An Interview with Noah Baumbach
(with occasional interjections by)
The world premiere of Noah Baumbach’s latest film, Frances Ha, took place on September 1, 2012 at the Telluride Film Festival. The movie, which is in black and white, opened without sound. Was the film black and white and silent?, the audience wondered. Turned out there was some kind of technical hitch in the theater due to the lightning storms that had occurred earlier that week. The film stopped and started again. After a second false start without sound, Baumbach’s voice called out from somewhere in the back of the theater: “How is everyone else’s world premiere going?,” which prompted widespread laughter. The film started again, this time with sound, and everyone settled into their seats, and no one moved for the next ninety minutes. Frances Ha rivets.
Greta Gerwig, who cowrote the script with Baumbach, plays twenty-seven-year-old Frances—half Annie Hall, half French New Wave ingenue—who is trying, mostly in vain, to become a professional dancer. Frances’s character is charming, wistful, stunted, and honest. She has a best friend, Sophie, who’s slowly starting to pull away from her, and a dance teacher who’s breaking the news to her that she’s not really dancer material. Like all twenty-seven-year-olds, she’s figuring out who she is, and the film lets us watch her both stumble and leap—but mostly stumble.
Noah Baumbach is the writer and director of Kicking and Screaming, Mr. Jealousy, The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding, and Greenberg, which also featured Greta Gerwig. He cowrote the scripts for The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Fantastic Mr. Fox. This conversation took place at the Telluride courthouse in front of an audience the day after the premiere. Greta Gerwig sat in the front row, and at some point the microphone was handed to her and she joined in the conversation. Frances Ha will be released this month.
THE BELIEVER: Frances’s character is very different from some of the characters in your other films, like Greenberg, for example, and Margot at the Wedding. Frances Ha just feels more buoyant as a film—or maybe I should say that Frances feels more buoyant as a character—and I’m wondering if it was fun for you to make that change in terms of the main protagonist, and what the challenges were for you.
NOAH BAUMBACH: It wasn’t really very conscious. The movie felt like it wanted to be what it was going to be. And I really wanted to reward Frances for her struggles. So it was never in question that she would have her own victory at the end in some way. Even the other movies, Margot at the Wedding—I thought that was going to be a comedy, and—I keep thinking they’re all comedies, and finally one turned into one.
BLVR: What was the genesis of Frances Ha’s character? She’s lovable but can’t find love; she’s quirky but universal. In some ways, she’s a modern-day Annie Hall.
NB: It was a character that Greta [Gerwig] and I developed together. And it’s funny, because I think when we first started showing it to people, people would remark about the character and things they found interesting or unusual or winning about her. I think we both just intuitively had a sense of who this was going to be. Greta has said it felt like it was someone she had inside her.
BLVR: You’ve collaborated with other artists in the past: you worked with Wes Anderson on Fantastic Mr. Fox, and I’m wondering, what did your days look like when you and Greta were working on this together?
NB: It varied, because a lot of the time we weren’t in the same place. Or she was working or we would send pages back and forth. First we sent ideas back and forth, just things that maybe we would want to consider for this movie—ideas for character or story or wardrobe. Some of them stuck, some didn’t. And once we got writing it, we got some writing done in the same place, and then we did a lot of it virtually.
BLVR: Were there any scenes that you wrote that you were confident would end up in the movie, and you were surprised to find didn’t end up in the final cut, for one reason or another?
NB: Well, a big one was Greta wrote a [he looks at Gerwig in the front row]—I can say this, right?—a whole Sacramento section, like a “going home” section, that was great, and really funny and moving, and when we had sort of the first maybe full draft—it felt too… it was a lot to introduce in the middle of the movie—we were meeting new people—but the instinct I think was right that we wanted Frances to go home, and we wanted that to be a part of the movie, but it was probably fifteen to twenty pages or something? [Looks at Gerwig] Twenty five pages, yeah. We were trying to add a chapter that the movie just wasn’t going to hold. We condensed Sacramento to a feeling of going home when you no longer live there. But if Greta hadn’t written that section, we wouldn’t have been able to distill it in quite the way we do in the movie.
BLVR: What about the decision to make her a modern dancer? Was that something you knew from the beginning, that that was going to be her art form? Had Greta experienced modern dance, or how did that work?
