Writer/director Noah Baumbach and producer/actor Jennifer Jason Leigh had previously teamed with Academy Award-winning producer Scott Rudin on Margot at the Wedding. Even as the film was being completed and then released in 2007 – to accolades including an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Ms. Leigh – the trio was already planning a new picture together.
Baumbach and Leigh mapped out the new movie as one that would afford Baumbach the opportunity to once again interlace emotional insight with biting wit, as he had in pictures from his debut Kicking and Screaming to the Oscar-nominated The Squid and the Whale.
Baumbach and Leigh conceived a story that would take the writer/director to Los Angeles for filming. Several years prior, Leigh had co-written and co-directed a Los Angeles-set tale of relationships, The Anniversary Party. But Greenberg would make even more use of the city, as much more than a backdrop for the splendidly realized characters in the screenplay.
It would be filmed on a tight seven-week schedule, roughly the same amount of time the title character, Roger Greenberg, finds himself in Los Angeles.
“Los Angeles plays such a big part in Greenberg that it’s another character, adding to the vibe of the film,” says locations manager Stephenson Crossley. “I didn’t have to show Noah a lot of photos to give him different options. For the most part, he knew where he wanted to go and a lot of those places were written into the script – so it was my job to get us in there.”
“Many of the locations very specifically noted in the script hadn’t been featured in movies before, or at least weren’t instantly recognizable. But we weren’t a big-budget film, and since there’s no gunfire or special effects in the picture, it’s less disruptive to a place or a community. So, people were pretty accommodating.”
For example, the famed Musso & Frank Grill on Hollywood Boulevard, first opened in 1919 and a local institution ever since, was scripted as the setting for a modest yet arguably (to Greenberg, at least) excessive birthday celebration.
While other movies had shot there over the years, “we got them to close on a Tuesday for the first time in their history,” says Crossley. “We expressed to the owner how important it was for us to shoot there, and how it would help bring the film and the characters to life. The mandate from Noah was always real places and real people.” Accordingly, the restaurant’s real-life waiters, one a 50-year veteran, were on duty for the sequence – and regular customers came in to be extras.
Other L.A. locations were also specifically written into the script for verisimilitude. These included Lucy’s El Adobe restaurant, across the street from Paramount Pictures; the Runyon Canyon hiking trails, 160 acres of the Santa Monica Mountains that are a sanctuary for dog walkers; the Fairfax district, where orthodox Jews are seen walking to and from Temple every Friday and Saturday, alongside the trendsetters who hit the restaurants and boutiques along Melrose Avenue; and the Highland Gardens Hotel.
Most of the locations were in Hollywood or West Hollywood – accurately representing what would be within walking distance for the non-driving Greenberg – including a veterinarian’s office where Leigh and Baumbach have taken their own pets.
The Silverlake area art gallery Machine Project allowed the production to incorporate an existing art installation into filming. Crossley explains, “The artists were building a forest in that space – and we had one night to shoot there before that exhibition opened.
“Our production designer, Ford Wheeler, worked with me at all times, mapping out what he was designing in tandem with where we would be shooting. Hopefully Greenberg will give audiences a sense of what it’s actually like to live – or visit – here.”
Cinematographer Harris Savides captured Los Angeles for Greenberg in widescreen, reteaming with the filmmakers after their work on Margot at the Wedding. This made the new movie at once more cinematic and more real – almost documentary-like, given the extensive location shooting.
Following the lensing all around town, the latter half of the shoot took place in and around a 1920s-era house in the Hollywood Hills which was cast as the Phillip Greenberg home.
Wheeler and his team transformed the house to reflect both the established world of Philip’s family and the transient nature of Greenberg’s existence in their absence. Recommended by a colleague to Wheeler, set decorator Elizabeth Keenan immediately began working closely with him and the filmmakers. She notes, “Getting the house together entailed seven-day weeks for about a month, from paint color tests with Harris filming to playing with white spaces. But on this shoot, there was a wonderful camaraderie.
