The enforced uniformity of Noah Baumbach’s perfect coif in triumphant profiles reaching from The New York Times to The New Yorker is deceptive: Its implausible beauty somehow suggests that Baumbach is in competition with his interview partner, cowriter-muse-gf Greta Gerwig, for ownership of his new film Frances Ha. Despite the effervescent charm of Gerwig (who received her own profile piece in New York magazine) nothing of the sort is true—Frances is resoundingly a Baumbach film, and a great one. Shot in lustrous black and white for a song, its story follows a 27-year-old New York dancer (Gerwig) who’s basically trying to get her shit together. Subject aside, it’s an exuberant recovery for the The Squid and the Whale director, whose last two films, Greenberg and Margot at the Wedding, may have been more limited by their A-list trappings than enhanced by them. Shot guerilla-style on the streets of New York, Frances functions as a brash, spirited and veryendearing eff you to big-budget moviemaking; it’s also one of the most unapologetically complex character pieces to come out in recent memory. We spoke to the director about his fixation with authors, our late twenties, and the push-pull of making a life in New York City.
Frances Ha is more stylized than your other films with a great deal of motion. You’ve mentioned the French New Wave, but I’m wondering if any of that has anything to do with Greta Gerwig, who seems to be a very mobile person?
Yeah, I think so. I was conscious of showing Frances in her environment. Partly because the environment and the locations are very much part of the film, and the movie is divided by its different locations. I think also, because Greta is such a great physical actor. She’s very funny, physically, and she kind of puts her whole body into the performance. So I felt it was important—to show her, to show her body. It’s a lot of movement, but it’s not always getting anywhere.
There’s always an writer in your films—Jeff Daniels in The Squid and the Whale, Ben Stiller writes letters in Greenberg, and in Frances, Greta is like an author with her choreography. Is this just a biographical detail that keeps seeping in, or do you feel like stories need these characters?
And Nicole Kidman’s character is also an author in Margot. It’s partly that I grew up with writers and I know a lot of writers, and it might just be a kind of anthropology I’m familiar with, so I’m drawn to it. There’s something interesting to me about people who want to create. There’s a psychology of people who are trying to find their own voices as human beings. I suppose it also works the same way if they’re trying to find their voice, or have another voice as authors, so it’s tied into that too.
People’s late 20s seem to be an area you’ve explored a lot. Do you feel like it still holds fertile ground for you, or are you ready to move on?
Let me think of a way to say it: I think most people for their whole lives deal with the idea of themselves versus their realities—the story they’ve written in their head of their life, and their real life. I think that’s something that keeps coming up. It comes up for healthy people and unhealthy people. I don’t think any of us ever stop contending with that in some way. Obviously in Greenberg, there’s a larger chasm between the story he’s written for himself and the story he’s living.
So you don’t really think of it as being about age, it’s about a certain pivotal moment.
Yeah. But I think when you’re 27, that’s a major moment. It’s one of the first—it can be one of the first major transitions into adulthood. And I think it’s one that you often don’t know is happening. I am interested in that stuff, but I think with Frances, we’re sort of going right to the source. This is where it begins.
Is there something about being in New York that brings a kind of grim urgency to the process of growing up?
I think there is something to New York that does. There’s both the romance of New York, and the history of going to New York to make it. The lure of the city and also the city that can eat you up and spit you out. So there’s that tradition, certainly. I also think, this is something we were very interested in that’s very true right now: the economics of living in New York. We wanted that to be very real and true for Frances. I mean, that also raises the stakes and the urgency. She has to leave because she can’t afford it. It’s played for some comedy in the movie but also it’s a very real concern for her. Many of her decisions in the movie have economic components to them.
Money is very deterministic in New York right now.
New York used to be a place where you could live as an artist. There’s even a line in the movie where Sophie says “All the artists in New York are rich.”
This is obviously Greta’s movie, but talk to me about casting some of the suppporting actors, like Adam Driver.
Adam’s such a force of nature, he’s so good, and he’s great on Lena’s show. He auditioned for me and—I think this is true for Girls as well—there’s a really exciting pool of young New York actors. Almost everybody in Frances auditioned for their roles and it was a real pleasure to see these people and be introduced to all these people. Mickey [Sumner], Mike Zegan, and even people who have small parts in the movie who are really funny, interesting actors, and it reminds me in a way of New York movies that I loved when I was a kid, like Desperately Seeking Susan or After Hours. They had all these great actors from the city, and then you’d start to see them in other people’s movies, and then they became stars. It was sort of exciting to work with these people.
In production, you called Francis “Untitled Digital Workshop,” and the next film you’re working on is still called “Untitled Public School Project,” also with Greta. Can you tell me about how far along you are?
We’re still in the middle of making it. Still shooting. I’m not sure when I’ll be done.
Do you feel good about it?
Oh yeah. I feel really good.