Noah Baumbach’s New York State of Mind

In movies like 'The Squid and the Whale' and 'Frances Ha,' filmmaker uses city’s energy to drive action

Noah Baumbach

When the Brooklyn Academy of Music recently organized a series of iconic movies set in this outer borough, it was no surprise that writer-director Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale” featured prominently among them. Released in 2005, but set in the pre-gentrification, pre-“Girls” 1980s, the semi-autobiographical portrait of two brothers coping with their parents’ divorce was shot on the same Park Slope streets where the 43-year-old filmmaker grew up.

(From the pages of the April 23 issue of Variety.)

The film is so lovingly rendered that even a non-native could understand one character’s apoplectic reaction to the news that his father would be moving to the other side of Prospect Park: “Across the park? Is that still Brooklyn?”

Indeed, there may be no more quintessentially New York filmmaker of Generation Y than Baumbach.

The son of writer Jonathan Baumbach and former Village Voice film critic Georgia Brown, Noah came of age in a crucible of intellectual competitiveness (reflected in films like “Squid” and his subsequent “Margot at the Wedding”), studied English at Vassar, and wrote for the Shouts & Murmurs section of the New Yorker. He has directed four of his six features in Gotham — films populated by the kind of fiercely intelligent, self-conscious, emotionally regressed writers and artists that would be hard to find in abundance in any other American city.

”I know the city so well, and I’ve spent most of my life here,” says Baumbach. “So I’m drawn to it, and I think I get a lot of ideas from the city. If I’m shooting on a street that I have memories of, there’s always something extra about just showing up to work every day, even if there’s no literal connection to the scene I’m shooting.”

Though Baumbach’s 1995 debut picture, “Kicking and Screaming,” was shot in L.A. for budgetary reasons, the setting was an unidentified East Coast college town (modeled on Vassar). For 2010’s “Greenberg,” he put L.A. front and center, but focused on the perspective of Ben Stiller as a transplanted New Yorker unable to drive or swim in the land of freeways and pools.

“For me, there’s an energy in New York, being on the street and being in the real world,” Baumbach says of the differences of shooting in the two cities. “I try as much as possible to put my characters and my actors in the real city. The hope, though, is that the real city can operate as it usually does, and we can shoot our movie within it — the way “Midnight Cowboy” felt when you saw Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo on the street.”

Baumbach is the first to acknowledge that shooting on the city’s streets isn’t always easy.

“There are challenges, obviously, because not every citizen of New York cooperates with your plan. People ruin takes by looking into the camera or yelling. If you have movie stars, there’s paparazzi. But I find that, when you get it, it always feels special — there’s something you can’t fake.”

The filmmaker says he wouldn’t have known how to make “Squid” in another town. And, the same goes for his latest movie “Frances Ha,” which IFC Films will debut May 17 following its warm reception at last year’s Telluride, Toronto and New York film festivals. Baumbach’s second collaboration with indie “it” girl Greta Gerwig (who also co-wrote the screenplay and starred in “Greenberg”), “Frances” traces the alternately comic and moving misadventures of a 27-year-old dance apprentice struggling to keep up with the fast pace and high cost of New York living. Shot in luxurious black-and-white throughout Greenwich Village and Brooklyn, the film has already been likened to a downtown, hipster “Manhattan.” Baumbach went so far as to insert title cards with exact street addresses of his protagonist’s various crash pads.

“Frances isn’t a native New Yorker and has come to the city hoping for a lot of things in her life,” Baumbach says. “So that’s one of the stories of the film — her relationship with New York City.”

Baumbach drew heavily on young, up-and-coming New York talent, like “Girls” star Adam Driver and Mickey Sumner (daughter of Sting and Trudie Styler) in her feature debut. He also adopted a fresh, DIY filmmaking approach that traded many creature comforts for unparalleled creative freedom. With a greatly reduced crew, Baumbach made “Frances” on a leisurely schedule so far off Hollywood’s radar that few had heard of it before its Toronto premiere was announced.“I wanted to try making a movie where, rather than saying, ‘We have this amount of time to get this movie done,’ I could say, ‘When is this movie actually done?”

New York Filmography:

Of Baumbach’s six pics, “Frances Ha,” “The Squid and the Whale,” “Margot at the Wedding” and “Mr. Jealousy” were shot in Gotham.