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Greta Gerwig Talks Making ‘Frances Ha,’ Comparisons To ‘Girls,’ The Brewing Animated Movie With Noah Baumbach & More

Greta Gerwig Talks Making 'Frances Ha,' Comparisons To 'Girls,' The Brewing Animated Movie With Noah Baumbach & More

In case you hadn’t noticed by now, we really, really like Noah Baumbach‘s “Frances Ha.” The movie has stuck with us since we first caught it at Telluride last year, and with the picture officially landing in theaters this summer, it has placed on our list of 2013 Best Films Of The Year…So Far. And if that weren’t enough, we drafted up 5 Reasons You Should Go See Noah Baumbach & Greta Gerwig’s “Frances Ha,” so needless to say, we’re big big fans. But why has this film resonated so much with us?

Penned by Baumbach and Gerwig — with the former directing, and the latter starring — the picture is both a flat out funny, and slightly melancholy look at that time period everyone in their 20s has faced between college and the bracing wake up call of reality. “Frances Ha” beautifully captures that sort of inbetween space, when the decision to continue pursuing your dreams is sometimes met with the compromises of becoming a responsible adult who can fend for themselves in the world. It’s worldly and wise, hilarious and touching and just a terrific piece of filmmaking all around, that calls back to Woody Allen and the French New Wave, while still commanding a voice all on its own.

With the movie continuing to expand to more cities (check here for theaters and showtimes), we got on the phone last week with Greta Gerwig to talk about making the movie, the comparisons to “Girls” that the movie has been met with and what her future collaborations with Noah Baumach have in store.

While “Frances Ha” expertly chronicles one young woman’s struggle to figure out her life, Gerwig’s own experience was a bit more fortunate
In the film, Frances (played by Gerwig) aspires to be a dancer, and clings to the brief window of opportunity she has for a regular position as part of a touring company. But stuck dancing part-time, while trying to make ends meet, leaves Frances frustrated and wondering if life is passing her by, particularly as her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) is falling into a steady relationship, with potential bigger career and life plans on the horizon. And while the situation is well drawn, Gerwig wasn’t necessarily using her own life for inspiration. 

“I think for me, I had a lot more luck than Frances did in my early 20s and throughout my 20s. I’m 29 now, and even though I wasn’t succeeding financially particularly, I was getting signs from the universe that what I was doing wasn’t a complete mistake with my life choices,” she said.

I did some sort of strange mental trick with myself when I graduated from college, which was that I decided that I just wanted to be part of the world of film or theater and that I would do it anyway I could, so whether that meant working in a development fund or working a light board or acting or writing that I would try to be part of it somehow because I loved the people and I loved the world that film and theater existed in,” she continued. “I loved the idea of dramatic art of storytelling as a way to make sense of things. It’s really what I love and what I care about. So in a way, I kind of short-circuited actually the idea of, ‘I’m going for my dream’ by deciding that I would be happy with a lot of different outcomes.”

And yet, despite the success she has made out of her career, which has seen her leap from indie films to bigger Hollywood pictures, Gerwig takes nothing for granted. “…there were…many different points in my 20s where I felt like I don’t know how this is going to work out, and I continue to have that feeling a lot,” she shared. “So it hasn’t really gone away, though I’m incredibly lucky and privileged and grateful. So I don’t take the gift that the world has given me lightly, but I also don’t feel far away from having those things.”

Gerwig compares writing with Noah Baumbach, to being a musician in a band
Gerwig first crossed paths with Baumbach on “Greenberg,” playing the small ray of sunshine Florence, to Ben Stiller‘s perma-sour titular lead. And it was on that project that the actress first got the notion that she shared a similiar writing voice with Baumbach. “When I read ‘Greenberg,’ I had a really strong sense if I could be any kind of writer I wanted to be, I’d be this kind of writer. And I felt like, even in my experiences, what writing I had done, even on a small scale, when it was good, it shared some quality with it,” she explained.

And so when we sat down to work on this screenplay…We both heard it the same way,” she added. “It’s what I would guess being in a band and writing a song is like. I mean I’m not comparing us to The Beatles, but you know like Lennon and McCartney, they both could write songs on their own that were great, but something happened when they wrote together, which was impossible for either of them to achieve alone, but with both of their voices somehow writing the same song. So I obviously felt like we were writing the same song.”

But that doesn’t mean that they always were on the same page (pun intended). Gerwig reveals there was one big section of an early draft that was ultimately axed, something she initially was hesitant about doing. “I had written a long section that had taken place in Sacramento. It was about 30 pages, it was a long section, and a lot of things happened and there were new characters. At some point, Noah said, ‘I think we have to cut that section. I don’t think it fits.’ I was really upset about it, but then he was right. It just didn’t fit in the story, I think. And he has more experience of being ruthless with his own writing,” she said. “I had less experience with just cutting 30 pages and saying it just doesn’t fit. It was good that we cut it. In some ways, I love big sprawling movies where there are too many characters and people get introduced halfway through and you’re like, ‘Wait, who are these people?’ And I think at some point, I’d like to make a movie that indulges all of that, but I think he was right that this wasn’t the movie to do it on.”

