Q&A with writer/director Noah Baumbach
Q: Your new movie is titled Greenberg, after the character of Roger Greenberg (played by Ben Stiller), but we’re brought into the film from another character’s — Florence Marr’s (Greta Gerwig) — perspective. Can you elaborate on how and why you chose to begin the picture this way?
Noah Baumbach: It was instinctual. The early screenplay drafts started more traditionally, and Greenberg was initially written as a guy in his early 30s. Inspired by the idea of casting Ben, Jennifer [Jason Leigh] and I rewrote the whole script and made Greenberg 40 turning 41. In that process, we came up with the idea of starting with Florence. That felt right to me; then, when we were shooting, I devised the title sequence.
I don’t necessarily like to hold movies to a consistent point of view; I like for them to be about whomever is on-screen at the time.
Q: Ben and Greta’s give/take in the film is crucial to our identification with them. How did you stoke the interplay between these two actors; was there a rehearsal period?
NB: I didn’t rehearse Ben and Greta together very often. We ran the scenes, but I could tell that they were working together pretty well at an early stage, and I didn’t want to overcook it. Also, they don’t know each other in the movie [when they meet]. I worked with them more individually. The rest of it is them: they both connected deeply to their characters.
Q: Did you get a sense that they were watching each other’s backs, independent of what you might have been encouraging them towards?
NB: I think so, and they were both so thoroughly committed to the characters they played that the scenes took care of themselves. That’s all you can ask for from an actor.
Q: Your films have an element of hope to them, even when their protagonists are hampered by their own limitations – whether those are self-imposed or externalized. How does this manifest itself in Greenberg, or how did you make sure to include it?
NB: I never thought about the story as either hopeful or not hopeful. Greenberg is struggling with identity, trying desperately to get out of his own way…I find people who are self-sabotaging to be heartbreaking. To watch somebody, even in misguided and sometimes wrongheaded ways, trying to change how they do things — I find that very sympathetic. For Greenberg to do the things he does — particularly in the second half, to go with Florence to the hospital, to deal with Mahler’s sickness — these are huge things for him. I guess that is hopeful, isn’t it?