Noah Baumbach talks Ben Stiller, adult comedies and more

Ed Symkus More Content Now
Naomi Watts and Ben Stiller in Noah Baumbach’s “While We’re Young.”

Writer-director Noah Baumbach became a darling of the indie cinema world a decade ago with the release of the art house hit “The Squid and the Whale.” That and his follow-ups – “Margot at the Wedding,” “Greenberg,” and “Frances Ha” gave Baumbach a reputation for making small, personal films that delve into recognizable and both comfortable and uncomfortable areas of the human condition. His films are packed with solid actors who deliver believable dialogue. Some critics and even some fans have labeled Baumbach and his movies eccentric. Let’s just say that they’re true originals. His newest comedy, “While We’re Young,” reteams him with Ben Stiller, who starred in “Greenberg,” here playing a documentary filmmaker who’s a bit lost in life, who, along with his wife (Naomi Watts), wonders how they got so close to middle age so quickly. Things turn around, seemingly for the better, when they meet and start hanging around with a much younger couple (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried), resulting in all sorts of changes for everyone. Baumbach, a youthful-looking 45, recently visited Boston to chat about making this and other movies.

Q. Your parents (Jonathan Baumbach and Georgia Brown) both worked as film critics. Did that give you any pause about becoming a filmmaker?

A. I never thought of my parents as [film] critics. My dad was a creative writing teacher and a novelist and short story writer. My mom had written short stories. My dad reviewed as a sort of side thing when I was younger, and I wasn’t even aware of it. My mother started reviewing when I was going into college. That said, critical thought and creative thought were all part of the same discussion in the house, which was great. My love for movies came from my parents.

Q. You’ve had critical and financial success with your films. What was the genesis of “While We’re Young?”

A. I’d had an idea about couples, which I actually started writing shortly after “Squid.” But I ended up just kind of putting it away. I never went back to it. But I kept thinking there was something about couples I wanted to do, and I didn’t know what it was. In some ways it kind of resurfaced in the form of doing a comedy about marriage, about the notions of middle age, and looking forward and looking backward. That found its way into this story. For whatever reason, when I did start writing it this time around – which was before “Frances Ha” – I knew that there was a movie here I had to find, and the various things seemed to come together.

Q. This is your second time out with Ben Stiller. What happens when you direct him, since he’s also a writer-director as well as an actor? Does he make many suggestions?

A. He’ll have opinions about things, of course, and sure, he’ll make suggestions. But they’re as an actor, not as a director. I’ve never acted in anybody else’s thing, but when you’re the writer-director, there’s a major control factor to the job. I think that when you’re not doing that, it can be a relief to turn it over to somebody else. I think for Ben, it’s pleasurable for him to give over to somebody else.

Q. Do you have a specific rehearsal process that you run your actors through?

A. I usually can get as much time for rehearsal as I need. I’ve actually rehearsed less on the last few movies than I used to. But I do like to hear the actors say [the script] a couple of times before we shoot. I want to hear the words, make sure everybody’s in the ballpark. But the script is really a blueprint. Some are maybe more specific than others. But mine are pretty specific in that I don’t veer from the dialogue. I’m shooting the script and I don’t improvise. For me that allows a lot of creativity. If you know the script is solid, then the actors can do a lot with it. I think it frees actors up. They bring something to it that I can’t bring to it: their interpretations.

Q. So many comedies made today are aimed at young audiences who are looking for off-color humor and slapstick sight gags. Are you comfortable with me calling “While We’re Young” an adult comedy?

A. It’s certainly in the tradition of that. I feel that there used to be adult comedies all the time. When I was a teenager in the ’80s, there were many of them every year. There were comedies that were character based but were also broad and funny and hopeful. Like movies by James L. Brooks or Mike Nichols or Sydney Pollack or Woody Allen. They were things that studios used to make, but they generally don’t anymore. But I still do.

“While We’re Young” opens in select theaters April 3.

Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.