Interview with Noah Baumbach about Frances Ha
If you haven’t seen Frances Ha yet and are able to do so, go see it. I couldn’t recommend it more, especially if you’re a fan of Noah Baumbach who sat down with me at the San Francisco International Film Festival to discuss the film, co-writing and directing leading lady Greta Gerwig, why he doesn’t want you to ask him if he wants to direct a superhero movie. Check out my interview with Greta Gerwig here.
The script from the film came about from correspondence between you and Greta?
I knew I wanted to make another movie with her. I knew I wanted it to be in New York and in black and white and that’s all I really knew then. I asked her what she was thinking about, what was on her mind. What she thought would be interesting for a movie about a young woman. That was the first document she sent and then it kind of became a discussion through email.
What was it like writing with someone who would eventually be your lead?
It didn’t seem any different to me than usual. The writing came very organically because initially I wasn’t even sure we’d do this, write it together. I was more inquiring to see if she was even interested in this. We just sort of saw it so much the same way, I think the way we write sort of felt very…it was like the same voice. It didn’t concern me one way or the other that she was going to be the lead except for I knew she’d be brilliant in the part.
When you’re collaborating with someone else, especially on a story like this, how do you figure out which ideas to keep and which ideas to throw out in order to keep it condensed into a feature film?
I think there’s always various sorts of points when you’re writing a screenplay where things develop to a point where you can’t keep other things. Often the things you lose are things you really like. With this movie, once we realized we were going to be telling this story through chapters with these addresses, you were sort of limited then that you know everything had to fit in these chapters and the chapters had to be focused and location-driven. In a way it was like creating rules for yourself, if there were other ideas or thoughts or ways the movie could have gone, we knew instantly it would never be able to be a part of this movie.
Once you set that structure, it’s much harder to deviate when something comes up.
Yeah, you’re still obviously trying to create with as much openness and freedom as possible, but once the story starts to take shape, you want to be true to that.
Was it more of a free form process or were there disagreements over plot developments?
There weren’t major disagreement, but we didn’t always agree about everything. We would listen to each other, so if she felt strongly about something that maybe I wanted to cut, I would really listen to her. If I felt strongly about it, I would certainly push back from my point of a view. I think generally in those cases, if it is a good collaboration, the person who feels the most passionate about it wins, because in some ways, you trust that they love the material as much as you do, so if they really want to fight for it, it should probably stay.
How did your writing relationship then transform into a director-to-actor dynamic? Was it difficult to direct an actor who maintains authorship of the story?
It wasn’t in this case at all. This is something I go through with every movie. I have to make some kind of mental shift from writer to director. When I’m directing the movie, of course it helps when I’ve written it, or in this case, co-written it. I still need to approach the material with the rigor of a director, it’s a different job. They’re related, but different. I think Greta did something serious. It’s almost like selective amnesia, you almost forget you wrote it. And I could see that. In the moment, she was playing the part, she wasn’t thinking about writing them. She was thinking about the words coming from the character.
You seem to have an affinity for portraying characters going through some sort of identity transformation, or crisis. Why does this interest you so much?
That’s a good question, I don’t know. I’m often interested in how psychology can become behavior in a movie. If you’re writing about people in transition, or about people who have ideas about their lives or about themselves that aren’t necessarily in line with what experiences are telling them their lives are like, I think that is compelling.
A mismatch between perception and reality.
Yeah, yeah. That’s compelling. I find myself interested in people. Interested in fictional people and in real people. I don’t really know. I don’t intellectualize it when I’m working on it. I just sort of try to follow and make the best work I can with the things that are interesting to me most of the time.
The film is about moving into the final phase of adulthood. What about that transition was appealing to you at this point in your career? Why make this movie now?
Well, really because Greta was 27. Around that time in my life, I went through big changes. I had to make adjustments and I’ve had friends from my childhood to this day who are still my closest friends, and our relationships have necessarily gone through changes because we’ve all had different lives. I was very interested in that sort of almost invisible line between young adulthood and adulthood that you don’t see when it is happening. You really only realize it when you’re on the other side. That’s compelling to me.
What were you doing at 27?
What was I doing? I mean I had a very different experience than Frances. I had made two movies at that point. I was making my second movie, I guess. Essentially, I feel like I was going through the same stuff that Frances went through.
Criterion recently mentioned that your film is going to join the collection sometime soon. With something like that, as the film is slowly rolling out now, are you focusing on supplemental features while the film is coming out or do you deal with that after everything is said and done?
It sort of depends on the release date. In this case, because the DVD is coming out at the end of the year, we are just starting now to think about what the package will be.
What are you hoping to include?
I don’t know yet. We’re just figuring it out. I don’t like commentary, I won’t do that. But we’ll see.
The film shot in a number of places, California, New York, Paris, which is unusual for a film of this size. How do you decide that’s important to the story, that it’s worth investing in?
