The Auteurs: Noah Baumbach
One of the new voices to emerge in the mid-1990s, Noah Baumbach is a filmmaker that has a talent for making compelling films about people dealing with changes in their lives. After bursting onto the scene with his first feature film in 1995’s Kicking and Screaming, his career came to a brief halt following back-to-back commercial and critical disappointments. Instead of giving up on his passion, Baumbach came back with a vengeance creating films that maintained an independent voice while attracting attention from mainstream audiences.
Born on September 3, 1969, in Brooklyn, New York, Noah Baumbach was the third of four children that novelist/film critic Jonathan Baumbach and the revered Village Voice film critic Georgia Brown had. Throughout his early life, he and his siblings were surrounded by the world of high culture in films, books, and art. It was during his youth that his parents divorced; an event that would have a profound impact on his works in the future. Upon acquiring a BA in English from Vassar, Baumbach spent some time working for The New Yorker magazine as a messenger. It was during those years where Baumbach penned material for what turned into his first feature film.
Kicking and Screaming (review)
Inspired by his own experiences, Noah Baumbach spent much of the early 1990s writing a script with friend Oliver Berkman about a group of post-graduates trying to figure out what to do with their life while coping with the expectations of adulthood. Baumbach finished the script in 1993 and asked his college roommate, then aspiring producer Jason Blum, who was an acquaintance of the famed comedian/actor Steve Martin, to read the work. Blum liked it so much that he passed it on to Martin who, in turn, ended up endorsing the script and used his connections helped Blum and Baumbach get funding.
Baumbach pulled together a talent crop of young actors to fill out the various roles. The cast included Chris Eigeman, who was already known for his work with Whit Stillman, as Max, Josh Hamilton played Grover, Jason Wiles took the role of Skippy, Parker Posey was casted as Miami, Olivia d’Abo played Jane, and Eric Stoltz got the role of a bartender named Chet who is still a student in his 30s. Much of the film played into the fears of the unknown. Grover struggles with the end of his relationship to Jane, who has left to study in Prague. Baumbach used flashbacks to document certain aspects of the relationship and why it fell apart. His anxieties are further heightened thanks in part to a visit from his father (played by Elliot Gould). Thanks in part to its more adult depiction of this age group, Kicking and Screaming was viewed by some as an anti-Generation X film, as it didn’t fit in the mold of the films that were coming out at the time.
Kicking and Screaming premiered at the 1995 New York Film Festival where it was well-received. The film did modestly well in its limited theatrical release despite Trimark’s poor decision to market it as a romantic-comedy of sorts. However, it was in home video rentals and its lengthy run on the Sundance Channel where the film gained a cult following. In early 1996, Baumbach was named as part of Newsweek magazine’s “ten new faces of the New Year” which gave him notable visibility in the world of cinema.
Mr. Jealousy (review)
The acclaim that Baumbach received for his first feature added a lot of pressure on his sophomore film to perform. His follow-up, Mr. Jealousy, was a romantic-comedy of sorts about a man, Lester Grimm (Eric Stoltz), who discovers that his new girlfriend previously dated his rival, and famous writer, Dashiell Frank (Chris Eigeman). The film explored the concepts of jealousy and insecurity while providing Baumbach an opportunity to make something more accessible.
Working with the same crew from his debut, Baumbach got the service of the dream-pop band Luna to provide music for the film. Production began in late 1996 in New York City, with the supporting cast being filled out by Annabella Sciorra, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Brian Kerwin, and one of Baumbach’s favourite filmmakers Peter Bogdanovich. Baumbach played with the schematics of the romantic comedy genre while creating a character study of a man trying to come to terms with both love and his deep envy of his rival. Examples of the latter can be found in scenes such as when Lester secretly attends the same therapy sessions that Dashiell goes to.
Mr. Jealousy made its premiere at the 1997 Toronto Film Festival to high anticipations but it received a rather mixed reception. The film garnered lukewarm reviews upon its limited theatrical release and was considered a major setback for Baumbach.
During the production of Mr. Jealousy, Baumbach created another film on a miniscule budget about a married couple who throw parties in the course of a year in order to help their flagging social life. Baumbach’s lens observes the couple as they fall in and out of love while navigating the various gatherings. The film featured most of the cast from Mr. Jealousy with appearances from Ally Sheedy, Justine Bateman, Rae Dawn Chong, and Dean Cameron.
