by Sara Michelle Fetters -
SGN A&E Writer
(Criterion Collection; 2013)
After making its debut back in January at the Sundance Film Festival, Noah Baumbachs (The Squid and the Whale) latest minimalist dramatic-comedy hybrid Frances Ha toured the festival circuit (including a stop here in Seattle) before starting its limited theatrical run at the end of May. Meeting with mostly ecstatic reviews, the film is without question one of 2013s best, and as such is expected to be on countless critical top-10 lists come the end of December.
Now available on Blu-ray courtesy of the Criterion Collection, the movie revolves around 27-year-old wannabe dancer Frances, beautifully portrayed by actress and co-writer Greta Gerwig, a young woman in the midst of transition as she begins to realize that her lifes dreams arent panning out entirely as expected. It is a melodious motion picture, calling to mind the very best of Woody Allen, François Truffaut, and Eric Rohmer, moving at its own delicate rhythms and presenting its emotional nuances at its unique idiosyncratic beat.
Back in early June I had the pleasure of sitting down for a brief chat with Gerwig about the film. Here are some of the highlights from that interview.
Sara Michelle Fetters: Congratulations on the movie. Seems like its been winning awards and getting ecstatic notices everywhere its been. That has to mean a lot.
Greta Gerwig: I loved making it. Its been so fun to share it with people.
Fetters: Its one of those movies that, when you come out, its almost like a contact high. You realize youve seen something truly great.
Gerwig: Thank you. That means a lot. This truly was a labor of love for all of us, I believe. To have people responding to it so strongly and with such passion is just terrific.
Fetters: Talk about the genus of this movie. I seem to remember reading somewhere that you and Noah came up with all of this over e-mail. Is that correct? Did you ever think in your wildest dreams the two of you would not only be able to craft these thoughts into a cohesive script, but actually get the darn thing made into a feature film?
Gerwig: Its surprising, right? These things dont happen. At least, I didnt believe it would happen. Noah always did. He never lost faith that we could pull it off, even when we were just sending e-mail back and forth. When we were writing, it just really felt like writing, not filmmaking. The financing was apparently coming together while we were writing the script, but I never really knew anything about that. Im just inherently sort of a doubter and dont believe anything until its actually out. I could be cast in something but dont believe Im going to actually make it until Im there on the set that first day. So many things can go wrong with film, so I never count my chickens.
With [Frances Ha], it took a long time to write about a year. The initial writing was about generating themes. We needed to find out who these characters were and we wrote a lot of dialogue, trying to allow them to tell us who they were. After we had a lot of stuff we started reading through it all and then pounding it into shape, and while that was a long process, it was also incredibly educational for me because while Id written plays in college Id never written a screenplay before. Id collaborated on outlines of screenplays, but Id never been responsible for one like I was with this. Over the course of this year of writing I really felt like I learned how to make something work.
Fetters: One of the things that impressed me was just how little fat there was, if there is any at all. How hard is it to streamline things in such a matter? When did you two know when to cut and when to leave well enough alone? Id imagine theres some great stuff you both come up with that, for one reason or another, needed to be excised.
Gerwig: That was the most painful thing. Its cliché, kill your darlings, but I really did have to kill so many darlings that it was really difficult to keep going at times. Youre so happy that youve created something and then to have to cut it, its just so painful. But, again, Noah has had so much experience with this and hes always right about it. Something can be great, but if it doesnt tighten the story youre telling it doesnt matter how great it is, it needs to be cut. I mean, you miss it, that scene or that moment, but you realize the audience will never miss it. Even if it is well-shot and all the [facets] are great, if it isnt helping tell the story in the most elegant, economical way, then the audience doesnt want it to be there.
Fetters: Comparisons to the French New Wave to Truffaut, Rohmer, or Godard are somewhat inevitable, I imagine. Youve probably heard people comment on that 27 billion times at this point.
Gerwig: Yes, true, but I dont get tired of hearing those comparisons because I really love those filmmakers and their films. I look at it as those directors made some of the best films ever made, I think they were geniuses, so for us to be mentioned in the same breath is amazing. We never talked about points of inspiration, about the French New Wave or Woody Allen, its just so baked-in into the way we think that we dont need to discuss it because those [influences] are just there.
Fetters: Did you find it easier to slip into Frances then maybe other roles because you were so familiar with her through the writing, or was it even more difficult because you were so familiar with her through the writing?
Gerwig: In a funny way, I think it was more of the second. I was scared. While I was proud of [the script] as a piece of writing, thought it was pretty good, I worried I wasnt the right actress or that I wasnt a good enough actress to pull it off. I didnt want to win [the part] by default just because Id written it. I flirted with not doing it. My agent called me out on that, very astutely asking me if I was stupid, telling me Id be a fool not to do it.
