In their shoes with Noah Baumbach, Ben Stiller and Adam Driver
Arriving in Nantucket was as charming as homemade apple pie. The airport looked more like a country club with a certain quaintness one never associates with the hustle and bustle of travel. Driving through the island, every house, coffee shop and dog salon was built in the same style, with smokey grey slates and white shutters. It was the WASPy dollhouse I always wished I had. Arriving at the Dreamland Theater I picked up my press badge, which read “Mebecca Beckport”— close enough. I had made it. That’s what mattered.
I attended two mediocre films followed by a brilliant Q&A featuring Noah Baumbach, Ben Stiller and Adam Driver, mediated by MSNBC’s Chris Matthews. The talk took place at Nantucket High School and the crowd’s excitement was palpable. Baumbach was being honored and Stiller and Driver came to show their support and discuss their past collaborations on features like “Greenberg” and “While We’re Young.” The talk began with a reel of Baumbach’s work, featuring “Kicking and Screaming” and “Squid and the Whale” and his later endeavors like “Frances Ha” and “The Meyerowitz Stories.” As Greta Gerwig danced to Bowie in black and white, I looked to my right and just ten feet away, there she was, blushing and fidgeting. I was ten feet away from Greta and I could barely control myself. Every few minutes I would look at her again to make sure she was still there and not a figment of my imagination. She was there she was really there. Her signature blonde bob hung short by her ears and she wore a striped sun dress, understated and exceptional. She was barefaced, carrying a purple tote bag. When Chris Matthews bellowed her name applauding her collaborations with her partner, Baumbach, Greta blushed and waved the attention away like a fly. “She got enough attention in the fall,” Baumbach joked, “She needs a break.”
After the reel, Matthews introduced the stars on stage who obviously needed no introduction. Baumbach, looking more and more like an aging Jason Schwartzman everyday, was relaxed and witty. He spoke about his characters’ urges to be successful creative types, evoking Baumbach’s own struggle in making it as a writer/director in Hollywood. The urban anger of parking is a common theme in Baumbach’s work, creating what the director calls, “a monologue of frustration.” He described the discomfort of filming scenes in cars, cramped in the back seat with the director of photography, really going along for the ride. Baumbach contributed an anecdote that when they were filming a car scene with Adam (Sandler, they had to specify as not to be confused with the Adam at present), when he clipped the side of the car, forcing a camera off. The cop that approached the vehicle recognized Sandler and let them go without a word.
Baumbach’s filmmaking is so spectacular for its banality, its glimpse into the secrecy and ugliness of private, everyday life. With an extreme close-up on family relationships, marriage and love, Baumbach makes the ordinary, extraordinary. Adam Driver told the audience that Baumbach is very set on the words of his script, leaving little room for actors to improvise the wording. “I’ve thought a lot about it (the script), longer than you,” Driver said, emphasizing the theatrical quality of working on a Baumbach production. In addition, Ben Stiller recalled a three and half page scene walking down a hallway with Adam Sandler for “The Meyerowitz Stories” that Baumbach made them repeat for 50 takes. The precision and dedication it takes to do the same scene 50-fold is remarkable, it’s like an entire run of a Broadway show in one say of shooting. Baumbach was delighted to mention that in the film, they used take 49.
Baumbach likes to see himself as a pioneer in the film industry, trying to re-invent and reconfigure the movie-making process. He said movies are not unlike politics in the fact that they are inefficient. Stiller recounted an event on a Baumbach set that blew his mind. On Baumbach’s set, there are no director chairs. You know, the old Hollywood looking fold-up chairs that establish who is in charge and create an atmosphere of waiting? Baumbach threw the archaic hierarchal furntiture out the window, a small but meaningful gesture in changing the film industry from the top down. Another Baumbachian technique of is the art of guerilla filmmaking, filming scenes on the streets of LA or New York without a warning, influencing and affecting his realist cinematic flair.
Baumbach then went on to discuss some of his most frequent collaborators, including partner and fellow badass, Greta Gerwig. Another famous collaborator is none other than the quirky, Wes Anderson, friend and colleague of Baumbach. Baumbach explained that Anderson’s first feature film, “Bottle Rocket” had come out the same year as the directorial debut of Baumbach’s own “Kicking and Screaming.” The two indie darlings became fast friends and collaborators. Together they worked on “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” and “The Fantastic Mr. Fox.” Baumbach said how much Anderson inspired him in terms of style, because the director famous for his definitive and recognizable tone, had come into the game very certain of the way he wanted to make films. That certainty encouraged Baumbach to create works that resembled each other in feeling, but stood out on their own. Gerwig and Baumbach go back to 2010 to “Greenberg.” From that point, Gerwig not only went on to collaborate with Baumbach on “Mistress America” and “Frances Ha,” but has also been his partner since 2011. “Frances Ha,” starring Gerwig was inspired by French New Wave cinema. Baumbach said he wanted to make something in black and white and he wanted it to be “elevate the ordinary” using romanticism and a certain lightness.
A true hallmark of a Baumbach film is the dialogue. Infused with wit and substance in every line, Baumbach is an expert at capturing a conversation. When asked how he creates this masterful dialogue, he smiled and responded, “they’re conversations in my head… it happens when you talk to yourself a while and type,” making sure to point out to the audience that there is a difference between communication and talking.
Driver, entering the conversation for perhaps the second time, was asked a question from the audience what the advantages and disadvantages are of working on a massive film, like “Star Wars,” and smaller indies, like “Patterson.” Driver said he is drawn to smaller films but of course recognizes the bigness of big films, especially in the paycheck. However, he was quick to explain that he was lucky to be in a big film that still felt like a small film, creating an intimate on-set experience.
The discussion closed with an audience question asking for advice for young filmmakers. Matthews went down the line, asking each artist what their advice would be for an aspiring filmmaker, actor, producer, director. Ben Stiller responded, “I wish you courage. You have to have courage to do what you want to do.” Stiller explained to have courage is to have the power to stay strong in the face of adversity, to follow through on your ideas and passions. Baumbach emphasized the power of digital platforms and the accessibility to making things and putting them out into the world. “It’s a process,” he said, “you need room to fail.” He advised, “Make mistakes, do it.” Ending his advice with, “if it’s good, people will see it. If it’s not, make another one!” Lastly, Adam Driver said the most important thing for him was going to school. Taking the time to focus on your craft and establishing a solid foundation for technique and skill.
May we have the courage to persevere like Stiller, to accept failure like Baumbach and to have the solid foundation of Driver to pursue the passions that drive us.