Interview: “Frances Ha” Writer/Director Noah Baumbach

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To explain “Frances Ha” to death is, in a way, to cheapen your enjoyment of it. Without a doubt, Noah Baumbach’s latest film—now in wide release—is so refreshingly meaningful and charismatic and funny that talking away all that it has working (and it has a hell of a lot working) is to ultimately negate some of the magic. Nevertheless, here’s a brief catch-up so we’re on the same page.

Meet Frances, a 27 year old modern dancer by trade, whose having trouble charting where and how to make it in her field in New York City. Frances’ home base: Her relationship with her best friend Sophie (played by Mickey Sumner) is thrown into upheaval when Sophie announces that they will no longer be roommates. This event sparks a series of mishaps and problems for Frances as she continues to fall forward all the while staying cheerfully upbeat and honest. At one point, when asked at a dinner party what she does for a living, Frances responds that “It’s kind of hard to explain…because I don’t really do it.” And as much as that feeling resonates loud for the generation of aspirers working through the dream, anyone can empathize with Frances as she bounces from apartment to apartment and failure to failure continuing to get knocked down with the doses of post college-age reality.

Visually we could make comparisons to Woody Allen and Truffaut and Godard, which we do, a little, because it’s very hard not to. But really what Baumbach and co-writer/star Greta Gerwig achieve with “Frances Ha” is something pretty original. This is Baumbach’s most outwardly lighthearted film to date, a label which surely is being volleyed around in all the reviews written last week. And indeed, this fact is hard to ignore because Frances is just so damn likable. In this respect “Frances Ha” might end up being Baumbach’s “Sgt. Pepper’s.”

Middle Western had the chance to speak with director/co-writer Baumbach about the movie and making it. But before that it’s imperative to stress that seeing this movie as soon as you can is of the utmost importance. “Frances Ha” is the heroes journey, a buddy movie and a coming of age comedy. If you’ve tried to live in New York and you see one movie in the theaters this summer see “Frances Ha.” if you’re 27 and you see one movie in the theaters this summer, see “Frances Ha.” If you’re a human being and you see one movie this summer, see “Frances Ha because It really is that good and we can’t stress this enough.

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Middle Western: You and Greta Gerwig wrote this film together—is “Frances Ha” the first time you’ve collaborated to write a script.

Noah Baumbach: Yes, in as complete a way as this, where I’ve shared full screenwriting credit on something I’ve directed. On “Kicking and Screaming,” I share story credit with Oliver Berkman and then Jennifer Jason Leigh and I share story credit on “Greenberg.” So I’ve collaborated but this was the first time where we wore white shirts from soup to nuts together.

MW: How did that come about then? Obviously you met Greta Gerwig on Greenberg.

Yeah, I mean she auditioned and I cast her.

MW: And you guys had a shared sensibility?

NB: Yeah, I loved what she did on that movie and I wanted to do something else with her. Also I felt there was something very funny about Greta, even though it’s not really a comic performance. It had a real sense of humor to it and I thought that it’d be great to do something with her where she could really be funny. In a kind of more overt way with a sort of comic character for her to play. That was part of what she and I were interested in doing when we started. So we emailed ideas back and forth and I think at the time neither of us were sure it would really become anything.

MW: “Frances Ha” is a pretty universal story but with some really specific aspects, some which kind of line up with Greta Gerwig and your life, like Vasser.

NB: I went to Vasser. She went to Barnard.

MW: So there’s quite a bit of autobiographical stuff intertwined into it from both you and her?

NB: Yeah, I mean, some. She is also from Sacramento. I think there are some things we used, autobiographical things or experiences that were shared even though I grew up in Brooklyn. I always felt like an outsider to Manhattan, Manhattan always seemed to me like a place that I couldn’t get into, you know? Like exclusive. And she felt that coming from Sacramento about New York City. And now Manhattan of course is not necessarily the place you want to go, it’s Brooklyn, but it was something we both related to in the Frances character even though it’s strictly sort of more her autobiography there with Sacramento. That feeling, though, of coming to New York and having to figure out a way to make it work for you.

MW: There seems to be at least some cinematic homage or sentimentality within this film, the major nods being perhaps “Manhattan” and French New Wave cinema like Truffaut’s “Small Change.” There’s even the kind of funny playful sensibility and physicality of Godard’s “A Woman is a Woman” or something like that. Was that all pretty intentional or just what happened?

