noah baumbach on the ayahuasca scene of while we're young
The writer, director, and producer sounds off on Frances Ha, Adam Driver, and getting your twenties right.
He looks very much like Adrien Brody. The same low set brow and deep feeling face. Non-film people, I think it's fair to say but maybe it isn't, only know the name Noah Baumbach from his perfect 2012 film, Frances Ha. A black and white approximation of what it means to be 27, feeling very often ridiculous and like you should probably have got your shit together by now, the film was co-written by Baumbach's girlfriend Greta Gerwig, who also played the star role. The couple's new film, Mistress America is due out in autumn, but that's another press junket for another day.
The list of people Baumbach has collaborated with is ridiculous, and it's strange that he hasn't enjoyed as much status in the UK as his colleague Wes Anderson. Baumbach is like the kitchen sink alter ego of Anderson. They have worked together on a number of films including Fantastic Mr Fox and The Life Aquatic. The whimsy they have in common complements the fantasy in Anderson's films, and the reality in Baumbach's. They're all on that scene - with Adam Driver and Lena Dunham and Greta and everyone else famous in that relatable but untouchable way.
That time of life - the mid-to-late twenties- explored so exquisitely in Frances Ha, is examined again in Baumbach's new film, While We're Young. Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried play Jamie and Darby, the hipster couple who wear casual hats, make wanky artisanal ice cream and rollerblade places. Their roommate (Dree Hemingway) saunters about in her underpants, and absolutely nothing from their apartment is from IKEA. Their laid-back lifestyle becomes the envy of 40-something couple Josh and Cornelia (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts). Josh and Cornelia's more age appropriate friends play charades on Sundays with red wine and frequent mind-fucking mother and baby music sessions. So the elders get a couple crush on the youngers and what ensues is a sort of sociable mid-life crisis, and an astute comment on what is means to be young, and what it means to be not young anymore. It culminates in the foursome attending an ayahuasca ceremony, where everybody takes the psychedelic plant, wears yoga clothes and vomits their demons into a personal bucket.
We meet Baumbach as he's wolfing down a granola-based breakfast in a hotel room in London to talk about it. By the way we think he's a genius.
How much of the film, if any, is autobiographical?
None of it is autobiographical. It's personal but it's not autobiographical.
Adam and Amanda's characters are in their twenties and they seem to live this carefree, enviable life. People say that your twenties are for making mistakes. What do you think defines that decade of your life?
I probably spent the entirety of my twenties worrying that I was already too old, and in a way that's true for Ben's character as well and I wanted to play around with that idea. He meets these people who seem to really be enjoying their twenties and doing it "right". That seems so inspiring for him. At this point, he [Ben] feels like he's not living his forties "right". But also as the movie plays out, you realize it's partly his projection on these two people. Nothing is as carefree as it seems.
Do you think that feeling of "am I doing it right?" ever goes away?
Hopefully it abates overtime, but it probably never fully goes away. Maybe for some people it does, when you are able to take a step back. It's a tragic feeling that we get, worrying if we are doing this life right or wrong.
Ben's character is always searching for truth. Is it important for you to tell a true story?
No. I guess I'm looking to make something that feels emotionally or psychologically true, but it's not actually true. Even if a movie is depressing or sad, you want to feel like it represents something that feels true, because then it's cathartic. If a movie is just relentlessly depressing and sad, you get angry at it, because you think: "That's not fair, why did I have to sit through that?" But if it feels true on some level, you feel kind of great afterwards, even though you had an intense experience.
Is that why you gave the film a happy ending?
The movie is a comedy and I was structuring it in a traditional comedy structure. In the 30s and 40s, comedies were almost Shakespearian in the way that they would often start with people who were married or together and they would go on all these detours and find each other again. I kinda wanted to do that in a contemporary setting.
Where did the idea for the ayahuasca ceremony come from?
From observing, noticing that a lot of people started to do ayahuasca. Actually when I started writing, fewer people I knew had done it. But I found it interesting, and I thought that narratively it could be a fun scene to do. To have people participate in a ceremony that's there to probe some kind of inner demons or inner truth, but to use it in the movie to actually expose the inner demons and inner truths in the characters, to actually have it work.
Do you have a favourite scene? Do you ever have favourite scenes in your films?
The things I like are what the actors did with the movie, so there are a lot of moments that I feel pleased with. I like watching people... the scene where Adam and Ben cross Park Avenue, when Adam is psyching him up before Ben's pitch meeting with the hedge fund guy. I just like seeing them in New York, because that's real New York, we didn't stage that, we just put them on the street for real. I felt proud of that - that we could use New York as it is, and also stage our little fiction in the midst of it.
There's such a buzz around Adam Driver. What's attracts you to him personally as an actor?
Well Adam auditioned for me for Frances. I think I first saw a tape he did, before Girls had come out, so I'd never seen him before. I knew he was in Girls because I know Lena. He was just so good and so interesting. Casting him as Jamie helped make sense of the "love story" between him and Ben. I also felt like we were walking a fine line, because on the one hand it's clearly funny that Ben is falling for these young people, but I didn't want to sell Ben out, I wanted you to feel invested in why he would be into Jamie. And Adam is just so compelling that I feel like he always brought real authority to that character. As silly as it might get, you really are interested in Jamie, and you invest in Ben's investment.
There are a couple of scenes in this film about the act of watching films, what's your favorite way to watch a film?
In a theater, but with as few people talking and bag rustling as possible. The best way would be if I had my own screening room. I like watching movies with people but also by myself. There are real merits to both but when you're watching a great movie by yourself, there's almost a sense that it's happening just for you. On every movie, I end up in some version of that experience because I will have friends come into the editing room when I'm first showing the movie to people, and I'll watch the movie with them, sitting on a couch, and I can't help but glance over. See if they laugh… wonder: are they going for this?
While We're Young is out March 27th in the US.
Text Sarah Raphael