Greenberg: Interview with Writer Director Noah Baumbach and Jennifer Jason Leigh

Q&A with Noah Baumbach & Jennifer Jason Leigh


Q: Noah, your movies as writer/director have been set on the East Coast. When you thought of the character of Greenberg, did you immediately think of him in Los Angeles? Or did you think of Greenberg and who he was first, and then think of the place he would be from and would be returning to?


Noah Baumbach: Early versions of the character of Greenberg have come up in different things I’ve worked on. Not necessarily movies I’ve made, but maybe half-written scripts or ideas. I have a draft of a play with a character who shares some of Greenberg’s temperament.  


A central idea I had in writing the script was that I wanted to make a movie in the tradition of American novels that I’ve loved, books by Philip Roth and Saul Bellow and John Updike, stories about men at crisis points in their lives. People have made movies of some of their novels, but I felt it was possible to create a movie that was part of that tradition and done purely cinematically.


I also wanted to make a movie that showed L.A. as a real city, not an industry town.  Jennifer is from L.A. and through her I started to experience the city this way. Part of my inspiration in making Greenberg was seeing L.A. as this remarkable, unique place where people actually lived and raised families.


I’d been re-watching some great L.A. movies from the 1970s, movies by Paul Mazursky and John Cassavetes and Hal Ashby and Robert Altman. They all had very distinct visions of the city. I love Altman’s The Long Goodbye; the L.A. of that movie is so specific and appealing and it has nothing to do with the movie industry. Joan Didion and Leonard Michaels – both of whom write about L.A. – were also an inspiration.

Jennifer Jason Leigh: Since I grew up in Los Angeles, I see the city in a very personal way and I wanted to show Los Angeles the way I grew up in it. There’s a light in L.A. that is very different from the East Coast, and there’s an expansiveness. There is much that is ugly in L.A., but also a kind of beauty in the ugliness. I love that there are still sections of the Sunset Strip without high-rises. That you can be at a farmers market surrounded by 1920s Craftsman homes and then halfway down the street is a ninety-nine-cent store. The way the dust catches the light, how green it is. The beauty of the sky in winter. 


Q: Playing favorites; which L.A. location(s) were you particularly pleased to give screen time to in Greenberg?


JJL: There are so many. It’s my home. Every location in the film is a place we know well. It’s hard to say which is my favorite; Greenberg’s walks up Fairfax and drives down La Brea, Florence driving on Sunset, the outdoor market in Silverlake, the hikes, Lucy’s El Adobe, even the vet’s.

NB: It all feels of a piece.


Q: This is your second project with cinematographer Harris Savides. How did you challenge yourselves anew after Margot at the Wedding, which had him working in a very probing, rugged, style? 


NB: Margot was rougher-hewn, hand-held; we used very old lenses and flashed the film. But we wanted Greenberg to be expansive. Although it’s about a man trying to do nothing, the world around him is open, beautiful, and active. So we shot widescreen. We looked at movies like Play It As It Lays, and at photographs by William Eggleston and Ed Ruscha.


Q: The climactic party sequence is in the movie tradition of bashes that escalate psychologically and physically. On th
e set, how did you encourage the key actors – like the tag team of Brie Larson & Juno Temple – and the supporting actors – like Dave Franco – to make it flow freely (or, not)? 


NB: We treated it like a real party. We had Brie and Juno and Dave invite their friends. Everyone there interacted for real, there was no fake talking in the backgrounds. Basically they threw a party for five nights and we shot it.



Q: There and in other scenes, music plays a big role in Greenberg; there’s the soundtrack that’s in the movie and then the music that you set the movie to. It establishes who these people are, and how Greenberg tentatively reaches out to Florence. Can you talk a little about James Murphy’s music?

NB: It’s the most score I’ve used to this point. I was coming off Margot at the Wedding which had no score, only songs. Jennifer and I were in the car in L.A. missing New York a bit (or I was, anyway), and writing Greenberg, and the song “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down” came on. It was the first song I’d heard by LCD Soundsystem, and I was totally taken with it so I bought the record. James Murphy’s observations of New York City and about getting older felt to me like another version of Greenberg, and I listened to it a lot while I was writing. I made a mental note at the time to look into this band when I start thinking about the score for the movie.


James and I hit it off immediately, and coincidentally he’d planned to record his new record in L.A. while we were shooting. So he was around, on the set, in the movie, watching dailies. His songs act as another voice in the movie.


Many of the other songs in Greenberg – Albert Hammond’s “It Never Rains in Southern California,” Duran Duran’s “The Chauffeur,” Paul & Linda McCartney’s “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” – were written into the script. These songs come from the characters.



