Cast: Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried, Charles Grodin, Maria Dizzia
Director: Noah Baumbach
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Running Time: 97 minutes
Synopsis: Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts are Josh and Cornelia Srebnick, happily married middle-aged members of New York's creative class. They tried to start a family and were unable to " and have decided they're okay with that. But as Josh labours over the umpteenth edit of his cerebral new film, it's plain that he has hit a dry patch and that something is still missing. Enter Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), a free-spirited young couple, who are spontaneous and untethered, ready to drop everything in pursuit of their next passion " retro board games one day, acquiring a pet chicken the next. For Josh, it's as if a door has opened back to his youth " or a youth he wishes he once had. It's not long before the restless 40-somethings, Josh and Cornelia, throw aside friends their own age " including Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz in a sly supporting role " to trail after these young hipsters who seem so plugged in, so uninhibited, so Brooklyn cool. 'Before we met," Josh admits to Jamie, 'the only two feelings I had left were wistful and disdainful." But is this new inspiration enough to sustain collaboration and friendship with a couple 20 years their junior?
While We're Young
Release Date: April 2nd, 2015
Every new generation threatens its predecessors"but perhaps the most fascinating generation gaps of all are those that occur at moments when societies are in the midst of massive technological and cultural transitions. We're in such a moment right now. So what happens when Gen X-ers"the last adults raised before the internet and social media upended the culture"collide with Generation Z? That question is at the heart of Noah Baumbach's sharp and sparkling comedy While We're Young, the story of two couples, one in their 40s the other in their 20s, who discover in each other flummoxing differences . . . and the same insistent dreams of success that drive every epoch.
Noah Baumbach has excavated the angst of children of divorce in The Squid and The Whale, the nature of difficult siblings in Margot At The Wedding, the loneliness of the privileged failure in Greenberg, and the essence of being young, exuberant, and in search of your identity in Frances Ha. Each film has been built around closely observed moments of people at their most intensely, and often absurdly, human. And While We're Young may be Baumbach's funniest, broadest, and most romantic to date.
For Noah Baumbach, the story of While We're Young emerged out of two twining strands: first, a desire to render the very specific dynamics of our era's relationships"marriages, friendships, and the places they intersect"in vivid detail; and second, a need to confront the realisation that he himself has apparently left the vanguard of youthful artists and become someone unsettlingly 'established." 'I'd been thinking about writing a film about two different couples interacting for a while," he explains. 'I'm interested in the different kinds of energies and dynamics that go on between couples. Are you different with your spouse alone than you are when you're with your spouse and other people? Of course you are"depending on the people"and I wanted to explore that in a film. But what prompted these particular couples is that I also was reaching a point in life when I realised I was no longer the youngest person in the room."
As he began writing, Noah Baumbach also had another interest"to let his instincts for comedy take full reign. While all of his films mine the funniness of life under the surface, this is his first out-and-out observational comedy, constructed around a non-stop series of barbed one-liners and screwy situations en route to the deepening of a marriage. 'The tone of While We're Young is something different," he observes. 'I've long wanted to do something that was in the tradition of the adult comedies the studios used to make when I was growing up, like those that Jim Brooks or Mike Nichols or Sydney Pollack or Woody Allen made in the 80s"comedies that maybe have a sophistication to them but are still in the mainstream."
That all merged into the creation of two New York couples who have become improbable comrades, the odd couple of foursomes. Josh and Cornelia are 40-somethings still grappling with their"as they see it"rational decision not to have children, while Josh plods away on the six-hour documentary opus he's been making for the last decade. They're doing just fine, but just fine isn't necessarily where they expected to be at this juncture. Their new friends are Jamie and Darby, 20-something hipsters who glide through their loft, making their own artisanal ice cream, cherishing their vinyl and typewriters, seemingly carving out an alluringly retro, post-digital way of life. They're the essence of unpredictable spontaneity and playing under a whole different set of cultural and moral rules.
These ideas have a timelessness to them. Indeed, Noah Baumbach references Henrik Ibsen's 1873 play 'The Master Builder""which centers around an aging, competitive architect who fears he is about to be overtaken by the next generation and becomes obsessed with a younger woman. But Baumbach's character also emerge out of this particular moment with its unprecedented acceleration of technology and that technology's imprints on social life.