“Noah and Jennifer were so specific about what they wanted to show and who these characters were. They had been thinking about the people in this story for a long time – which actually made things easier. Working with them was a process of getting to know the characters and pushing the story ahead; for me, being responsible for everything that isn’t a floor or a wall, the set decoration on Greenberg extended to bedside reading, chosen perfumes, and – with the costume department – what clothes a character would have in his or her closet.”
If clothes do make the man, then, as costume designer Mark Bridges notes, “There’s an element of Greenberg that lives a bit in the past and hasn’t really moved on from a certain time. You see how he’s more strongly attached to it than his friend Ivan is. He still feels as if he’s starting out, but time is going by. He has kind of a late ‘80s/early ‘90s look, in colors that you don’t see so much these days any more – like his caramel cotton sweater. The idea was to subtly evoke a feeling of an earlier time without broadcasting it. Even his shoes were important to me; you may never see them on camera, but I work from the ground up.
“In terms of the L.A. experience, we wanted you to relate to Greenberg’s discomfort when, say, he’s at Musso & Frank or at the afternoon barbecue [filmed at a Los Feliz house] – and especially for the big party sequence, where some of the kids are riffing on the ‘80s in their fashion choices, which makes things more surreal for him then they already are. If you don’t notice these things, then I’ve done my job, because it’s up to Noah and Harris to guide viewers to what they’re supposed to see.”
Elaborating on how much he prizes the collaborative nature of making movies, Bridges offers, “After reading the script, I already see the movie in my mind’s eye. Then, working with the director, we compare points of view and reassess after a role is cast. I feel fortunate that I’m able to help the actor create his role.”
To bring the lead character to life, the filmmakers tapped Ben Stiller. The actor says, “I was a fan of The Squid and the Whale – the reality, the tone, and the emotion of it – and Margot at the Wedding and Kicking and Screaming. Noah finds humor without going for laughs.
“So I was very excited to get this script and then get to talk to him about it. When we got into the process of working on the movie, I knew I was with a filmmaker who had a really clear vision of what he wanted to do and a point of view – yet was also open to what’s going on in the moment.”
Known as being skilled in improvisation and therefore able to elevate a scene, Stiller found that “Noah’s work is very detailed and goes into specifics on the characters; it’s all written on the page. We rehearsed a lot; it really has to be said as written. So there was hardly any improvisation on the shoot and that was exciting – not having the burden of having to come up with something to try to make it better. What I had to do was to make sure that I would get the rhythm of his dialogue, his lines, to work. Some sequences – 4-6 pages in the script – were like doing little plays.
“In this movie, you see the incremental building of a relationship between two people who – like everybody – have issues in their lives. Greenberg and Florence are able to come together and get past self-imposed barriers. Until now, I’d never done a film which reminded me of the Hal Ashby or Robert Altman movies of the 1970s that would explore characters and find their little private moments that happen and that you don’t usually see in movies.”
These moments are captured, marvels Stiller, ”with no video playback on the set for Noah to look at. We would do a lot of takes of a scene, with Noah making adjustments; ‘You want to get out of that room quicker,’ or ‘You really feel let down by this guy.’ He wants to get at the reality of the people.
“Noah and Harris Savides would block a scene and then shoot with a couple of cameras at the same time. They make it seem so easy, but what they do together takes a lot of courage creatively.”
Savides states simply, “I like to keep things natural, and real – while also respecting the script.”
To that point, Stiller notes, “Noah writes the way people talk – and also how, in conversation, they don’t listen to each other. Making this movie, I realized that was something I had been doing in life a lot – someone would be telling me something and I’d be going ‘uh huh, uh huh’ while thinking about the next thing I wanted to say…!”
He remarks, “Another benefit for me was getting to be in a movie opposite Jennifer Jason Leigh, who I think is one of our great actors. She was on-set most of the time, partnered with him on making this movie.”
An even more crucial acting partner for Stiller was Greta Gerwig, who with Greenberg was making her biggest film to date. Gerwig was well aware of her leap, commenting, “I couldn’t believe that I might actually be in a movie for Focus Features and Scott Rudin. I auditioned for Noah and Jennifer in their apartment, and sang a little song for them because Florence is a singer. I thought, ‘Man, even if I don’t get this, I’m happy that I got to get this far.’
