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Greta Gerwig on Her and Noah Baumbach’s Personal Connection to ‘Frances Ha,’ Her Transition to Directing and What Makes a Good Director

Greta Gerwig on Her and Noah Baumbach's Personal Connection to 'Frances Ha,' Her Transition to Directing and What Makes a Good Director

Having starred in films by Whit Stillman, Woody Allen and Noah Baumbach, Greta Gerwig has officially become something of indie film’s collective muse. After first turning heads with her raw, naturalistic performances in the “mumblecore” movement that she had a hand in spawning, she made a seamless transition to larger budget films with Noah Baumbach’s 2009 film “Greenberg,” with an exceptional performance that catapulted her to something like fame. While she still might not be a household name, critics and film fans have been eagerly awaiting her newest, “Frances Ha,” which she co-wrote with director Baumbach, since it was announced as premiering at Telluride last fall. Her personal relationship with Baumbach has gotten a significant amount of coverage as well.

Meanwhile, the two continue their prosperous working relationship with another film, also co-written and starring Gerwig alongside relative newcomer Lola Kirke (sister of “Girls” star Jemima Kirke), which they recently wrapped. Gerwig also has a solo directorial debut completed (she’s credited as the co-director with frequent collaborator Joe Swanberg on 2008’s mumblecore hallmark “Nights and Weekends”), though asking for information on either project, or on her relationship with Baumbach, mostly just warrants a sigh and a disapproving look from the expressive and honest actress.

READ MORE: ‘Frances Ha’ Breakout Mickey Sumner On Shooting Guerrilla Style for Noah Baumbach and Playing Patti Smith in Upcoming Film

We sat down with Gerwig to discuss the film (which opens Friday in select theaters), about how much of her and her co-writer’s own life are in the film, and, having worked with many of them, what makes a great director.

I was talking to someone about the movie and the said, “yeah, it’s more adorable and uplifting than his other movies, but it’s an adorable story that takes place in a cynical person’s world.” So I guess the theoretical takeaway from that, or how it seems anyway, is that Noah is the one bringing in the gloomy stuff, and you’re kind of balancing it out. Is that true at all?

Right. That’s not how I experienced making it. There’s no accounting for what people take away from it, or how they experience it, but I think your job is to not get too self-conscious about what may or may not be the essence of the collaboration. But I think we both seriously felt that Frances needed to be taken care of by the movie. And that wasn’t my idea, it was… It was really his idea. He really had a sense that we needed to reward Frances for everything she’s going through. And I agreed, I though it was right. This was just an example, but he had this idea from an Eric Rohmer movie that he really liked that we implemented in this, that we should give her an idea, or a thought about life, and then have it come true for her. So I guess the happiness is equal parts both of us. That was my experience in making it, but however people want to read it is fine.

I think it’s more just based on his other films.

Only time will tell, I guess. It’s so hard because Noah as a filmmaker has made a lot of movies now, but you’re only ever talking about the most current one, but meanwhile he has another one he’s making, and another. So we’re viewing it in the stream of, he’s going to keep making movies, but when you experience it as an audience you experience it as static somehow in a way that it’s not. No judgement, I just think it’s true.

I’m also distracted trying to figure out what Rohmer movie it was.

Oh, it’s– I always forget their names. It’s the one where the women is in love with this guys and her life went wrong because she wasn’t together with him and then you think, no, this couldn’t possibly be true, this woman is just delusional. That was not the love of her life. And then they see each other at the end and that was the love of her life. She was right about it. They should’ve been together and her life would’ve been happier, and it is happier. It’s like that thing you think is a little out there is actually true.

That brings up an interesting point about this movie too, where so much press has been given to comparing it to “Girls” and describing it as a generational portrait, but really, when I saw it, I thought of it as a love story. Like it’s very much structured like a romance between friends with the tension of will they or won’t they prevail and end up together in the end.

Yeah, absolutely.

I’m really curious about your collaboration with Noah, especially in the writing process, because it seems like a very personal story.

Yeah. We certainly didn’t think about it as a generational story. A lot of it is just a story about these people and the movie that they deserve to get and the movie that their story holds. And he emailed me sometime after “Greenberg” was released and said, “I’d like to make a movie in this small, stripped down way with as few people as possible without compromising the quality of the movie at any juncture but making it as small as possible.” And did I have any ideas and would I want to be in it, and maybe we could write a script together. And then I sent him this list of ideas I had; little collections of things, things I thought were funny, exchanges of dialogue and ideas for characters. And he got excited and thought there was a movie there. We just started writing scenes separately. We didn’t a lot of writing in the same room. It was more emailing scenes back and forth. And we just generated a lot of material. Then it was all reading through the material and seeing what the story was. I think — not to be pretentious, but I think Pinter says about writing that it’s your job to look for clues. You write and you leave yourself clues for where it’s supposed to go. So we looked for clues as to what the story was supposed to be. We didn’t dictate that sort of friendship love story to the movie. That sort of revealed itself in what these characters were doing and what they were concerned with.