'Every generation has to confront becoming old fogeys," he acknowledges. 'We all come to that point where we look at younger people and say -oh, we did it so much better,' or the reverse"-oh, they are doing it so much better than we did.'"
Noah Baumbach plays with the ironies of a world in which an older generation works overtime to keep adapting to the latest-breaking tech gadgets while the younger generation hand-makes their furniture and keeps egg-laying hens in their apartments. But he also says he didn't want to take sides.
Josh and Cornelia also fight their skepticism as they get to know Jamie and Darby 'For Josh and Cornelia, being with Jamie and Darby re-connects them to that feeling of how they were when they were younger," he explains. 'They're at the point where life has fallen into planned, expected routines. But Jamie and Darby seem to live their lives as art. They're always on the move, engaging in activities and making things, and there's a kind of sky's-the-limit thing to them that is hard to resist."
Ben Stiller was intrigued by the relationship between Josh and Cornelia, and where the characters are in their relationship at this particular time in their lives. 'Being a couple in their 40s without kids I think raises questions for them"question of: -what are we doing with our lives? If we're not procreating and continuing the cycle and all that, then what exactly is our purpose?' So that's one of the big things going on for them. Then, like a lot of couples who have been together a long time, they've gotten into a groove. They're not exactly -stuck in a rut'"and they do love each other"but they're just caught in the standard rhythm of their lives and it feels like … well, a rut. So when they meet Jamie and Darby, there's this feeling that maybe there's a lot more we can explore in life, both together and apart. What's so interesting is that meeting Jamie and Darby spices up their relationship; but at the same time, it starts to deconstruct it."
Adds Naomi Watts: 'The whole thing with Jamie and Darby is all very seductive to them. Even just the way Jamie and Darby seem so fascinated with Cornelia and Josh makes them feel better about themselves. They've been feeling this divide from their friends who are having kids and maybe a little with each other, and then this couple comes along who are so beautiful and so excited about everything, it's quite intoxicating."
Jamie doesn't just stir up things in Josh's domestic life, he also inspires him artistically"or at least Josh thinks he does in the beginning. 'I think Josh has so many insecurities about his own work and sets the bar so high for himself, that to see someone who says -yeah, I'm going to try that, I'm going to do this, I'm going to make a film, I'm going to write poetry,' it's very exciting to him … and it's also annoying to him," Stiller quips. 'I think he wants to be Jamie at first, then he realizes that he can't be Jamie, and then he figures out that he doesn't really want to be Jamie at all. Jamie's whole attitude towards making art is informed by his generation of mash-ups and this idea that you can create something by taking from other works, and Josh is still not sure he can reconcile with that."
Adam Driver says Josh's ethics were a dilemma for an actor. 'It was hard for me at first not to judge him or to comment on him in my performance, because he can be such a morally ambiguous person," he explains. 'But that was also the fun thing to play with, to take someone who's so seemingly tactical and try to make him genuine. I think he does have a moral compass, but he just has a different way of looking at ethics, and when I started to think of it that way, I was able to judge him less. He truly sees a world where nothing is actually owned by anyone and it's all up for grabs and, within those rules, he's constantly creating. I don't think he ever thinks about whether he's crossing moral boundaries or stepping on other people's toes. To him, it's just his way of survival." As Jamie's other half, Darby, Amanda Seyfried says her issues with Jamie aren't so much ethical as they are a reaction to his intent self-focus. 'I don't think Darby thinks Jamie is doing anything wrong with Josh and Cornelia. She cares about him a lot and she wants to see him get ahead, but she doesn't want to only be seen as -Jamie's girl.' When your life is only about ambition there's no room for anything else"there's no room for relationships to flourish."
Even when Jamie appears to engage in trickery and guile, manipulating Josh to get ahead in the film world, Noah Baumbach maintained empathy for both sides. He notes that, like it or not, film, music and storytelling are irrevocably altered in the time of digital devices. Content manipulation, fuzzy boundaries between art and commerce and cooperative ownership are now the norm"and that means that not only will the forms change but so too will the moral bases that underlie creative work.