Q: Speaking of the characters, the movie’s title is Greenberg, but when the picture starts we enter the movie through Florence’s perspective, which is lovely. We really fall for her immediately because she’s so likable. Did you know that you were going to begin things that way, or was that something that came out of having cast Greta Gerwig?

NB: It came before Greta, but it came late in the writing process. The early drafts all started with Greenberg. Some with him in New York. I don’t remember why I chose to start with her – it felt right and it was satisfying to delay his entrance. The beginning plays almost like a short film about Florence and then she hands the movie over to Greenberg.


Q: The compassion that is shown Greta’s character in Greenberg – if not always by Greenberg himself – seems to come from some place very personal, whether via Greta or yourselves. Do you feel you know women like that? 

NB: Yes, we’ve both known young women like Florence.

JJL: She’s unsure how to form a relationship, or of how one comes about. Her sexuality is somewhat mysterious to her and not yet precious; there’s an innocence to Florence. There’s no weariness; the hurts she has experienced haven’t yet left their mark.

Greta was the first actress we read for the role. She understood Florence in such a complete and lived-in way that we immediately felt the role was hers. Greta brought a kind of sunny open ungainliness to Florence; she can look very beautiful but also very awkward. She’s funny and terribly sweet, and so natural in the role it’s jaw-dropping.

NB: Greta connected very deeply and very personally to something about the character. She broadened what was written. Once she got going, I tried to stay out of her way.


Q: This was your first time working with Ben Stiller, too. Was there a rehearsals period?


NB: Ben and I spent weeks together working on the character of Greenberg. Ben’s immersion into the guy was awe-inspiring and really really fun to witness. I rehearsed him with Greta too, but not too much as their characters don’t know each other very well in the movie and I didn’t want there to be too much familiarity.


Q: We’re given a view of both characters during their alone moments, which are fantastic and so real – Greta in the car, Ben with his letters. What do the letters mean to Greenberg, and what were you thinking about when you gave him that particular character trait?

NB: It’s a place to focus all of his energy and passion and anger and frustration. It’s confrontational but after the fact – which is very Greenberg.


As for alone time, I tend to write a lot of dialogue in my movies and this was an opportunity to quiet things down. I like that in movies – when people are by themselves, their private faces versus their public ones. This is a major subject in Greenberg, I think.  And environment is so important too: James’s music as well as the very specific sounds of L.A., the birds, the leaf blowers, pools, cars. We recorded all of these things separately so we could have the real atmosphere built into the mix. These actors were so compelling to watch too. Ben is remarkable in that he’s able to suggest whole thoughts, and emotions without saying anything and while seemingly doing almost nothing.

Q: Greenberg’s breakdown; how does he think of it and what happened, just in his own mind – how does he see it? Was it something that he diagnosed himself or something that was like a big serious thing that happened?

NB: It’s something that happened to him that was out of his control and it’s given him a scare. He spends a lot of his time trying to maintain control of his life, and then he gets set off in ways that he can’t control, and you see that in the movie. There is real contrast from the early scene, when Florence comes over to get her check and he plays a song on his iPod – the Albert Hammond song – he’s more withdrawn, shy even. And then later on, when they sing “Happy Birthday To You” to him, he can’t help but get furious. Something Ben and I talked about a lot was how Greenberg is always trying to avoid embarrassment. He’s trying to fix a life for himself that skirts as much humiliation as possible, which of course is impossible. I think the breakdown itself, though, was something that was even beyond that: his body, his emotional life and his psyche, all gave way. He doesn’t tell people about the breakdown, he rationalizes where he’s found himself in life as a deliberate decision; “I’m doing nothing deliberately.” So he’s still hiding a lot; I think, often, at least in my experience, people who’ve had emotional collapses don’t necessarily change right away. It’s interesting that the only person he tells about the collapse is Beth, someone he was close to 15 years ago but is merely an acquaintance now.


Q: Jennifer, were you always going to play Beth? It seems like it was too good an opportunity to pass up, playing those particular scenes opposite Ben… 


JJL: That wasn’t the thinking when we were writing it. But when we began thinking about casting, it suddenly seemed like a good idea. I loved the idea of playing opposite Ben and getting to do that incredibly awkward scene in the restaurant. Beth has so clearly moved on in her life and Greenberg, who she once cared for, hasn’t. I liked the comedy in the scene for me as an actress; I loved how the scene exposes the depth of Greenberg’s attachment to past injuries he’s inflicted and past relationships he hasn’t moved on from, and his inability to live in the present.


