I couldn’t be a bigger fan of Noah Baumbach if I tried. His latest film is a black and white comedy called Frances Ha. Greta Gerwig plays the titular character in the completely charming movie and took a moment to sit down and chat with me at the San Francisco International Film Festival.
Why do you think you are so good at portraying women in different crises.
I don’t know, those are just the parts I get!
You’re good at them!
The thing is, I think most movies are about someone in some sort of crisis and I think most often, movies about women tend to be about identity crises and not national security crises unless it Katheryn Bigelow and Zero Dark Thirty. So I feel like movies about women tend to focus on the emotional and the personal and what happens here, and movies about men tend to be about asteroids.
That’s a little simplified maybe.
Well yeah, but name me one lady movie about an asteroid. You can’t do it. I do think that you tend to have those kind of stories about men. I probably have identity conflicts in my life.
Noah [Baumbach] mentioned kind of a selective amnesia between the time when you wrote the script and when you acted the script. I’m interested in any surprises you experienced when you acted out the things you wrote.
Yeah, I don’t have any ideas for myself acting in something. I get really self conscious and I have really bad ideas, I don’t know why. So I kind of just have to imagine a person on their own in the world without myself attached to it in any way. I don’t know, for whatever reason I need a pretty strict barrier. Then once I’m acting it, I don’t feel like I have this crystal ball about what it means. I think when you write, it’s mysterious in its own way because you’re letting the characters talk to each other and you’re finding out who these people are by what they’re saying and what they’re doing. I often find when I’m writing, I’ll be really surprised by something. Like, I won’t have planned it, you just sort of get in this flow and they’re talking and doing something and then all of the sudden something happens and you’re like, oh my god, that’s what that scene is about–I can’t believe that this is what this is. You don’t even know where it came from. But because of that, you don’t have all the reasons why somebody said something. So as an actor you have to kind of go back and re-justify everything in a way that as a writer you were just, I don’t want to say transcribing something, but you don’t know why their saying it, you’re just transcribing it. As an actor you have to go back and fill out their psychological life behind the words. So it’s different, I don’t know. There are some people who can do both at the same time, but I can’t at all.
This project has been a collaboration between you and Noah and I’m interested in understanding how, in that sort of situation, you decide which ideas to keep and which ideas to throw out.
Mostly we were always on the same page as far as what to keep and what to throw out. I would say there would a couple times when I had more of a preciousness about something because he’s written more screenplays than I have and he’s older. He had more of a ruthlessness with it and he’s much rougher on his writing than I would be on mine, He would just cut, cut, cut and I would have to be like, ‘but…what…I worked so hard and now you’re going to cut it? Oh, god.’ I would have this more juvenile take on it. But the thing with Noah is that he would always say, let’s just try cutting it and see. Then I would look at it and understand that he would be right. Because you don’t miss what’s not there if you never knew it existed and it doesn’t matter how great it was if it doesn’t fit in the movie. I really learned how to cut and rewrite by working with him on this film. I’ve written some plays in college and I’d collaborated on screenplays, but mostly they were like outlines of screenplays and that’s not writing. I learned how to kind of be more heartless about it.
Will anything change in the film between the festival version and what we’re seeing now?
The only thing that changed is that there was a Rolling Stones song that is now a T Rex song. There’s another thing that’s different, at the end, when the credits rolled, in the festival version, it was just sounds of New York, kind of silent. I always lobbied for a song, I thought, we need a song! People want to walk out of a movie theatre with a song and Noah was like no, it should be austere, the movie happened, and then it ended, and its over. And then he was like, okay. So he put Modern Love Comes Back On and it was perfect and great. I feel like I’m always more on the end of pushing the schmaltzier version and Noah says we’re not doing that and I counter with, maybe just a little bit?
I was curious about that because some people see the festival circuit as an unofficial test screening process.
Oh no no no. By the time we went to festivals, that was the movie. And the only reason we changed the Rolling Stones song was that we didn’t get the rights. We had a festival license and they wanted too much money. And then they were all like, okay we won’t ask for that much money, we just want to be paid more than everyone else. And we were like, no. We were like, what do you care if you get our $5,000, I mean, T Rex is great in the movie. And David Bowie was so amazing, he let us use his song. I mean we paid, but not as much as he could charge for that song. But it was in the trailer and it’s really great when musicians lend themselves to movies in that way. If I were a musician, I would want to do that.
I’m interested in your collaboration with Noah and how that relationship evolved from a true collaboration while writing, and then to a director/actress dynamic on the set where Noah was boss.
I really like giving myself over to a director when I’m acting. I like to know who’s in charge and who I’m doing it far. For me, there was no residual feeling of, ‘but I want to direct it, too.’ Because I was in every single scene, it wasn’t like I ever felt like I was giving him this thing we made together and he was going to do what he wants with it. It was like, I was there every step of the way. He would show me the frame and ask what I thought about it and I would tell him if it looked good, that sort of thing. I was participating in every moment. I was with it for every second it was living. But I don’t have an issue with directors being directors. I like that. I like the hierarchy of film sets. They’re sort of like ships. You need to know who is in charge and who is making decisions. Otherwise they don’t function very well.
Is the ending of the movie kind of sad? I know that Frances grows up and she gets this job and its great, she’s even able to be creative at that job. But even the title kind of refers to when she finally gets her own place and her name is cut off.