Baumbach On The Cast & Characters
While We're Young becomes a kind of culturally charged 21st century-version of a social manners comedy as Noah Baumbach explores how Josh and Cornelia and Jamie and Darby jockey for position with each other"and then turn against each other. This was a natural draw for actors. Says Ben Stiller, 'Noah writes very human moments and observations that are spot on. As an actor you read his work and think, -yes, I've seen that same thing happen in my life.' In every interchange, there's always something else going on beneath the surface, but they're very subtle things, and I love that about his writing. He's all about the small nuances that have a huge impact on us. He finds humor in all the uncomfortable, awkward moments we have"but he's never just going for the joke. He's exploring these comical moments in a way that you see different things in them."
Adds Naomi Watts, 'Noah is able to mix a great deal of humor with a great deal of meaning. There is a sense of familiarity to the characters in this story but also there are a lot of original truths about ambition, marriage, generational tension, and just how odd friendships can be. The relationships are reflective of the way I've seen the dynamics between people change as you grow up. Noah gets into those underlying questions that people ask themselves as they mature: -Am I for real? Am I a fake? Do I need to reinvent myself?' Yet he does it in a very appealing, fun way."
Adam Driver recalls that he was ready to jump into While We're Young before he even read the screenplay, based on his experience on Frances Ha. 'Noah Baumbach said -I have a new project and do you want to …', and I said yes before he finished his sentence," Driver remembers. 'I loved working with him. When I read it, I was even more excited because the script was so lean and there was so much to discover in it. That feeling of discovery didn't stop until we finished shooting."
Noah Baumbach explains that he often starts with interpersonal dynamics and moves outwards into story when he's writing. 'I'm very interested in how human beings are with each other both physically and verbally. Often I start writing a script with dialogue then and I find the characters from their conversation," he says. In this case, he started with the dynamic between Josh and Cornelia. 'There might be another version of this movie where the older couple is coming apart at the seams and their love is gone," says Baumbach. 'But I was more interested in focusing on a couple who are OK, except that they have almost become too comfortable with each other. There's nothing seemingly wrong with Josh and Cornelia. They're both occupying the same space quite pleasantly, but they need some kind of jolt and, on some level, I think they know that. They're looking for something and they don't exactly know what it is, so that is what draws them to Jamie and Darby."
Noah Baumbach envisioned Josh as the type of filmmaker who once aspired to be in the ranks of the Maysles Brothers, Frederick Wiseman, and D. A. Pennebaker"the hard-core purists from the previous generation who saw themselves as searching for unadorned reality"but instead got trapped in an infinite loop of perfectionism and angst. 'He's stuck," sums up Noah Baumbach. 'And even though his wife is the daughter of a well-known documentarian, he rejects having anything to do with that because he feels like his work and his success have to be his and his alone. Josh has a tendency to go on quixotic quests that go nowhere."
Noah Baumbach knew from the earliest writing stages he wanted to cast Ben Stiller, the actor and director who took the eponymous lead role in Greenberg, as Josh. 'It's been rare for me to think of actors while I'm writing, but Ben and I had such a close working relationship on Greenberg, I knew I wanted to work with him again, and this felt like it would be a good second one to do together. There was such a gap between Roger Greenberg and Josh Srebnick that it was really exciting for both of us," he observes.
To play Cornelia, who is confronting her own issues of fertility and fidelity in the midst of this new friendship, Baumbach looked beyond the comedy world to two-time Academy Award®-nominated Naomi Watts, known for her dramatic roles in such films as Mulholland Drive, 21 Grams, The Impossible, and Birdman. 'Naomi just goes for it"and she's really funny and very free in this movie," says Baumbach. 'She makes me want to use words that I wouldn't normally use, like -delightful.' When she did the hip-hop dance scene, she was so hilarious, I had tears in my eyes." For the catalytic role of Jamie, whose sincerity comes off as infectious, yet is also in question, Noah Baumbach was drawn to work again with a young actor he first worked with on Frances Ha. 'The thing that Adam can do so well is to be both totally idiosyncratic and at the same time very recognisable. I also love the way he and Ben Stiller look together," comments Noah Baumbach. 'When they're walking down the street together, it reminded me of Midnight Cowboy OR TOOTSIE."
