Noah Baumbach Talks Career Lows and Working With Greta Gerwig

“White Noise” director Noah Baumbach spoke about his career highlights – and low points – as well as his creative partnership with Greta Gerwig during the BFI London Film Festival on Friday afternoon (Oct. 7).

Asked about the eight-year gap between making “Mr. Jealousy” and “The Squid and the Whale,” Baumbach quipped: “I thought, you know what? I really needed about eight years off.”

“No, it wasn’t by design, it was by accident,” he quickly clarified. “I sort of had two careers in a way. I had this early career very quickly and I was really figuring it all out as I was doing it. I had never really been on a movie set before I made ‘Kicking and Screaming.’ But I had this sense of how a movie should be and what I wanted a movie to be. And then after ‘Mr. Jealousy’ [the way] I experienced it at the time is that I was having trouble getting things made. I think, also, I didn’t really know what I wanted to make. And I think maybe, in some ways, my ambitions sort of exceeded my ability.”

“We look at [that career gap] now [and] we say, like, I really grew up and I came into my own and it had a happy ending. But it was, at the time, quite painful. I really felt like I had sort of started and then stopped and I felt like in some ways my dream had come true and now maybe it wasn’t going to happen. That was hard. And I was able to, fortunately, to make some money. I could write for money. So I actually made more money in those eight years than I did making movies.”

Baumbach also revealed how he ended up casting “Dumb and Dumber” star Jeff Daniels in his breakthrough film, “The Squid and the Whale.” “I cast Jeff because he was the only person who said yes,” Baumbach said, prompting laughter among the audience. “I offered that part to every actor roughly in the late 40s to early 60s range at that time, and couldn’t get anybody to do it. And then Jeff flew himself in to New York and I loved Jeff from movies I’d seen him do but I didn’t see him as a Jewish professor living in Brooklyn.”

“But there was something about him – besides the fact that he was the only person who said yes but principally, because he was the only person who said yes – and he was a good actor, I felt well, okay, that’s gotta count for something. But when we were rehearsing, Jeff found something that was very close to him and in that then the rhythms of the character that I had written, he was able to do something very personal.”

Of his creative partnership with Gerwig, which began on “Frances Ha,” Baumbach said he came up with a rough idea for the film and suggested Gerwig work on it with him. “I sort of started by saying, like, ‘Here’s sort of the thing I’m thinking about. Why don’t you write down a bunch of ideas and things,’” he recalled. “What I didn’t know is that Greta was this incredible writer, I mean, I had a feeling she’d be a great collaborator, but that writing really was kind of her thing when she was in college, and so I really lucked out. It was amazing.”

Baumbach was at the festival to premiere “White Noise,” for which he attended the red carpet the previous evening. Discussing the film on Friday, Baumbach explained how he had come to adapt the novel by Don DeLillo. “After ‘Marriage Story’ was the first time in my career since ‘Squid’ that I didn’t have a thing I knew I wanted to do,” he said. “When I made ‘The Meyerowitz Stories’ I had ideas for ‘Marriage Story,’ but I wasn’t ready for it yet. And ‘Meyerwitz Stories’ was something I’d been thinking about [….] on ‘While We’re Young.’ And so I often have a thing that is waiting and developing somewhat consciously and unconsciously [while I’m working on other projects]. And with ‘Marriage Story’ I really didn’t have that so I was more open to an external source than I would have been at another time.”

“And because of the pandemic, I had so many feelings, and I didn’t know how to express what was going on in any way,” he added. “I didn’t want to do it in a literal way. And this book just seemed to keep coming back to me and speaking to me in that way. So I just decided to try to adapt it and see what had happened.”

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