Gerwig is okay with the “Girls” comparisons, but thinks they are different kids of stories at their core
Full disclosure — even we played the “If you like ‘Girls’…” card in our 5 Reasons feature for “Frances Ha,” but for those looking for deeper connections between the film and the HBO show, that ignores what makes each so different and special on their own. As for Gerwig, she stresses “Frances Ha” actually came first, and hopes that viewers can see beyond the surface similarities.

“Well, we wrote the film and made the film before ‘Girls’ was on the air. So it was totally coincidental. We knew Adam [Driver] had already shot the pilot and that he was going to be in it. We talked about it with Adam especially, because we were like there will probably be some overlaps. We just felt like, ‘Fuck it. He’s great.’ He’s a great actor and it’s foolish to hurt something that you want to make because you potentially want to guard against some comparison that may or may not happen in the future,” Gerwig said. “I love ‘Girls’ and I’m friends with Lena [Dunham] and I think it’s an amazing show. It’s so funny and so wonderful. I really would only be bothered by it if somebody said, ‘Your movie reminds me of the show ‘Girls’ and I hate ‘Girls,’ therefore I hate your movie.’ That would feel bad. But I think it’s nice, I love ‘Girls.’ “

But again, there is more that makes them different than makes the same. I mean, there are ostensible similarities, but I also think in their hearts, they’re just different animals,” Gerwig continued. “They almost exist in different universes to me, like they have a different worldview in a way. And I understand the comparison, but I also feel like I don’t. Some people want me to explain how mine’s different I feel like, I don’t like it, because I feel like it’s A) reductive to both and B) kind of not my job.”

Gerwig explains why doing forty takes for some scene was necessary
While the film employs a loose, energetic and seemingly shaggy aesthetic, don’t be fooled. The spirit and heart of “Frances Ha” is both sincere and carefully crafted, requiring focus and extended takes to get it right. Earlier this year, Gerwig shared a clip from the movie and explained why it required more than 40 takes to nail it down, and speaking with us, she explained why so many takes were crucial.

“We shot for a long time…fifty 12 to 14-hour days. So it was a lot. We were shooting like thirty or forty or fifty takes per set-up. A lot of it was intricately blocked actually and it was about shooting it as economically as possible in terms of as few cut points as possible, so really making a shot work to tell the story, as opposed to a lot of coverage,” Gerwig said. “So there were lots of things where it’s like this is going to play in one, so doing the scene forty times sounds like an extraordinary number of times, but actually it’s like we’re only going to pick one. So it’s not like we’re covering this from a bunch of different angles and can pack together the best performances. We just need to get it, the camera movements and the actors and all the lines and everything has to be kind of perfect and then the performances have to be up to par. And that takes time.”

However, that drive energized everyone involved on the shoot, who strove alongside the actors and director to commit to getting it right. It’s the best time I’ve ever had shooting something, because the crew and all of the actors. It was, now I’m going to use an analogy for something I also have never really done, but when you watch a professional athlete, someone playing tennis. It’s so absorbing, but it’s so fun that you’d never worked so hard and it feels like you’re firing on all cylinders constantly, and that’s how this shoot felt,” she enthused. “It was like nobody asked when lunch was, nobody asked how long we were going to keep going for, everyone was just giving everything, and we had the ‘no cell phones’ rule on-set, no reading. Everyone was just there and it was like we gave ourselves over to this for a long time. I loved that experience.”

Gerwig says her animated movie with Noah Baumbach might be a musical
Yes, Noah Baumbach has an animated movie in development at DreamWorks Animation, and of course, it’s about “a woeful dog.” It’s not his first time dabbling in cartoons, racking up credits on both “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted,” but this will be the first one working he’s working on with Gerwig. Earlier in the year, New Yorker revealed that the story centers on a Brooklyn dog named Freddy, who goes on a journey to Manhattan, when he becomes separated from a young girl named Heidi, after her parents get divorced. 

“It might be musical. It’s being put together right now and these projects take a long time so I don’t know how it will all shake down, but I really love it,” Gerwig said, though she admits that trying to bring realism to the animated world, isn’t an easy task.

I mean it’s hard because I think both Noah and I have like a high standard for verisimilitude to life and not do anything that is totally ridiculously not life-like, but to try to figure out the realities of a dog living in Brooklyn Heights while also allowing him to go on a warrior-like journey,” she added. “So it’s balancing those two things… The best example of a movie that does that great is ‘E.T.‘ It’s a movie about an alien, but it’s totally about California suburbia and it’s a movie about divorce too, but it’s about an alien. I think that if you can find the balance between that fantasy and put it in something that’s incredibly real and people can identify as real, then you’re Steven Spielberg.”

As the press obligations for “Frances Ha” wind up Gerwig and Baumbach will turn their attention back to the second feature they’ve shot, once again on the sly, and for now she’s staying mum on the details. “I feel like its very different tonally, but it makes me scared to say that because probably other people will see it another way,” she offered about the movie. “I feel like it feels very different to me as a film, but I also think I’m not the best person to answer that because I think probably critics and journalists do a better job of deciding how it fits.”

And while she has these small handful of projects developing with Baumbach, Gerwig is also eager to strike out on her own, having written a script which she plans to direct herself. “It’s about people. I would love to make something that’s totally different and more of something in a genre, but I think I’m still in the middle of being in love with these kinds of films and with the person whose writing them,” she said about the brewing movie. And we have to say, we’re kind of in love with these kinds of films too. 

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