Interview: Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig discuss making Frances Ha
Uplifting black and white comedy from director and actor - now a couple - is tonally both bitter and sweet
Frances Ha is a 27-year-old dancer trying to make it in New York City. She’s also the titular heroine of a film which is a creative union between writer-actor Greta Gerwig, who first came to prominence through the US indie mumblecore movement and who was recently seen in Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress, and writer-director Noah Bambauch, whose films include The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding and Greenberg.
Made on a modest budget with a stripped down cast and crew, shot in black and white and partially improvised, Frances Ha is a comedy drama that is tonally bitter and sweet - or funny-ouch and funny-daft - in a way that both preserves and merges the two distinctive artistic sensibilities working in collaboration.
Having previously enjoyed working together on Greenberg, Baumbach suggested to Gerwig that they co-write a portrait of youth. Gerwig, whose increasingly busy acting schedule had prevented her from finishing scripts she’d been working on, jumped at the chance. ‘I had all these scraps, scenes and bits of dialogue,’ Gerwig says, ‘and I just emailed them all to him.’
‘Many of Greta’s ideas, big and small, felt like if you pressed down on them a lot of other things would come,’ says Baumbach. ‘So that was the process. There was lot of trial and error, but the character and the story eventually kind of happened simultaneously.
‘We’re similar writers in that we don’t dictate what the movie is going to be,’ says Gerwig. ‘We figure out what it is by writing. I actually found Frances in a scene that’s not in the movie. It was this hilarious scene where Frances runs into this older mentor she hasn’t seen in a while and she invites herself into the woman’s apartment and monologues at her about her life. It captured Frances: totally sincere but also very frustrating.’
The dichotomy of Frances’ character - she’s deeply annoying but also extremely likeable - is key to the film. It’s a tricky dramatic feat to pull off. Frances might well have been simply annoying, and that would have been disastrous for the film.
‘Frances has got a young person’s stubbornness,’ says Baumbach. ‘She’s not always aware of her audience. She’s in a transitional mode, and people like her can be hard to be around.’ ‘But,’ says Gerwig, ‘if you can show people in their entirety, frustrating and loveable, you give them the best shot at being likeable.’
Gerwig’s performance, which is simple and unforced, has a lot to do with making Frances likeable in spite of her shortcomings. Ultimately, though, it’s her and Baumbach’s meeting of creative minds that ensures the character of Frances - and the tone of film - is pitched just right.
‘Collaborations are like a really good conversation,’ Baumbach says. ‘You forget who made what point.’ ‘And they’re greater than the sum of their parts,’ adds Gerwig. ‘It’s alchemy; a third thing is created with the combustion of the first two. Frances was our third thing.’
Frances Ha is on limited release from Fri 26 Jul.