‘Greenberg’ talent talks collaboration

By David Orlikoff

Noah Baumbach has spent equal parts of the 21st century as a writer for films such as Wes Anderson’s “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” and as a writer/director for films like the critically acclaimed “The Squid and the Whale.” His latest project, “Greenberg,” is of the latter category. Ben Stiller plays the title role, a middle-aged man who resigned himself to do nothing for awhile. The trailer suggests themes of existentialism and potentially dark dramedy indicative of much of Baumbach’s work. James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem composed the score for the film.

The Chronicle talked by phone to Baumbach, Murphy and Stiller about collaboration on set, the choice of Stiller for the dramatic role and the differences between the soundtrack and an LCD Soundsystem record.

The Chronicle: Was this role a departure for Ben Stiller from his comedic acting?

Noah Baumbach: I always wanted somebody who had a sense of humor to play this part. There’s a lot of humor in it, although it’s not played for laughs. I think Ben and I talked about this a lot. The more authentically he portrays it, the funnier it was going to be. I saw Ben in the John Guare play “The House of Blue Leaves,” which I think was your first

professional role?

Ben Stiller: Yes. Took you long enough to give me a call. [All laugh]

NB: Well, I was busy for awhile. Obviously, Ben is known for bigger comedies but he’s done a lot of different stuff. I never really saw it so much as a different role. I just thought Ben was the best person to

play this.

BS: I think there are four or five filmmakers that if you get a call from them as an actor you would say “yes” no matter what it is. And Noah is definitely one of those guys for me. I was lucky that what he was calling me with something that I felt very excited by too because it was so specifically written. We talked a little bit … at the beginning about the age of the character and the issues he was going through. I would love to work with Noah again if he has anything. There are very few filmmakers I think that, like Noah, have that sense of humor but also reality, and are doing what he’s doing

The Chronicle: I know James Murphy has said this was “not an LCD Soundsystem record,” so what were the goals and approach to the soundtrack?

James Murphy: The goal for me was to make music that worked, that we liked, that seemed true to the characters and the movie and that made Noah happy. It seemed pretty easy to do because we were able to talk about music pretty simply. I know I was very lucky to have that open line of communication. I was making the soundtrack and Noah was editing the movie. [We worked] 100 feet from each other, so it was very easy to have access and a lot of feedback and just communicate. I don’t know if I ever got really self-conscious about what the goals were, except deadlines and dates. On the small level, we just always seemed to go with our guts. It actually got remarkably more comfortable the longer we did it.

NB: From my perspective, I wanted James to do something that was going to work for the movie but to interpret it himself, and to come at it from a personal standpoint. And I think our relationship and friendship outside of the work and around the work was really important because it helped support an environment where we both could just talk freely and see what happened. And some of it’s trial and error in terms of some things you love. When you put it in front of the picture, it doesn’t work or doesn’t feel right. But I think our track record was pretty good.

JM: I would give Noah music and he would move parts and just try it in a different place if it didn’t work there. So he was very generous.

NB: Well, that’s the thing. I so loved everything that James did that I kept trying to find places for it, which was good because I used music more in this movie—score more—than I have in previous movies.

The Chronicle: How was it different working on the soundtrack to a finished product versus building something from the ground up?

JM: The way this worked wasn’t quite so much like that. I met with Noah before shooting started and we talked a lot about music and we talked about characters. There’s a lot of human camaraderie that made it very easy to talk about what the movie needed. It wasn’t any less about my emotions than anything else, there was something you were looking at and reacting. But we also didn’t try to make a soundtrack that necessarily always accented emotions. After seeing the first dailies, it was clear that the actors were doing their job amazingly well and the stuff was there. It would be saccharine to just punch those things up. Instead, I made songs that work as a backdrop for what’s happening and let the emotions be done by the directing and the shooting and the acting. So it was easy. There were a lot of jokes about “right now there should be a really moody chord.”

The Chronicle: What was the progression and development of the original story concept to the final film?

NB: Part of the experience is interpreting—you get the script as good as you can get it, and then you want to interpret it when you shoot it, and put it together and rewrite it when you edit. That’s the general way of looking at it. But because I’m so involved every step of the way, I think part of my job is being open to how it transforms and how other people bring that transformation. I really think the character Greenberg is in many ways a 50/50 collaboration between Ben and me. Ben didn’t improvise the dialogue, he did the dialogue I wrote, but he so inhabited the part and so transformed the character that I feel only part ownership of him now. I feel Ben is as responsible for it as I am and that’s true with many things. I think that’s true with the music too. I think the music is very specific and personal to James, even though it was hired work created to go with these pictures. But in the post production and the editing, I’m not prescient about what I write, so I tend to rewrite by cutting lines and moving things around. Being open to what you have rather than what you anticipated having is really important. It always becomes something different than what you started with.