Noah Baumbach Talks His Intensely Charming ‘Frances Ha’

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.

Ed Burns Comes Home With ‘The Fitzgerald Family Christmas’

When The Brothers McMullen premiered at Sundance in 1995, Ed Burns was just an aspiring filmmaker fresh out of school—eager to succeed but adamant about preserving his vision and telling the kind of stories that he’d like to see. And now, seventeen years after his debut feature, Burns has built a name for himself and career that’s not only admirable but allows him to side-step between the worlds of Hollywood actor and micro-budget indie filmmaker. As the writer, director, and star, his first few films told the stories of tight-knit working-class Irish-American families in New York—dramas that always felt both intimate and familiar while having a unique edge that came from someone just on the cusp of success. And in the years since, between acting in films like Saving Private Ryan and (most recently) Alex Cross, Burns has taken his own films in a slightly different direction as his own life progresses. But with his latest effort, The Fitzgerald Family Christmas, he takes us back to the world of his earlier films, reminding us what made us first fall in love with him as a filmmaker.

Set during the holidays, The Fitzgerald Family Christmas brings Burns back together with the wonderful Connie Britton and Mike McGlone, as part of an ensemble cast that weaves together the lives of adult siblings grappling with the relationship with their estranged father who has returned home for the first time since he walked out on the family 20 years ago. As the film unfolds, emotions are challenged, family dynamics are examined, and the possibility for forgiveness begins to show. For the characters, it’s a film about coming home; but for Burns, this film also feels as if he’s returned to his roots. It seems he’s traveled back to a place where he feels most at home as a filmmaker, delivering one of his best films in years. We sat down with Burns to talk about his cinematic gods, the amazing Connie Britton, and balancing his role as an actor and filmmaker.

Throughout all of your work as a filmmaker, it seems these intimate family dramas are what you’re most interested in working with. Where does that come from for you?
You know, there are those films that you saw in film school when you’re being exposed to all the greats, and for whatever reason there’s at thing sparks you, where you say, okay I want to do that. For me, one of the big films that really got me excited about storytelling was Last Picture Show—less about family, more about those two boys who were great friends, but there are family dynamics in it. It’s a big ensemble dealing with a lot of characters and great themes. There’s also the movie Tender Mercies, which is a small little movie about a tiny family but it has to do with forgiveness and redemption. And so those were two films I remember seeing and got excited about it. Being a Woody Allen fan—Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Husbands and Wives, etc. My stuff isn’t cool or hip or cutting edge, it’s honest. I guess, like a musician when they find their tone and people say you need to own your tone, for me it’s like, when you find your sweet spot. I think I’m most comfortable and I do a better job as a writer and a filmmaker when I stay in that honest place.

So did you always set out to make these kinds of films?
I can remember being at Sundance with the first film and after it turned out to be very successful, you’re at a place where it’s almost like, okay you can do whatever you want to do. And then people are coming at you with, hey you can do this and that, and I didn’t want to do any of it. I’ve never sat down to try and write a blockbuster or even something that’s remotely a money-maker. Speaking to my other influences, they were Woody and Truffaut, my two gods. And any moments I had moments of doubt of, oh should I be chasing that other thing, I would pop in a VHS of one of their films and that’s just what I love. I loved smaller, character studies, and for me, the best films are those that can balance the tone between what I feel most everyday life is like. There’s the real stuff—the heartbreak and disappointment—but also laughter and levity. So when you can balance those two well, then you’ve got the kind of film I love to see. And you know, I guess that’s all I’ve ever aspired to do and I’ve been lucky. Nice Guy Johnny kind of reembraced micro-budget filmmaking, I realized: well I can do this now forever; I don’t have to write a screenplay that needs to make X amount of dollars at the box office, I can just go and tell the small stories I want to make. And now with digital distribution, it’s like if I keep my budget here, I know I’ll make this so I make enough to make the next one and I guess I’m pretty fortunate right now.

