywood Reporter: Where did the idea for the movie come from? Do you and Jennifer sit down and toss ideas around?

Noah Baumbach: It came about a little less directly than that. It wasn't really planned in any particular way. I had started writing about this character, and I showed Jennifer a very early draft. It was partly formed, but it had a lot of things that are still in the movie. She had all these great ideas about it. She was able to help me to see what the story was in a way that was much more satisfying. This is something she does anyway. I always show her things I'm working on. Her insights were so crucial that she became more involved in a more formal way.

THR: Is this a character that could only exist in Los Angeles or could you have set it in any city?

Baumbach: I always wanted it to be in Los Angeles. I do not have a good answer why. But simultaneously, I had this character who can't get out of his own way, who makes everything in his life much more difficult for himself. At the same time I wanted to shoot a story in Los Angeles and shoot Los Angeles like a real city. It came together and it seemed like the right character for the right city.

THR: In L.A., you certainly see lots of people who come out to be part of the business, never quite make it and then just drift along.

Baumbach: That's certainly a common experience. There are a lot of pepole who find themselves floating out there, but this story is not about the movie business. He's not looking to get into the business or anything. I really wanted to focus more on L.A. outside of the industry. I feel Los Angeles in the movies is either seen as a Hollywood town or a sort of generic city. I wanted to look at it as city that's unique to itself.

THR: Did you write with specific actors in mind?

Baumbach: No, I generally don't. But it came time to think about who was going to play Roger Greenberg, and Ben (Stiller) seemed like one of the only people who could, but I didn't write it with any particular person in mind. In fact, the first draft I showed him the chracter was younger. I had originally written the character as 10 years younger.

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THR: Since this is such a character-driven movie, do you have any concerns that Stiller brings with him a fan base that will be looking for a broader kind of comedy.

Baumbach: I didn't worry about it in casting him. But it's something that Focus (the film's distributor) has definitely thought a lot about, and I think that's an important challenge. But I really just wanted to get the best person for the part.

THR: How did you come to cast Greta Gerwig, who's not as well known?

Baumbach: I'd seen Greta in a couple of these smaller movies, a couple of these mumblecore movies. My only concern was that those movies are so largely improvised, and I didn't know if she could do the same kind of thing with something that's entirely scripted. Jennifer and I had her over and auditioned her, and it was kind of immediate; she was so good. I felt like I wished we could have shot the audition. I didn't know if she could sing, but she sang in the audition. I want someone who could sing, but not someone who, when they start singing, sounded like they are trained for musical theater.

THR: When you're filming, I understand you don't use any kind of video playback, which has become common these days.

Baumbach: Part of it comes from the necessity of my backgroud. All of my movies have been made on a budget, and I've had to make every day count. Video playback takes more time out of the day because you are watching things over. I just got used to not using it. For me, you kind of get the feeling of a scene. Obviously, it's helpful on an action movie where you have some complicated shot that needs to be recreated in some other way. But up until now, the movies that I've made, I haven't felt the absence of it. When I first started to make movies, they would set up a video monitor, not playback then, down the hall and to then go talk to actors, you'd have to walk half a mile. I stay as close as possible to the camera as I can.

THR: What was it like shooting all around the city. In your last film, "Margot at the Wedding," you spend much of your time in and around one house.

Baumbach: I really enjoyed it. We do have a house because the character's house-sitting in the movie. But we moved around a lot the first few weeks, and then we were able to land at the house. We also stole a lot of stuff; we put Ben on streets for real. The character doesn't drive, so there's a lot of walking in Los Angeles. We used a long lens and a camera in a van and followed him around. There's a kind of energy I find on location and in movies where the actors are shot on the real streets. That was something that was done in the '70s a lot more. But sometimes you get an energy in those shots that you don't get when you plan out everything. Of course, you're also leaving it up to chance -- you can have a car drive in front of the actor and drive you crazy -- but I think it's worth it.

THR: How is the look of this movie compared to your previous films?

Baumbach: Those movies were almost entirely handheld and have a rougher hewn, more deliberately ragged quality to them. They have that kind of documentary quality. This one we shot wide-screen. It's more formally shot. It's not handheld at all. The environment of Los Angeles is a huge part of the movie, so a lot of the movie, you really feel its influence on the characters.

THR: You looked at Robert Altman's "The Long Goodbye" before you started filming. Was that the look you were going for?

Baumbach: Not literally. That movie flashed the film, and it has a very distinct look. We experimented with flashing in tests, but we didn't end up going that way. But what I really liked about that movie is that it has such a distinct sense of the city for me. So it was more for inspiration than looking to do anything directly similar. We looked at a bunch of those movies that, to me, had a sense of the city. But I also looked at movies like "Midnight Cowboy" that were shot in New York, because, again, I felt it had such a distinct sense of place. It was more a kind of energy and vibe that was important to me than any kind of direct borrow.

THR: Have you brought any of your films to Berlin before?

Baumbach: No, this is my first time there, but my sense is that this is a great place for this movie to play. I feel like all my movies have a certain kind of European sensibility to them even though I've played more in American festivals. So I think this is sort of great.