NB: Yeah, Greta had danced and she knew that world in a way that I certainly didn’t, and so that was pretty early on. We knew that Greta could make the dance convincing.
BLVR: I love the fact that the love story in the film is really between two friends and two women. Was there ever the temptation to make Frances have a relationship with one of the boys she meets, or did you always know that she was going to be “undatable,” as she routinely calls herself— was that a surprise to you? Or did you always know that the main love story was going to be between Frances and her best friend, Sophie?
NB: There was never going to be a male romance in the movie; that was never a consideration. It occurred to us after we were done writing that we’d written this sort of sexless movie. But it was always going to be a love story between the friends, a love story that is essentially platonic.
BLVR: And what was it like when you cast Sophie? Can you talk a little bit about that process, and how Greta and Sophie kind of rehearsed to be good friends? Was it instantaneous? As a director, I’m sure you’re almost watching to make sure they’re “bonding,” and I’m just wondering how that worked for you in casting Sophie, who’s brilliantly played by Mickey Sumner, who’s here at the festival, too.
NB: [Chuckles] It’s always a calculated risk when you’re casting people who don’t know each other—or who know each other sort of from around. We auditioned many people to play Sophie, and Mickey had actually read great for Sophie, and also for Rachel, the dancer that Greta tries to recreate the fighting in the park with. And we initially cast her as Rachel because she was so funny, but as we continued to audition, I just kept thinking about Mickey. We hadn’t found anybody, so I went back and looked at Mickey’s original reading as Sophie, and we brought her in with Greta, and we just knew this was the right thing. But, you know, you also don’t know. There’s that thing beyond acting that has to happen, but they became real friends. The whole production had that feeling. It felt like a band or something. Everybody was kind of in a groove and liked each other, and if we didn’t like some people, we got rid of them, and so it was a great way to work.
BLVR: Well, since you brought up the idea of a band, I’m thinking about how in all of your movies music seems so important. In The Squid and the Whale, there’s Pink Floyd. And in Margot at the Wedding, obviously Jack Black’s character is a musician; there’s lots of talk about music. And in Greenberg, you know, he makes mixtapes, and he wants to put on that Duran Duran song, “The Chauffeur.” What role does music play when you’re actually writing and directing a movie, and how much do you know beforehand of what music is going to be used for different scenes?
NB: It depends on the movie. A lot of the time, the music that I’m listening to that inspires stuff in a movie doesn’t actually make it into the movie. With this one, because the movie was black and white, but it was a contemporary movie, I just felt that it was going to use a lot of music. Squid has some score, and I use some songs as score. Margot actually has no score. It’s all source cues. Greenberg has a lot of score, but it’s mostly songs that James Murphy wrote for the movie. And it has the things like “The Chauffeur,” because Greenberg is so much about taste, and about taste defining you, so his musical obsession becomes so important. “The Chauffeur” is a song I really like and I kept trying to jam it into movies, so I was finally just like, I’ll have a character put it on at a party and insist that everybody listen to it. With this one, I felt that it was gonna have—it needed a real score, it felt like it should have something kind of big, something as bold and beautiful and cinematic as the black and white photography. I wanted everything to feel big, romantic, joyful—and to have a movie that’s for Frances, an epic. Initially I thought, Who could I get to score this? So I just started putting in a lot of Georges Delerue music, from Truffaut movies, and some from other movies he’d scored, even ones I hadn’t seen. You know, songs that make you feel good—I just started putting it all in, and it not only worked but really broadened the movie.
BLVR: After watching Frances Ha, I actually went back to my room and re-watched the beginning of Woody Allen’s Manhattan. Something about Frances Ha really reminded me of Manhattan—it’s kind of an homage to that time. It was fun to see that Woody Allen uses Gershwin very heavily in the beginning of that movie to set the tone and the time period. Was Manhattan an influence on this film?
