Woody Allen’s Manhattan ends with the final line: "You have to have a little faith in people." It’s a simple bit of dialogue, but entirely genuine and honest, holding a vast amount of emotional weight in its ease. Picking up where that sentiment left off is Noah Baumbach’s new film, the charmingly awkward black-and-white character study Frances Ha, whose leading lady stands out like a beacon of optimism, unwavering in her desire for more from life.
Throughout the last decade, modern meditations on post-collegiate ennui have become commonplace, but it’s rare to find a film that takes that tired convention and exposes it in a new light. Frances Ha not only reflects what it means to simply exist at that time in life and in that universe, but shows the beauty in the mistakes made along the way, underscoring the idea that just because something isn’t working doesn’t mean it’s broken. Baumbach has crafted a film that feels refreshing and contemporary yet harkens back to to such European cinematic masters as Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, and Jean-Luc Godard in its casual essence, reminding us of what we love so much about the filmmaking of days past.
Co-written with the film’s brilliant and versatile star, Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha is infused with a unique magic that comes from a true meeting of minds. If you look back on Baumbach and Gerwig’s early work, it’s evident that the two are cut from the same cloth—both sharing an affinity for a particular kind of character’s journey, dealing with a sense of malaise as they meander through life, yet filled with a yearning for more. And whereas many of Baumbach’s film’s tend to err on the side of the misanthropic, Frances Ha is a film that makes you want to go out and engage in life. It’s an inspired and intelligent love letter to cinema that never stops moving while we follow the endearingly strange Frances as she dances from life to life.
At its core, Frances Ha is both a journey of self-discovery and a love story between best friends. With Gerwig’s frank yet tender touch, we see a realistic look at a fractured female friendship and the mourning that comes from feeling as though you’ve lost a part of yourself to someone else. "We’re like the same person but with different hair," says Frances of her best friend Sophie, who begins to drift apart after getting involved in a serious relationship. We see Frances caught in the wake of their relationship, but her spirited self never diminishes, only dulls for a moment before realizing her ambitions as a modern dancer and choreographer. As we wander with her through her days from Brooklyn to Chinatown to Paris, we begin to admire her boldness and realize that Baumbach cast a spell on us, making us fall in love with his star just as he did behind the camera.
Last week I got the chance to sit down with Baumbach to talk about his desire to showcase Gerwig’s talents, the inspiration engrained in the film, and the heroic moments of everyday life.
I’ve been a big fan of Greta’s for a while now. She can be so funny yet dramatic and has such great physicality. Did you know you wanted to make something that would play to all her abilities?
Yeah, that’s exactly what I wanted to do. We’d worked together before and I felt that she was all of those things. But I thought we could do something where she could be the center of the movie and showcase all that she could do.
As an admirer of your work, you can see what a similar sensibility you two share as writers as well. What was the initial collaboration process like—was it an easy merging of ideas?
Yeah, the writing came somewhat organically because I first approached her more as an actor. I asked if she’d want to act in something I directed but I wasn’t sure what that would be, so I asked her what she was thinking about, or things she thought could be in a movie about a 27-year-old in New York. She has such great ideas and thoughts and observations and was so funny, I felt immediately like this was a movie.
You started by writing emails back and forth?
We’d send the same document back and forth and I would respond and then she would and we’d rewrite. After a while the document started to take shape and we said, okay maybe it opens this way, and then after a while we started writing scenes.
With the love-letter-to-New York essence of the film, the music, and the black-and-white style, it would be easy for people to make a lot of Woody Allen or Manhattan allusions. Were you more influenced by Truffaut and Rohmer and the New Wave cinema that you love?
Yeah, and I always feel inspired by those guys—Truffaut and Rohmer—in all my movies. But somehow in this one the influence is clearer. There’s something about this material that it could hold a lot of potentially referential moments without them feeling heavy. There’s a moment when Frances is over for the first night with the guys and she’s saying goodbye to the girls, the three of them walk back into the room—when we shot it I realized it in the first take—and they’re all dressed so anthropologically right for now in New York City–one has a hat, one has a tie and sweeter, one has a dress—but they all look like they’re in a Godard movie.
And the way they moved felt so choreographed, it was a magic little moment that everyone noticed and fell in love with.
Well, by take 900, that’s what you’re seeing in the movie, because I was like, oh we need to keep doing this over and over to get this walk right. And it looks so French but it was not deliberate. It was just engrained, it was in the air, in the style, and I think that was true for a lot of the movie. So in cases where I was aware of a music reference or something that I might be drawing upon, it also felt right for the milieu of the film.
I loved the juxtaposition between Frances’ physical and mental state. Mentally she was so stalwart and unable to accept change, but physically she never stopped moving—whether that was literally in her dancing down the street or hopping from apartment to apartment.
We never articulated it but I think it was also baked into it. And the locations being chapters, that discovery informed so much because it said everything you’re saying but it also provided us with just a really great structure for the movie. And I think we were aware of all those things but leaving them somewhat unarticulated.