Q: We laugh because the anxiety and the embarrassment are so funny. But at the same time you feel for this character, as Florence does, and you feel for his vulnerability.  Like at the birthday party, and with the editing – there’s this jumpiness about it – you can feel what he’s going through. How did that sequence get cut together?

NB: For that sequence – Beller’s [Mark Duplass] – we had scripted and shot that party in linear order, but when we cut it, even though all the moments seemed to work, it felt too
long. It wasn’t capturing what you’re saying – something about it wasn’t clicking. Jennifer was the one who suggested – there’s a party in the movie Midnight Cowboy that Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman go to, it’s a sort of recreation of the Factory with the real Warhol people. But it’s told as an impressionistic experience. Conversations are all cut up. And so, one day we just tried to see what would happen if we cut the party as Greenberg’s experience of it, rather than as straightforward narrative. It immediately changed the whole thing, because it captured what was written in the script even though it was cut differently. If you have social anxiety or are uncomfortable at a party, you’re not taking things in any kind of direct way. People say their names, you’re not listening. And Greenberg’s having a mini anxiety attack at this party, really because everyone seems so comfortable and settled and he’s not.

Q: Could you talk a little bit about Ivan and Greenberg’s relationship, which is such a strong part of the movie. They’ve just sort of gotten back in contact since Greenberg’s been in town, but I wanted you to talk about Ivan and why he puts up with Greenberg or what he thinks of Greenberg now.

NB: I think Ivan really likes Greenberg, there is still great affection there. No matter how much you’ve changed in your life and moved on, or how much distance you’ve gotten from certain relationships – often when you see the person again, it’s hard not to fall right back into those patterns. Ivan has altered his life in significant ways: he’s sober, he’s married, he has a child. Greenberg is still pretty close to the person he was when he and Ivan first met, except now he’s 20 years older. Ivan’s wary of getting caught up in old patterns and Greenberg is really committed to how things used to be. And it’s not clicking how it used to. I always find it interesting, no matter how far away people get from past injuries or slights in their lives, how over it they think they are – in this case, the band breaking up – these are wounds that can be easily opened. When they have their confrontation at the end, they’re talking about something that happened 15-20 years ago, which in some ways is silly because they’re so far past it. But the emotional reality of it is still very present, which makes it sad, too.

Q: The movie takes quite seriously that moment in time when Greenberg went one way and it changed the course of his life.  He seems to really discover something when he has that lunch with Beller…

NB: It starts to sink in at the lunch, but he’s not ready to admit anything yet. He’s still defensive, falling back on adolescent ideas, stories he’s been telling himself to rationalize his experience.  

Q: He’s still that proud kind of guy, though he’s no longer an artist.

NB: Because his ideals, on the face of them, are not bad ideals – they’re admirable. But they’re also defenses and rationalizations to hide the fact that he was scared. And he’s even more afraid now. There’s this notion – unless life presents the perfect situation, unless this offer somehow matches the fantasy I’ve had since I was 12, it’s not good enough. I find something very touching about Greenberg’s adherence to this storyline.  It’s too painful to change it at this point in his life. And he’s made life very hard to live because it’s not going to match the fantasies he had when he was younger. That’s where the anger comes from because life isn’t cooperating!

Q: You feel that in the most powerful way in Greenberg’s relationship with Florence…What’s the thing that gets him to sort of open up at the end?

NB: It happens throughout the movie. He’s on a kind of collision course with himself.  In the end, the combination of drugs, exhaustion, 20-year-old kids, the pain of losing Ivan – all these things strip his defenses away. Also he’s opening up on a voicemail which makes it easier because no one is actually there.


Q: In the final moments, that comes back into play so well…


NB: It feels very much like Greenberg – he’s both present and past at the same time because it’s a message he left a day earlier, but he’s there while she’s listening to it.

Q: Do you feel hopeful for them and for the idea of him maybe staying in California? Or is it one of those things that’s outside the bounds of the movie?

NB: I root for them, but I don’t know that it matters. What’s important is that he shows up for her at that moment and he stays.

Q: They’ve both traveled a distance.

NB: Florence throws up very few boundaries and Greenberg constructs millions of them. Florence is willing to put up with a lot if she believes in somebody, and she sees something in Greenberg – a sweetness, a vulnerability. And she’s right, and in the end she’s rewarded for sticking with him. And Greenberg is able to get out of his own way for a moment. That they can find this grace moment is a big deal for both of them.

It’s a movie of moments between people and that’s what the actors capture so satisfyingly.  It’s one of the real pleasures of directing for me.