Noah Baumbach on Greenberg, Wes Anderson, and Life With Jennifer Jason Leigh

05/23/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Welcome back to the Wood, a whenever I want column where I give Hollywood a hard time. You're in luck, though. Today you get the listen to someone worthwhile. Don't get too excited -- I'll be back soon with my nonsense.

I got to interview one of my favorite guys in the biz, Squid and The Whale and Greenberg writer/director Noah Baumbach. Greenberg is in theaters now. Go see it -- I promise you've never seen this Ben Stiller.

I confess to having a bit of a man crush on Noah Baumbach. Can you blame me? The guy eloquently shapes his sentences with a nearly aristocratic intellectualism, all the while fanning and adjusting his perfect "just sailed in" writer's hair. He lives in Brooklyn; he works and hangs out with Wes Anderson, and frequently collaborates with his beautiful and talented wife. He makes the movies he wants to make, he loves what he does, and you would be hard-pressed to find an actor in town that wouldn't want to work with him.

What a dick. Sorry. Clearly talking about it is turning my budding director man crush into an ugly jealousy complex. In fairness, Noah's a hard guy not to be jealous of. But in talking to him you may learn that what he values far more than awards, access and accolades is his ability to tell stories that are personal to him. If Michael Bay makes movies in the "blow shit up" medium, Noah Baumbach tells stories in the personal medium.

We talked about Greenberg and his movies, but I wanted to get right into his sweet spot and talk about more personal things, like working with his wife and his relationship to producer Scott Rudin. He is after all, an expert.

Enjoy the interview, and be sure to go see Greenberg if you haven't already.


Q: What is Greenberg about?
A: Oh boy. I don't know that I can answer that, it takes me an hour and 46 minutes of film to say it. I don't know I can make sense.

Q: Fair enough. Is Ben Stiller's Greenberg character based on anyone?
A: He's not based on anyone in particular. There were elements of this character that I kept exploring in different half written things over the years. There was a play I wrote that had a character that had some of the elements Greenberg had. For whatever reason I started writing a movie about him, I had this idea of him in LA. I was really interested in this person who was still holding on to an idea of himself that was no longer true and a guy who is his own worst enemy.

Q: How did Ben Stiller approach a character like this? It seems like a departure from some of his more obvious comedic stuff.
A: He really attacked it, he came at it head on. It was really fun for both of us. We rehearsed for quite some time; we went through the whole script, every line. What you see in the movie is really a 50/50 collaboration between the two of us. I gave my words and guidance in some places, but it's something he really internalized and made his own.

Q: Hollywood has some how levied an unspoken (and stupid) rule to not make movies about jerks. What makes Greenberg sympathetic to you? How do you reconcile that?
A: I always saw Greenberg as sympathetic because he can't get out of his own way. I find that very sympathetic. He's his own problem. When he lashes out at people or says hurtful or insensitive things, I think it's so clearly coming from a place of vulnerability and insecurity. It's something the Florence character sees in him and that's part of the reason the movie starts with Florence. In some ways she sees Greenberg the way I see him, I find it funny and moving. You know, you can't help but be a jerk sometimes.

Q: Tell me about it. Greta Gerwig is so good and natural in this movie. What was working with her like? You mentioned rehearsing extensively with Ben Stiller; how much did you rehearse with her?
A: We rehearsed in a different way. For Greta's audition, she came in and read for my wife and I at our apartment, and I could have shot the movie at that moment with her. She was so good so quickly that in a lot of ways I would be holding my breath that she wouldn't some how lose it by the time we started shooting. She and I spent a lot of time talking about the character, about her life, and where she was at different points in the script. I rehearsed Ben and her together, too, but I didn't want to rehearse them too much, I didn't want them to get too familiar with each other -- in the movie they're just getting to know each other.

Q: You wrote two of my favorite movies, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Fantastic Mr. Fox with Wes Anderson. I'm sure this is a long answer, but what's working with Wes like?
A: Wes' and I's writing relationship is a product of our friendship. He's the only person outside of my wife I've ever written with. It never felt like writing so much as it felt like playing. It was something we were doing anyway; we would have dinner and laugh about stuff and come up with ideas and think "that would be great for a movie," and at a certain point we started doing it and recording it. I'm sure it's difficult for anyone to describe why you're friends with somebody; same goes for working with Wes. I think we see things very distinctly, our own way, but we share a lot. The same things make us laugh and are interesting to us, we like a lot of the same movies.

Q: Speaking about laughing, I thought Margot at the Wedding was absolutely hilarious. I have to ask who Nicole Kidman's character is based on, because I have my own answer. That answer is my mother.
A: (Laughs). Yes it's based on your Mom, you're right. I don't know, all these characters come out of my imagination but there are also elements in them of people I know, people I've seen. They come from everywhere.

Q: Scott Rudin produces most of your movies. How valuable is he to your process and your films?
A: He's invaluable. Scott is so smart about material. Scott will read a draft of something I've written and he'll say something about it that will suddenly crystallize for me what the movie is. Maybe before it felt more intuitive for me, or I was still figuring stuff out until he just describes it in a way that's so clear and great. He's a great producer with great cast ideas. I work with him every step of the way. I'd be a fool not to.

Q: You frequently collaborate with your pitch perfect wife Jennifer Jason Leigh. What's it like working with your partner in that capacity?
A: Not unlike what I was saying about Wes, she and I naturally collaborate on things. Even on The Squid and the Whale, she doesn't have a credit but she was a great sounding board for me, had ideas, read drafts, came on set, looked at cuts of the movie, et cetera. She's so decisive and smart about story and movies that I bring things to her anyway. With Greenberg, I brought her something in an earlier stage and she had so many ideas for it that I thought she should just get involved in an official way.

Q: You're a very personal filmmaker. If you had to say, which of your films do you feel the most personally connected to?
A: Hmm. That's a good one. I think each one as I'm doing it feels entirely personal; I don't measure them against each other in that way, when they're done, they're done and I move away from them. Maybe in 15 or 20 years I'll be able to look at some of these movies and say "oh that movie was much more personal than I realized." But right now it's very hard, especially when you make them in some succession. I enter the world of them as I'm doing them, and I take a little while to shake that off, and then I do another one.