Ben Stiller, Amanda Seyfried, Noah Baumbach, + Ad-Rock Talk ‘While We’re Young’

After the outpouring of love for Noah Baumbach’s energetic female-led black-and-white character study Frances Ha and the praise out of Sundance for his upcoming Mistress America, I found myself worried that Noah Baumbach’s latest film, While We’re Young, might lack the same delightful spark. More misanthropic and dispassionate than Frances, I was right in my feeling that his latest falls more in the register of his films like Greenberg and Margot at the Wedding, yet doesn’t deliver the same complexities as those share. And while possessing its own brand of anxious charm, While We’re Young simply doesn’t enliven the kind of excitement his past films have. Baumbach’s way with tone, the witty bite of his dialogue, and the emotional authenticity he imbues in his characters in films like Kicking and Screaming or The Squid and the Whale, have always been a signature of his work, yet here that voice lacks the same nuanced approach.

Perhaps my own feelings toward the film are subjective to my own age, as the film concerns two couples: one free-spirited and in their 20s, the other comfortably numb in their 40s. And as I fall into the former category (age, not spirit-wise), my reaction to the film could be derived from a lack of understanding for the way he’s portrayed these “youthful” characters—more sketches than fully-formed people. For a filmmaker whose voice has always felt bitterly honest, and while Baumbach is still a young director himself, he’s written a world that feels noticeably out of touch or too acutely drawn from a narrow perspective.

Focusing on Cornelia (Naomi Watts) and Josh (Ben Stiller) as the middle-aged husband and wife whose lives spiral into an existential crisis after befriending younger couple Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), While We’re Young explores the questions that arise when their lives are mirrored against one another. Setting the characters in the world of documentary filmmaking—alongside the great Charles Grodin as Watts’ famed father–questions of identity and ethics involved in each filmmakers’ practice soon take over the film in a way that engulfs the core story of marriage and a fracture in their complacent happiness—which, frankly, felt like more weighty subject matter in this context.

However, for whatever negativity I felt from the movie, there were moments that were thoroughly enjoyed and still marked by his wonderful ability to bring comedy to even the most dramatic and emotionally-strained circumstances. And in musing on it all again, my conflicted feelings did create a desire to better understand what Baumbach was going after, wanting to feel less constricted in my own view.

Earlier this week I attended a press conference with Baumbach, Stiller, Seyfried, and Ad-Rock (who plays one half of Stiller’s “adult couple” friends), which helped me to gain a broader sense of how others were seeing it for themselves, as the group spoke about their feelings toward the world of documentary filmmaking, bringing the characters to life through wardrobe, and whether or not New York is still a place for artists.

On what film would make a good double feature with While We’re Young:

Noah Baumbach: Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now.

BS: I just watched that a couple weeks ago, but I would say Albert Brook’s Real Life. I feel like Albert Brook’s character in that movie is a precursor to Jamie.  


On how the advancement of modern technology is effecting human relationships:

Amanda Seyfried: Besides negatively?

Ad-Rock: Hold on, let me text you the answer.

Ben Stiller: I think there’s good and bad. I’m on location now working on a movie and I’m able to FaceTime with my kids, which is something that’s kind of amazing. Those things are really incredible, but then there’s that other thing about texting and it’s much easier to hide behind the technology and not have actual human interaction. Kids in their 20s hardly talk on the phone with each other and texting is talking. 

Amanda on her character, Darby, and what she learned from playing her:

AS: I really like Darby. She doesn’t seem to worry about much. There’s this burden I carry on my shoulders constantly and I’m really actively working on loosening up and being mindful.

On authenticity in documentary filmmaking:

BS: For me, I feel like all art is based on other art to a certain extent, but  what Noah is talking about in the film is a very real thing. It’s been going on for a while, and I think reality television has blurred the lines in a lot of ways between what’s real and what isn’t and what’s scripted and what isn’t and what people want to see—especially with documentaries. People want to be entertained. I think documentaries can actually tell you the truth and be entertaining and draw you in, but where is that line?

I’m not a documentarian, so they have to deal with, but I imagine it’s tougher today because people are used to being entertained by “reality” television. I would say there’s a crossover there that blurs the lines between what’s actually truthful, and great documentarians seem to know how to fashion a story and make it truthful while still being dramatic and making those choices. Those choices are always artistic and creative.


On choosing to have the characters in the film be documentary filmmakers:

NB: Initially I liked the idea that it was an occupation they could all have that would be visual and something they could all collaborate on. Just the way you capture documentary film is different. There’s this notion of you’re really just filming life, which is not really what it is, but at least that’s how we perceive it. I didn’t want them to be overly staging something, so it couldn’t be narrative films they were making, but it was really more to create a way to show how each generation’s work could represent them.

So that would be something you can see and something an audience could react to. Once I had this documentary idea, I had to then engage in these questions of authenticity. In terms of their arguments in the film, I engaged in fully with the characters and through the characters, but I didn’t come to conclusions myself. I was telling a story about marriage and I needed to find a resolution to that that was satisfying and hopeful, but the other arguments were things that I wasn’t ever going to have an answer for.

On working with legendary costume designer Ann Roth:

NB: Ann and I started working together for Margot at the Wedding. She worked with Mike Nichols and did Midnight Cowboy and Klute, and she just always sees the whole movie, it’s not just the clothing. The actors will come into fittings and she’ll have this whole backstory and idea. The first time I worked with her she started talking about the backstory for one of the characters and I thought I’d sound stupid if I didn’t go along with it because I hadn’t thought of a backstory.But now I can let her fill in the backstory for me.

In dailies I’ll see texture in a shirt or something and I’ll be so glad that’s there, and I didn’t even realize. It was important for this movie too because we’re dealing with now and have to be true to what’s going on now and what these people would really wear. But at the same time, I also wanted it to be timeless. We weren’t going to try to really imitate Brooklyn youth culture, we would never catch up if we were trying to document what was happening now. So with her we just invented our own kind of style, and she’s the one to do that with.


On the importance of location in the film:

BS: The experience making both this and Greenberg were very different. I was using the word laconic, because I felt like it was a more laid back kind of feeling making Greenberg in L.A. They’re both very small crews and Noah works in a very focused sort of way, but I do think the energy  of both places is different, and they’re both captured in both movies.

NB: In both cases I wanted the city to exist as it would around our fiction within it, and I like that feeling in movies where you can feel real life around in something that’s clearly scripted. So the challenge then becomes, how can you get Ben Stiller around without people ruining takes. We put him on the street in L.A. with Greenberg, and we would hide in the van with a little black curtain and have him go grocery shopping and mail letters. In this one, when you see him and Adam crossing Park Avenue that’s real Park Ave and actually what’s going on. It’s a challenge but it’s worth  it for when it happens and you can make it to the end.

BS: So often in movies you see there’s a hundred extras and everybody’s walking down the street with briefcases—

NB: Everyone’s always looking at their watch. 

BS: “Acting happening.” Noah likes to keep it open, and it’s interesting because you are interacting with real life and there’s a lot more energy this way. 

On whether or not New York is still a place that can cultivate young, struggling artists:

NB: It can be, but it’s a different challenge than what it was, but people seem to do it. I feel like every year you feel like, this is it, they’ve ruined it, that new New School building, that’s it— you know, the one that looks like an air conditioning vent on 5th Avenue? It’s just the worst. I thought, I’m done, how can we thrive in this environment, but somehow New York still wins out and people find ways to be here, but obviously I wish it were easier. 

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