To take on Jamie's wife, Darby, Baumbach sought an actress who could walk the line between a free spirit and a slightly lost spirit. He found that in rising star Amanda Seyfried, recently seen in Les Miserables and A Million Ways to Die In The West. 'Amanda Seyfried has a disarming directness but there is also a kind of innocence," says Baumbach of what drew him to her. Rounding out the main cast are a surprising Adam Horovitz, or Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys, and Tony-nominated actress Maria Dizzia as Josh and Cornelia's former best friends, Fletcher and Marina, now altered by newfangled parenthood; and, as Cornelia's legendary filmmaker father, Charles Grodin"the 79-year-old veteran whose diverse work spans the likes of Rosemary's Baby, Midnight Run, and a recent stint on Louis C.K's 'Louie," The chance to cast Grodin was a particular pleasure for Noah Baumbach. 'Grodin isn't capable of saying something that isn't honest, and yet he's so funny," observes the writer-director. 'He's always tended to play parts where he's difficult or troublesome, so I like the idea that in this movie he plays an authoritative character, almost the voice of reason."
Josh and Cornelia & Jamie and Darby
Ben Stiller has starred in both some of the most outrageous"and equally, in some of the most delicate"comedies of the last two decades, ranging from Something About Mary, Meet The Parents, and The Royal Tenenbaums, to Zoolander and Tropic Thunder, the latter two of which he also directed. Still, the role of Josh hit close to the bone.
'Noah Baumbach wrote such a great script that is very much about what is going on in this cultural moment and what's happened in the last 20 years to art and entertainment and lifestyles with the arrival of internet and social media. It's very funny and in some ways it's a more light-hearted version of Noah Baumbach," says Ben Stiller. 'I laughed out loud at so many things and I found it a very hopeful and romantic movie"and yet it's still a strong commentary on our culture. From the point of view of my generation, it felt incredibly authentic. At the same time, reading it, I had to realise, -oh, I'm the old guy in this script.'"
Like most 40-year-olds, Josh is at a loss as to when exactly he crossed that threshold into so-called maturity. But he's not entirely ready to give up on the unfulfilled dreams of his youth, either. In a sense, he's caught in a no man's land between hustling to keep up with the culture, however ineffectually, and having a panic attack that his moment has passed him by. 'Josh wants to connect with the changing culture but I think he kind of resents it at the same time, which for me is very relatable," remarks Ben Stiller. 'You know, you get to a certain age, and you think, -I have lived half my life without any of this stuff and it was fine and now suddenly I'm scrambling to figure out what my Twitter handle should be…'"
Ben Stiller also related to Josh chasing a perhaps by-gone ideal of filmmaking. 'He's really struggling with where he's supposed to be in this culture at this time. He's an Old School kind of guy who grew up making movies in a way that has totally changed in the last 20 years, which I can identify with," Ben Stiller says. 'All the tools have changed, how movies are experienced is changing, attention spans are changing, and now with all this access to moviemaking technology, anybody can make a movie. That can be a great thing"it's far more democratic; but it changes the experience of someone like Josh, who is from a generation where you felt you had to specifically train to be a great filmmaker, you had to pay your dues, and you wanted to do things in a certain, -authentic' way."
At the same time, there is little doubt that Josh is spinning his wheels, authentically or not. Points out Ben Stiller: 'I mean this is a guy who's been working on the same film for 10 years! And he might put that down to integrity, but at the same time, I think he fears" -what if I finish it, and nobody cares?' I think it's also a surprise for him to find out that now he is the old guy to someone like Jamie. I'm that guy now"the guy who's not keeping up? That concept is really disturbing to him, especially when he compares his way of operating to the ease with which Jamie operates in this new world."
Working with the small ensemble cast of While We're Young was a distinct joy for Ben Stiller" especially having the chance to serve as Naomi Watts' on-screen husband. 'Naomi Watts is someone I've always wanted to work with," he comments. 'She's intimidatingly talented, with her facility for different kinds of characters. She also has an innate strength to her, where you always feel there's a lot going on in her head when you watch her. She's played a lot of very intense, dark characters but here she is very, very funny. It was just a lot of fun to pretend to be her husband."