Truthfully, I think the style of the writing, the kind of writing, its the kind of thing I believe I know how to act, and that helps, but that would have been true whether or not I had a part in the writing of it. If I can hear it in my head, then I can usually act it. If I cant hear it, then I usually have trouble acting it. I thought when I was working with Whit Stillman [on Damsels in Distress] I could really hear it, could hear the rhythm of what it was supposed to be like. Same was true with Greenberg, which was with Noah, and the same was true with the Woody Allen film [To Rome With Love]. Its just the kind of thing I understand and relate to. It was also true with this Hollywood film I did, No Strings Attached, where I just knew how to say [my characters] jokes, I understood the rhythm. Thats always helpful as an actor.
Fetters: You and [Frances Ha co-star] Mickey Sumner have glorious chemistry. Your relationship felt so lived-in and true, the pain and the happiness all mixed together.
Gerwig: I feel like this is a testament to Mickeys acting. We didnt know one another beforehand but since have become very close. She just instantly understood how to play [the role]. She created a kind of intimacy that wasnt indicated but was just felt. The way she treated me, all of it just sort of fell into place.
Fetters: For a movie that is so dialogue-driven, the silences are kind of wonderful here. How hard were those moments to convey?
Gerwig: We did a lot of takes. We spent a lot of time trying to produce these layered performances, and it was through a lot of repetition that we were able to get everything that we wanted. Noah and I both had this sense of wanting it to be, both within the scenes and within the movie, that there would be a lot of little moments and then a really long scene, more little moments, then another long scene. We wanted the talkiness and the silences to be of equal parts.
For me, the lynchpin was that Noah started from far enough away [with the camera] that I could act with my whole body and not just with my face. There werent any limitations. There are close-ups, yes, but a lot of the time I had the whole frame in which to work within. You could really see the way her [Frances] whole body was experiencing something instead of just her face, and I think that was a gift to me and allowed me to make Frances more of a larger-than-life character.
Fetters: Youve managed to work with some pretty incredible directors Stillman, Allen, Baumbach, the Duplass brothers, Joe Swanberg, Ti West at this point. As you get more and more experience, do you long to keep doing more of these smaller, independent projects, or do you find yourself being drawn to bigger-budgeted studio productions?
Gerwig: I love the big studio films as much as I enjoy working on the tiny indies. Its more for me about the story and the filmmaker than it is about the budget or anything else. Its a tough time, though. There was this story last year about how speaking parts for women in features are at an all-time low. Thats pretty depressing. Theres a lot of opportunities on television, whether it be Nurse Jackie or Homeland or Girls or Scandal, both network and non-network, but I love movies and I love cinema and I want to make movies and I want to act in them. Its more about when these parts come my way, whether studio or tiny film, and if Im available I cant wait to jump at them because a lot of times they just feel so rare. Sometimes it can feel like a bit of a wasteland, though, as it comes to studio-backed films. I dont know why that is.
Fetters: As to that list of directors youve had the chance to work with, this is going to be a bit of a softball, but where does Noah rank?
Gerwig: Ho! Well, I guess Noah would have to rank number one, otherwise I might find myself suddenly without a collaborator. No, seriously, Ive been tremendously lucky. Ive worked with some amazing filmmakers in my career. With Noah, I feel like we understand things in a similar way. Its not like having a twin. Its like having a collaborator. Were on the same wavelength but we dont always agree. Theres just enough irritation, enough pressure, that we can make the pearl, but no so much that our collaboration doesnt feel natural. I love working with him.
Fetters: What does Frances say about who we are and where we are at? Does she say something larger about her generation, people around her own age, or is just something confined to the film and nothing broader?
Gerwig: Because its the story of a 27-year-old, I really thought of [Frances Ha] as the first time in your life when you start realizing what is your real life [as opposed to] the fantasy you wanted when you were younger. You keep going through this process of accepting the life that youre living, instead of wishing for the idea of the life you [fantasized] about. I think this is something that happens again and again, and your late 20s is that point where you feel it more acutely then you ever have before, because youre an adult. To me, the film is about accepting your life and really not allowing other people to dictate what they think you should be doing with it. Its about being happy with who you are. Its like Frances needs everyone elses permission to be happy, but by the end she decides to start living the life that she has and makes the decision for herself that she is going to be happy and not let anyone else decide that for her.
Fetters: In the end, what do you want audiences to take away from watching Frances Ha? What do you hope they feel?
Gerwig: For me, whats been most gratifying is watching people who are my parents age watching the film, people in their 50s and 60s, and seeing them empathize with it and relating to what is going on. I think thats great. But overall, I think people respond to the fact that this film takes care of its characters. Theres something about this that really touches me, makes me feel really happy and part of something bigger seeing people react like that. Its gratifying, to say the least.
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