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Noah Baumbach: It's Not Easy Being Greenberg

Director Noah Baumbach talks about his latest drama, Greenberg, starring Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig, and Rhys Ifans.


Roger Greenberg, the protagonist in Noah Baumbach's newest film, has "got a lot on his mind," as its appropriate tagline says. Greenberg, played by Ben Stiller, has just arrived in Los Angeles to housesit for his successful brother and family while they're on vacation in Vietnam. Although the 40-year-old tells people he's spending time doing nothing, Greenberg actually spends his time trying to reconnect with the world: his ex-girlfriend, played by co-writer Jennifer Jason Leigh; his ex-bandmates, who still resent him for rejecting a record deal that could have made them famous; and especially Florence, the Greenbergs' personal assistant and Roger's lifeline to the outside world.


Florence, played by Greta Gerwig, is an earnest, awkward, and open-hearted 20-something; in some ways, she's as confused as Greenberg but with a nearly opposite outlook on life. Since Greenberg can't drive, what starts out as a series of errands and an outing with Florence turns into a confusing romance. The only old friend to respond to Greenberg's lousy attempts to renew old relationships is his ex-bandmate Ivan (Rhys Ifans), who has since been to rehab, gotten married, had a child, and come to terms with what happens when your life turns out to be something entirely different than what you expected. Now it's up to Roger, who shoots out angry one-liners like "Life is wasted on people," to break out of his nearly impenetrable defense mechanisms and come to terms with how his life is turning out, and where he wants to go once he's done doing nothing. Director and co-writer Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding, Fantastic Mr. Fox) talks about his unwieldy characters, casting "mumblecore" star Greta Gerwig, and what the problem with IMDb is. What drew you to Ben Stiller for the role of Roger Greenberg? We're used to seeing him in broader comedy, and he really hasn't done anything this dark since maybe Permanent Midnight. He lost a lot of weight and cut and dyed his hair for this role.


Noah Baumbach:
I first saw Ben actually on stage in "House of Blue Leaves," a John Guare play at Lincoln Center, which was a comic but also serious performance. I've always felt even in Ben's comedy there's something very human about how he comes at these characters… even Zoolander. And I wanted somebody who was both funny [and] who could recognize what was funny in the script and in the character but who could play it authentically, because I think my approach to the movie really was that it would be funnier… the realer it was. It might be more uncomfortable, too, but it would also be funnier. It's not a movie that can be played for laughs. And I felt that Ben understood this and was really, in some ways, the only person I could really think of who could do it.
When you approached him and explained the details—he's very vulnerable in this, there are some very awkward sex scenes, it's really a different kind of movie for him—was he at all hesitant?


NB: No, what he was drawn to was doing something this specific and this character-based. There was never any resistance to anything. Both Ben Stiller and Greta Gerwig have said they felt very protective of their characters, and Ben went so far to say that he grew to empathize with him and like his character even more. What is it like to create these characters, some of whom, like Roger, may be not extremely likable but you want the best for them anyway. How is it to send them out in the world and have them be criticized?


NB: It's interesting, because… [my movies] provoke very personal reactions from people and have a lot to do with what the people bring to the movie. It doesn't mean that the movies aren't doing something too, but… I'm not surprised any more to get very different kinds of reactions, of people thinking something's funny, people thinking something's totally not funny—you know, the same scene can play differently. But yeah, I don't like when people criticize the characters… I have great love for them and… it's so great to have actors who share that and take it on. It's a real pleasure to have actors like Ben and Greta inhabit these people. They own them now, and I understand what they're saying when they say they feel protective of them. It's how I felt about them writing them. It doesn't mean that I'm not aware that they're going to provoke reactions from people. People like to ask you a lot, since The Squid and the Whale, the autobiographical implications of every little thing in your movies. Does that get tiring? Do you just want to say, "Let's let this stand on its own." Every creation has some of its creator in it.


NB: I suppose. The movies really are handmade in a way, and they're very personal to me, so I mean, I get it. It's not like I don't understand why people ask those questions, but yeah, it's not something I care to dwell on, or it's not even something I can accurately break down for people. These movies… go through so many transformations through the process—the writing process, the shooting process, the cutting process. For me to break things down and look at where things really came from is totally reductive. Greta Gerwig is wonderful as Florence. Did you know of her before she auditioned? I know there are a few "mumblecore" people in the cast.


NB: I'd seen her in the movie she did with [Joe Swanberg] and my real question was, can she be that naturalistic with written dialogue? And Jennifer [Jason Leigh] and I had her come to our apartment to audition, and she'd memorized the whole script, and I usually don't like when actors memorize their lines in auditions, because they come too prepared in a way, and you can't get them off their preconceived ideas, but she was so instinctual and so understood the character that it was really kind of amazing. I felt like I was learning about the character watching her; even though it was so specifically drawn in my mind, it became this other thing. And we ended up having her read the whole script. I almost wanted to just see the movie with her. And from that point forward, I really tried to stay out of her way. I wanted her instincts to take over. I wanted her to be comfortable enough to just go with it and I could guide her here and there. She's a great actor. Is it annoying that the news about your involvement in the movie Tower Heist broke just before you started doing press for Greenberg? Same with Zoolander 2 for Ben. Is that weird?


NB: It's weird because it's something I'm part of the process on but… the script is already great, I'm just sort of doing a pass on it… This kind of thing happens all the time without anybody ever knowing about it. [laughs] So it's funny to talk about it. But people are going to ask you a lot about it.


NB: I guess. That's the problem with IMDb these days, because you say something once, or somebody says something in public, and it goes on IMDb and then it becomes your official resume, even though it's something you never did or planned to do.


Greenberg opens in New York and Los Angeles on March 19 and will be in theaters across the country March 26. For more information, photos, interviews, and clips, check out the official website.


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