Filmmaker Noah Baumbach is no stranger to mining his own life for material to use in his movies, and now that he's in his mid-40s, it makes sense that his newest film deals with aging and creativity.
That movie is "While We're Young," which stars Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts as a married couple who grapple with the fact that they're just not as young as they used to be, a reality made even more clear when they befriend a young couple played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried.
When Baumbach joined us on The Frame, he spoke with host John Horn about notions of creative genius, cathartic filmmaking, and the frightening realization that you're no longer the youngest person in the room.
Were you thinking about age, young people, and the difference between the two when you started writing this?
Yeah, that's about what I was thinking about [laughs] — that realization that you're no longer the youngest person in the room. I started out pretty young — I was 25 when I made my first movie — and I was used to people always looking at me and saying, "Oh, you're such a baby," and being ahead of the game in my head.
And then I just realized that I felt a long way from 25. Ben's character has a line in the movie when he's trying to convince his wife to go hang out with these young people, and he [says], "We were just 25. Well, we weren't, but, you know." [laughs] I think most people have that feeling of, "I was just 25."
So are you trying to put on paper, and then on screen, some of the emotions you were feeling? Was that process therapeutic?
I've done enough therapy in my life that I think it's the therapy that, in some cases, reveals these stories to me. Making them is not so much therapeutic — it might be cathartic, but not so much therapeutic.
But I also wanted to work in a traditional, comedic form. The movie in some ways is a traditional comedy of re-marriage, and I was thinking about movies [I saw] when I was a kid ... like Mike Nichols, or Sydney Pollack, or James L. Brooks might make. I wanted to make my own version of that kind of movie.
This movie seems to be really interested in the idea of collaboration — not just artistic collaboration, but also collaboration in a marriage. As somebody who generally writes and directs alone, when did the idea of collaboration get into this film?
On one hand, the movie is essentially about marriage and about how a marriage survives over time, so I was thinking a lot about collaboration in a marriage and gender roles, as well as introducing these different generational takes on creative work.
I was thinking about different notions of collaboration, and I grew up — and Ben's character grew up — more in a time when there was this notion of "creative genius," that artists went into a room, created, and then came out with gold.
I think Adam's character in the movie is much more open to taking ideas from everybody, and there's a kind of devouring everything he comes across that initially inspires Ben's character and then ultimately horrifies him.
But as a filmmaker, this is a huge issue, this idea of appropriation and collage, of taking everything that's out there, as opposed to authoring something. Have you thought about this as a filmmaker, how this idea has been evolving over time?
The funny thing is that, because I'm more of Ben's generation, people assume I take Ben's side in this. But as a creative person I have much more in common with Adam's character. I'll take any good idea I can get and I'll put it in my script and put my name on the cover page. [My attitude is], You said that at dinner yesterday, but now it's mine. [laughs]
I'm ruthless about it, and people who know me know that if they're going to say [something], it's probably fair game. [laughs] I've even lost some friends along the way or had some bumps with friends because of this. And I think most creative people are that way. I think Ben's idea of creativity is idealistic and unrealistic, which bears out in the movie. He's having a hard time making anything.
I saw this movie with a friend, and when she left the theater she said, "This is an incredibly pessimistic film," but I said, "It's actually incredibly optimistic." Was the fact that we disagree exactly what you're after?
I guess so. [laughs] I was hoping that you were going to say that it was optimistic. I think it's a hopeful movie, but I've gotten used to that now.
I remember when I first showed "Squid and the Whale" to some people — there were scenes that I thought were just so funny, and nobody was laughing. And afterwards they talked about how disturbing they found the scenes. [laughs]
And then I got that with "Margot at the Wedding" even more, so I've stopped trying to predict how people are going to react, because I'm often wrong. But I'm with you in this case — I think it's a hopeful movie.