The production of the film proved to be disastrous as Baumbach coped with the lack of funds and having little lighting equipment to work with. There was also a major falling out between Baumbach and producer Joel Castleberg which was very detrimental to the production. An unfinished version came out in late 1997 to a very poor reception. In 2000 Castleberg released the film on DVD without Baumbach’s approval. Baumbach not only disowned the film but used the alias of Ernie Fusco and Jesse Carter for the directing and screenplay credits respectively.
Conrad and Butler in “Conrad and Butler Take a Vacation”
While spending time working for The New Yorker, Baumbach decided to create a short film with actors Carlos Jacott and John Lehr that was comedy in the vein of Abbott and Costello’s work. The short focused on two friends whose vacation plans do not go smoothly. Shot on digital video in the spring of 2000, Conrad and Butler in “Conrad and Butler Take a Vacation” the short was meant to be part of a multimedia extravaganza which would include an album, a TV show, and a feature film but none of them got realized. The short did play the film festival circuit and was included as a special feature on the 2006 Criterion DVD release of Kicking and Screaming.
The Squid & the Whale (review)
2004 was a very big year for Noah Baumbach both personally and professionally. In that year he met actress Jennifer Jason Leigh whom he eventually married in 2005. He also found an admirer of his work in filmmaker Wes Anderson. The pair hit it off so well that they teamed up to write the screenplay for Anderson’s fourth film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Through Anderson’s connections, Baumbach got $1.5 million to make The Squid & the Whale, his first film in eight years. Baumbach even got the services of Anderson’s regular cinematographer in Robert Yeomen to shoot the film. Arguably his most personal work to date, The Squid & the Whale focused on how Baumbach and his brother dealt with their parent’s divorce.
The film starred Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney as the parental figures. Daniels’ character is a pretentious know-it-all, while Linney’s wants desperately to unleash her creativity. For the role of the eldest child Walt, Jesse Eisenberg was cast while the role of the younger brother Frank was given to Owen Kline. The latter came to Baumbach’s attention after Jennifer Jason Leigh, who has been friends with Kline’s mother Phoebe Cates since their Fast Times in Ridgemont High days, suggested the young actor. The performances only further enhanced the screenplays skillful display of the different paths that Walt and Frank find themselves on as a result of the divorce. Walt immediately sides with his father and Frank begins to cling to his mother. It all added up to a unique and endearing coming-of-age film.
Filming took place during the near Brooklyn summer of 2004 with Baumbach shooting on super-16mm film stock. The Squid and the Whale premiered at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival where it received rave reviews and won Baumbach prizes in the screenplay and directing categories. Upon its theatrical release in October of that year, the film was a commercial hit grossing more than $11 million in the box office. Aside from receiving several major accolades, his script won both the L.A. and New York Critic’s prize, Baumbach also received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
Margot at the Wedding (review)
The success of The Squid and the Whale allowed Baumbach to regain some of the clout he once had in the late 1990s. It also provided him with the chance to work with producer Scott Rudin. The first of several collaborations between the two was Margot at the Wedding, a film that owed a lot to the works of Eric Rohmer. The film explored the complex and volatile relationship between two sisters, Margot (Nicole Kidman) and Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Complications arise when Margot disapproves of the man, Malcom (Jack Black), who is to become her future brother-in-law. The film did not only looked at the dynamics of their sisterhood but the secrets and tension that consumed their lives.
Through Rudin’s connections, Baumbach got the services of revered film editor Carol Littleton to edit the film. Another major coup was getting cinematographer Harris Savides to shoot the film. Noah Baumbach was also able to fill out his ensemble cast with Ciaran Hinds, John Turturro, Zane Pais, Flora Cross, and Haley Feiffer who had appeared in The Squid & the Whale. Production began in April of 2006 with the two-month shoot taking place over various locations in the state of New York. Inspired by Rohmer’s approach to humor and drama, Baumbach shot with hand-held cameras to give the film’s examination of a dysfunctional family a natural feel.
Margot at the Wedding toured the film festival circuit in the fall of 2007 playing Telluride and the New York Film Festival to name a few. While the film faced mixed reviews upon its limited theatrical release, and poor box office returns, critics praised Jennifer Jason Leigh’s work in the film. She even received a Best Supporting Actress nomination from both the Independent Spirit Awards and the Chicago Film Critics Association.
Following the mixed reaction to Margot at the Wedding, Baumbach took some time away to work on small projects – including shooting a couple of digital shorts for Saturday Night Live with Fred Armisen and Bill Hader. It was around that same time Baumbach worked with Wes Anderson on the script for Fantastic Mr. Fox, and co-produced Alexander the Last for the mumblecore director Joe Swanberg. He also teamed up with Jennifer Jason Leigh to write the script for his next feature film Greenberg. The story revolved around a man who, following a mental breakdown, arrives to Los Angeles to housesit his brother’s home and embarks on a relationship with his brother’s personal assistant.
