Noah Baumbach, director of Frances Ha, tells View about co-writing the script with Greta Gerwig, shooting against the backdrop of the real New York and the real lives of the city’s people, and how Greta Gerwig’s performance as the title character, the music in the film and the visual style have combined to create a profoundly affecting, funny and moving cinematic story.
How did the project come about?
I wanted to do something with Greta again, after we had done Greenberg, and I just wrote her. I wanted to make something in New York, and I was thinking, ‘Black and white, New York, Greta, portrait of youth’; I had very general, almost like a feeling of a movie, but not an actual movie in my head. And so I just wrote her about it and asked her if she had thoughts, of things she was thinking about. She wrote me back a document of stuff that was so great, and funny. I felt like there was a movie here, and it really became a conversation, from that point forward. A virtual conversation mostly, that then became a script.
At what point did you bring in the black and white photography? A lot of the press are saying it’s a homage to Woody Allen, and French New Wave. Was that a conscious thing?
I wasn’t thinking about homaging those movies, but I was of course aware. As it happens now, because black and white’s not the norm, if you shoot in black and white now, you think, ‘What can I look to, what were the last movies that were shot in black and white?’ Of course, Manhattan is a movie I’ve loved for a long time, and I’ve been a huge fan of Woody Allen. In some ways, his influence on me, I don’t even see it anymore. I’ve ingested it, it’s in the system. But in our way I wanted to do something in that tradition. Something that was beautiful, and romantic, and classical in its way.
The music is that too, it’s kind of grand, and generous. I wanted to give the Frances character a big movie. A friend of ours saw it and said, ‘It’s like an anthem’, and I’ll take that. Woody Allen obviously did that in Manhattan too. It’s an intimate story, but he makes it so grand. And I felt like, that’s what 27 feels like. The things you’ve got to get through, to get on with adulthood, those are big, they’re hard and agonising and ridiculous. I had a lot of, I suppose, empathy and sympathy, for that character and that time. I wanted to, in some ways, represent it with the filmmaking.
You mentioned the soundtrack, you used some French scores?
A lot of stuff from the New Wave. Again, it was less like I felt I was homaging any specific New Wave movie. It’s like that music in some ways are my favourite film scores, because they’re so cinematic, they’re so moving. They’re really amazing, the Georges Delerue stuff particularly. I felt like this movie could hold big music, so was initially just playing it to get an idea of what felt right and what didn’t. It worked so well, and I felt like the movie could hold it, that it wasn’t going to be too referential, which is what I didn’t want. In some ways this music could live in a new way, in this context.
Before you worked with Greta on Greenberg, how much of her work had you seen?
I’d seen a couple of the smaller movies she’d done. One called Hannah Takes the Stairs, and I think I’d seen the one she did with Joe [Swanberg], Nights and Weekends. I really liked a lot of those movies that those people were making, and in some ways the sort of non-actor nature of a lot of the actors was very affective in a lot of those movies. But Greta, to me, always stood out. She felt totally authentic, but I also felt like she really had moves. I auditioned her for Greenberg based on seeing her in those movies.
I’m curious as to how your collaboration grew after that, she was telling me you plan to work together again, which is fantastic news. What is it about Greta as an actress that appeals to you?
She’s enormously present as an actor, and in a scene, and so open. So I think what I responded to, and what people respond to when they see her, is that there’s something totally unadorned. They really feel like the behaviour is not affected. She’s really there, she’s really having this experience, which of course is good acting. What she also has though, is I think she’s one of the funniest people I’ve ever met.
There’s a comic drive that’s going on at the same time, that’s also part of that. It’s what makes the Frances performance so dynamic. Your heart goes out to her, and at the same time, this is like a classic comic performance.
I think you really capture that side of her. You cast Adam Driver as well, he’s becoming more famous, because of Girls in particular. How did you come to cast him?
He auditioned. Really everybody, Mickey Sumner, they all did - in some cases I had heard of some of them, you know, ‘You should check this actor out’, and I have a casting director I’ve worked with for a long time, Doug Aibel in New York. He knew a lot of these people. I guess at the time, Girls hadn’t come out, I didn’t know who he played, I’d never seen him before. But he’s so unique. When he auditioned, I was like, ‘He’s amazing’.
Do you have a favourite scene in the film?
I don’t know that I do. There are things I like, that I like how they came together. Things that were particularly fun to shoot. I have reasons for things that don’t necessarily have anything to do with how you see the movie. There are scenes we may have blocked five different ways, there’s a scene when Sophie first comes to visit Frances when she’s living at the boys’, and first they’re in the living room and Frances does that headstand. Frances goes into the bedroom and they’re mostly silhouetted, and Frances is pacing and Sophie tries to clean up the room a little, and Frances gets offended. We blocked that scene - we shot over two days because we couldn’t figure it out. When you see it, there’s nothing notably more complicated than any other scene. For some reason I couldn’t figure out the physicality of it, and it was affecting the performance. When I look at it, I feel like I’m glad we got it there.
What was the hardest thing to get right, and what’s your next project?
The hardest thing to get right was the scene on the subway when Sophie tells her that she’s moving out, because we shot on the real subway. There were so many voice announcements that would come on and interrupt scenes, and people would interrupt scenes. We liked to, when possible, shoot in New York, or shoot anywhere with real life going on around us. So that one took a while, a lot of riding the subway. It’s a long scene. To get a visual on the subway is not difficult, but that one was complicated. Next, I’m going to shoot a movie in the fall in New York, with Ben Stiller again.
What’s that called?
While We’re Young.