This film really feels like are return to the kind of films you used to write. Would you say it’s much different than the last few you’ve made?
Yeah, I purposely wanted to go back to that milieu and these types of characters. I was doing a movie two summers ago with Tyler Perry who had re-watched Brothers McMullen and basically he said, “Look: Those first two movies you made about the Irish-American families were so success, why haven’t you ever gone back there? I think the people that like those two would appreciate that.”

And he’s someone who has kept his audience for so long because of that devotion to his audience.
And that was exactly the point he made. And it’s funny, you know, I never gave any thought to why I hadn’t gone back there until then. I think what it was was  I was afraid of: alright, how can I still write about that place when my life has become so far removed from it? And the other thing was, well, I have these really fun new chapters of my life to explore. But the minute I sat down to write this screenplay—and a good draft usually takes me a good six months— this took six weeks. I think the reason was, I had been sitting on these characters for fifteen years. It just poured out of me because I did not have to, quite honestly, I didn’t have to give any thought to it.

Were they people you knew?
Probably compilations. Some of them are loosely based on some people I know, but to that point, I didn’t have to think about where do they live, where do they drink, how do they think, what do they look like, where did they go to school? All those answers I already had and I think that’s why it came out so quickly.

And why did you choose to make a holiday film? 
I needed a device. I knew I wanted to tell a story of a big family. So I thought, well, how do I get seven adults all under one roof together? What would that device be? And the minute I thought, alright Christmas, then that opened me up to the idea that a lot of major events could be going on and it would remain plausible. Because during the holidays you announce to your family: hey we’re getting engaged, we’re having a baby, we’re getting divorced, or you have those three days when you’re gearing up for the holiday where, oh I’m finally going bring that thing up to my brother about that jerky thing he said. So all of it felt like a good device to make all of these dramatic things more plausible that could happen within a couple of days.

How long were you shooting for? You’re someone who usually shoots pretty quickly.
Sixteen days. We shot a couple days right during the holidays in order to capture as much of the free production value as we could get on any street and then January and then a little bit in February because of Connie’s schedule.

She’s one of my favorite actresses working on television now and I feel as though I don’t see enough of her on film. How was working with her again?
She’s just real. She’s an honest actress. In this film, she’s totally cool playing a woman her age. She is the most generous actress I’ve ever worked with. I have that one scene in the car where I’m kind of venting about the family and it was a tricky scene and since I’ve known Connie forever—longtime friends—I was like, look I might be a little off on this scene, I might need you to be directing me in this so if there’s anything you see where you think, take this down or you need to go a little deeper there. And she was great; she basically held my hand through that scene. And the other thing is just how generous she is, when I first gave her the script it was a smaller part.

Did you write the role with her in mind?
Not originally. Only afterwards when I said, "Hey I’ve got this thing. Take a look at it; if you like it, I promise you we’ll expand it." And she read it immediately and was like, "alright, I know you’re going to do the work to flesh it out but if we can work out the schedule, I’m in." We were very lucky to have her.

Is it hard to juggle having a hand in every aspect of the filmmaking process?
There are always scenes in any film that I’m going to need a couple extra sets of eyes on me, the actor. And fortunately, I have my producer, Aaron Lubin whose been with me since Sidewalks of New York and Will Rexer my DP for seven films now so those guys, before we start shooting we identify: okay, here are the five scenes where we can’t leave you on your own. But as far as the difficulty of it, when I’m a kid in film school, I make my very first short black and white silent film, I’m too intimidated by the kids in the theater department to ask one of them to be in the film because I don’t know how to direct and so I put me and my friends in the movie and I get the bug. So every little film I made and when I made McMullen, it’s kind of all I’ve ever know. So yeah, it’s hard but I wouldn’t want to do it any other way.

As a filmmaker, you make these micro-budget films but as an actor you tend to be in these big Hollywood blockbusters or dramas—do you try to find a balance like that in your work?
It’s kind of a very fortunate position to be in. It’s like my passion is my filmmaking, I love making these small movies and will never give it up. But I’m very lucky that I can pay the bills by going and acting in these bigger films. The other thing is, by acting in these bigger films I not only get to learn from other filmmakers—both the good and the bad—but it also helps my profile, which helps me get press for my little movies but it gets me new relationships with actors. I love actors, I love to collaborate with them.