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Interview: Greta Gerwig Talks Her Screwball Comedy ‘Mistress America,’ Working With Todd Solondz & More

Interview: Greta Gerwig Talks Her Screwball Comedy ‘Mistress America,’ Working With Todd Solondz & More

From mumblecore breakout star to indie darling, actress Greta Gerwig has had a charmed career thus far. But while her mastery of comedic awkwardness has turned her into a modern day Rosalind Russell, (or maybe, as in her words, Carole Lombard), the actress is also separating herself from her peers by driving her own narrative: writing, directing and creating her own roles. Gerwig has been writing since the beginning (she co-wrote “Hannah Takes The Stairs” and some of the early mumblecore works), but its her inspired efforts with frequent collaborator and partner Noah Baumbach that have really started to cook and turn into some contemporary classics. Their first co-writing collaboration was “Frances Ha,” and their hilarious follow-up, the screwball comedy “Mistress America” is somewhat of a sister movie that Gerwig likens to a follow-up album to a successful first effort.

READ MORE: Watch: Sarah Polley Interviews Greta Gerwig About Noah Baumbach’s ‘Frances Ha’ In 17-Minute Criterion Feature

Bursting full of zany energy, “Mistress America” centers on two disparate women: the New York sophisticate Brooke (Gerwig) and the younger, idolizing university student in awe of her new mentor (relative newcomer Lola Kirke). But as the multi-hyphenate Brooke reveals herself to be something of a fraud, the bloom comes off the rose of their friendship and becomes a much more complex creature. As funny and even wacky as “Mistress America” is, it’s actually quite a thoughtful and complicated story of female friendship, the dark side of ambition, the inanity of self-absorption and humor of unearned confidence (read our review).

Gerwig recently spoke to The Playlist about writing the film, her continuing collaboration with Noah Baumbach — including an animated film they co-wrote — working with Todd Solondz on his next film “Wiener Dog” and much much more. “Mistress America” opens in limited release this weekend.

How are you doing? This movie is terrific by the way. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

[In a joyful swooning voice]. I love it as well.

Well, you’re a little bit biased.

[Laughs] Yes. Well, I’ll just say it’s also very possible to not love things you’ve made [laughs]. But I’m really proud of it, so, I’m very happy to talk about it for many many hours.

Well, we have 15 minutes [laughs]. Tell me how it was generated, because it’s nice to see this female dynamic on screen that we don’t see very often, and in this smart, funny, complex way.

After we had written in “Francis Ha” together, Noah and I—even before the movie was out in the world—talked about making another one, and writing another one together, and I think part of it was that we really loved the collaboration and also the crew we had assembled which was really special: Sam Levy the director of photography and Jen Lame, who was our editor, and [production designer] Sam Lisenco, and [first assistant director] Oscar Boyson, and all the people who were tirelessly working on this. So, it almost felt like making a second album. Getting the band back together.

But, we had another idea and we were talking about what we we would want to write, and what ideas we had floating around, and there was another screenplay, about something else, but the character, Brooke Cardenas, was in it. 

Another screenplay that had your lead character from “Mistress America” in it?

Yes. And we were reading it out loud and I started talking in the voice of Brooke, and then we started writing more about Brooke and every time I talked in the Brooke way it would make Noah laugh and then we thought, “Maybe we should give Brooke a movie. But how are we going to do it, and what kind of movie do we want to do?” We knew we wanted the essential relationship to be about women again, but we wanted it to be a different configuration— one’s 18, and one’s 30, and they’re strangers. And they go into this, kind of instant intimacy, with Tracy [Lola Kirke] idolizing Brooke. And inherent in idolizing someone is that you tear them down, at least in some ways. It’s almost impossible to only idolize someone and then not see who they really are later on. And that can be disappointing obviously.

So, we built a story around that idea. We spent a lot of time on the script before we got on set. Because, basically, what you see on the screen is what was on the page. We don’t shoot a lot of stuff that doesn’t end up in the movie.

The TIFF announcement came out very recently, and much to my amazement you and Noah didn’t have another secret movie to announce.

It wouldn’t be be humanly possible! (laughs) But yes, we’ve been working. Noah, in particular, has been working at a clip. But I think it’s a relief to both of us that we don’t have another one.

So no secret announcement next week then, huh?

I swear to God there’s not another next week. Oh! Actually, I spoke too soon. It’s not, well—there might be some announcement that you will look back on this conversation and think “She was lying to me!” But it’s not…  [ed. It’s the announcement of her next directorial project, “Lady Bird,” which was revealed not long after our interview].

READ MORE: Watch: ‘Making A Story’ Short Films With Cate Blancett, Greta Gerwig, Bradley Cooper & More Directed By Janusz Kaminski

[Laughs] Okay, but there was one TIFF film announced that you’re in, “Maggie’s Plan.”

Rebecca Miller‘s movie. Right. Yes, I knew that made it [into TIFF] (laughs). And I think the world knew that I made that too so it was a little less under the radar like these recent films with Noah. [Rebecca Miller] is a really special lady I think. I admire her a lot and I loved working with her.