The trip to Paris was one of my favorite moments because it felt entirely authentic. You make this grand gesture to do something out of the ordinary or go somewhere exciting to escape your problems or yourself but these things inevitably stay with you no matter where you go.
That’s true, and I always liked the idea that what in another movie would have been the right thing at the right time, like she meets somebody or it would change her life, that it would be the exact opposite of that.
She goes all the way to Paris and is late for Puss in Boots.
We had the Paris idea fairly early. But what made Paris and allowed us to keep it and put it in the film was discerning that Sophie would call her then. Initially it was just a funny idea but we needed to find the story there too. I think that helped land it for us.
With all your films you seem to want to expose the extraordinary details of everyday life in a way that we normally wouldn’t perceive them in our own memory—taking the slightest of moments and bringing out the tenderness or absolute sadness. As a director is that a theme you find yourself returning to?
I’m interested in how psychology becomes behavior. Takes Frances. What she accomplishes at the end of the movie, out of context, is relatively minor in that she takes a desk job and she finds an apartment. But in the context of the movie, it’s kind of heroic. And, to some degree, it’s always trying to find the context for these things, these little movements we make in life. Like the end of Greenberg, where he goes and picks her up at the hospital, this sort of little thing for these characters means a lot. I’m always thinking of those things as cinematic and big and I see no reason why they shouldn’t be.
Something I admired about Frances was that she wasn’t disillusioned. I feel like that’s something rare in the portrayal of women in New York nowadays. Even when things were at their worst she wasn’t depressive or bogged down. Rather, she understood that, okay for now this is the shitty situation I’m in, but it’ll pass. And because she didn’t use that disillusionment as a crutch, she was able to have her heroic ending.
And that was clear to me, that our job as filmmakers was to protect her because she was so open. I wanted to reward her too, because she was making these movements and I thought that the movie should reward her both with the cinema of the movie as we’re watching it, but also even in the ending. It always just felt very clear to me that she should get her moment.
Now, this might sound stupid, but there’s a Beckett quote that reminded me of the movie—
This sounds smart.
We’ll see. He says "That’s the mistake I made … to have wanted a story for myself whereas life alone is enough." And that reminded me of this because it seems by the end Frances learns that she can just live and be and especially in terms of her friendship with Sophie they have this story that they tell each other, and by the end they realize that their friendship can work but real life does get in the way.
I wish I had that Beckett quote handy in a lot of interviews because I’m always stumbling around trying to say that exact thing. That’s a really good one. I think that’s absolutely true.
How was it, for you, returning to these similarly aged and similarly-minded characters as that of Kicking and Screaming? Now that you’ve had more time to reflect on that period of your own life, how do you perceive this time different and what did Greta, being someone that age, bring to it?
Well Greta was really my entree into that age group. So I wanted the movie to be about her character. Although I had a different trajectory than Frances, when I was 27 or 28, that was the period—I didn’t know it at the time—but I was about to go through great change, sort of professionally but more significantly, emotionally and psychologically. I went through a transition at that time in my life and I think I let go of a lot of ideas I had for myself that I thought would be true, or ideas of how I thought I would be, and it was difficult. It was heard to let go of those things. But I also think that life and in experience since then, is a return to those moments—you become more ware of them and there are other events that are clearer transitions. But all this is to say that I relate very strongly to that period in time and that age. So I didn’t think twice about it or think very consciously about it, it was more oh this is very interesting to me.
Having the star of your film as the co-writer, does that make being on set much easier because Greta knew Frances inside and out?
Yeah, although essentially it’s the same. For Greta, in the same way I’ve always co-written everything I’ve directed, there’s some compartmentalization that goes on when I go to direct my own script. I somehow always have trouble remembering the lines even. I almost have kind unconscious amnesia, while also knowing at the same time that I do know this material so well, but I never take that for granted. There are times when I’ve taken it for granted and realized, you know even though I wrote this, I need to actually dig deeper as a director and figure this out better. And Greta I think went through something similar, both as a writer and an actor. When she was in it, she was so present as an actor that she could forget lines just the way she could forget lines if she hadn’t written them. And she might take time to find a moment as she might anyway, and that was the best way for it to be because that’s what you want from an actor—you don’t want them too prepared. Or at least, I don’t anyway, I don’t like when actors have it figured out. I like to figure it out with them.
What really held the film together was this love story between Frances and her best friend. That’s rare to see in this sort of woman’s self-discovery movie. She has these small romantic possibilities, but they’re of no consequence, and when she finally has that magical moment she so desired, it’s with Sophie.
We were aware that the normal assumption might be when she has that monologue at the party about wanting this moment with someone, the audience assumption would be that this would be with a guy. So we knew that we were giving it to her and Sophie, and maybe that would be a pleasant surprise. But it really came in the best way, it came very organically out of the character and the age and that time, because that was the central relationship and the central friendship. So it felt like we had to follow that and really tell that story. Also, Frances as a character has these blinders on, and until this thing is worked out with Sophie—which really means until it’s worked out for herself—she’s not going to accept any other substitutes. That means no other relationships with men and no other friends. But that was just so much of the character, so it was like well, the character’s not going to allow a romance, so weren’t not gong to force one on her.