‘Mistress America’ Director Noah Baumbach on Aging, Staging, and If He’s Cynical About Young People

Noah Baumbach’s Mistress America is one of the funniest movies of the year — and one of the savviest, conjuring up with keen insight the feeling of being young and lonely, and finding a mentor who at first seems like everything you want to be, and then like everything you must avoid. Tracy (Lola Kirke) is a college freshman and freshly minted New Yorker, trying and failing to find her niche. In near-desperation, she reaches out to Brooke (Greta Gerwig), her soon-to-be stepsister, a free-spirited gal about town, prone to pronouncements and proclamations. But Brooke’s quirkiness, Tracy soon comes to believe, is a carefully constructed persona, a shiny object diverting attention from the fact that, too often, she “can’t figure out how to make myself work in the world.”

Mistress America is the third collaboration between writer/director Baumbach and star Gerwig, and their second as co-writers. (They are also, as he carefully puts it, “in a relationship.”) It, like their previous picture Frances Ha, is a breezy, smart, and basically optimistic movie — which is not always Baumbach’s default mode. I asked him about that collaboration, and the themes that we’re seeing in his work both with and without Gerwig.

Flavorwire: I’m really interested in how the theme of aging keeps appearing in your recent films — specifically, the desire not to act one’s age, whether it’s to be younger in While We’re Young, or the way Tracy and her almost-boyfriend Tony want to be older in this film, and the way Brooke objects to Tracy being considered younger than her. How much has aging become a preoccupation for you personally, and to what extent has that informed these recent works?

Noah Baumbach: I mean, I don’t know if I’d call it preoccupation. But it’s the reality of our lives, and I think part of what I’m doing, I suppose, is dramatizing a kind of emotional, psychological inner life in these movies, and trying to come up with stories and characters that make that external and interesting and entertaining. And part of a way to do that is to explore it with two different people. So, you know, questions of age, if you have someone who’s one age and you bring someone who’s younger, it’s a way to dramatize that story. But that’s all intellectualized after the fact; I’m not really thinking about it like that. I’m really thinking about characters and events that seem cinematic or interesting to me to do in a movie.

You wrote While We’re Young by yourself, and it seems much more cynical about 20-somethings than the two films that you’ve written with Greta. Is that coincidental, or is it a result of her point of view in the writing partnership?

I don’t know, I never thought… The story of While We’re Young, one way of looking at it is saying that it’s cynical about or critical of a certain kind of generational thing about 20-somethings, but I don’t think of it that way. You’re coming at it from Ben (Stiller)’s perspective; Ben is the one deciding to give these people all the significance in the beginning. So for me it was very particular to that story, which I thought is a kind of a template of stories that’ve come before it — All About Eve being one, The Master Builder, which I used quotes from, about empowering somebody to destroy you in some way. Which, again, mirrors things. As I was writing it, that sort of scene, the way that story could go, the way it went – so, I’m not really aware of it. I don’t feel cynical about young people, consciously, anyway.

The way Brooke is written is wonderfully multi-layered — we, as an audience, initially fall for her much as Tracy does, and then we start to see these flaws and affectations and how much of her persona is a construction. Talk to me a little about how you and Greta figured that character out.

There was something very clear about the character to us, even in the very early stages, because for me it was a lot just hearing Greta speak like her, as we would say the lines. I felt like I could see her and knew her. And then, I think something we both related to in our lives was being young and looking up to people that seemed so worldly, that seemed to have gamed it, what you feel so overwhelmed by and intimated by — and then kind of outgrowing these people. You can’t help it; you still might want to be friends with them, but you can’t anymore. That was, I thought, a kind of interesting relationship and an identifiable one. And then I think in the invention of Brooke, it felt like we needed to find this other person who would tell the story.

There’s a big, long sequence in the middle of the movie, set at the home of an old friend of Brooke who wronged her. It’s so funny and so inspired — and it’s also a risky play structurally, because the film to that point has consisted mostly of short scenes, two or three people max, and a lot of locations, and here you sort of interrupt that for what almost feels like a scene from a stage farce, very long, in one place, with a lot of characters. What inspired that pivot and convinced you that you could pull it off?

It felt like the movie should change in some way because things are changing between the characters, even in ways they’re not necessarily aware of. In Tracy’s story, we sort of document in some ways – we hear that story (about Brooke’s friend) throughout the movie as a kind of reminder that this is out there. And, I don’t know, I think the movie felt flexible enough to become what it became. I’ve always liked movies that add people as they go — movies that feel almost made up as they’re going along, in the best possible way. And it just felt like that was the way that house should play. The challenge was really the blocking of it, because I didn’t want to do a lot of cutting. The best versions of those kinds of movies are well choreographed – and the pleasure is often seeing the real rhythms, the real behavior, and the real physicality.

Like a Paramount movie from the 1930s, it’s going to have so much of that in a single frame.

Yeah. And as verbal as those movies are, you’re also getting so much physicality, and they’re all trained and can move and, in Cary Grant’s case, is acrobatic; they even do acrobatics in Holiday. There’s just something so pleasurable about that. And you know with Greta, because she’s so physical — like, when she does her pitch, we see her top to bottom on the stage and she does that “rewind” thing, it’s like you’re seeing the whole thing. It just felt like that was the way it should be done, but the challenge, particularly with all the actors, was getting the choreography working and to get people to come in at the right time, and also to figure out where the camera should be at what time. Who do we want to be on this line? And so many of those movies, too, the fun is being able to hear them off-camera. And a lot of that is instinctual and lot of it is planning it, choreographing it, and doing it over and over again till you get it.

Lola Kirke and Greta Gerwig in "Mistress America"

When we talked for Frances Ha, you told me that the way you and Greta wrote together, at that time at least, was not a typical, “sit in a room and bang it out” type of thing. Is that still how you collaborate on a script?

Well, in this one, the difference was, we were subsequently in a relationship, so we could be in the same room [laughs]. So in that way it was easier, because we could sit down and do it together in the same place. But still, we would end up taking seats and doing them separately and then bringing them together. It wasn’t written, from top to bottom, just us next to each other. But once we both have a sense of what we’re writing, we remain pretty well in sync. There isn’t that much that needs to be adjusted because it doesn’t feel like the same movie.

What’s next?

I don’t know, I’m figuring it out. I’m writing now. So we’ll see.

Mistress America is out Friday in limited release.