Brooke is such a hilarious creature of a character; such a bulldog, so overwhelming, but recognizable. She reminds me of when I first moved to New York and was intimidated by people who were super sophisticated.
[Laughs] Yes. She’s larger than life. She’s a hustler, she’s always on, she’s always acting. Except for these few moments where she lets it drop, which just shows her vulnerability, which is absolutely heartbreaking. But she’s got this incredible energy and confidence and I think when Tracy meets her, she’s just completely infatuated with her. And Brooke wasn’t based on one person, but more an amalgamation of different people. And different moments and people I’ve met when I was 18 and I was intimidated by them and just shit scared of. And I was always worried that they would see straight through me, and know that I was lame. Why would they hang out with me? And I think a lot of that feeling went in to creating who Brooke was.

That dynamic energy must have been fun to play. She has an unearned confidence, but it’s confidence that’s still so magnetic.

Yeah, I had more moments in this film than in any other film of having to get over my own sheepishness and self consciousness. That scene where I had to dance with a band [laughs]. Or when I had to be the soul cycle instructor, or when she just delivers any of the proclamations, I would feel—Greta would feel this deep sense of embarrassment and shame [laughs].

She’s a little bit crazy and even though she’s not successful, ultimately, there is something about the way Brooke just goes after life with everything she has that’s somehow not only inspiring but seems to have integrity even if she’s lying. This is not a commentary on social media at all, but the way the way that she talks about Twitter, and Instagram, which is somebody who doesn’t understand the subtleties of self-promotion. She’s just doing it like a bulldozer.

But I find that quite touching and also more sympathetic than people who are quite deft at it. I think that when she says “It’s just a quick tweet on Twitter” my heart breaks for her. And I think being baldly self-promoting and baldly going for it is so much more sympathetic to me than trying to hide your own ambition.

What were the screen heroines you were modelling yourself on or at least thinking about during the writing and acting process?

We thought a lot about a certain kind of character in ‘80s movies. “Something Wild,” that Melanie Griffith character, and “After Hours” with Rosana Arquette, and Mia Farrow in “Broadway Danny Rose,” kind of these hard women. And, you know they’re all women. Even if they’re young. They’re not delightful girls. They’re hard living women. And then also the heroines at screwball comedies in the ‘30s and ‘40s just because also women and also they’re just nuts in the best way. I always think the person who I idolize the most of all is Carole Lombard and her incredible pitchiness and the way that she’s able to be big and real at the same time. It’s something I always aspire to.

You and Noah were writing an animated movie at one point. Was the Brooke character taken from that?

No. Those were all dogs. So… [laughs]. It’s a talking dog picture. Those characters didn’t … it makes me sad. It was a really good screenplay. It’s sort of out of our control. So, we’re not sure what’s happening there.

So Brooke came from another screenplay? Have you ever thought of connecting characters from different stories in different movies the way that say Todd Soldonz or Kevin Smith has done?

You know, I never think that way, but Noah thinks that way more than I do, Or he’ll have an idea of maybe continuing a character. I very much see them in their own universes and their own films and it’s sorta—the lights go up and then they go down, and that’s all you got of them. I don’t even like—I remember the first time that DVDs became available. And I remember seeing DVD extras of deleted scenes for the first time. And I hated it! I felt like, “I shouldn’t be looking at this!”

I think it was for “Good Will Hunting,” there was a scene where Mini Driver went to go talk to Ben Affleck at the construction site, and my whole brain just shut down [laughs]. I was so angry at it, for being another thing that had happened in that world.

READ MORE: Watch: Live Video For Arcade Fire’s “Afterlife” With Greta Gerwig, Directed By Spike Jonze & More

I’m not necessarily saying Brooke herself should be in another movie. I was just curious because you said you had plucked her from another script.

No. That was never really a fully realized script. It was half-cooked. So, in a way, to plunder her from that was ok.

The Untitled Half-Cooked Greta Gerwig & Noah Baumbach project?

I think that was just a half-cooked Greta project. It had to do with summer stock theatre in Vermont. Don’t worry, I’ll make that movie one day, but it won’t have Brooke in it! [laughs]

Speaking of connected universes, you’re playing Dawn Wiener from “Welcome To The Dollhouse” in Todd Solondz’s new movie “Wiener Dog.” How does that work? [ed. note: the character of Dawn was briefly reprised in “Palindromes” at her funeral.]
Well, I want to say right now, and I will repeat this many times, Todd specifically told me I was not to do an imitation of the old Dawn Wiener from “Welcome To The Dollhouse.”

So don’t expect that, and he didn’t want it. But, I adore Todd, and I love his writing, and I love the worlds he’s created, so I had the best time. And the [director of photography] who shot it, Ed Lachman, he’s a dream. I think DPs are reliably my favorite people on set. They have such a great combination of technical know-how and artistry. Anyway, it was a wonderful time and I hope I surfaced the film well enough, because I really love Todd and I think he’s one of the good guys.

Does Dawn come back to life in the movie “Wiener Dog”?

I know, it’s a bit weird, right? Well I don’t think he cares about that. I felt a little less insecure about that, because in “Palindromes” he has different people play the same person. He does that a lot, so, it’s like “Eh, it’s one of the things he does.” He can just be like, “Well, it’s my universe, and I can ignore”… It’s like, he just does whatever he wants.

He’s Todd Soldondz

He’s Todd Solondz, he does what he wants.

“Mistress America” opens in limited release this Friday, August 14.

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