For their second writing outing together, director Noah Baumbach and actress Greta Gerwig returned to familiar territory. The pair’s 2012 “Frances Ha” previously charmed audiences with its mix of millennial ennui and old-fashioned American pluck, but it was the film’s interest in putting a female friendship front and center that really set it apart from the pack. For “Mistress America,” Gerwig and Baumbach again mine female friendships for both heart and humor, imagining Gerwig as Brooke, a dreamer so nutty that she initially scans as some kind of funhouse version of Frances, who captures the imagination of her soon-to-be-stepsister Tracy (Lola Kirke) as the duo run wild in the streets of New York City.
Using “Frances Ha” as a Launch Pad
Although Baumbach and Gerwig didn’t intentionally set out to turn “Mistress America” into some kind of companion piece to “Frances Ha,” they did want to tell a story with the same sort of framework, at least when it comes to its central characters.
“We very deliberately set out to make this movie where the central question and the central relationship was another relationship between two women,” Gerwig said.
“What we wanted to do, though, was have another, just completely different question and a completely different relationship,” she continued. “In a way, I think it’s completely different. It’s just rare that there are two movies where the central characters are both female, but it seems like a completely different set of emotions that are even going into it.”
What happens in “Mistress America” is quite different than what plays out in “Frances Ha” — which sees Gerwig’s titular Frances attempting to reconcile her directionless lifestyle with that of her best friend’s (played by Mickey Sumner), one that seems to be growing more stable by the minute — by heightening the disparity between its central characters.
“[‘Mistress America’] is more about idolizing someone and attempting to misguidedly mentor someone,” Gerwig said. That inequality allowed Baumbach and Gerwig, alongside Gerwig’s co-star Lola Kirke, to explore new territory that “Frances Ha” couldn’t touch. This time around, though, Gerwig is still the engine that drives the story and much of its humor.
Gerwig’s “Mistress America” character, the flighty (but still wildly charming) Brooke, was a byproduct of a concept hatched during the making of “Frances Ha,” albeit an idea that didn’t make its way into that finished film.
“It’s such a dominant character,” Baumbach said. “When we wrote ‘Frances,’ we were thinking of her as Frances, and thinking of her playing Brooke was inspiring and sort of reason enough to try to figure out a movie that would somehow support this invention.”
Injecting the Comedy With Screwball Sensibilities
The best way to support Brooke’s outsized personality and big-time ambition proved to be a nimble narrative that switches things up halfway through the film’s snappy 84-minute runtime, when the film transitions from a more traditional comedy to one that firmly nods to screwball sensibilities.
“We wanted to do that really early, it was part of what was fun about the movie,” Gerwig said. “We were very much looking at screwball comedies — Howard Hawks and George Cukor and Ernst Lubitsch.”
Those inspirations pushed Baumbach and Gerwig to take their film in a different — and unexpectedly zany — new direction, straight to Connecticut, moving the action from New York City to a suburban house owned by Brooke’s old friend Mimi Claire (Heather Lind). And that’s when things get really wacky.
“I’ve always liked kinds of movies where you have that feeling like, this could almost go any way, but in a good way,” Baumbach said. “Like a movie like ‘Five Easy Pieces,’ I always felt like, this movie almost has the feeling — in the best possible way — they made this up as they went along. When we got to the house in the script stage, I felt that the movie was kind of flexible enough to become this other thing. I felt like the world needed to change.”
“Things are changing around them, things are changing for them. They’re both changing, and the relationships are all changing, so the movie should have its own kind of shift. That should be not only in terms of location, but it should also be structurally and maybe kind of tonally,” he added.
Once the film moves its action to Connecticut, it’s not just the structure and tone that change, but the cast of characters, which quickly expands to accommodate all kinds of new players.
“Part of the pleasure of having a screwball sensibility in the house was that you get to have all these fully formed crazy characters that just– you’re suddenly existing with all of them at once,” Gerwig said.
Among those characters is Cindy Cheung’s Karen, a pregnant friend of Mimi Claire’s who is suddenly — and strangely — tossed into Brooke’s bizarre orbit, along with Mimi Claire’s husband (played by Michael Chernus), Tracy’s sort-of friend Tony (Michael Shear) and his amped up girlfriend Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones).
Despite the free-wheeling nature of the screwball section, even it couldn’t support all of Gerwig and Baumbach’s big ideas. “There were a lot of versions of the second half of the movie over time, and there was time when I think that maybe more pregnant women were left behind,” Baumbach said. “There were a lot of very different versions, we tried to work in a dance sequence at one point.”
“There was maybe even going to be a third location at one point, that they would all get in the car, all the group, and move on to something else,” the director said. “As other things start to take shape, you get a sense of what you think the movie can hold,” Baumbach continued, which ultimately didn’t include a third location.
The Beauty of Lola Kirke and Secret Projects
In Connecticut, things rapidly change for both Brooke and Tracy, and the pair’s chemistry really starts to shine, especially as Brooke becomes more unhinged. Baumbach said, “There’s something about Lola’s presence around Greta that, in some ways, lets Greta keep going.”
Kirke’s performance required her to combine wide-eyed innocence with something close to cunning. Kirke was a perfect fit for the part. “She’s able to very naturally tell the story of Tracy, she’s not an innocent in the way that maybe we expect her to. She’s an unreliable narrator in a way,” Baumbach said.
Tracy also reflects something that both Gerwig and Baumbach wrestle with when it comes to their writing. Tracy, a budding writer, uses Brooke as her muse, and when her stories, cribbed from Brooke’s own life, are revealed to the group in Connecticut, everything goes topside.
Gerwig said, “Writing is not a victimless business, it’s just not, and I wish it was.”
“I don’t have an answer or a certainty that I stand on as my ground, this is what it is and I can write whatever I want. I think it’s complex and I think it’s fuzzy and gray and I think that that’s part of what makes it interesting to create drama out of. I hope that’s what people feel,” she continued.
Early on in its production, “Mistress America” earned a reputation as some kind of “secret” film that Baumbach and Gerwig were somehow making without any advance knowledge. “They said that about ‘Frances,’ too,” Baumbach said. “Part of it is that the scripts were never sent around, there was never any announcements or anything like that, which somehow seems unavoidable.”
The filmmaker continued, “We kind of just went and made them. By the time anyone was aware of them, they were already close to coming out. It wasn’t deliberately secret.”
Baumbach and Gerwig’s working style lends itself to this kind of perceived confidentiality. “The way that we shoot them and the way that we work on them, Noah and I have as much time to prepare and write the script as we want,” Gerwig said.
“We don’t do improvisation, people don’t change lines, we spend a lot of times making the script exactly like we want it,” she said. “It’s not dependent on casting names. We don’t make a big to-do of it, we just go off and make it.”
“Mistress America” is in theaters on Friday.