Noah Baumbach & Greta Gerwig elevate the ordinary with their intimate portrait of the funny, confused, and all too human Frances Ha.
Written by Rob Feld
(May 24, 2013)
You know Frances. Or you probably did in your 20s. She’s an exuberant girl with high aspirations; smart, if emotionally stunted, propelled through her days by her own pixie dust. In ways she’s a tragic figure; confused and all too human, with a potential for many cats in her future. With great empathy and humor, this is the portrait Noah Baumbach co-penned with Greta Gerwig for Frances Ha, with Gerwig in the title role.
The story follows Frances as her best friend, roommate, and until now, co-dependent, Sophie, starts looking for the semblances of adult life, getting serious with her boyfriend and moving out of their apartment. Nowhere near ready for such growth herself, broke and still hoping for a membership in a dance company which is clearly not forthcoming, the separation leaves Frances wounded and in shock. The script follows her through a series of subsequent residences, on a kneejerk trip to Paris and even back home to Sacramento, as she flails about while standing still.
As such, Frances Ha fits perfectly into Baumbach’s oeuvre of intimate portraiture of highly flawed people, which derives such great humor from their awkwardness and maladjustment. Baumbach has worked with many co-writers for projects he was to direct, and Gerwig’s authorial voice plays naturally with his, as did her acting voice when she performed in the film Baumbach co-wrote with Jennifer Jason Leigh, Greenberg. The continually successful results speak as much to Baumbach’s consistently growing and identifiable sensibility, as it does to his keen choice of collaborators.
Noah, the core of so much of your work is character study, and Frances Ha is no different. Did you start from a character place or is it a notion that strikes you before you find a character to tell that story?
Noah Baumbach: This one started with Greta [Gerwig] as an actor; who would Greta play and what would be something to put at the center of this movie? The initial notes we had were both character and milieu, which could almost go to many different characters, but somehow started to add up to Frances. The early notes had stuff about friendship, but there were even ideas about romantic entanglements. We wrote it relatively chronologically, so the breakup scene with Dan in the beginning of the movie, in retrospect, was kind of us saying goodbye to that plot line. Greta is so funny, and I felt like we had a real opportunity to do something joyful and funny while also staying true to some kind of authenticity.
Photo: © 2013 IFC Films
Mickey Summer and Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha.
Greta Gerwig: We sent scenes to each other over e-mail because we were often in different cities. We didn’t outline it and say, “These are the characters, this is what they’re going to do, and now let’s write the scenes.” We wrote a ton, saw who the characters were and how they seemed to operate, and what the story was embedded in the scenes. Once we had generated a lot of material, we began beating it out.
You’ve had many writing partners over time, Noah. Was it a similar process? How did Greta’s voice impact this story?
Noah Baumbach: What was initially specific to this one was my desire to work with her again as an actor, and once I started asking her about things that were interesting to her, I found that she had all of these ideas and thoughts that were as exciting to me from an authorial point of view as the idea of what she might do with them later as an actor. I learned early on that I had to follow her and see where this goes. In a way that was different than how I’ve come at other collaborations. The ways I worked with Jennifer [Jason Leigh], often I would write a first pass and then show it to her, and she would help me interpret what I was trying to get at but hadn’t yet gotten to. She was great at that and a great editor. This one was more like, “Let’s write something together, but I don’t know what it is, so let’s start a conversation and see if we find it.”
Greta, have you found that an actor’s training is helpful, or that you utilize it in some way when writing?
Greta Gerwig: Yes. This sounds silly, but as a writer you have to be able to act the parts in your head. I do, anyway. I have to step into the intellectual and emotional viewpoint of each of the people as we’re doing it, and it has to happen at lightning speed because I write scenes very quickly, and edit and shape them very slowly. Working with text as an actor and doing a lot of improv helps with writing because it frees up some part of myself that I feel has access to an unconscious that doesn’t identify as just myself, but as all the voices that exist inside of me. All of which makes me sound crazy. Acting requires you to be aware and unaware of yourself at the same time, and especially in writing, you have to have this balance between knowing and having no idea what you’re writing until you look at it and say, “Okay, now how is this all going to work together?” I’ve never worked something over as much as this script. Learning how to not lose what’s essential about it as you refine it is skill and practice, and it’s scary.
Frances is such a specific character and performance, clearly something tailored to Greta. Could you imagine writing that character without knowing who it was for, and then trying to communicate it?
Noah Baumbach: No, it very much felt like we were writing something as a vehicle for her. She needed to not believe that on some level, because it felt indulgent or interfered with the compartmentalization she needed to write. But I always knew.
Greta Gerwig: I could only write it not thinking about myself doing it. I was really proud of it as a piece of writing, and I worried that I wasn’t a good enough actress for what we had written. There was actually a phone call with my agent and manager about it. They basically said, “Are you fucking stupid?” I know there are people who move easily from writing to acting, but I find them to be different paths.
