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Noah Baumbach seems to have skipped a step. The typical aspiring filmmaker spends a couple of years in film school, apprentices as a peon in TV or low-budget indie films, and makes his first feature on a shoestring, using borrowed equipment and deferring as much of the cost as possible.
But the 26-year-old Brooklyn native didn’t go to film school, had never set foot on a film set before directing Kicking and Screaming (which he also wrote), and received over a million dollars from Trimark to make the film.
Kicking is about four guys who have just graduated from college and can’t take the next step, whether toward grad school, employment, or just moving out of their group house, and instead drive their girlfriends and each other crazy by remaining in familiar behavioral ruts. Like altogether too many other recent low-budget films, it’s a contemporary coming-of-age comedy, but Baumbach claims his influences are Godard and Truffaut, not Reality Bites. “Pacewise, I love French movies. When they need to, they’ll take all the time in the world to develop a scene. At the same time, they’ll cook it along at a great pace,” he says.
Baumbach, who in slicked-back hair and tweed blazer looks like a cross between Andy Garcia and a comp-lit grad student, offers no illuminating explanation for how he succeeded in avoiding paying his filmmaking dues. He says Kicking got made because “all you need is one person to say yes, and all I got was one person. I got rejected by every other company.” But Baumbach cites the old saw that persistence plus talent equals luck in asserting that securing the film’s backing was far from an easy task. “Even though it happened relatively quickly, [I worked] day-in and day-out since I graduated” (from Vassar in ’91). “I was telling people that I was going to make this movie and I could make this movie, depending on who it was, [and producer] Joel Castleberg…believed in me,” he says.
However, having an experienced producer aboard (Castleberg was executive producer of Bodies, Rest and Motion and Sleep With Me—and yes, Eric Stoltz, star of those films, has a supporting part in Kicking) did not translate into a done deal. Twice, Baumbach was casting the film when the funding fell through. Part of the problem was Baumbach’s insistence on retaining casting approval. One would-be backer wanted Corey Haim (Baumbach thinks it was Corey Haim, although he concedes it might have been Corey Feldman) for the central part of Grover. Another wanted to know if there was a third Sheen brother who could play the part. But Baumbach held firm in the face of commercial pressure that threatened to turn the film into USA Network-level dreck. “They don’t see [interfering in the casting] as…compromising the movie on the other end. It’s casting planning for it not to work out and go to video….On a cursory read, people thought, “Oh, another one of these Gen X [coming-of-age films].’ Another person saw it as a college sex-romp film. And if they wanted to make the movie, I wasn’t going to tell them it was something else. I was still going to make the same movie, but I was going to let them think what they were going to think. But when it came to cast, that’s what I wouldn’t give on, and that’s why I lost financing.”
Baumbach is enthusiastic about the performers he eventually used. Two of Kicking‘s cast members are veterans of the current wave of indie coming-of-age comedies: Chris Eigeman, the most sardonic presence in Whit Stillman’s martini-dry Metropolitan and Barcelona (“I think Chris is a movie away from [being a star],” says Baumbach), and Parker Posey, lead hazing bitch in Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused and the title character of Daisy von Scherler Mayer’s Party Girl (“Parker is on the verge of being a star,” says the director).
The main surprise in the cast of Kicking is Olivia d’Abo, who has not spent recent years honing her craft in independently produced, character-driven ensemble pieces, but has instead graduated to such fare as the most recent Steve Guttenberg vehicle, The Big Green, after several years of playing Fred Savage’s sister on The Wonder Years. “She’s a terrific comedian. I think she should be a star,” says Baumbach.
Pre-stellar cast or not, it would seem that for a director with absolutely zero experience, actually working on the shoot would present a host of unfamiliar situations. But Baumbach says that directing was “a medium I knew I’d be comfortable with. I’ve been making movies in my head since I was a child….I’ve spent my whole life watching movies thinking, “Oh, they did that.’ Most books I would read, I would think, “How would I shoot this, how would I turn this into a movie?’ I knew exactly what I wanted. I found people who believed in me…and felt the same way.”
Baumbach also shrugs off the question of whether he had any problem convincing his more experienced cast and crew that he knew what he was doing. “I knew what I wanted, and I knew what way to get there. I think I understand actors. I understand movies. So I’d tell them what I wanted, and people would do it….It’s a sensibility for movies that I’ve always been cultivating. It didn’t seem weird to me.”
Baumbach’s training as a filmmaker came at home: His mother is Georgia Brown, film critic for the Village Voice, and his father is novelist Jonathan Baumbach. “Before my mother was a film critic, my father had reviewed movies for the Partisan Review. They weren’t really film critics, they were writers who loved film and would occasionally write about it….Movies were considered another art form….I was taken to a lot of serious movies when I was younger,” says Baumbach.
The singularity of Baumbach’s calling to make movies seems to be at odds with Kicking‘s characters’ singular rudderlessness, but the director says he identifies with their fears about the future: “I’ve been asked a lot, “Well, you obviously knew what you wanted to do, but you made a movie about people who don’t.’ For me, the anxiety of knowing what I wanted to do and what if it [didn’t] happen was also petrifying in a way….I had that anxiety all the time. What if this doesn’t happen? Even while I was telling people it was going to. On one level, I knew it was going to happen; I knew I was going to make this movie, and this was going to be my career. But then at the same time, I never believed it would happen.”