Interview: Noah Baumbach – Frances Ha
Since making his movie debut with 1995’s acclaimed, low budget indie Kicking and Screaming, Noah Baumbach has built a reputation...
Since making his movie debut with 1995’s acclaimed, low budget indie Kicking and Screaming, Noah Baumbach has built a reputation as a maker of witty, sophisticated comedy-dramas, populated by nuanced, fully-formed characters – always boasting strong performances. His films include The Squid and the Whale, Margot and the Wedding and Greenberg – the latter heralding his first collaboration with “mumblecore” actor Greta Gerwig. His latest film, Frances Ha, builds on this relationship – with Gerwig not only starring as the titular Frances, but co-writing the screenplay as well.
The story of a wannabe dancer in her mid-20s – in career and relationship stasis, whilst her best friends are moving on with their lives – Frances Ha is a warm, touching and deeply personal piece of work. Last month, the director was nice enough to sit down with What Culture and tell us all about it.
Your co-writer, and star, Greta Gerwig is closer in age to the title character, Frances, than you are. How do you think you both approached that time in the character’s life differently?
I think when we were both writing it, we were both able to come at it from both perspectives, just because when you’re writing you have to come at everything from every perspective. But, for me, I was able to look back at that time and know she would be OK – I felt like I really wanted to reward her for what she goes through: that the movie should support her. And maybe, when I was that age, it was all too raw for me. I may have been more self-critical and I would have approached it differently and I think I was able to have a more care-taking perspective.
You’ve collaborated on several screenplays in the past – including a couple of projects with Wes Anderson – how did your partnership with Greta differ from past experiences? How did the collaboration work, day-to-day?
I think collaborating with somebody is like having a conversation: you start talking and, if it’s a good conversation, you don’t know who came up with what. You’re both contributing to it, but you’re creating something that exists beyond the two individuals. The things I wrote with Wes [Anderson] were for him to direct so they were specific in that way. With Greta we weren’t in the same place a lot, so we ended up doing a lot of it over e-mail and sending scenes, taking different scenes – she’d write one and I’d write one – and then we’d swap them and re-write each other’s. But that was for practical purposes – I think ideally it’s nice to be in the same room and talk it out as you do it. Which we did a little of, but not a lot.
What did you see that attracted you to Greta? Because, before you cast her in Greenberg, she’d really only been in ultra low-budget indie films…
I saw Hannah Takes the Stairs and I thought she was really great. So I requested that she audition for Greenberg. At the time I didn’t know if she was more comfortable doing movies where they improvised more or if she could do something that was written, then what I discovered is she actually prefers to do scripted material.
Did you leave room for improvisation on Frances Ha, or was it much more set in stone before the shoot?
We arrived with the screenplay that we used, which is how I always do it. My feeling is you’re more free and there’s more creativity if you have a fixed text. I think the thing for Greta, is she was really able to compartmentalise the writing and the acting. When she’s acting, she’s coming at it as if she’s never heard these words before. That was true on Greenberg, where she hadn’t written it, and it was really essentially the same on Frances. But she’s a terrific writer and she really understands people’s speech patterns and I think we both come at dialogue similarly. But when she was acting a scene, I’d almost forgotten that she’d co-written it.
Did you go through many takes when it came to shooting each scene?
I think Greta is so available as an actor and so present, so it would depend on the scene. Sometimes, if I felt like we had it right away, I wouldn’t do that many takes. But I did feel like we had an opportunity on this movie to try to push things. If you do a lot of takes they have their own narrative: things begin, then they usually get bad for a while, and sometimes they turn into something new and – in many cases – better or more exciting. She’s right there in every take and she’s never not giving everything to a scene.
Frances is at a time in her life that will be quite familiar to a lot of 20-something post-graduates who don’t quite know what to do with themselves. The movie seems to be saying: it’s not the end of the world if life falls short of your expectations. Is that a fair assessment of what the film’s about?
In some ways the movie is about the romance of practical decisions: everybody has to make practical decisions in their lives – no one has things handed to them, even people with money. And I feel it’s heroic of Frances to make these decisions. One of the hardest things to do in your life is to let go of your ideas that you have for yourself – that you hope for yourself – and the fact that she’s able to do it is heroic. I the people around her who have money from their parents is what’s going on in New York: the people who all seem to be struggling artists are actually funded. Frances is making that discovery because she just assumes they’re all in the same boat.
And, apart from her creative ambitions, she’s also struggling to live up to society’s expectation of her as an adult, as one awkward dinner party scene makes especially clear…
That dinner party was structured to capture that feeling – on both sides I suppose, but we’re with Frances – that feeling of “I’m in the adult world and I don’t necessarily know how to talk this way”. That feeling that we all have at some point of “I’m old enough to be at this party and sitting with these people but I don’t feel like a grown-up, the way I see these people as grown-ups”.
What attracted you to the idea that she’d be a struggling dancer, rather than, say, a writer or actor?