I probably have a reconstructed memory of the day that we came up with that, of putting the name in the mailbox and having it get cut off. It felt really great to figure that out, because we thought that was a great shot. We knew, sometimes you just know, oh yeah, that’s pretty nice. And we were feeling pretty self-congratulatory about it. But I think part of it is that it is not the end of her growth. She’s not done. This was just part of it. Yes, she’s grown up in these ways, yes she’s achieved these things. But it’s not like this is it. There’s this literal reading where she’s still not grown up enough to go down and measure how long her name card she be, she’s just going to do it, and then go put it in. Which is still very Frances. There is a melancholy to the movie. I think that’s just embedded in her moving out of this moment with Sophie and her giving up on certain dreams to have certain other realities. Despite her triumphs, there’s a sadness to it. I feel sadness for Frances and Sophie that they won’t ever be the way they were again. But mostly it is upbeat.
Have you had that specific sort of friendship that has changed because of adulthood.
I have a lot of close girlfriends who I’ve been privileged to share my life with since college. I’ve gone through a lot of those transitions. The friendship between Frances and Sophie is kind of an amalgamation of a few different women whom I love. But we didn’t set out to make a movie about female friendship at all. We didn’t know what we were making. It kind of revealed itself to us while we were writing. Frances just kept circling back to these friends. We had this early scene, we liked the breakup scene with the guy and the cats. We liked the idea that there was this misdirect in it where you think that’s going to be who you follow, this is the relationship you’re going to invest in and then actually, it is this girl on the phone. There’s that thing, this feeling, the heterosexual relationship takes dominance and then it doesn’t. So I think in some funny ways, we wanted to follow the voice on the phone, but we had written the other scene first and we thought, “Who’s on the phone? What’s happening there?” And then we followed that voice on the phone. It really came out of that. We didn’t intend for there not to be, but there’s no kissing, there’s no boy/girl anything in the movie. That just wasn’t the story we were telling. But that wasn’t our thesis statement, we didn’t set out saying, no kissing! Only lady friendships! That was the story.
Could you list three films about friendship that you like and why?
I think there’s lots of films about friendship for men, and I think there are very few films about friendship for women.
How about female friendships specifically?
Girlfriends by Claudia Weill. It’s a movie from the seventies that’s really great. She’s in it, and a really young Christopher Guest is in it. It’s a really great movie. Noah showed it to me and I thought, “Why aren’t there more movie like this?” There’s a movie called Career Girls by Mike Leigh which I think is really good. I like Clueless. There aren’t that many. It’s slim pickings.
There are much more female friendships depicted on TV these days.
Oh yeah, 100% more.
Why do you think that is?
Because there are more female show runners than female directors. That’s a really simply reason, but it’s really just true. There are more women writers, directors, showrunners on television than writers, producers and directors who are women in film. So I think inevitably that’s where the stories go.
What parts of the script are autobiographical, and if none, what did you find most appealing about playing Frances, what did you relate to?
There are definitely autobiographical things in it. A lot of the broad strokes are totally made up. I was never a modern dancer. I grew up in Sacramento. My parents live in Sacramento. Those are my parents in the movie. Those things are part of my life. That’s my dog, my parents really do bring the dog to the airport when they pick me up and I wanted to put that into something because they’re so sweet about it. I love Sacramento. Getting to photograph there was great. We moved a whole production crew from New York to Sacramento And also to Paris! People were like, oh you shot in Paris! And Sacramento….” It’s a world traveling movie! But, yeah, that was definitely part of me. It’s kind of like making a cake. You put eggs in, but you I couldn’t really tell you where they are, they’re just mixed in. Sometimes you’ll use something that you know, or something you’ve said, or something someone else said, or I’ll write it in a scene, then Noah will get the scene and expand on it and then it becomes something else. Then it becomes both of ours. Then I’ll go back and edit it and sometimes you even lose the thing that was the inspiration and then you just have the fiction that was spun out of it. But you know the inspiration was there in the beginning, but that’s not what you end up with. I don’t know, it’s like a lot, and none.
Which of your films do you feel is the most underrated?
Underrated? Probably Damsels in Distress? I love that movie. I mean, I don’t know if it is underrated. I try not to read reviews so, I think people liked it. I’d say it under-performed. It definitely under-performed. But I really loved it. I thought it was so weird and so fun and so unlike anything else. I feel like his films find their audiences so I’m not too concerned long term. I think if you make a good film, people will find a way to see it.
Is there one question you wish journalists would stop asking you?
I’m not going to tell you that. That’d be like giving you a rapier.
I want to go back to the ending. Frances’ experience is kind of meandering, almost directionless. But if I had to give it a direction it would be down, but the ending felt upbeat to me. So there’s definitely something different going on in the final moments of the ending. What do you imagine happened to Frances between her time at Vasser and her return to New York?
I think her time at Vasser was really hard. We talked about this, she was really cast out into the wilderness. The first shot of that section is the woods and then she kind of appears. That’s how she feels, this tiny figure who’s lost. I think with Sophie that night and her wanting it to go in this direction and then it didn’t, it went in another direction. I think it’s that thing, it’s not rock bottom, she’s not like destroyed. But I think when she’s chasing the car and she looks down and realizes she has bare feet, that’s when she thinks, “I am not taking care of myself, I’m not protecting myself.” And I think my imagination is that she starts to rebuild. She calls Colleen and says you know what? I’m going to take that job. She lives with friends until she can get enough cash together. She starts putting her life together in a way that’s more practical.
But those are compromises.
I think those are compromises only if you live in a delusional world. The thing we wanted to do in the movie was to have Frances take a look at these things she thought were curses and accept them as gifts. Accept the day job, accept what’s around you. And then we wanted the movie to reward her for doing that. For her, accepting reality, then the movie will take care of you. She was like my child, she came through for me, so I came through for her.