Dialogue: Noah Baumbach on Creating One of This Year's Indie Gems, 'Frances Ha'

Dialogue: Noah Baumbach on Creating One of This Year's Indie Gems, 'Frances Ha'

May 16, 2013


The way a Noah Baumbach film unfolds entails how you can expect an interview with the director of indie darlings like Kicking and Screaming, The Squid and the Whale and Greenberg to transpire: precise and thoughtful, yet still utterly vulnerable and personal. Baumbach is a New York City-bred filmmaker with a sensibility much like the metropolis that raised him - every conversation about his film is direct, and every question must be stated in a way that fosters its forward momentum.

In that vein, it's interesting to be a New York lady of a “certain age” speaking to Baumbach about his latest film, Frances Ha ,which was cowritten with his lead actress Greta Gerwig (who also happens to be -- like her character Frances -- a New York lady of a “certain age”). He's almost inhumanly patient in the face of one's waxing poetic about how close the material -- about a haplessly happy-go-lucky 27-year-old wannabe dancer flitting from one apartment to the next while attempting to maintain her close friendship with newly boyfriended BFF Sophie (Mickey Sumner) -- comes to one's own struggles to balance societal and personal expectations with a sense of inherent responsibility and carefully cultivated identity.

This observational quality clearly comes from a place of innate understanding on Baumbach's part -- everyone watches a film differently, and the best movies are made to elicit a myriad of reactions. Frances Ha is a love letter to its city and characters – a New York classic on par with Woody Allen’s Manhattan, it’s a relentlessly positive film in the face of endless adversity. It refuses to defect from its idyllic state of sunny tree-lined Manhattan streets and brightly candle-lit downtown bars, instead allowing its players to inhabit darkened corners of their own making. And even amidst their turmoil, there’s an omnipresent spotlight shining – it deftly treads the line of good-natured tone and realistic scenarios with a nostalgic, inherently charming childlike outlook.

That duality is what makes Frances Ha so refreshing -- it's a film with fresh, funny dialogue, crackling chemistry and relatable characters that doesn't seek to simply be a punch line. There is something truly self-made about this film, in both essence and experience. We spoke to Baumbach about Frances Ha while he was promoting the movie in his hometown, and the conversation led to some fun specifics about the film’s pop music soundtrack and possible tie-in's with further Baumbach-Gerwig collaborations.

Movies.com: This movie feels like the kind that never ceases to come at just the right time. If that makes sense.

Baumbach: Yeah!

Movies.com: That can be attributed to the fact that you and Greta wrote it together, and she came at it from the perspective of being in it and you came at it from the perspective of experience.

Baumbach: Yeah, although I think once we got into it… she could provide perspective and I could kind of get in the moment. I think, you know, over the process of writing a script…y ou both end up doing everything.

Movies.com: We imagine that writing a script with a partner, basing the material on personal experiences, can be sort of like mixing memories in absurd fashion. Like – you get to a point where you go, "No - that's my memory!" "But wait, you’re wrong, that one was mine!"

Baumbach: Right, yeah. And I think when it goes well, there is some kind of amnesia -- you don't remember who brought what to the table.

Movies.com: You and Greta are currently filming a New York-based movie you also cowrote. Is it a counterpart to Frances Ha?

Baumbach: It's another New York movie and Greta's in it, but it's hard to know until later what the relationships are between things. The movie I made before Frances, Greenberg, I wasn't thinking about in any kind of real way, but then it's pointed out to me later that the movies could be kind of compassion pieces in some way. And so I think I don't really know while we're doing it. Certainly we weren't going to do something that in any obvious way was like Frances, so we were -- different story, different characters. But we'll find out later, I guess.

Movies.com: How did you arrive at the stylistic choice of this film being in black and white? 

Baumbach: Initially I just wanted to shoot a black-and-white movie -- it was nothing more profound than that. It's beautiful, but... again, I suppose, now looking at it, I think that because the material was so contemporary, and the character felt very modern. And also, there's a real kind of intimacy about the way the story was told, that I felt like the black and white would complement it. It would bring a kind of feeling of nostalgia to something that's happening right now. And I think I also wanted to provide the character with a kind of big, cinematic experience. Like, that Frances merited that. That even though the struggles or the things she's going through are more quotidian or everyday that we would be seeing it in the context of movies. And that's why the music's big and romantic, too, and the pop songs are big. I wanted it to kind of celebrate her, in a way.

Movies.com: You mention the music, and David Bowie's "Modern Love" sticks in ones head.

Baumbach: It's a good song to have stuck in your head!

Movies.com: It's a great song! But it's also the money song in this film -- in more ways than one. How did you arrive at this particular piece as being the seminal bit for your movie?

Baumbach: We partly thought of the movie as a pop song, like a movie pop song. And that it would have that feeling of when it was done that you'd maybe just want to play it again. And this song felt like the character to me, I guess. I remember when I first heard that song, I was…12, or something? I got the record and I think I'd only heard the "Let's Dance" song -- I hadn't heard "Modern Love" yet and it was the first song on the record, and I kind of went out of my head. I kept playing it over and over again. So I think, maybe in the past -- because it's a song that was so well known and sort of in the air so much that I felt like I wasn't going to use something that iconic -- but I felt like with this movie, it could hold it. You wouldn't want something more obscure. You wanted something that you had all these associations with, potentially. And it just feels so good!

Movies.com: So have you had "Modern Love" in your back pocket all this time? Were you just waiting to pull it out at the right moment?

Baumbach: No, I think, if anything, I was probably thinking I wouldn't use it, because for me it was sort of such a hit that I felt maybe it had been played a lot and has maybe been in other movies. But there's something about the character and about Greta that almost provoked sort of an almost generosity on my part that using that song felt like, "Who cares if people have heard this a million times? Let's just do it!"

Movies.com: The lyrics of the song also make pretty perfect sense when it comes to what Frances is dealing with.

Baumbach: Right - that's true, too!

Movies.com: Looking into the future, it seems like your next film, While We're Young, is a bit of a melding of what you've learned so far: where you're at and what you're wistful for.

Baumbach: That's about how I go about my life! [Laughs] Wistful is, uh, yeah. I think that's true. And true about that movie.

Movies.com: Is it true that you averaged 35 takes per scene for Frances Ha?

Baumbach: [Laughs] I wouldn't say that was the average, but we did do, for the major scenes, it wasn't like 35 takes of someone picking up a glass, but for big scenes we did do a lot of takes, yeah.

Movies.com: Is that par for the course for you?

Baumbach: No.

Movies.com: Or is it because you were a bit more covert in shooting Frances Ha that you had more control and could take the time to get a scene just right?

Baumbach: Yeah, I kind of found a way that I would have more time, and that allowed me to do that.

Movies.com: Have you found that you prefer this guerrilla-style, low budget and mostly autonomous method of Frances Ha's shooting to others, or vice versa?

Baumbach: I think it was the right way to make this movie. The approach kind of varies per movie. You couldn't do everything this way. But I definitely loved shooting it the way we did.


Frances Ha hits theaters on Friday, May 17.

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