He enjoyed an equally strong rapport with Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried. 'Adam Driver's got this intensity about him but he also makes me laugh, which is my favorite kind of actor to watch," says Ben Stiller. 'He has a thing where he just can't seem to help but come from a place of being organic and it's not in any way precious or forced. In our scenes together, I always felt like I wasn't with an actor but with this really interesting guy who I never knew what he was going to say or do next. Similarly, Amanda Seyfried has naturalness and a confidence that seems to come from a very sweet place. She gives Darby her own path through the story. To play these kind of hipster characters without having them come off as caricatures or as cold was not an easy thing and they were both impressive."
One of Ben Stiller's deepest pleasures was working with Charles Grodin as the would-be mentor Josh rejects, be it out of pride or idealism. 'Charles Grodin is one of the funniest actors ever and it was very, very exciting for me to have this chance to work with him since he's been in a lot of my favorite movies," he says. 'He and my character have a very prickly relationship, but like all of Noah's characters, Leslie is not only one thing. He's someone who has a bit of an ego but is also very real and honest. Unfortunately, Josh has never gotten over the idea that he's in competition with him."
Josh's competitiveness with her father is just one of several emotional complications Naomi Watt's Cornelia attempts to juggle in While We're Young. Naomi Watts says her character is trying to stay grounded while also trying to move forward in her life. 'I found her to be a great character. I found her relationship with Josh to be very real," she says. 'Cornelia is truthful and steady and has a great spirit, but at the same time she doesn't suffer fools. She is the one who spots something right away that makes her wary about Jamie, but at the same time, she really enjoys seeing her husband suddenly so happy and having this inspirational moment that perhaps he needs . . . so she doesn't want to take away from that. And then she gets caught up in it, too."
Still, Naomi Watts points out that Cornelia was on to something from the start. 'Her initial instincts were right, and ultimately Jamie and Darby do upend Cornelia and Josh's world, but they also manage to avoid the demise of their marriage," she says. 'I love the way Noah gets into all the different ways ambition works on us. Ambition and self-promotion are so much a part of today's world, it can seem like there's no place left anymore for self-doubt. But it's such a complex thing. Ambition can destroy you but at the same time"if you don't have it, you're left behind."
Naomi Watts was especially excited to undertake her most comedic role to date, one that even delves into physical comedy as Cornelia finds herself flailing gamely through Darby's advanced hip-hop dance class. 'I haven't done a lot of comedy, so it's nice to have the chance to do more than one thing," she says. 'I don't think of myself as someone who has natural timing, but this kind of comedy where there's a lot of reality involved is very interesting to me." Collaborating with Ben Stiller helped Naomi Watts explore that further. 'Working with Ben Stiller was an amazing experience. He is one of the funniest people ever but he is also a really deep actor. There aren't many comedians who are able to cross into both worlds while going that deep. When you're close up to it and you see his process, you also see the extreme talent involved. I feel like a learned quite a lot from him," she says.
One of her favorite scenes in the film is Josh and Cornelia's initiation into the ritualistic South American drug ayahuasca, famed for causing both wild hallucinatory visions and extreme digestive upheaval, courtesy of Jamie and Darby. 'The ayahuasca scene is really funny writing but it was actually quite hard to do," says Watts. 'Actors love the idea of playing high or drunk but it can be very bad if you don't do it well, so it's always a little scary too. Noah famously shoots a lot of takes, so in this case, we had to chance to try it a lot of different ways, reigning it in and going as far as possible. It was challenging and a lot of fun."
Keen as he was about the script, Adam Driver had to find his own way in to access Jamie's more ruthless side. Ultimately, he cultivated the same mysteries that make him alluring to Josh. He leaves open the question of whether Jamie is a big-hearted film lover hoping to collaborate with someone he admires; a driven, conniving artist who has no qualms about stepping on others on the way to his own success; or possibly both things at once. 'I really don't know that I would even say Jamie comes to Josh in some kind of a guise in the beginning, because I think he may really feel a connection to Josh's work," Adam Driver says. 'There's a lot of ambiguity to him, and not just outwardly."