I knew that the Paris sequence, particularly since it turns out to be such a disaster, that it would be that much funnier if on some level you knew that we actually went there to produce these couple of scenes. So we had to go to Paris. That was planned on very early on. The movement and stasis are such a big part of the subject of this movie. We joke that it’s a road movie where nobody ever goes anywhere. But it is about a character who on one hand doesn’t want things to change, she wants to maintain the status quo with Sophie and stay in the dance troupe with the hope of getting into the touring company. She doesn’t want those things to change, but they are and she can’t stop it. At the same time, she’s moving locations constantly, mostly for economic reasons. It’s important we went to these places, I think it’s baked into the anthropology of the movie and the character.
You’ve said this film is lighter than your other films which was unintentional on your part. Why is that do you think?
It’s not so much unintentional, but I feel like the character, this is the right movie for her. This experience and this time was right for her. Greenburg, which I had made before, he was a different character. That movie was the right universe for him. Frances, I feel, was so full of joy, romance and hope, that it needed to have a happy ending. The movie needed to support her. Not necessarily do the work for her. But we needed to cushion her, support her, and ultimately reward her. I felt very strongly about that. As a result, it’s a joyful, romantic movie. I didn’t think about that in contrast to other things I’ve done, it just happened that the subject merited it.
Do you think it’s side effect of your own personal relationship with Greta?
When I say Frances, I refer to the character, but also to Greta’s performance of the character. I think it would have felt terribly false to get the character an unhappy or harsher ending. That didn’t feel right.
In the production notes, you listed a few directors you looked to for examples of films about young adults, I think you listed Rohmer and Trauffaut, are there specific films you looked to for inspiration?
There were two fold, obviously because we were shooting black and white, we looked at a lot of black and white movies that I liked. Truffaut, we looked at The 400 Blows, Jules and Jim, Shoot the Piano Player. Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s. So we looked at that. But I was also kind of thinking about the stuff they’d done in color in the seventies, Bed & Board, Stolen Kisses. I looked at the tone of those movies, they were both kind of serious and funny at the same time. Rohmer made a ton of movies about young women in Paris that were really good. I didn’t really go back and watch them all, I was just thinking about them. And black and white wise, I was looking at Woody Allen’s movies, Manhattan, Stardust Memories, Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon, The Last Picture Show. Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee, the movies they made in the eighties. In some ways, you pick black and white because it’s rarer, sort of unique to color, obviously. Black and white becomes the visual description of it. But once you start shooting, you realize, there’s a lot of different black and whites, and you have to figure out which is your black and white. That was the reason behind looking at some of those movies, learning how we were going to do this.
You and Greta now have your own animated project at Dreamworks?
Yeah, it is something I’d love to do. It would be something that I direct, so I’d take it all the way to the end.
You’ve spoken about the decision to film in black and white and finding your own aesthetic in that palate, but what really struck me about the film is that the story felt very contemporary, something happening now, today. That felt like an interesting contrast to the black and white so I was hoping you could discuss thematic impact of that choice.
Like you said, it makes something very contemporary immediately nostalgic at the same time. So you kind of get this old and new thing going all at once. It kind of artifacts it completely. It adds a level of pathos to it. What I think it does, and what I wanted it to do (and this is true for Manhattan with the photography and Gershwin music) was to elevate, to take what is every day, New York, neurotic people sleeping with each just figuring it out, what is by mainstream cinema kind of small, and then to place it in a big cinematic context. That’s beautiful. I wanted to do a version of that with Frances, to give her the movie and the romance that maybe she dreamed she would have. Black and white does that, it is so photographic, it’s classic. It’s also how I wanted to shoot it, I wanted it to be elegant and beautiful, not gritty, or indie. I wanted it to have a classical, elegant feel to it.
I’m interested in the musical dimension, the 70s glam song like TRex and Hot Chocolate, and what that conjures up.
Yeah, and then there’s sort of the French New Wave score that comes from the 60s and 70s. I showed the movie to an old friend of mine early one when i first started to show it to people. He said it was almost like every era of black and white for him, the Woody movies, the French New Wave, but also the 80s, Jarmusch, Spike Lee. I think that’s maybe true of the music in it. It evokes an earlier time in cinema with the scores, but also the songs that bring you into the New York of it. Things that are maybe more in a city, like the Bowie song. None of that was really conscious. I just put stuff in it that sounded right. I did think of the movie as a pop song, something you’d watch, and if you could, press play and watch it again. The songs I chose are all those to you, Modern Love is a perfect pop song to me. I remember the first time I heard that song, I just wanted to hear it again immediately.
Which do you prefer, writing by yourself or writing collaboratively?
Really each one is kind of its own thing. I feel like every project becomes clear. I’m at the point now where there are ideas I have where I think, oh, that’d be a great thing to write with Greta. But other things feels much more private, like I should do it by myself and see where it goes. I have no idea about why one or the other, it’s just sort of how it is. Certainly collaboration is much less lonely.
What question do you wish journalist would stop asking?
One question I don’t even understand is, “Would you ever consider doing a superhero movie?” As if I’m doing these films so that I might one day get to make a superhero movie.