NB: It definitely was influential. Because the black and white is so beautiful in that movie, the Gordon Willis photography, and that music—I was thinking of that, too. If you look at Manhattan sort of clinically, it’s just about people in New York sleeping with each other, trying to get out of their own way and figure out their own crap. But the way it’s shot and the way it’s scored, and because he’s great and she’s great, it does feel like an epic. And it’s such a great way to see the city, too. Sam [Levy], who’s also here, who shot the movie with me—we looked at a lot of black and white movies. We did many camera tests to understand what kind of black and white we wanted and could get. Gordon Willis’s black and white photography has that silvery quality. I mean, his [black] gets very dark. He just let people go totally into shadow, which we do some of, but we also really like the
Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha. Film still courtesy of Pine District Pictures
French new wave black and white—Néstor Almendros— My Night at Maud’s, the Eric Rohmer movie. We looked at The 400 Blows, Shoot the Piano Player, Vivre Sa Vie. I was also thinking of New York movies from my adolescence; early Jarmusch movies: Stranger Than Paradise and Down By Law, where the black and white feels scruffy but elegant. Some color movies, too—there’s a Benoît Jacquot movie called A Single Girl that I love. Mike Leigh’s movies I was sort of thinking about. That’s probably good enough, right? [Laughter]
BLVR: The script felt very literary to me, too. It struck me as a descendent of a novel that I love, Mary McCarthy’s The Group, which is about a group of Vassar women who go to New York—and I’m sure many of you have read it—but they’re all trying to figure out their lives as they get married and work in publishing and date and some move abroad. It seemed apropos because Frances’s character graduates from Vassar. I’m not saying that book influenced your movie, but I wondered, were there any books that you or Greta were reading at the time you were writing the film—or thinking about it or conceiving it—that were more influential than you realized at the time?
NB: I’m embarrassed to say I never read The Group, and I went to Vassar. I haven’t seen the movie, either. There’s a Sidney Lumet movie of it, too. It should have influenced me! [Laughter] Greta was reading this Joseph Conrad book, The Shadow-Line, around that time, and I had actually been introduced to that book through the Philip Roth book Exit Ghost. And Greta was reading it, and Greta’s a great underliner in books. I still have this sort of idea that I can’t mess up a book, that I have to keep it—
BLVR: You wouldn’t write on a movie.
NB: Right, right. I just can’t somehow bring myself to do— it’s for another time. But the book is about being twenty- seven. It’s about the concept of passing through a shadow- line into adulthood. You know, twenty-seven, being that age. Do we have another book?
[Gerwig calls something from the audience.]
NB: Oh yeah, yeah. Also, this Elizabeth Bowen book, The Death of the Heart. I guess [Greta was] reading that, too. Greta was reading books I had read a while ago and didn’t remember so well anymore. So she could say, “This is a great thing from that book.” And I could say, “Yes, yes.” But I’d have no recollection of it.
BLVR: If you’d underlined it—
NB: If I’d underlined, I would’ve remembered. There’s also that Colm Tóibín book—I don’t know if that’s how you pronounce that—Brooklyn. Yeah. The Dud Avocado, too. Elaine Dundy, I think. I mean, she’s a very different character than Frances but is, like, a single girl getting out there in the world and causing trouble.
BLVR: In the dinner-party scene, when Frances is with couples who are a little more mature and settled than herself, I felt like she was revealing to the audience how other people perceive her. It’s a time you really see her in a context with other people. And I love the whole description she expresses to the dinner table: that her whole idea of love is being at a party with someone and not having to talk to them but being able to make eye contact with them from across the room. And if I had thought about it, I would have assumed that by the end of this movie she’s going to make eye contact with another man—a boyfriend—but you totally duped me in a really good way. She ends up having that exchange with her best friend, Sophie. And it’s such a powerful moment. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the genesis of that scene, and that sentiment, and if you knew then that the contact at the end would be between the two friends.
NB: My recollection of it—[looks at Greta] and you can tell me if I’m wrong—is that, um, that you wrote that just anyway.
GRETA GERWIG: What, uh, oh. I’m sort of participating in this? [She is handed a microphone.] No, we had talked about having Frances want something or believe something. I think you just said to me, “Let’s have her want something, or believe something.”
