Greta Gerwig & Mickey Sumner on Exploring Female Friendship in Noah Baumbach’s ‘Frances Ha’

When it comes to matters of love, it’s often platonic devotion that proves the most intimate and carries the most weight in one’s life. It’s the love stories of friendship, the decades-spanning, unbreakable connection to someone that stays around as lovers come and go. Yes, romantic love is an all-encompassing illness of the heart, but without a best friend to guide you, life becomes less tolerable. Cinema has long been awash in tales of romantic love, of course, but it’s rare to see a tale of love between two female best friends, especially one that genuinely shows what it is like to have that kind of soul mate, without whom everything else would be askew. But with Noah Baumbach’s latest film, Frances Ha, we see one woman’s journey of self-discovery, ignited by a fractured friendship.

Co-written with the film’s star, Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha is a charming ode to cinema of days past. Gerwig’s emotionally intelligent, witty, and thoughtful touch elevates Baumbach’s filmmaking to new heights. Its anachronistic feel is not only played out in its black-and-white aesthetic, but in its sense of hopefulness. Here we have a 28-year-old modern dancer, unsure what to make of her life, feeling as though her best friend is drifting away from her. Yet she always shines with optimism—not disillusioned and broken like so many of the female portrayals we see in contemporary film and television. 
 
For all of title character Frances’ endearing existential confusion and her affinity for frankness, her best friend Sophie (wonderfully played by Mickey Sumner) keeps her in balance. But when Sophie begins to date someone seriously and moves to a more suitable apartment, her friendship with Frances begins to unravel. "We’re basically the same person," Frances loves to say, holding onto their more youthful relationship well after Sophie has matured. But no matter their separation, when in the presence of one another it’s evident that love is still there between them, proving that just because the exact shape of something may change, its core can remain the same.
 
In speaking of Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, Roger Ebert once said, "Oh, what a lovely film. I was almost hugging myself while I watched it." And that is precisely the sentiment I was possessed by while watch Frances Ha. So last week, I was more than pleased to sit down with Gerwig and Sumner to talk about their own friendship, how some characters write themselves, and the potency of female friendship.
 
Mickey, how did you become involved with the film? 
Mickey Sumner: I auditioned—many times.
Greta Gerwig: It was actually longer than I knew; I wasn’t in all the auditions. Noah was with her.
MS: You were in my third audition. But I didn’t even know Greta was a part of the movie, in the movie, or had written the movie. I knew so little about it. I got my appointment, which was "Untitled Noah Baumbach Movie"—no script, no sides—and it was just go in and do it.
GG: I met Mickey when we were looking at her for Sophie and for another part, and I just remember you made me laugh really hard. Maybe because she was so stoic. She said some line and just looked right at me. I hadn’t been in auditions, so I hadn’t heard actors do it in front of me and she was so great and so funn so good at keeping her deadpan. I was like, does she not know that she’s funny?
MS: I don’t think so.
GG: I feel like you must have.
MS: I didn’t really know if it was a comedy or a drama…
GG: She just played it so straight.
MS: When I read a script, my usual approach to everything is to be really serious.
GG: That’s why it’s funny; the real sincerity of seriousness makes it funny. I don’t like it when people are pretending to be funny, it’s weird. It makes me uncomfortable when someone is doing something that I know they think is funny; I instantly don’t think it’s funny. But Mickey was just acting in the moment and it was really great. But anyways, thats how we met and became friends.
MS: How we fell in love.
GG: Yes, and then we fell in love while we were making the movie.
 
I really enjoyed their relationship because I feel like everyone has been on both sides of that friendship at some point.
GG: I’m glad you feel that way.
 
How did you begin collaborating with Noah to create the film?
GG: He asked me sometime after Greenberg opened. I was acting in another movie, I had a busy slate. He asked if I’d be interested in collaborating on a script; he said that he had a feeling we would write well together and he’d like to make a movie that’s really stripped down and bare bones,  see how small he can make a movie while still making it as good as it can be. And he also said that he’d like to make it in New York and maybe I can be in it, and asked if I had any ideas. So I sent him a list of different things I’d been thinking of in little moments and exchanges of dialogue, and he got really excited. So he said, let’s keep going I think there’s a movie there. And we just kept building out from there. 
 
Had you been looking to write something new?
GG: I’ve written every day since I was a little kid but I never thought of myself as a writer because no one ever asked me. I didn’t go to a kind of school that was like, what are your ambitions and are you interested in writing? It was kind of a drill and skill school where it was if we can’t test it, it doesn’t’ really matter. So I was acting in plays but I’ve always been writing and collecting things. I started writing plays in college but I felt like I had this build up of stuff, and when Noah asked me I was like—yes I have so much to say! I’m glad somebody asked
 
Was the character of Frances living inside you already?
GG: I didn’t feel like I knew exactly who Frances was—and not to sound like a douche—but she kind of told me who she was. Characters write themselves in a strange way—Sophie wrote herself too. And then when you give them to actors to embody them, it’s almost like watching your child grow up, or what I imagine it’s like because you let them live on their own with someone else. It’s a big thing. We found out who she was by writing her, but I definitely felt like I had this material pressing on my chest. And after, I felt relieved in a way that I didn’t even know I’d been tense. And now the tension has built back up again. It’s never enough.
 
