“You Always Need a Buddy on a Movie:” Noah Baumbach on Mistress America and Trust in Moviemaking

Is Noah Baumbach the manic moviemaking factory his filmography suggests?

Mistress America, a modern screwball comedy about a college freshman (Lola Kirke) finding her way in New York City, is the director’s second feature film to premiere in less than a year after this March’s While Were Young. The film also marks yet another collaboration with co-writer/star (and Baumbach’s romantic partner) Greta Gerwig, who reprises the same roles from their previous, excellent Frances Ha (2012).

Hearing Baumbach relay the process of making his latest release, it appears that “busy” is the byword of his professional life. Since his Best Original Screenplay Academy Award nomination for The Squid and the Whale in 2005, the director has helmed six feature films, all of which he had a hand in writing, and co-written a handful more. He’s debuting De Palma, his new Brian De Palma documentary made with director Jake Paltrow, in a few weeks at the Venice International Film Festival. Time not spent on some phase of production, it would seem, is time wasted.

To meet him, though, Baumbach is surprisingly calm, even stoic presence—totally unlike his temperamental recent protagonists. He speaks patiently, with the steady attention to detail of a man accustomed to choosing his words with a curator’s care. After all, based on the consistent quality of his creative output, it seems he’s managed to distinguish the difference between “busy” and “hurried.”

We got Baumbach to discuss balancing his complicated creative life, the ballooning implications of shooting digital, and his wholehearted belief in repeated collaboration. He also avows the agonizing inertia that lies in wait at both ends of any project, whether it be the hollow stare of a script’s first blank page… or the aching torment of waiting for Ben Stiller.

Greta Gerwig as "Brooke" and Lola Kirke as "Tracy" in MISTRESS AMERICA. Photo by David Feeney-Mosier. © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Greta Gerwig as Brooke and Lola Kirke as Tracy in Mistress America. Photo by David Feeney-Mosier

Kerry O’Conor, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): What other films were you watching or thinking about when you were making Mistress America?

Noah Baumbach (NB): I don’t think we actually watched a lot of these movies while we were working on Mistress America. We more had them in mind. I think your memory of a movie informs your interpretation more than actually looking at it again. Because sometimes your memory of a movie is not even accurate, and sometimes that’s OK.

Mistress America had two primary touchstones. One was a handful of movies from my young adolescence. New York movies, like After Hours and Something Wild or Desperately Seeking Susan. I was just old enough to be seeing R-rated movies. There was almost a Reagan-Era, reactionary subgenre of films then, in which yuppies are taken into some kind of downtown counterculture and their lives are transformed, and those were the kinds of movies that excited me at the time. That was somehow related to the story of this film, and the relationship of its characters to New York City. Then there’s a screwball comedy element to Mistress America, which brought to mind the ’30s and ’40s comedies: Howard Hawks, Ernst Lubitsch, George Cukor movies.

MM: Have you ever found it hard to finance subtle, low-concept films like yours?

NB: I’ve been lucky in that since The Squid and the Whale, pretty much everything I’ve set out to do I’ve found the money for and done. But I’m very conscious in making these things that budgets don’t put pressure on the movies to be something they’re not. Even small movies cost a lot of money. It’s a big investment for anybody. So I’m always appreciative of it, and I feel a kind of responsibility to make my films both in a way that’s going to make the investor feel good that they invested, and that will allow me to continue to make films.

Mistress America was financed by RT Features, the same people who had financed Frances Ha. Right after we finished Frances Ha, we had a window. I was waiting for Ben Stiller, because we were going to make While Were Young together, but he was making The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and because he was directing it, he had a longer commitment. Greta and I had this script, so we went back to RT and said, “We want to do another one, but we’re not going to be able to finish it all at once.” I knew I was going to have to stop and make While Were Young, so we built this break into Mistress America. We shot it, and I actually got a pretty good cut of the movie, but it wasn’t finished-finished. Then I just had to leave it and go make While Were Young from start to end before I went back and finished Mistress America.

Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts in While We're Young

Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts in While We’re Young. Courtesy of A24

MM: How did it feel to leave it and then come back?

NB: Well, it wasn’t an ideal situation. But then, once I really got into While Were Young, I was able to get into that space; they’re both my material. It was also kind of nice to come back to Mistress America. There were things that needed time to figure out. I mean, I didn’t change much; I just tightened it a little bit. It also gave me time to get the music right.

MM: How do your funding conversations usually go?

