The Squid and the Whale hinges on a Natural History Museum finale. While We’re Young includes a memorable Bushwick block party. Mistress America follows the adventures of a Barnard undergraduate and her Times Square-dwelling future stepsister. Frances Ha is basically an advertisement for millennial New York living. This month, writer-director Noah Baumbach returns with his newest title, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), a film that, like many of its predecessors, explores the contentious, comedic dynamic of a New York family.
When it comes to depicting the city, Baumbach has corned the market on capturing portraits of city life that are at once organic and unexpected. A native of Park Slope, Baumbach has been known to draw heavily on his own experiences in developing his work, which includes repeatedly shooting in the New York neighborhoods he frequented during his childhood. “It’s meaningful for me to shoot on a street that I walked on when I was a kid,” Baumbach said during a New York Film Festival talk on Monday. “It brings out something in me.”
Baumbach grew up on Montgomery Place, a small street just west of Prospect Park. The neighborhood features largely in his 2005 semi-autobiographical film The Squid and the Whale, which finds two young brothers coping with their parents’ divorce. Because of the real life aspect to that film, Baumbach said, he felt compelled to use his childhood neighborhood as its setting, a choice that was “very specific to the anthropology of that story.”
But his reasons for returning to Park Slope are not always logistical. “For Mistress America,” Baumbach explained, “we shot on my street and it didn’t have anything to do with it. She, Brooke, was tutoring a girl on the street, and I just wanted to go back there.” On returning to his childhood haunts, he added, “It’s like a conversation I’m having with myself as a child who wanted to make movies, who loved movies.”
This conversation doesn’t only stem from familiar environs. Baumbach also feels a pull to include people from his past in his casting. “I use friends of mine from childhood, I put my doorman in a scene,” he recalled. His younger brother, Nico Baumbach, even makes a cameo as a dinner party guest in While We’re Young. For Baumbach, the presence of familiar faces and surroundings helps to render a comfortable world where he can then build an original narrative. He explains, “It’s like I recognize it, and I think in some ways recognizing it helps me then also invent and fictionalize.”
Baumbach does acknowledge that, growing up, his identification with New York was limited to Brooklyn. Coming of age in the ‘70s and ‘80s, he said, Manhattan felt distant and foreign. “We lived in Brooklyn in a different time when Manhattan seemed like a long way away. I talk to friends of mine––like Greta [Gerwig], who grew up in Sacramento, or Wes Anderson, who grew up in Houston––and I actually relate to their concepts of New York even though I was much closer.”
Despite his physical detachment, Baumbach was able to foster an intimate connection to Manhattan through movies. “I’m sort of equating Manhattan with movies, in a way,” he said, citing E.T., 48 Hrs., Saturday Night Live, and Woody Allen films as youthful favorites that have had a lasting effect on him. Even though much of the content Baumbach consumed was not set in Manhattan, through his cinephilia Baumbach felt a connection to the city, which he imaged as a place more amenable to aspiring filmmakers. “I thought in terms of movies all the time,” he said, “but I felt so far away from a world where movies were made.”
Though Baumbach refrains from getting too sentimental or nostalgic, he clearly feels a deep appreciation for the city, expressing his gratitude to New York Film Festival for accepting his directorial debut, Kicking and Screaming, to premiere at the fest 22 years ago. “Sometimes you think you’re making your ode to the city you love, and you find yourself in traffic, or having a hard time shooting something in the street, or the city’s not cooperating,” he said. “But then there are other times when it comes through.”