It feels like the most hopeful ending from you, Noah, in…well, ever. It also touched on a recurrent theme of yours, frustrated people who in their own minds are destined for greatness, while their lives aren’t quite bearing that out. This time, though, there’s a redemption for the perceived non-extraordinary life. Why now?
Noah Baumbach: Yeah, it’s like a romance in practicalism. For whatever reason, it felt clear to me from an early point that Frances should be taken care of, that we should give her a good ending. Knowing Greta would play it was part of it, because she is so available as an actor that I feel the movie needs to rise to her level in some way. It went into every decision: the photography, the music, the framing. Everything was there to elevate and support this ordinary life and make it extraordinary and kind of epic. I also feel like Greenberg has his ending [in Greenberg], and that the movie is the right tone for that character. I feel this movie was the right tone for this character.
How did you think about structuring the trajectory of the narrative? Frances is constant motion while standing emotionally still.
Greta Gerwig: The goal with Noah and his movies, and movies I like, is feeling like there’s an invisible plot. With Frances, there’s a sequence that starts with her getting a tax rebate and ends with her moving in with those boys. One thing leads to another but you don’t feel it as much. You deliberately set these things up but then try to obfuscate them as much as possible. While writing it we would often do this thing of writing the bad, obvious version and then hiding it. The two things we figured out were the love story between Frances and Sophie as the arc we were following. Then we tried to beat it out like a traditional rom-com. At the beginning of the movie Frances has the girl, then loses the girl then tries to get the girl back, then tries to make the girl jealous, then she’s heartbroken, then there’s a will-they-or-won’t-they but you don’t even know really what it is that you’re hoping for. But we really talked about it like a love story.
Noah Baumbach: Psychologically or emotionally Frances isn’t moving, but she’s running, dancing, and physically in different locations in each chapter. Yes, there was this thing going on—we’re always moving but not going anywhere. This is true with some of my other movies too, but with Frances it was about creating the proper context so that when she takes a desk job and gets her own place, it’s a kind of heroic, grand thing. She didn’t marry a prince, but we created the context for that to have the same impact, and that was the challenge. And I guess that’s always the challenge in these stories, making these moments land as hard as somebody getting gunned down, or Butch and Sundance deciding to charge.
The key to which is…
Noah Baumbach: Properly turning psychology into action so it feels true. It’s creating a vivid enough character in Frances, and Greta’s performance elevating it further; obviously Frances taking that job wouldn’t feel satisfying if it didn’t feel like something that character could do. With Greenberg, for instance, there were things that I felt Greenberg couldn’t do yet. That might have frustrated people, but I felt that it was true to who that person was.
Tell me about structuring the conflict between Frances and Sophie—it’s in many ways about their friendship, and it drives the movie, but Sophie is absent a great deal, too.
Noah Baumbach: Once we had the idea of breaking the movie up into chapters and addresses—which was a great discovery in the writing because it both gave the structure for the movie but also informed a lot about who Frances was—the next challenge was creating a through-line through what was, on the face of it, a more episodic structure. I think the challenge of the Sophie thing was to find out when she would reappear. For instance, when Frances travels to Paris (which was initially just a funny idea and something I was trying to justify), it really wasn’t until we came up with the idea that Sophie would call her while she’s there, and be ready to make friends again when Frances is not available to her, that it was made worthwhile. She’s there but not there.
Greta Gerwig: Originally the script had a much longer Sacramento section but we had to cut it because it made Sophie go away too much. That was one of the most painful cuts. I was devastated. We kept asking ourselves, “What is Sophie doing? How much does Frances know about what Sophie is doing? How much does Sophie know about what Frances is doing?” With every section, even though there were a lot of other things going on, that was the defining thing for what they were culminating to.
So many of your characters exist in environments where they don’t belong, Noah, and you mine a lot of comedy from the lack of social filter they have. Why that mode or those characters?
Noah Baumbach: I don’t know, really. For this movie, Greta and I both feel like outsiders even when we’re not, and we’re able to relate to that in Frances. With Greenberg, it was because I was spending more time in LA, and I felt like an outsider there. I suppose there are some people who really feel like they belong where they are, maybe one or two, George Clooney and Michael Jordan. But for the other 98 percent, I feel more like them.
Greta Gerwig: Noah is one of the people making films that are about psychologically complex people. He doesn’t give characters token flaws. He makes them truly flawed in ways where they really would be better if they were not that way, which is something very few filmmakers do because it’s both alienating to the audience and totally recognizable to them, which is probably why it’s alienating. We are so used to narrativizing our lives like, “But eventually it works out” and “But that decision led to something good.” Noah has the courage to write characters where bad decisions tend to be bad decisions. That’s painful to confront, but it’s totally fulfilling as an actor. I love watching movies like that.