Greta had picked that because she had danced, and I liked it too: it’s a great visual occupation to give a character. But also, I thought, professional dancing has a expiration date for so many people. It’s so difficult to continue at for so many reasons, so it seemed metaphorically a good job for the character too.
Did you base her on somebody you know?
I did know people like Frances. I mean, I identify with Frances too, from my 20s. But Frances was also a comic character that we came up with and, in a large part, I wanted to create something for Greta to play that would be funny and also have an authenticity to it.
But your work does feel autobiographical – even confessional – at times. The Squid and the Whale, in particular, also seems like a deeply personal movie…
I used a lot of my autobiography [in the Squid and the Whale] because it helped me invent things – which is true of all the movies, but used in different ways. Often, I find, if I use things that more clearly autobiographical, those are usually the less revealing things. And then the stuff where I feel like I’m revealing more, I’m hiding it in ways that might not seem as apparent. But I like to use locations, people, clothing, names and bring stuff from my life into the movies, because it’s just a good creative place to me. If I’m out shooting on a street from my childhood, where I have memories, even if I’m shooting something where I’m not literally telling that story, it’s a place where I like to be. It puts me in a good creative space. So, to various degrees, that’s part of everything I’m doing. I’m bringing personality into it.
You chose to shoot Frances Ha in black and white. Why did you make that choice for this film in particular, and how does that affect its commercial potential?
When you make a movie in black and white, the movie will be worth less than if you made it in colour: that’s just the reality of it. You just have to decide not to care! There’s something about the contemporary nature of [Frances Ha] that I wanted to shoot classically and somewhat epically, in a way. Even though it’s an intimate story, I wanted to celebrate it in a bigger, cinematic way and the black and white has a classic feeling to it. I felt like Frances shoot have a beautiful, romantic, cinematic movie – even if she’s deciding whether to pay a fee at an ATM machine, why not that cinematic in this depiction?
Is that epic sense of romance the reason you chose to set the film in New York and Paris?
That’s why I chose Paris to some degree, because, in another movie, this would be the transformative trip for her character and, in our movie, it was just going to be more of the same! But it could look kind of amazing. But New York I chose because I’ve grown up in New York and it has meaning for me because of my life, but I also think by shooting it beautifully and in black and white I’m both sort of acknowledging the romance and the classic New York as you know it from movies. And then telling the story of, what I think, is a very contemporary New York which is expensive and it’s hard to live there in any kind of artistic or bohemian way unless you have a lot of money. And that’s what’s interesting to me because I do love the city, but that bothers me: the way of the world.
As you’ve covered: it’s a black and white movie set in New York. So the comparison to Woody Allen and Manhattan is probably one you’ve heard numerous times. To what extent is he an influence of your work, do you think?
I grew up watching his movies and reading his comic essays, and I went to same High School he went to and I grew up in Brooklyn. I felt so connected to him. And when I was old enough to see Annie Hall I felt like he was speaking only to me – and obviously lots of people feel that way. It’s so part of my creative childhood and development. There was a time when I imitated him almost exactly when I was a kid. I’m so familiar with it that I don’t even know anymore how it enters into my own work.
It’s funny that you should say you felt Woody was talking directly to you, because you make films part of your audience surely relates to with the same intensity. How do you feel when people, for instance, tell you “Squid and the Whale is exactly what my childhood was like”?
I’m always happy to hear it, even if it means that maybe they didn’t have the best time! I’m making things for an audience. Making things that I’m invested in and feel personal to me, but I’m doing it for an audience and for people to have an experience – so I’m always glad to hear those things.
Speaking of that visceral fan connection with your films, how do you feel about platforms like Twitter narrowing the gap between fans and artists in a new and quite direct way? Do you pay much attention to what’s said online?
I’m not on Twitter, so I’m not in a place where I’m… I guess I’m old fashioned in a way: the movie should communicate. When I was younger the idea of meeting somebody who made something I liked, or being able to communicate with them, seemed like a really cool thing. But, as I’ve gotten older, I feel like now, if I see a movie I like, I just want to keep it at that. I guess I’ve got to feel the same way from the other side of it [as a filmmaker]: I can’t say anything about [my films] that’s going to be any better, or even approach, what I did. You make movies so you don’t have to talk about them! Of course, I understand promotion and press – but I can’t say anything as articulately as I can put it in a movie.
After a few more high profile projects, Frances Ha seems like a step towards the indie side of things. Is it difficult to make the kind of films you want to make with the backing of the big studios?
Most big studio movies aren’t for me, as a viewer or a filmmaker. I’m fine with superhero movies – with my son there are some good ones to go see – but I feel like Hollywood’s not making movies for adults anymore. But whatever happens [to the industry], technology allows people to make movies that look great in a much easier way than you used to do. One good thing about the end of celluloid is that these cameras are so sophisticated now you can make a movie, and if there’s an audience for it you can find it.
Frances Ha opens in UK cinemas on Friday. You can read our review of the film HERE or by clicking the “next” button below…