Adam Driver notes that he sees equal merits in Jamie and Josh's conflicting takes on creativity. 'I identify with both. There's something to be said for Jamie's way of kind of throwing stuff against the wall and going on first instinct"that can lead to the best material, because you're not overthinking it. But then I also relate to Josh's work ethic and integrity, though I see how it can also be limiting and insular, where he's become this guy alone in a room obsessing on details that don't matter. I can also relate to Jamie's love of vinyl and handmade things because I think my generation is realizing technology can take you away from direct experience. At the same time I relate to Josh's feeling that my generation feels entitled to things they haven't earned yet because I see that in some people, too." The subtle stylistic differences between the two came ever more to the fore as Driver began working with Ben Stiller for the first time. 'Ben Stiller is a genius, though he probably wouldn't want to hear me say this," he muses. 'You almost expect someone who is so accomplished to come in with the relaxed attitude that they've got it all figured out, but Ben is relentless and persistent about finding new things. He was just so generous and, in the atmosphere of focus that Noah creates, we were able to really explore this relationship."
Adam Driver equally enjoyed exploring Jamie's starter marriage to Darby, which is foundering despite its romantic appearance. 'Amanda, Noah, and I kind of decided Jamie and Darby have known each other a long time; they grew up together and got married very early to do something old-fashioned," he recalls. 'I think there is real love there, but Jamie is always in motion and always thinking about what's to come, while Darby is really begging him to be more present in a way he's not getting." Amanda Seyfried agrees that Darby has become frustrated by the Jamie-focused nature of their marriage. 'Darby mostly supports Jamie's endeavors and she's not necessarily proud of that. She's looking for her own footing. Jamie's ambition is infectious, but I think she has this feeling she hasn't really been living her own life," she explains.
Amanda Seyfried says she was drawn to the role first by Noah Baumbach's distinctive voice. 'He's able to depict universal struggles in a really simple way and he also hones in on the complexity of human interactions in a way really no one else can. He has his own take on things, yet he's so good at expressing what we're all feeling"and in a way where it feels light and never heavy-handed." She had a visceral reaction to Darby. 'I really like Darby because she is who she is and she has no pretenses. She's someone very positive, who has an optimistic, almost innocent, outlook on life. She's a bit of a hopeless romantic and she always looks for the good in people. I love that's she not at all cynical, because I am, and I'd like to see the world more like she does," admits Amanda Seyfried.
On the set, she says there was the frisson of different generations melding, but she saw few generational differences so far as the work was concerned. 'The actors that I most like working with are the ones who are ready to attack a scene from any angle the director wants, and everybody was like that on this film. Regardless of age, I felt like we all had the same process and there wasn't a big difference between what Ben and Naomi were doing and what Adam and I were doing." Noah Baumbach, she says, was the cornerstone for everyone. 'Everyone was adventurous and smart, but the thing we most shared was immense respect for Noah Baumbach's writing," Amanda Seyfried concludes.
While We're Young was shot entirely on location in Brooklyn, Manhattan and upstate New York, adding another portrait of New York to a locale Baumbach first explored in The Squid and The Whale and returned to in Frances Ha. He reunites here with FranceS (Missing S) Ha's director of photography, Sam Levy, who switches from that film's moody, luminous black and white to A Cur Rich, colorful dynamism.
Noah Baumbach's New York in While We're Young is not a mythic version of the city. Rather, it's part of the natural fabric of his artistically inclined characters' social lives" where the places people choose to hang out are as reflective of their generation as clothing or musical taste. The film is also largely set not in Manhattan, but in Brooklyn, which has now become as famed for its critical mass of bearded hipsters as for its affluent professionals fleeing the unbearable costs of Manhattan. Once gritty and working class, Bushwick now teems with countless art galleries and brewpubs crammed into just over a square mile of space. Having grown up in Park Slope, long before Brooklyn was the epicenter of cool, Baumbach was motivated to return.
As with the performances, the film's visual and aural elements are constructed out of a focus on the finest details. That goes right down to the music, which melds a score by LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy, who also worked on Greenberg, into a soundtrack that weaves together artists as diverse as Vivaldi, McCartney (revisiting Band On The Run's then-futuristic 'Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five"), Bowie, A Tribe Called Quest, and HAIM.
The finishing detail of the film – an increasingly familiar image of a toddler swiping through a smart phone with near supernatural facility - leaves behind a reminder that the cycle continues. Even as Generation X comes to grips with the pangs of growing past their ascendency, the next generational chasms are already opening.
While We're Young
Release Date: April 2nd, 2015