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If Squid reignited Baumbach's career, Greenberg finds the filmmaker at a subtler moment of transition. Margot at the Wedding was both a box-office bomb and a critical failure (Baumbach says he no longer reads reviews: "The good ones don't feel very good anyway, and the bad ones don't feel good at all"), and the company that released it, Paramount Vantage, has been absorbed by its corporate parent. Meanwhile, Baumbach has refashioned himself as a big-brother type to a number of younger filmmakers who have in turn influenced his own work.
It started when Baumbach mentioned in an interview that he had seen and liked Hannah Takes the Stairs. "Then Joe wrote me a note about Margot, and then we got on the phone together, and I said, 'If I could be of any help, I'll help you with whatever you want to do next, and you can do it your way.'"
The result was Alexander the Last, directed by Swanberg and produced by Baumbach. "And I had met Andrew Bujalski, and then Aaron Katz called me when he was working on his next movie," being the highly anticipated Cold Weather, premiering this week at SxSW. Baumbach smiles sheepishly as he looks for the words to describe his relationship to this younger generation of writer-directors, and ends up sounding like a character from one of their films. "I was sort of happy to be . . . of service, as the sort of mumblecore I-don't-know."
Though Baumbach and these young upstarts all technically make films independently, there's a significant gap in scale, market viability, and cultural prominence between something like Greenberg — fronted by an A-list star and released by Focus Features, a subsidiary of NBC/Universal, which paid for an absurdly fashionable hotel suite in which to house this interview — and something like Cold Weather, made for less than a million dollars, rejected by Sundance, going to SxSW in search of increasingly elusive distribution. Baumbach says he finds the casual DIY ethos of filmmakers like Katz and Swanberg "inspiring." As he sees it, it's the industry stratum he occupies that's dying — the kids will be all right.
"Focus Features is sort of a dinosaur now, so if you're in the world of specialty divisions, you have, like, two places to go. To see these guys just making movies, and their sort of [attitude] — 'Oh, yeah, you want to see it? I'll send it to you' — I found that very liberating, in a way."
With Greenberg his sixth feature as writer/director, Baumbach says he has less trouble getting movies made than he has had in the past, but there's still pressure to graduate to a higher level. "Even fairly serious moviegoers can't shake this shadow of the corporate world. They'll say things like, 'When are you gonna make a real movie?' Like that's the next thing, the thing you obviously have to do."
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