NB: I didn’t think of it so much as Homage because those are movies that I love anyway and they’re always in my head when I’m making anything. It’s more that I think because this movie’s in black and white and because it was about young people. Not that I haven’t made movies about young people before, but because I’m not that age anymore I was sort of removed from it in someway. Black and white also in some way, it sort of evokes cinema no matter what, because it’s photographic. Nowadays you don’t see it that much anymore. So I think some of those influences are more clear in this movie. But I think also I was more playful and more open to those sort of things because I was doing it in black and white, it sort of loosened me up in a way. I also, all those movies, the ones that are in black and white like “Manhattan,” are contemporary movies shot in black and white on purpose. That’s something I’ve always loved: Black and white used that way as opposed to it being used to evoke another time. I think that made it a clearer reference to those movies too.

MW: I’m thinking specifically about a scene in the film where Frances is in Paris and she wakes up and it’s the morning and she’s sleeping by the window and we hear children playing outside of school and then she falls back asleep and wakes up again and it’s afternoon and the kids are out again. Those children sound a lot like the children in “Small Change” because there are so many window shots in that movie where you hear kids outside playing. Was that intentional or was it just happenstance?

NB: No, I mean what happened was the place that we had rented to shoot in, the first day we were there we heard all these children and we were looking out at the back of a school. In the script it was just that she wakes up late but I thought well it would be great to have the sound of the kids. Of course I had the same reaction that you did which is the sound of french kids makes you think of “Small Change,” so yeah I thought about it but that was more just because we were there.

MW: This movie also just has clear noticeable sight gags in it—physical humor. Your movies are always funny, but this is a different vein of funny and a slight departure. Some of it, too, like all your films hinges on great dialogue, but I’m thinking of when she’s running and she trips or really the whole “Frances running to find an ATM in New York” scene.

NB: Well the jokes were all intentionally written into the script, I guess not really as jokes, but we hoped like in the scene where she falls we hoped that would be funny. There was something about the character that I think influenced a lot of what you were reacting to. The movie around her wanted to be more clearly humorous and playful and it kind of went with everything the spirit of not just Frances but Greta you know. It went with it in a way that wouldn’t have necessarily been as true for a character like say “Greenberg” or something. Although, “Greenberg”—there’s a scene in “Greenberg” where he’s trying to cross the street and a car cuts in front of him and he hits the back of the car, gets scared, and runs. If that were Frances you’d probably laugh harder, I think the character of “Greenberg” causes such anxiety in people that even though that’s actually staged if you watch it, as kind of a flat out joke, its just contextually less funny or less laugh out loud funny.

MW: And you’re laughing with her, I mean I guess you’re rooting for “Greenberg” throughout, but it’s easier to root for Frances in this movie.

NB: Yeah, exactly.

MW: This movie, like all your movies, has really intentional music choices. Obviously the “Modern Love” scene is a good example of this, but I’m wondering how big of a decision making role is your sound team and how much is you picking songs … like the George Delerue songs and stuff?

NB: In this case, I put in all the Delerue and those cues in. In the beginning it felt right to me, I felt the movie should have a kind of score, big score, something that was romantic and joyful and those scores are that. So at first I was just sort of seeing, like can you go too far? How much can you put in? I felt like it was almost like you couldn’t do it too much, it just broadened the movie it never felt too much to me. And then of course those specific scores worked so well, so I ended up keeping them. And so then it became a question of, OK well how are we going to use them? And which ones to use. So what I ended up doing was sort of not looking; I mean, I had all the CDs and things and I loaded them all in but once they were in I wasn’t looking, some I knew what the movies were, some I didn’t and some I actually hadn’t seen. One of the main cues in the movie is from “King Of Hearts,” which I’ve actually never seen and it’s not a Truffaut movie. So in a way it became new to me. The only one where I could never forget where it came from is the “400 Blows” cue, and I almost changed it for that reason but it works so well that I just kept it.

MW: You seem to have done this kind of new thing where there wasn’t a lot of PR or press or news about this movie until Toronto. Was that a really intentional decision on your part to try to keep this under wraps?

NB: It wasn’t intentional in the way that I wasn’t trying to do that. It was cool that it didn’t go on the internet until Toronto, but I didn’t do that by design. I did try to keep it low-key. I had a movie that I was going to make before that, that so many casting choices were scooped and some I had made and some I hadn’t made and that happens all the time. I just felt like, “Let’s just go make a movie and not talk about it” and it was all part of a kind of plan I had where I wanted to do something very stripped down with a smaller crew. Everything was by choice, it wasn’t like “Squid,” which I made for a low budget because that’s all the money I could get. With this budget was kind of irrelevant, it was more, “This is how we should make this movie and whatever comes after that we’ll figure out.” The result was nice because no one speculated or knew anything about it so we could all just kind of go about our work.

Frances Ha” is playing at the Uptown Theatre.

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