We recently had the good fortune to speak with filmmaker Noah Baumbach as he starts the long, winding road of press for the upcoming release of
his latest film, the sublime black-and-white character piece and
uproarious comedy “Frances Ha,” starring Greta Gerwig (who
also co-wrote the screenplay with Baumbach). The writer/director, shot ‘Frances’ on the quick and quiet (hardly anyone knew it even existed until it premiered at the Telluride Film Festival last year), though
he claims he didn’t set out to keep the movie a secret.
Regardless of Baumbach’s motives, he seems quite taken with
this approach to film-making, as it was near impossible to get even a
morsel out of him when asked about his follow-up, which we’ve since gotten a little more info on. While he was cagey to divulge much of anything on this new film, he did open up about plenty of other things, not least of which is the quite wonderful “Frances Ha.” It’s one of Baumbach’s best films
and perhaps sees the filmmaker turning over a slightly different leaf in
his cinematic interests, following a lead character who, despite her
classic Baumbach-ian stasis in life, is a much more sympathetic,
less-prickly person the audience will no doubt enjoy following
onscreen. In our review from Telluride last
year, we noted that for Baumbach “it marks an exciting new period in
the filmmaker’s oeuvre and one that will hopefully yield many more
collaborations with the endearing and charming Greta Gerwig… The
alchemy between them has produced a seriously funny, sad and engaging
dramedy and it’s one of Baumbach’s best efforts to date.” Read on for more on the film, plus plenty of other cool nuggets, from its director.
In just about all your other films except “Frances Ha,” there’s this
idea of the unlikeable protagonist, which you’ve pushed more intensely
with every film. Why are you attracted to that?
I never think of them as unlikeable. I really don’t. With “Greenberg,” I had been interested for a while in this character, where things
hadn’t panned out the way he wanted them to, and he couldn’t acknowledge
that was the case, and he was too embarrassed to admit it. The more I
explored that guy, I suppose the character became pricklier. But I
always had great affection for him. So I understand to some degree what
people mean when they refer to [my] characters as unlikeable, but I
actually disagree with it.
So you’re not setting out to challenge the audience, you actually empathize with these characters?
Yeah, I think that’s how people can be. Some people are that way. From where I sit, these are all people who are not unlike people I’ve come across in my life. It doesn’t mean I see all people this way. They all felt like true characters to me.
They’re definitely characters you don’t often see represented in cinema.
Right, for instance, with “Greenberg” I became aware after I made it that there was probably another version of this movie where Ivan was the protagonist and Greenberg was his difficult friend. And maybe that would’ve been the more accessible way to do it [laughs], and maybe I should’ve tried it that way. For whatever reason I thought let’s come at it from the other guy’s perspective.
“Frances Ha” does seem different from those films. Greta Gerwig stars here, she’s naturally likeable and adorable. The camera seems to love her. Yet she does retain those qualities of all your characters. She’s in stasis, unable to realize her dreams…
Yeah, Greenberg is a 40-something-year-old guy whose ideas about himself and his life haven’t been supported by his actual experience, and it created the character of Greenberg as we discover him. I felt like that was the right movie and tone for that character. Frances, on the other hand, is 27 and can’t get out of her own way, she has ideas about her life and how things should be that aren’t supported by her experience as well but it’s a different trajectory for her. She is more open to experience. She is able to adjust herself and make those difficult decisions. Taking a desk job is a heroic moment, in a way, for her in in this movie. This is the movie that is right for this character. I’ve always felt like it’s a matter of emphasis. They’re different people at different times in their lives and different circumstances, but I feel like both are equally true. And Frances was so inspired by Greta as an actor, what she can bring to a part. And also, what she did bring in the writing process. It would’ve been truly unsatisfying to not reward Frances, because the character deserved it, I felt. But with a different character it could feel false to reward them.
You’ve worked with Greta, whom you’re in a relationship with right now, on the past two films and before that with your wife at the time, Jennifer Jason Leigh. I’m curious, why are you attracted to working with significant others and people you’re close with in real life?
Both of them just happened to be remarkable actresses and people I would want to work with anyway. Many of the crew members I work with and continue to work with were friends or have become close friends and so we keep working together. And I like casting friends of mine or people I know in parts I know would be perfect for them. I like to bring things and people that mean something to me in to my work. I think it brings something out in the experience for me that’s not really quantifiable. I like shooting in New York because I have such a connection to the city. I have so many memories there. Even in movies that are less directly autobiographical than, say, “Squid and the Whale” I use places from my life. In ‘Frances’ we used Vassar where I went to college. Even though it’s under much different circumstances for Frances than it was for me when I went there, it does bring something out in the filmmaking. I think with Jennifer and Greta, they’re two of the best actresses around.
You’ve mentioned elsewhere that you wanted “Frances Ha” to have the feel of a pop song that you immediately want to listen to to again when it’s over…
There’s something very musical about the structure of the script and the rhythm of it. It has lots of little moments followed by longer scenes. And lots of little bursts of scenes and moments and then a scene will play out almost in real time. The music in the movie too is so strong and grand and romantic and joyous, both the score but also the pop songs that are in it. It was more something I thought about afterward. I’m not musical. I don’t think I could actually write a pop song but this is the closest I could come to it.Do you have more plans moving forward to make your next movies on the quick, secret and cheap?
Yeah, though I would not say it’s cheap. The whole way of making ‘Frances’ is working with people and locations – if they charged you what they normally charge or they took their normal fee than this would be as expensive as anything I’ve made. It’s really about finding the right movie for the right circumstance, and it felt like this was the right way to make this movie. Going back to the pop song thing, I did think about Paul McCartney records he made, post-Beatles, like Ram, that were made with smaller circumstances, a lower key way of making the record. But the records are no less big. They have big sounds, the intimacy and the personality is clear, but the songs are as crafted and beautiful as anything he might do with a big band in a recording studio, like Band on the Run.
