Before SXSW kicked off, I spoke with writer/director Noah Baumbach, who shared writing credits with his wife Jennifer Jason Leigh for his latest film, GREENBERG; a coming of age story about a guy (Ben Stiller) who’s way too old to be coming of age. It was a bittersweet phone interview as I was supposed to speak to him in person in New York, but both Noah and I got snowed out during that time. New York, I love you, but you almost brought me down.
In GREENBERG, Noah recruited LCD Soundsystem founder and frontman James Murphy to score original music for the film. So to start off the interview, my first few questions were geared toward that. After that, we dove into Noah’s process of balancing characters in his films and how Ben Stiller ended up taking the lead as Greenberg. Check out the full interview after the jump.
CW: Hey, Noah, how’s it going?
NB: Good, how are you?
I’m doing well…it’s nice to finally be able to talk to you. I was supposed to go to New York for the interview but the snow kept me from heading there.
Me too, so if you’d made it you wouldn’t have found me there.
Ha ha…let’s talk about GREENBERG, the first thing I want to talk about is the music. How did you and James [Murphy] come together to collaborate?
When I was writing GREENBERG, I was in L.A. and Jennifer and I were driving home from dinner one night [and] we heard [on satellite radio] “New York I Love You.” It felt like a companion voice to Greenberg’s and what I was writing. When I got home, I downloaded the whole record [“Sounds Of Silver”] and I felt like the whole record…[like] James was dealing with all these similar themes of aging and self-consciousness and friendship and anxiety. So I sought him out when I had a finished script. We really hit it off and became friends. It was one of those things that felt like a good idea at the time and turned out to be a good idea…it doesn’t always happen that way.
I agree. Using “All My Friends” was perfect for the trailer because that’s what the song’s about, making mistakes and growing older and like, “what do I do now?” and that’s the position Greenberg’s in. Since this is original music for him, did he score prior to seeing the scenes, or did you have him watch the scenes to get an idea?
He was actually in L.A. recording his [new] record when we were shooting, so he was on set. I showed him dailies and we talked a lot about music and the movie, but at that stage is was more theoretical. His studio happened to be a block away from where I was cutting in New York. It was very collaborative, he would come over and watch stuff and then send over things a day or two later…we would try things out. There’s a piano piece which is the first thing he wrote based on a feeling of what he’d seen so far but it wasn’t for any particular scene. Actually the scenes we ended up putting that piece in we didn’t cut until later. So in that case he was working sort of off a vibe he had for the movie but not a specific scene. Other stuff he wrote specifically for specific scenes…but because we were so near each other I could go over there or he could come over to me…it’s the way you really want to do it, sort of build it together.
Yeah, it came together really nicely…now let’s talk about the story of GREENBERG. Where did the idea come from?
Well, it really developed over time. I had early ideas of the characters Greenberg and Florence in my head. They were two people I wanted to write about and I also knew I wanted to put something in Los Angeles. Those are the major things I was looking at in the beginning. The story itself really developed over time. Jennifer [co-writer] had a lot of influence on that. It’s so much of a character study that calibrating the character development and coming up with the story and plot took a long time to find the right balance of how much story [or] how little story.
The title of the film is GREENBERG and that’s Ben Stiller’s character, but after seeing the film I thought the movie was more about Florence (Greta Gerwig) and her recent trials and tribulations [nod to James Murphy]. I’m not sure if that’s what you were going for or agree, but so I want to know if you wanted to focus more on either character and how did you balance that?
I’ve always looked at my movies as ensembles. Even GREENBERG. It’s not an ensemble so much as maybe a true character movie, but I don’t like it in movies where you have a lead character or characters and everybody else seems to just exist to function for the story to help the main character grow in some significant way. I like for a movie to be about the person that’s on screen no matter who it is and no matter how small the part. Particularly in a movie like GREENBERG, where Greenberg would like nothing more than the world to revolve around him and for the supporting characters to be there to gauge his personal growth, but the world doesn’t exist like that. You know when Florence is on screen it’s her movie, and even so as when she’s not on screen it’s her movie, and when Greenberg’s not on screen it’s his movie. I like to create an environment where they can share it and it doesn’t really matter whose story it is, as long as it’s satisfying, you want it to be a satisfying experience.
That was a fantastic answer. So when you and Jennifer were writing the script, was it originally intended for Ben to star as Greenberg?
We wrote it with no actors in mind, really just thinking of the character. However, when we initially wrote it, the character was [about 10 years] younger and it was very difficult to cast…Ben’s name kept coming up and I kept wishing Ben were younger because I felt like he would be perfect for it. And finally we gave it to Ben because we felt like he could play it. We could split the difference and he could play a 35 year old. After I gave it to Ben he felt the same way, that the character was too young. Inspired by Ben, Jennifer and I changed the age of the character and rewrote the script from really the ground up…a lot of the stuff was the same from draft to draft, but we really made significant changes and I think the script broadened and deepened in the process. And that’s the movie we made and in that way Ben was a real inspiration for the character in the movie, but it came towards the end of the process.
He was perfectly cast because it was such a unique role for him to play. Most people aren’t used to seeing him play such serious characters. Well…that’s all the time I have, it was nice talking to you, take care, man.
Thanks, you too.