NB: Squid was really the last time where the script kind of went everywhere. I think it was ultimately financed by like three different entities. It was like a patchwork. We made it for whatever we could get. It was budgeted at this and we ended up making it for that. At a certain point, I just ended up saying, “You know what? Let’s just make it. It may not be the perfect scenario, but what’s the old expression? ‘Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.’”

And the movie I made after that, Margot at the Wedding, was Paramount [Vantage]—their specialty division, which no longer exists—and then Universal through Focus—which is now a different company than it was then—financed Greenberg, and then Frances and Mistress have both been RT and While We’re Young was through IAC, with my producer Scott Rudin.

MM: Jennifer Lame has edited your last three films. Can you describe the editing process the two of you share?

NB: She edits it with me. Usually I’m sitting on the couch, and she’s in front of me on the computer, and we watch the rushes or look at selects. I’m involved. She’s my editor, but I stay. She and I have now done three movies in a row, so she’s very involved from the early stages. Even before it’s shot, I’ll show her the script, and we’ll talk about it from an editorial standpoint. I’ll talk to her throughout the shoot, as she’s watching the dailies. We’re very much in sync; I really trust her opinion, on everything from performance to rhythm.

Greta Gerwig makes a grand entrance as Brooke in Mistress America. Photo by David Feeney-Mosier

Gerwig makes a grand entrance in Mistress America. Photo by David Feeney-Mosier

MM: You seem to carefully cultivate these long-term collaborative artistic relationships. Do you find working with the same people is conducive to your filmmaking process?

NB: Yeah, I think it is. Film is so collaborative. Even if you write and direct, you’re still going to [air-quotes] “war” with these people. Mike Nichols said to me once, “You always need a buddy on a movie.” And that person could come from different places, and sometimes it’s a few buddies. But I know what he meant. I think it’s important to have somebody who you feel is watching the movie in a similar way, so that over the long course of making a movie you can ask, “Does this work at all?”

MM: You shot Mistress America on an ARRI Alexa Plus, but as in Frances Ha, there’s a textured look to the visuals. How do you achieve that?

NB: Speaking of collaboration, both the cinematographer, Sam Levy, who shot all three of these movies with me, and I used the same colorist, a guy named Pascal Dangin. We do a lot of tests in preparation for it. But it’s not like a uniform thing, I think it’s two-fold. On one hand, I think it’s about bringing texture and depth. Digital, as good as it is now, can feel, at worst, like a flat synthetic image. But you also need to honor the medium. I don’t think trying to “make it film” is the right way to go, because it’s never going to be that. If that’s what you want, you should just shoot on film. Frances was the first time I had ever shot digitally, so it was a whole new thing for me, and that film is also in black and white, so it took a decent amount of manipulation in post to create the look that we want.

Director Noah Baumbach and DP Sam Levy on the set of Mistress America. Photo by David Feeney-Mosier

Director Noah Baumbach and DP Sam Levy on the set of Mistress America. Photo by David Feeney-Mosier

MM: What is the look you want?

NB: It’s different with each movie. When you shoot digitally, there’s so much room to manipulate, to change things. In a way that’s how it’s designed, as this sort of template for what you can do later. That’s what people who make movies with a lot of effects have been doing for quite some time, but it’s true to every kind of movie that’s shot digitally. Not to minimize what the DP does, or what you’re doing on set, but now I think you have to approach all of that knowing what you’re going to do afterward. Whereas with film—yes, when you tested film you’d still take it all the way to the answer print, just to see what it would look like, but you could only do so much.

MM: You’re one of the most prolific directors working today. Do you find that making films in such quick succession is helpful to your process?

NH: I’ve had two movies come out this year. That’s a rarity, and it sort of makes it seem like I’m making these things at a clip. I mean, yes, I made them in succession, but I also spent a year and half—longer, if you think about how long it took me to write the scripts—finishing these things. So they were made in succession, but they weren’t made quickly. I had written While Were Young before I had even made Frances, so the order and pace wasn’t entirely deliberate. It’s just sort of how it came about, and I liked going in succession, because I was in a rhythm and I was using a lot of the same crew. I think it looks like I’m churning them out, but that’s probably a little bit of an illusion; I had the scripts ready. But now I’m at a point where I’m out of material, so I’m writing again.

MM: What is it like to be back in writing mode?

NB: It depends on the day. The beginning of writing a new thing is always sort of agonizing for me. I’m originating these things, so I have to start from scratch. You don’t get any credit; you can’t use any of the last one in the new one. You have to start all over. Some amnesia comes when you finish another project, too. You don’t remember how you got there. So, when you’re starting a new one, you’re like, “How did I ever do this before?” MM

Mistress America opens in theaters August 14, 2015, courtesy of Fox Searchlight.

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