Two decades into his career, Noah Baumbach carries the baggage of a body of work, and the rollout release of his While We’re Young gives venues the perfect excuse to show his oeuvre. Baumbach came to Boston earlier in March, accompanying a program that played Young alongside three earlier films (Kicking and Screaming, The Squid and the Whale, and Frances Ha.)
With the movies played back-to-back-to-back-to-back, their similarities scream out: the constant failure of language to bridge interpersonal gaps, the overbearingly intellectual fathers, the emotionally unstable mothers. One has to wonder if it’s all thinly veiled confessional, or a running diary—if the young mop-headed boy of Margot at the Wedding became Jesse Eisenberg in Squid and the Whale, who then became Josh Hamilton’s laconic layabout in Kicking and Screaming, who then became the perpetually disappointed Ben Stiller of Greenberg and While We’re Young.
“You work with the same actor twice, and you’re courting certain questions,” the 45-year-old auteur conceded to us a few hours before unveiling While We’re Young to a full house at the Brattle Theatre. “I make personal movies. I feel like I’m working in a tradition of filmmakers who, when I saw their movies, I would want to know what was true, or not true. Woody Allen plays with it. In literature, Philip Roth plays with it. What are their lives like? I think it comes somewhat naturally if you’re writing from experience—that other layer is always there. And it somehow keeps finding its way to the surface when I make these things.”
Another thing finding its way to the surface in his films is a noted anxiety about creating fiction out of friends and family. In more than half of them, one character berates another for using them as fodder for novels and stories. And that becomes the instigating incident in While We’re Young: Adam Driver plays Jamie, a hotshot documentarian who slowly manipulates Stiller’s older pro, both in front of and behind the camera.
The director sets to work mining humor from the generation gap—the older couple dances awkwardly to “Hit ‘Em Up,” the younger couple fetishize vinyl and VHS—but he wasn’t setting out to make a millennial statement. The film may feature jokes about a slip-n-slide wedding in Harlem, but he’s never been to one. Baumbach didn’t even bother trying to get some of his generational signifiers “correct”: he stole them from 50-year-old movies.
“Jamie’s wardrobe is designed after one in the Rohmer movie La Collectionneuse,” he admits with a laugh, when asked where he did all his Brooklyn-hipster research. “I just picked things I found interesting and compelling. We made up our own thing … I knew that if I was going to try to really depict Brooklyn youth culture, I would fail miserably. And it would date immediately.”
The same maxim applies to the rest of the film: Baumbach stuck to what he knows. The premise may have you expecting era-appropriate EDM, but it’s mostly Vivaldi, and score music taken from the soundtrack of a Francois Truffaut film. (The Wild Child, appropriately enough—a movie about a young savage boy’s relationship with the older gentleman who nobly aims to socialize him.)
“Sometime it’s very simple, like with a score. ‘This worked once really well, and maybe I can just use it again.’ Quentin [Tarantino] does that. And Wes [Anderson] did it with The Darjeeling Limited. Movies are part of my experience. So those things find their way in—in the same way that I’ll find myself shooting on a street or in a restaurant that I feel a connection to, or find myself using a friend as a party guest. It feels of a world that I understand.”
Even Baumbach’s description of his own movie calls back to the work of others: “I felt like I was doing a Lubitsch-style comedy-of-remarriage movie,” he explains while trying to pin down the somewhat-gentle tone of his otherwise caustic comedy. What starts as friendship between peers becomes a working relationship, and then becomes a family feud, with the two mens’ partners (Amanda Seyfried and Naomi Watts) interceding. Everyone is working on one film or another, and everyone’s stealing from each other—their lines, their subjects, their wives. So it’s only natural that the artist pulling the strings is borrowing his own material from everyone else.
“When I’m working on something, particularly writing, everything filters through that: ‘Does this [life experience] work for [the story I’m telling?]’ People who know me and who love me are aware of it,” he says. “There’s a few lines in While We’re Young that I stole from Greta [Gerwig]. I got a question last night in Chicago about how Jamie quotes Oscar Wilde: Be yourself; everyone else is already taken. But I got that off a t-shirt! I didn’t know it was Oscar Wilde—it just seemed pretty smart.”
“There are things that, obviously, I can’t take without asking, or things that I would never consider taking because it’s not appropriate … but I’ll steal a line from anybody if it’s good.”
WHILE WE’RE YOUNG. DIRECTED BY NOAH BAUMBACH. NOW PLAYING. WHILE-WERE-YOUNG.COM