“Reading the script, I knew exactly who Florence was. I’ve never read a part that so perfectly articulated what it means to be a 25-year-old girl who’s figuring out that she is going to keep getting older. So I wanted to be part of this bigger film, not just because it seemed a logical step, but because I have a deep love of movies that this project spoke to.”
Gerwig saw her character of Florence as “someone with a lot of pluck and beliefs that things will work out – despite everything sort of pointing to the contrary. She never allows herself to feel down about things or wallow, which I think is admirable. Also, she’s very honest – which makes her very funny; she has no filter in stating the exact reason why she might be uncomfortable in a certain situation.
“In private moments, she is able to reflect about how her life may not be going exactly as planned. Yet she keeps moving forward, which is admirable. Her ability to take care of herself grows over the course of the film.”
Gerwig herself felt taken care of by her colleagues on Greenberg. She remarks, “What ultimately turned out to be similar to the smaller movies I’ve done is that they made it all feel like a close-knit family. There was not a sense of hierarchy. Although Rhys Ifans was in awe every day at how much food there was from the craft services truck; he would take pictures to send to friends in London…
“We did a couple of weeks of rehearsal. Right away, Noah and Ben and Jennifer created this continuum for me because they are all so much more experienced than I am. They created a zone of comfort, where there was protection and a feeling of safety in what we were doing, even in the hardest scenes between Ben and myself. Ben – who plunged in with everything he had – would give me as much of a performance in our scenes together even when the camera was not on him.”
Stiller comments, “With Greta, you don’t feel you’re acting; you feel like you’re just living real life with her. She seems incapable of being false on camera, and nothing she does feels forced. She’s a beautiful person, and that comes through in what she does. She has a total commitment to the material and to the character she’s playing.”
Bridges dressed Florence as someone who “doesn’t have a lot of money and is a little uncomfortable in her skin. So she has an eclectic mix of clothing. Greta is tall, so it’s like the character is an awkward colt – sometimes stunning and sometimes clearly still growing.”
In the role of Greenberg’s all-but-best friend Ivan, Welsh-born actor Rhys Ifans was keenly attuned to how “we all spend time keeping our own Greenbergs at bay. Ivan now has different priorities and different aspirations from Greenberg, but is still fully aware of the ones that they shared at one time. The script was so well-written that it was clear where my character was coming from. In almost all of his scenes, Ivan doesn’t say what he wants to say.
“It was decided to make my character English – which made things easier for me, but also gave Ivan an ‘otherness’ that enhances the film; I know a lot of Ivans in L.A., and they’re British, funnily enough. To me, everyone in the story seems slightly isolated, Greenberg in particular. But Ivan seems to have the mechanisms to cope a little better than Greenberg does.
Ifans adds, “I’m the same age as Ivan, and this story raises questions about being 40 and whether you’ve achieved what you set out to achieve. This is a very funny comedy that comes from a serious place.
“Noah’s writing is analytical but never judgmental. I find his dialogue to be a nuanced, sonic observation of the way we speak to each other, while the humanity of it forces you to face the truth of the scenes. Working with him as a director was everything I hoped it would be and more. There was a process of exploration, so we would do a lot of takes to dig deeper and deeper – while sticking to the script.”
Stiller recalls, “Rhys and I were playing decades-old friends, but we didn’t get a chance to meet until just before we started shooting. Luckily, Rhys has incredible accessibility as a person, and all these chops as an actor. Right off the bat, he and I were able to figure out the dynamic for these two guys who hadn’t seen each other in a while. That was because it was specific in Noah’s script.
“Greenberg is about people who haven’t realized their dreams, which is something a lot of people can identify with. How do you deal with it? Greenberg has put up so many layers of defenses and so many barriers of protection to push people away. By showing all of the characters in a real way, hopefully the audience will feel for the love story that emerges from this movie.”
Gerwig adds, “The tone of the movie is melancholy, funny, bittersweet, and vivid. I think people will recognize themselves in it, and I hope that Noah’s fans will see it as deepening his body of work.
“Since at its core Greenberg is a love story, for those who don’t know Noah’s work it’s a good way to come to him and what he does – movies about people.”