Following the screening of their new film “Mistress America,” writer and director Noah Baumbach and writer and producer Greta Gerwig, shared a
lively and insightful discussion about their collaborations, writing, “Frances Ha” (in which Gerwig played the titular character), and her new
Tracy, a lonely college freshman in New York, is having neither the exciting university experience nor the glamorous metropolitan lifestyle she envisioned.
But when she is taken in by her soon-to-be stepsister, Brooke—a resident of Times Square and adventurous gal about town—she is rescued from her
disappointment and seduced by Brooke’s alluringly mad schemes.
About Gerwig’s roles as Frances in “Frances Ha” and Brooke in “Mistress America”
Frances and Brooke share a type of madness. Frances literally stumbled at times. She had this running, loping, falling pace to her. Her fits and starts of
conversation, and her flashes of confidence and then going back in. And, Brooke, the way we dressed her, was not really of this time — like a misguided
businesswoman with little heels, her little boots, and her pants were too short. She stomped around, and would keep stomping. She had no real shame
Brooke was someone we recognized. Aspects of Brooke are familiar to us. She felt like someone out of the movies. Brooke is in some ways all performance.
Brooke is a movie. The movie is going on for her. That felt intuitively right.
With Brooke’s character introduction “Welcome to the Great White Way,” she starts this gesture that she realizes halfway down the stairs was not big enough
to cover the whole stairs and has to keep going. She doesn’t have a moment of “What have I done?” She just keeps going. She’s kind of a hair
flipper the way she speaks.
Frances was always saying something, some kind of internal joke with herself that she couldn’t share with anyone else. And Brooke would look at you and
say, “Did you get the joke? Did you get the joke?” until you would say yes. There are so many things that are different about them. The one thing
they share is a touch of madness. And I like that in characters. A different kind of madness.
The Writing and Physical Performing Process
There is no improv. We don’t change anything when we’re on set. We don’t adjust the lines for the people we cast. We cast them because they did the lines
well. So it becomes a piece of writing that is unchangeable.
As the director of my material I come to it intuitively on set. Greta will struggle with stuff, get the line wrong, or do a kind of version — but in the
best way. She’s mining it in real time. It’s exciting. And she’s doing it with material she spent months perfecting.
I come at it as an actor — an internal structure that makes sense to me. If I can’t hear it, it’s very hard for me to actually act it. With the script —
the language is so important to it; there is a sense of rhythm in it, that baseline of speech I understand. In (Baumbach’s film) “Greenburg,” I
could hear it right away. It’s the kind of writing I respond to.
The physical is important with actors; and what physical actions should accompany the line. You’re helping them to find ways to say it. We never change the
dialogue but we changed the physical. It’s about finding the way so the actor can get the line right.
A Few Chuckles About Chekov
I think people don’t necessarily listen to each other. It’s one of my favorite things in theatre and film, with everybody missing each other. (Gerwig
laughs) I feel like all of Chekov is that — someone gives a four-page speech and the other person doesn’t care like in Uncle Vanya someone says:
“I’m really worried about the forest” and the other character responds: “Do you have a crush on my friend?” I’m always interested in the ways people miss
When we’re writing, we’re envisioning those scenes up to a point, and then when we’re on set, we’re not changing the script, we’re expanding it by this
physical blocking and the actors bringing their own stuff to it. The dialogue stays the same; so much of the physical choreography is part of it. With the
house (in “Mistress America”) for example — we could always see outside and inside simultaneously. That way the script is all there, ready to be
As an actor my entry point is through language. It’s like reading sheet music. Language has rhythm in it. Language is physical. It’s part of your body; how
you speak, how you present yourself.
The physical and verbal work together. It’s how we see things.
I think all of my favorite directors have a strong sense of language. It feels like this trust that I have that Noah will find the visual language that
will underscore everything else.
An important ‘character’ of “Mistress America” is New York City — an aspect that was not lost on this Manhattan audience on a very hot and sunny
August evening. Yes, there are a few inside New York jokes, but this character-driven comedy is universal, digging deep into the truth-telling rawness of
both new and old relationships.
Award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker, Susan Kouguell teaches screenwriting at Purchase College SUNY, and presents international seminars on
screenwriting and film. Author of SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! and THE SAVVY SCREENWRITER, she is chairperson of Su-City
Pictures East, LLC, a consulting company founded in 1990 where she works with writers, filmmakers, and executives worldwide. www.su-city-pictures.com, http://su-city-pictures.com/wpblog