"Frances Ha" is Noah Baumbach's latest quirky take on mid-20s ennui. The indie director has collaborated with the vivacious Greta Gerwig to co-write this story of a twenty-something Brooklyn girl, her intimate friendships, and her challenges of coming to terms with adulthood.
Moviefone sat down with Greta and Noah at a hotel in Toronto to talk about their much-loved, critically lauded film.
How emotionally autobiographical is "Frances Ha"?
Greta Gerwig: I gave everything that I had to it creatively, everything I could possibly put into it as a writer and as an actor. That being said, it's totally fiction. It took about a year to write and we shot it over 50 days and we were doing 14-hour days. Once you start constructing something that's so highly written and so highly artificial, it's just removed from real life. Because it was in this construct I could ask my parents to be in it without having them being exposed. I like real things in made-up worlds and that's what this felt like to me.
Noah Baumbach: I feel at the age of 27, making a transition into adulthood from young adulthood, you don't necessarily know you're going through it. I think we keep going through those kinds of transitions, and I don't think it's different at 27 than it is at 37 or 47 or 57. We're all kind of trapped in our heads and we all have ideas of ourselves, who we hope we are vs. who we are. The story in our heads and the story laid out in front of us are going to be different. I think in some ways Frances is going through the first major version of that.
You did an excellent job of detailing the depiction of a co-dependent female friendship between Frances and Sophie, and how it feels like they're breaking up as they grew apart.
GG: I think that when you feel so intensely, there's almost a feeling like, "Why isn't there a way to codify this?" I guess you can get those friendship necklaces [Laughs] but that's the closest you can come to actually feeling like there's a place in the world for that kind of relationship and that it's acknowledged as being privileged. In Frances' life, it's obviously the most romantic thread.
Why are complex female friendships such an elusive topic?
GG: I don't think there have been a great number of female writer directors and producers, so I think in some ways if you don't have a window into that world, how could you possibly know it even existed? I always thought of Westerns as being about male friendship, like all of those Howard Hawkes westerns and "Rio Bravo" and "Red River." They're kind of about friendship, and these guys who get each other sober and fight the bad guys -- those are the main relationships in those movies.
I thought you were a little bit like Sam and Frodo from "Lord of the Rings," on your own little quest to adulthood.
GG: We were! [Laughs] She's a woman and it's important that she's a woman, but her gender is less important than her as a human on a very specific hero's journey. We thought of it as a road trip where she doesn't go anywhere, but it felt like that classical structure to us.
It's a "Campbellian journey to post-adolescence," if you want to say something nerdy about it on the poster.
GG: Yeah! We were totally nerdy about it.
There is a French aesthetic to the whole film, from the black-and-white to you going to Paris, to "France" being in her name. Are there specific films that you drew upon for inspiration, or did you just want to smoke on film in black-and-white?
GG: Frances is an androgynous name -- it can be either a man or a woman, which we liked.
Smoking cigarettes looks really good in black-and-white. I know, that sounds terrible. We didn't actually smoke when we were making the film, but we felt like it was an emblematic thing of Frances' immaturity in a way, like, this body won't break down, this will never affect me. We didn't talk about French new wave films in terms of referencing one thing or another. I think there was a desire to not give Frances a scruffy movie, but a beautiful black-and-white cinematic portrait, with gorgeous Georges Delerue music and classic rock. We're giving her a bigger scale than she might even necessarily feel for herself.
NB: I imagine the more stripped down, fleet-footed crews that they had on those films, the kind of energy and spirit of Truffaut, the portraiture of Eric Rohmer, the studies of youth of Goddard.
All of those things were in my head. I've seen them all so many times that they're in my bloodstream, and I trust that they'll find their way into things. Because of the black-and-white, those kind of touchstones are more clear than they are in other films I've made.
GG: We were trying to dress everyone as contemporary New York 20-somethings. When you look through the lens in black-and-white, they look like Paris in the '60s, because that's how people are dressing on the Lower East Side now. It's imitating those movies. It's odd because it almost comes full circle and it's just a natural ... that's just how that looks.
How did you guys split the labour?
GG: We didn't sit in the same room typing. Mostly, we wrote scenes separately, ideas grew outwards from moments that seemed to be interesting to us. We're similar writers in that we discover character and story through dialogue, which in some ways is more like a playwright than my idea of screenwriting.
I like that act of discovery when you're writing, and you can write something that can genuinely surprise you, and then it feels like it will lead you on a more interesting road than where your self-conscious mind would necessarily take you.
NB: Greta was my collaborator and also inspiration at the same time. I'd worked with her before [on "Greenberg"] so I had ideas and knew what she could do. With this movie I felt like I let her take the lead, I tried to honour and celebrate that performance and that character. That informed everything I did.
GG: What ended up happening in our collaboration was the closest thing I can think of to writing a song with someone. I'm not comparing us to The Beatles, but when you listen to Lennon/McCartney tracks, they're genius songwriters on their own, but they had access to something they didn't have alone. It's alchemy, and a new thing is created that you can't tease apart afterwards.
Do you go to the movies?
GG: Yeah, all of the time. I don't like improv, and I don't like handheld cameras, generally. I like locked-down shots. I like composition and I like written scripts.
There's a line in the movie where Frances and Benji are talking and he says, "We should go to the movies!" and she says, "The movies are so expensive now," and he says, "Yeah, but you're at the movies!"
We always felt like we wanted to make a movie that people felt like, "Yeah, but you're at the movies!"
"Frances Ha" is now playing at select theatres.