NB: Oh yes, yes. Can I just back up and—oh no, you keep it [the microphone]. And I’m going to catch up to you. There’s an Eric Rohmer movie called A Tale of Winter—and I love this about Eric Rohmer movies, almost all of them have a person who has a kind of either moral or religious, just a kind of general sense about themselves and the world about how they should be and how their life should be. And some people have trouble with those characters because they feel like they’re so stubborn that you want to shake them, but I love them. Often, in the movies, they really do miss out on things, opportunities: they fail to participate in their lives in a way that could really kind of open them up or change them in some significant way. My Night at Maude’s is that. The earlier ones are like that more. The very beginning of A Tale of Winter is this kind of idyllic montage with this beau- tiful blond couple, and they have this summer fling, and, uh, she gives him her number, and she writes it down wrong— like she’s so flustered that she writes her own number down wrong, if I remember it right—and then she goes home and she finds out she’s pregnant, and she has a kid, and the whole movie is kind of her compromised life because she still be- lieves this guy’s going to resurface. And everyone around her thinks she should get realistic—you know, she’s never gotten over it—and you think it’s going that way, and then, oh, I don’t want to give it away. But at the end, she’s on a bus, and he just gets on the bus, and there he is, and she sees him, and she brings him back to her mother, and her mother’s like, “You were right!” I always loved that she was rewarded for sticking with her fantasy. I thought that was really beautiful. When we were writing Frances, I had some idea that it would be great to have something that she believes in that seems kind of… unrealistic, but openhearted. Her dream of being in the main dance company, for instance, is not going to happen, but this one does [the idea that one day she’ll see someone across a room and just make eye contact and they’ll know what the other’s thinking]. And then you—
GG: [Quietly] And so I wrote that. [Laughter] No, I mean, some of the writing process was like that. Noah would say, “I have this idea.” And then he’s like, “Let’s give her a belief, let’s see what that is,” and I think I went off and wrote that speech and brought it back, and I don’t know if it was contained in the idea that that would be the moment with Sophie, but it is how it ended up.
BLVR: Can you talk a little bit about that scene when Sophie and Frances are looking at each other? Maybe I’ll ask you, Greta—it seems like it’d be a really fun scene to shoot, actually. Looking at your best friend in the film and going through all these transformations with your eye contact—do you remember shooting that?
GG: What’s funny is I don’t think Mickey knew when we shot it that that was the moment. We didn’t give her all the script, so she didn’t know [about Frances’s dream of connecting with someone with eye contact at a party], but it was intense. I mean, it was meaningful when it was happening. It felt like it feels in the film while it was happening. It felt funny and mournful.
NB: I think the trick, also, when you’re doing those kinds of scenes, is not to play the moment you want the audience to be having. The actors can’t be playing the end of the movie, they have to play a moment in time, and because of its context it will hopefully have this other kind of impact. It’s often tricky shooting endings of movies, because no matter how experienced the actors are, there’s often this feeling of—
GG: It’s the end!
NB: We’re suddenly swinging for the fences when we weren’t before. You know, like you want to somehow— everyone is ready to cry. And it’s like, well, I don’t know that we have to cry, but… [Laughter]
NB: But it’s hard. It’s hard to direct them, too. Because I’m aware of it also.
BLVR: I’d never thought of it that way. That as a filmmaker you can’t create the audience reaction. Was that something you had to learn as a director, or was that something you intuited very early on in your directing career? That you couldn’t strive too hard for what you wanted the audience to feel.
NB: I’ve probably erred on the other side of it [laughs]—giving them less to feel. But, yeah, there are always scenes in every movie where I have to catch myself or catch an actor, where the importance of the scene and the movie is suddenly too much on the surface, but most of my movies end in ways where [the audience] doesn’t know that they end. I mean, some movies have huge climactic endings, so maybe it makes sense that the actors are also having that huge emotional experience. In E.T. everyone is crying and it’s cathartic, it’s beautiful! And I really wanted to give Frances a more traditional ending. At the same time that we’re saying she’s incomplete, we’re also delivering a satisfying conclusion. The previous ones tended to end in the middle of a moment: Greenberg and Margot and Squid, certainly. And even Kicking and Screaming, my first movie, which ends in a flashback. And it’s not just endings: sometimes an actor does something that’s not what you want, but it’s kind of amazing and clearly felt but totally wrong for the film. And you have to find a way to say, “That’s incredible, but you have to go away and collect yourself and stop crying and do this a different way.”