New York writer-director Noah Baumbach has enjoyed some fruitful collaborations with daring actresses, from Laura Linney in his 2005 breakthrough, The Squid and the Whale, to Nicole Kidman and his then wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh, who played sisters in Margot at the Wedding, to Greta Gerwig who piled on the kilos to play Ben Stiller's homely girlfriend in Greenberg.
I wanted to make a movie with Greta again and I wanted her to be funny
Gerwig is now the star and co-writer of Baumbach's new movie, Frances Ha. The film marks a milestone for the pair as it's their best and most popular effort in their respective careers. Clearly they are in synch and it's no surprise that they have become an item – even if neither were admitting it during their interviews at the Berlin Film Festival.
Starting out in the Mumblecore school of no budget filmmaking, Gerwig may have appeared in the Hollywood studio movies No Strings Attached and Arthur, yet it's in the independent realm where her talent lies. She also was a standout in Whit Stillman's Damsels in Distress.
Baumbach too has ventured into the Hollywood mainstream, writing screenplays for Fantastic Mr. Fox (with his friend Wes Anderson, after they'd co-written The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) and Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted featuring Stiller, whom he'd first met on Greenberg.
Baumbach met Gerwig too when he cast her in Greenberg. Since Frances Ha, they have filmed a very low budget untitled movie starring Gerwig as a dauntless New York striver and co-starring Lola Kirke, the younger sister of Jemima Kirke, who plays Jessa on HBO's Girls. Baumbach and Gerwig are also developing an animation for DreamWorks about a woeful dog. Gerwig reportedly dropped out of Baumbach's still-to-be filmed bigger budget Stiller vehicle, While We're Young, where Amanda Seyfried will now appear alongside Naomi Watts and Adam Driver, also from Frances Ha and a regular on Girls.
In some ways, Baumbach, the son of a Jewish father, novelist and film writer Jonathan Baumbach, and former Village Voice critic Georgia Brown (their divorce provided the genesis of The Squid and the Whale), is the heir apparent to Woody Allen. Like Allen, he has a sprawling Fifth Avenue apartment and with France Ha shoots in black and white as Allen had done with his New York-based films, 1979's Manhattan and Broadway Danny Rose (1984).
Can you talk about your various influences and homages in Frances Ha?
A lot of the same movies that have influenced Frances Ha have influenced my other movies. It's just that they are clearer here. Maybe I was just clearer in revealing them and I think the other thing that happens is when you are shooting in black and white suddenly you are thinking of other black and white movies.
The film is an homage to Woody Allen.
Yeah, of course shooting in black and white I was thinking of Manhattan and Broadway Danny Rose. The whole idea of this movie is I wanted to shoot it as beautifully and as elegantly as possible and those movies are photographed so that it's like the gold standard for black and white photography. Of course, it's a whole way of looking at New York so those films were always in my head in some way.
Who shot this film?
Sam Levy. We hadn't worked together before but we did a lot of tests before we set out to do it. I really had to figure out if we could shoot it digitally in black and white.
Using the latest technology for an old format is interesting.
Yeah, but digital is kind of where we are. Someone asked me what I prefer but it's like I don't have a choice anymore. We are beyond film; it's done. You can do it but it's over.
There is also an homage to Leos Carax's 1986 movie, Mauvais Sang, which uses the same David Bowie song, 'Modern Love', in a similar scene.
We had written the scene just to kind of demonstrate Frances' exuberance and joy and it seemed like a great way to start a new chapter of her life with her kind of running at the city. So when I was looking at it in the editing room – because I've always loved that sequence from Mauvais Sang – I thought I've got to look at getting Modern Love.
Was it difficult to get the Bowie song?
No, I have to say he was so cool about it. I didn't speak to him directly but they gave it to us so it was within our budget. Everyone who participated in this movie, from the actors to the crew to anyone whose music is in it, went along for the ride in the spirit of how we made it.
As with Greenberg, you seem to have an interest in characters who are in limbo.
Yeah, I guess I do. Or people who are in transition. I think with Greenberg, because he is older, the alarm is ringing a little bit louder. It's becoming hard to sustain this persona that he has developed for himself. He has never gotten over disappointments from his 20s. Whereas Frances – which I think is why this movie is more a comedy – is doing the more difficult work in her 20s. She is figuring out how to both maintain her spirit and her romantic view of the world and also to live a practical life. I cared too much about the character; I wanted her to be able to preserve both. I wanted her to have her fantasies and I wanted her to also adjust. I think that's what's heroic about her in the movie.
What is it that interests you about women so much?
I don't know. I like women. For this movie it was really Greta, I wanted to make a movie with Greta again and I wanted her to be funny. I think she is very funny in Greenberg but the context is different. Frances is a great comic character and it was a way for her to do something physically, verbally. I wanted to give her that space and that was the initial impulse to make the movie. So the rest of it came from there.
Usually you write your own material or you write for other directors. Why did you choose to work with an actress this time?
It really just came about that way. When I suggested we even just think about what we might do together, I asked her to write down things that are interesting to her about being a twentysomething in New York. Very kind of general, and she just wrote all these ideas and notes and sent them to me and I thought they were inspiring. I could see what the movie could possibly be and so then I started commenting and responding. We weren't in the same city, so we'd just send ideas back and forth and then we started to build the script so we ended up writing together organically. It wasn't like a planned thing.
How different is writing with Greta than with Wes Anderson?
It's like having a conversation with one person or another person. They are great collaborators and the difference here is that I'm writing for a movie that I'm going to direct, so I'm overseeing it as a director at the same time. Whereas with Wes, it's very clearly going to be for him to direct, so I'm there to make it the best thing it can be, but something that I know he feels he can make or wants to make.
Why is there an absence of sex in the film?
It wasn't like we were deliberately not including a love story. We kind of realised when we were done that there wasn't one. We both retrospectively were proud of that because the movie really is about Frances figuring it out for herself and finding her own place in the world and not being saved by anybody. That seemed cool.
You are depicting a bohemian New York when the city is now so expensive.
A lot of this movie takes place in Brooklyn because that's where people can afford to live. Frances lives in Chinatown because you can maybe find a place that's affordable and live with two guys. It's still there, but it's in different places. I grew up in Brooklyn with the fantasy of living in Manhattan. Now I do and everyone has moved back to Brooklyn.
So you feel like a rich guy being able to live there?
But you have your own place? You don't have roommates?
Not at my age. (Chuckles – he's 43, Gerwig turns 30 on August 4 and Jason Leigh is 51.) I am part of the one per cent that they talk about in America. I am lucky that I have a career where I can make some money so I can live in Manhattan and I have great creative friends who also make money. It's not that rich people are automatically bad.
What is While We're Young?
People talking in rooms. Like everything I do.
Watch 'Frances Ha'
Monday 30 March, 9:30pm on SBS World Movies (streaming after broadcast at SBS On Demand)
Director: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Greta Gerwig, Adam Driver, Mickey Sumner, Michael Zegen
What's it about?
Frances (Gerwig) is a gangly 20-something who lives in New York, but is perennially broke, unfocussed and prone to mildly self-destructive behaviour. An apprentice for a dance company, Frances is also a klutz, but that does not stop her from chasing her dreams. From Noah Baumbach, writer/director of The Squid and the Whale and Marriage Story.