There’s a lot of me in it, but there’s also a lot of Noah in it. I think people assume, because I’m a twenty-something that it’s me but a lot of it’s Noah. He has personal stuff in there but it’s more disguised… I always forget what’s kind of real or not real and what comes from life because once you write it and fictionalize it it becomes something else and it stops living in the realm of actual history until someone you know sees it and says, “fucking bitch!”Did you have a Sophie in your life that she’s based on? Was she based on a specific close friend of yours?

No. I have a group of five other women that I’m really close with. It’s more of an amalgamation. And then Noah has a best friend. That’s a lot of his stuff too, it’s just hidden in a girl.

That’s really interesting because I feel like friendship weirdly has kind of gender defining characteristics.

Right, well I don’t think boys really sleep in the same bed. I think Frances is also… We named her Frances, which is kind of an androgynous name. There’s an element of androgyny to her and it’s a very sexless movie. We didn’t experience her as a woman or a man, we experienced her as a person more than gendered. And I mean the story isn’t gendered that way either. It’s gendered insofar that it’s two women but it’s not gendered in terms of that that’s a woman’s story, I’d say.

What is your collaboration with Noah like once you get on set, both of “Frances” and the new film you made together? Are you involved in the directorial process at all or at that point is it, on set, Noah’s the director and removed from your personal relationship and working relationship?

Yeah, he’s the director. I mean, on this film, because I’m in every shot I was there for all of it and, you know, he would show me the frame and say, “do you like this? Do you think it’s right?” But he’s definitely the director. But I don’t need to exert my control once I’m acting. I mean the script was totally written by the time we were shooting so I felt like my part of that job was done. We weren’t really writing at all while we were doing it. So I was… I don’t want to say “just acting.” I was acting. And he was directing. So much of directing happens in the moment of when people are acting and you’re directing a scene, but it also happens before: looking at costumes, looking at locations, looking at other actors, casting it. And all of that stuff I was very involved in. But he always had the final say.

Was the visual style, like the Truffaut references and all that, did that come from him? Was there a moment when something clicked and you guys thought, “this should look like a New Wave movie?”

I think a lot of that was more in the moment than anything else. I think it was more that those movies live inside of him very actively. There’s a shot where me and Benji and Lev (Michael Zegen and Adam Driver) are walking into the apartment after a night and I think he realized while he was doing it, he was like, this looks like “Band of Outsiders.” And then he’s like, let’s make it that shot. Let’s have that happen. We didn’t talk in advance and say let’s have it look like X, Y, or Z Truffaut movie and we didn’t know that the music was going to be what it was. So it became more referential to those movies as it went on. It was more things like we had written in the script early on that she would wear this leather bomber jacket that was kind of uncool and a little too big, and then we looked at like twenty jackets. Those million little decisions that come earlier in the filmmaking process. But once we were on set I never had the experience of saying, “I think she should be this way.” I try to turn off the judgmental part of my brain when I’m acting so I rely on him to tell me what’s good. I mean I usually know instinctively when something’s not working, but I don’t try to see myself outside of myself. That’s why I couldn’t — I don’t know, maybe I will eventually, but I don’t think I could ever direct myself because it’s too… For me, acting is immersive and directing is literally removed. So it seems like  I wouldn’t be able to do both. Obviously there are people who can.

You just directed a feature though, right? One that I’m assuming you don’t act in.


Was there any takeaway from working in this quasi-directorial sense on the two films you made with Noah? Did you take anything from his process? Did he give you, like, pointers?

Yeah. Ha, pointers. With all filmmakers that I’ve worked with who I think are good, I think they all are really relentless. Everything is subordinate to the movie. It’s not panicked, it’s not angry, they’re just going to do it until it’s exactly right. And they have this real sense of I will only make this movie once, and if I only get to make this once, I don’t care who’s angry if we’re here too long or if we’re over budget, and that’s why you have all these stories of people going over budget or whatever because I think to be a filmmaker you have to cultivate a selfishness surrounding the film that you’re making. It has to be the number one… not even the number one, it has to be the only thing. It’s an obsessive profession, I think.

It’s such a strange blend of personality traits that goes into being a good director because you have to be solitary enough to write the thing and edit it but you have to be social enough to get people to do what you need, and you have to empathetic enough to deal with actors and what they need, but you also have to be Asperger’s-y enough to get it done. It’s a strange mix. There are plenty of people who love film and want to be directors, but it’s such an odd person who actually has all of those qualities. And even within that, I’ve worked with directors who are very different but they all seem to have that monomaniacal ability to click in and have that be the only thing. Like they could stand for eight hours in one position and they wouldn’t even notice it.

Is the way you made “Frances” and Noah’s newest movie the way that you prefer to work? Is the film you directed kind of on the same scale, a similar kind of film? The same secrecy around it?

Oh… [laughs] I’m not going to talk about that! So yes, it’s secret.

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