Was this dichotomy between being physically in motion and emotionally stunted something you wanted to explore with Frances?
GG: I wanted to make her really directed and ambitious and big and totally flinging herself at the wrong thing. But she had this drive that manifests in anger or extreme love or extreme mistakes. I feel like the movie shows—it’s kind one of the tragedies of maturity but also one of the things I think is necessary for it—you almost feel her reeling herself in by the end, she becomes more self-contained. And there’s a sadness because there’s this spilling out of everything she’s doing and feeling. And going for that stuff has its own beauty, and to reel it all back in and keep it inside is necessary, but also kind of sad.
 
I admired Frances ability to be so external.
GG: And Sophie’s the opposite. 
MS: It was easy for me. My best friend when I was in school was the naughtiest girl— she put super glue in our French teacher’s hand lotion, you know, and I was the most well-behaved girl in school and hated getting in trouble. But we just connected on some need level; I needed her to chill me out a little bit and she needed me to control her.
 
I know dance is something you’ve always loved—did you have the idea right away that you wanted to incorporate that into the film?
GG: I probably didn’t know it then but I love dance and watching dance and going to dance—I like everything from a ballet class to a Zumba class. I actually kind of love Zumba class when it’s me and a bunch of like middle-aged women jamming. I get a lot of joy out of it; I get a lot of joy out of non-professions dancing. I feel like it’s really sad that the only place people really dance now is wedding receptions. Anyway, so I didn’t know it would be something in the movie but it was pretty early in the writing that I said she should be a modern dancer. Also, because I felt like it’s one of the few careers that has a real expiration date, in the way that the friendship does—it seemed to kind of metaphorically fit with what was happening and felt analogous to the powerlessness you sometimes feel as an actor being hired to do it. As a dancer it’s the same thing, you’re performing someone else’s choreography. It’s a beautiful art, but it’s an art that requires you to have someone say, "It’s you, you do this." And that’s difficult and I have so much empathy for dancers in that way, it’s even more brutal than actors. 
 
I really loved this idea of seeing "your person" from across the room and how in this case that person was your best friend and not a romantic interest. I feel like that’s rarely seen and that moment was really special.
GG: Mickey didn ‘t know about that speech when we shot it.
MS: Yeah, so I don’t think I felt like I had to do a big thing in order to fulfill. Noah said, "Okay you just see Frances and look at her."
GG: But it was emotional. It was weird because I knew the speech and you didn’t know the speech, but just looking at each other across the room when we did it, I think we both started crying and Noah and was like "Cut! Stop crying, Greta." He was like, "Okay, you don’t need to cry right now."
MS: But we’d also gone through the whole movie, we’d shot it chronologically, so even though I didn’t know what had happened, I felt like I’d broken up with my best friend and gone to Japan and all this stuff—it was a big moment.
GG: Because of the way we shot it, it was kind of magic the way you and I look at each other. But I remember writing it, sometimes I can have an idea but Noah can articulate it in a film. I see everything flat—probably because my background in writing is theater—so I feel everything like a fourth wall, but Noah can see it more three-dimensionally than I can. So I remember writing that she looks at Sophie talking and then looks away and Sophie’s looking at her and that this moment has happened but Sophie is the one that initiates this look. It’s like classic rom-com stuff but it’s so much more potent when it’s friend.
 
Had you anticipated wanting to work with Noah again after Greenberg and was it easy for you two to begin melding ideas?
GG: We didn’t do a lot of writing in the same room; we did a lot separately. He’d say, why don’t you take a crack the dinner scene or I’ll take a track at the Paris section, and we would write these scenes. I feel like when I read Greenberg, as an actor, there was something about it that—this sounds arrogant—but I did feel like, if I could write the best screenplay I could write, I would want it to look and sound like that. You could hear it. I’m very auditory—even when I read, I hear the rhythms in my head and sometimes when I read screenplays I can’t hear them. It’s like I get what they’re trying to do, yet I can’t actually hear it. But when I read Noah’s screenplay, from the stage directions to the dialogue, it was like someone pressed play. When I write, I need it to be said the way I wrote it because otherwise it doesn’t sound right. And the way Mickey did the lines, it was instantly like, yes! that’s what it sounds like. It’s almost as if you’re listening for it to drop.
 
 
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