What about the secretive approach you took with “Frances Ha”? Nobody knew this movie was even coming out until it debuted last year.
I didn’t set out to make it [that way], that was really a bonus that it stayed off the internet until it was announced for those festivals. I just wanted to focus on the movie, find a way that the actors and crew could be about the making of the movie and not expectations for it. I didn’t show the actors the full script, they only saw what they were in. For all the people making it, while at the same time I think they felt part of a group and part of the process, they only needed to know what they were doing, and I think it kept everyone very much in the moment and not working for a result. It became more about the process. The fact that it actually became a secret was cool, but that wasn’t my goal.
You’re working on a new project [ed note. the still-untitled film we reported on recently], and may have even finished shooting. Can you tell us anything about a new film you may or may not be shooting right now?
I can’t say anything about what I’m doing right now. I am going to make a movie in the fall, though, with Ben Stiller, that I wrote… That I can tell you.
Are you shooting a film right now? [ed. note: this interview took place more than a month ago]
I can’t give you anything on that [laughs].
Fair enough. Moving on, I have heard that there’s a title already for a film you’ve finished, called “While Were Young.” Is that finished, can you tell me anything about that?
That’s the one I’m doing in the fall, and that’s the title, yeah.
You mentioned Stiller will be in that, anybody else you can tell us that’s already cast? Is Greta going to be in the film?
Were still making deals right now with actors so soon I can tell you, but I can’t yet just in case things don’t work out.
Are you excited about this film?
Definitely. It’s a script I wrote before ‘Frances.’ At one point I thought I was going to make it first but things didn’t come together so I made Frances in the mean time, but I think it’s coming back together in a really great way.
You’re the son of two film critics [novelist/film critic Jonathan Baumbach and Village Voice critic Georgia Brown]. I imagine a version of the scene from “Squid and the Whale,” where Jeff Daniels insists on taking Jesse Eisenberg and his girlfriend to “Blue Velvet” instead of “Short Circuit,” must have come from your own experience. How has being raised by two critics shape you as a filmmaker and affect your taste in films?
Something that naturally occurred once I started making movies is that I lost the intellectual approach to watching movies. As a kid, I rebelled to some degree against my parents influence in movies because they made me aware of foreign films and movies that I wasn’t interested in when I was 10 years old. But I was aware these were considered good movies, so I kind of reveled at the time in Steve Martin, Bill Murray and Chevy Chase movies, which are all still movies I love, it’s just they were more appropriate for my age at the time. But when I got to college I sort of retrospectively appreciating what my parents had made me aware of in terms of movies and I started getting in to European and certain American movies. Once I started making movies, it changes, my approach is much more emotional than it was before. My brother [Nico Baumbach] is a film professor at Columbia, we both bond over movies and talk about them all the time. But his theoretical approach to movie is so hard for me to understand, I respect it but I can’t really participate in that kind of conversation anymore.
You made two films in 1997, “Mr. Jealousy” and “Highball” which you used a pseudonym for. Why was there that gap from ’97 to 2005 for you as a director?
Well, I made two movies right away in my early to mid 20s, “Kicking and Screaming” and then I made “Mr. Jealousy.” I had a hard time making [“Mr. Jealousy”] and it didn’t do as well as I hoped. “Highball” was actually never really a finished movie. It was something we tried to do with the short ends of “Mr. Jealousy.” It was never meant to be shown unless I finished it but we could never get enough money to finish it so I don’t really count that in the same way it’s just something that’s out there. It [the gap between films from ’97 to ’05] was a combination of things. I had wrote a couple things that I got close to making but it didn’t. I think it became a period where I discovered another, more personal approach to filmmaking. I think I kind of discovered myself as a filmmaker during that period. Then I wrote “Squid and the Whale” which at the time felt like a breakthrough, like I was writing in a new way for me, less worried about what people would think or its commercial prospects, and wrote what was interesting to me. And it just took a long time to get made [laughs]. I put everything I had in to that movie at the time. I knew it was sort of my last chance. All this build up I knew exactly how I wanted to do it. everything I had I was spent after making that movie.
What do you think about the comparisons some people may make for “Frances Ha” to “Girls”?
I haven’t seen it, it wasn’t out when we made ‘Frances’. I knew Lena [Dunham] and liked her a lot, and I loved “Tiny Furniture.” I can understand why they would be compared.
“Frances Ha,” while still a Noah Baumbach film through and through, seems like you’re exploring characters and subjects away from your personal experience.
Every movie has its reasons why I make that one and not another one. Generally in the early stages when I have a blank page and I’m thinking about what I want to work on, there’s usually a few things that are out there. “While Were Young” for instance, I’ve had ideas that have connected to this for a while that just needed time to become the movie it did. It’s true for all them. I’ve been wanting for a while to do something stripped down and I wanted to shoot digitally too which I hadn’t done. I feel like technology has gotten to a point now that would hold up with everything else I’ve made. Musicians get to make b-sides and acoustic albums and they can say, “That’s not a real album it’s a side project.” You can’t do that with movies, every movie you make is your next movie. So I knew if I was going to do something in this new way I had to find a way that it would be great. And I wanted the movie to be beautiful and elegant. I didn’t want it to be grungy or feel indie. I wanted something grand and cinematic and formal, in a way. All of this are right at home with the character of Frances. Working with Greta and developing this together definitely brought out new things in me, though I’m not as aware of it when I’m making the movies as someone who writes about them. I’m just going with what is interesting to me and what I think will make an enjoyable movie and not put too much thought in it.
“Frances Ha” opens in limited release May 17th, courtesy of IFC Films.