Greenberg marked a major change for Baumbach who decided to set the film in Los Angeles instead of New York. Ben Stiller was cast in the titular role with Jennifer Jason Leigh, Greta Gerwig and Rhys Ifans playing key supporting role. The rest of the ensemble included up-and-coming stars in Brie Larson, Juno Temple, Dave Franco, Merrit Weaver, Jake Paltrow, and Mark Duplass. For the film’s music, Baumbach asked James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem to be the supervisor and provide the score. The music played into Greenberg’s own sense of loss and his inability to relate to his old friends and the world at large.
The film premiered at the 2010 Berlin Film Festival before getting a successful, but limited, theatrical release. Greenberg received excellent reviews including a lot of the praise for the performances by Stiller and Gerwig. The acclaim was small compared to the personal changes in Baumbach’s own life. Not only did he become a father that year, but also saw his marriage dissolve as Jennifer Jason Leigh filed for divorce in November of 2010. The divorce was finalized three years later.
Frances Ha (review)
While coping with the fallout of his divorce with Jennifer Jason Leigh in 2010, Baumbach spent much of 2011 collaborating with Eric Darnell on a script for the third film in the Madagascar series. In late 2011, Baumbach began a new relationship with his Greenberg actress Greta Gerwig. The pair co-wrote a script, via a series of emails back and forth, about a woman (played by Gerwig) in her late 20s struggling to cope with changes in her life after her best friend decides to get married and move out of their apartment.
Frances Ha was largely inspired by the works of the French New Wave directors, which was one of the reasons why Baumbach wanted to shoot the whimsical film in black-and-white. Unfortunately Noah Baumbach’s decision to shoot the film digitally proved problematic. Cinematographer Sam Levy realized that the digital format only allowed for color. The two experimented with the ways to shoot digitally and then convert the footage into black-and-white after the fact. Enlisting the help of cinematographer Harris Savides and digital colorist Pascal Gangin, Baumbach was finally able to realize his stylistic vision. Baumbach’s film featured several memorable moments including in one notable scene, in which Frances runs through the streets of New York City with David Bowie’s Modern Love playing in the background, which was a homage to Leos Carax’s 1986 film Mauvais Sang.
Frances Ha was a massive hit on the 2012 film festival circuit. The film was eventually released theatrically in late spring of 2013 and made a robust $8 million in its limited run. Greta Gerwig received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a Comedy/Musical for her work in the film. In the fall of 2013, Frances Ha was given a dual-disc DVD/Blu-Ray release from the Criterion Collection.
While We’re Young (review)
Baumbach’s eighth feature film, While We’re Young, which will make its North American theatrical release in March of 2015, focuses on a couple (played by Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts) in their 40s coping with aging. Through their friendship with another couple (played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried) in their 20s, the pair seek to recapture their youth. The film marks the reunion between Baumbach and Ben Stiller following their collaboration in 2010’s Greenberg. The rest of the ensemble includes Beastie Boy member Adam Horowitz, Brady Corbet, and Charles Grodin, with With music composer James Murphy providing the score. While We’re Young made its premiere at the 2014 Toronto Film Festival and received excellent buzz.
Noah Baumbach’s most recent film, Mistress America, marks the director’s third collaboration with Greta Gerwig. The pair co-wrote the film that centers on a young woman who, after arriving in New York City as a college freshman, finds friendship and adventure in her soon-to-be older stepsister. The film explores several themes including the need to find oneself in a very demanding world. With Gerwig starring as the older stepsister and Lola Kirke in the role of the college freshman, the rest of the ensemble includes Heather Lind, Michael Chemus, and Cindy Cheung. Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips, who did the music for The Squid and the Whale, were brought on board to handle the score for the film. Mistress America made its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival last month to a rather warm reception. It is slated for a theatrical release later in the year through Fox Searchlight.
While his career was nearly derailed by a few critical failures, Noah Baumbach has weathered the storm and proved he is one of American independent cinema’s unique voices. He makes the kind of films that offer a witty and complicated look at the growing pains of adulthood. Baumbach is rumored to have two other projects currently in the works – an adaptation of Berkeley Breathed’s Flawed Dogs for Dreamworks Animation as well as another project with Jake Paltrow – and shows no signs of slowing down. Always willing to take on a new challenge, while maintaining a sense of integrity, Noah Baumbach is one of the most unique voices of the past 20 years in American cinema.
© thevoid99 2015