Noah Baumbach is 40 years old. He just learned how to drive. A native New Yorker, the writer/director started spending time in Los Angeles when dating Jennifer Jason Leigh, now his wife, but for years he made do by bumming rides. "The idea of just getting in the car by myself — it's very difficult for me to think that way," Baumbach says. "It's some kind of immaturity, it's holding on to some kind of dependency from childhood."
But in the process of writing his new film, Greenberg, his first set in L.A. — where he now lives part-time — Baumbach began "to feel differently about the city, and see it as more of a home in a way."
So he signed up for lessons at the Dollar Driving School, on the recommendation of his agent's teenage daughter. "I went and took my test in the Valley, and the school double-booked, so it was me and this 16-year-old named Rio. Rio failed, unfortunately. I passed, but I barely passed.
"It's kind of major, learning to drive. I feel like it kicked up other stuff in my life."
Some of that "stuff" seems to have made it into Baumbach's new movie, which stars Ben Stiller as Roger Greenberg, a 40-ish New Yorker who comes to Los Angeles sans driver's license and becomes reliant on the kindness (and chauffeur services) of Florence (Greta Gerwig), his brother's 20-something personal assistant. Roger, a failed musician recently released from a psychiatric hospital and still holding on to an image of himself as a young rebel while his peers have grown up and settled down, is so self-involved that his wallowing plays as aggression. Florence, searching for an honest connection but stuck in a self-destructive pattern of "doing things just because they feel good," is drawn to what seems like vulnerability in Greenberg, hooked by his wild vacillation between neediness and cruel disinterest. "Hurt people hurt people," she tells him, wryly, resigned to this vicious cycle.
Baumbach says elements of Greenberg "kept popping up" in his writing, but a long gap between the wrap of his last film, Margot at the Wedding, and its fall 2007 release gave Baumbach time to flesh out a script. "I wasn't even sure who this guy was, but I knew he was so actively his own worst enemy. I see this in myself and I see it with a lot of people, but with Greenberg it's much more overt."
The Florence character has tones of what's come to be known as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG) — a young, eccentrically costumed sprite who saves a lovable loser from himself. Think Natalie Portman in Garden State, or Zooey Deschanel in anything. But while most modern indies use their MPDG as a catalyst for fairy tale–perfect romance, Greenberg offers up how such a character would function in real life.
"Those characters are always presented as saviors, but the reality is, they're getting some neurotic, perverse fulfillment, or lack of fulfillment, by getting involved with this asshole," Baumbach notes. And for a man caught in a real-life Florence's web, "those women are generally much more interesting because they're depressed and fucked up."
Greenberg gives Gerwig, the leading ingénue of recent American no-budget cinema, her inaugural role in a high-profile release. Baumbach first saw the actress starring in Hannah Takes the Stairs, Joe Swanberg's introspective, entirely improvised romantic roundelay, the linchpin of the micro-indie "mumblecore" movement. Though Baumbach's films often have a conversational realism that resembles improv, they're actually tightly scripted, and the filmmaker wondered whether Gerwig could work under such constraints.
"Clearly she had talent, but they're all making these lines up, and I didn't know how much of that was her doing herself. Could she do this with scripted stuff?" An audition in Baumbach and Leigh's New York apartment confirmed that she could. "She'd memorized the whole thing."
Gerwig's performance is short on actorly flourishes, and with her imperfect skin and unsculpted physique, her appearance on-screen is unlike that of the standard starlet. It was Baumbach's intention to present Florence as a realistically awkward young woman, somewhat out of place in the capital of superficiality, but perhaps he and his actress did too good a job. The Variety review published after Greenberg's Berlin Film Festival premiere described Gerwig as "a big young woman who's attractive enough," and expressed skepticism as to whether or not Gerwig was acting at all.
"The part is seemingly so un-acted that some people are going to write it off as, 'Oh, they found that girl in L.A.' — that Florence is a real person," Baumbach acknowledges. "But it's totally acted. Greta's really canny as an actor. She gained the weight for it. It's not naive. She knew what she was doing."
Like Gerwig, who was credited as a co-writer on the films she made with Swanberg, Baumbach first earned notoriety in his early 20s, with the now-classic post-college comedy Kicking and Screaming. But his two follow-up films, Mr. Jealousy and Highball, were barely seen pre-DVD (after a dispute with a producer, Baumbach took his name off the latter). He slipped off the radar as a director until 2005, when The Squid and the Whale, his memoir of his Brooklyn intellectual parents' divorce, earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
If Squid reignited Baumbach's career, Greenberg finds the filmmaker at a subtler moment of transition. Margot at the Wedding was both a box-office bomb and a critical failure (Baumbach says he no longer reads reviews: "The good ones don't feel very good anyway, and the bad ones don't feel good at all"), and the company that released it, Paramount Vantage, has been absorbed by its corporate parent. Meanwhile, Baumbach has refashioned himself as a big-brother type to a number of younger filmmakers, who have in turn influenced his own work.
It started when Baumbach mentioned in an interview that he had seen and liked Hannah Takes the Stairs. "Then Joe wrote me a note about Margot, and then we got on the phone together, and I said, 'If I could be of any help, I'll help you with whatever you want to do next, and you can do it your way.' "
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The result was Alexander the Last, directed by Swanberg and produced by Baumbach. "And I had met Andrew Bujalski, and then Aaron Katz called me when he was working on his next movie," being the highly anticipated Cold Weather, premiering this week at SXSW. Baumbach smiles sheepishly as he looks for the words to describe his relationship to this younger generation of writer-directors, and ends up sounding like a character from one of their films. "I was sort of happy to be ... of service, as the sort of mumblecore I-don't-know."
Though Baumbach and these young upstarts all technically make films independently, there's a significant gap in scale, market viability and cultural prominence between something like Greenberg — fronted by an A-list star and released by Focus Features, a subsidiary of NBC/Universal, which paid for an absurdly fashionable hotel suite in which to house this interview — and something like Cold Weather, made for less than a million dollars, rejected by Sundance, going to SXSW in search of increasingly elusive distribution. Baumbach says he finds the casual DIY ethos of filmmakers like Katz and Swanberg "inspiring." As he sees it, it's the industry stratum he occupies that's dying — the kids will be all right.
"Focus Features is sort of a dinosaur now, so if you're in the world of specialty divisions, you have, like, two places to go. To see these guys just making movies, and their sort of [attitude] — 'Oh, yeah, you want to see it? I'll send it to you' — I found that very liberating, in a way."
With Greenberg his sixth feature as writer/director, Baumbach says he has less trouble getting movies made than he has had in the past, but there's still pressure to graduate to a higher level. "Even fairly serious moviegoers can't shake this shadow of the corporate world. They'll say things like, 'When are you gonna make a real movie?' Like that's the next thing, the thing you obviously have to do."