Noah Baumbach on “Frances Ha,” Greta Gerwig, and Roger Ebert


Last month, the Walker Art Center wrapped up a retrospective of the work of New York filmmaker and screenwriter Noah Baumbach, ending the series with his latest film Frances Ha, which opens theatrically in the Twin Cities this Friday, May 24 at the Uptown Theatre.

The film stars and was co-written by the wonderfully zippy Greta Gerwig, the female lead from Baumbach’s previous directorial effort, Greenberg. She’s front and center in this black-and-white, Brooklyn-shot feature where Frances (Gerwig) is an aspiring dancer (and wannabe dance teacher) who loves hanging out with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner, daughter of musician/actor Sting). When Sophie tells Frances that she has started hanging out with a guy and wants to move out of their place together, Frances is unsure what to do next. So begins the tale of Frances looking for meaning, purpose and fun activities to do in life, without her Sophie.

Baumbach visited the Walker for the final piece of his retrospective (Noah Baumbach: Visibly Human) to take part in a dialogue with chief Variety film critic Scott Foundas. The screening of Frances Ha took place the night before, on a very sad day in film culture—not only in America, but also worldwide. It was the day that Pulitzer-Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert had passed away. Before the screening, Foundas addressed the sold-out crowd and briefly introduced Frances Ha, but then before he left the stage, he notified everyone about Ebert, and how his impact on cinema and film will never be forgotten. He talked about how he had gotten to know Ebert over the years, meeting him at various film festivals, and how he followed his work for years before getting the chance to finally meet him. It was very appropriate and very touching to hear Foundas speak about Ebert before the audience was going to be introduced to Frances.

A few hours before the dialogue was about to begin, I had the opportunity to sit down with Baumbach at a downtown Minneapolis hotel, where Baumbach asked, “Is it snowing outside?” When I told him yes, he said that he arrived earlier that day and had no idea it would be snowing. He looked a little perplexed, but holding a cup of coffee, he took his seat and we began to discuss Frances Ha, the idea behind switching to black-and-white for the first time, working with Gerwig again, and what Roger Ebert’s reviews meant to him as a filmmaker.

You co-created Frances Ha with lead actress, Greta Gerwig, who you worked with in your last film Greenberg. How did it come into development? Did you start, once Greenberg ended, to collaborate again?

I definitely wanted to work with her again after Greenberg. It wasn’t until about a year and a half after we finished Greenberg that I had the idea of doing another film in New York. I wanted to do something with Greta, although I wasn’t sure what I wanted it to be yet. I wrote to her and said, “If we were going to do something about a 27-year-old woman living in New York, what’s on your mind?” She wrote me a long document about lots of things. Some had more narrative, some were observations, and some were about her or her friends. I found what she wrote was funny and inspiring, and I really felt like [that contained] what this movie could be in some way. So I started to elaborate on them and responded to them. That document was then sent back and forth and we were both working on different things and time went by and then scenes starting to evolve and we would have more ideas. That’s how it started; the script came from those ideas.

Frances Ha seemed to come out of nowhere last fall—people had no idea you were even making another feature. Was that by choice that you wanted to have this be under people’s radar?

It was definitely a choice. I wanted to do something very stripped-down and wanted to work with a smaller crew. I felt like this was the right movie to make like this and I didn’t want to burden it with the army of a big film set. I did a number of tests—camera tests and tests to figure out the black-and-white look—and in that process I did a number of tests with crew to figure out how many people I needed, how are we going to do it this way and also to find the right people, so that was very deliberate.  Keeping it off the radar was more of a happy accident. I was proud that it didn’t get on the Internet or anything, but that wasn’t my goal.

You mention the black-and-white aesthetic of the film. Was that something you had in mind when you were developing the story, or did you want to try a different medium?

Yeah. It was the first film I had shot digitally and it was black-and-white, so I was doing two things I hadn’t done before and that’s why I did so many tests. I’ve always liked contemporary movies that were shot in black-and-white. I mean, it’s not that period films in black-and-white can’t be great either, I always liked that juxtaposition. Looking at a McDonald’s in black-and-white is beautiful; it makes a movie both new and old simultaneously, and it’s immediately nostalgic. All of that felt right for this material.

When I was watching Frances Ha, I was reminded of Woody Allen’s Manhattan, but also there seemed to be a heavy influence of French new wave directors of the 1960s like Francois Truffaut—even with a Small Change poster featured in the apartment—and Jean-Luc Godard’s Band of Outsiders. Was that something you had in mind when you were making the film?

When I started making it, I wasn’t thinking about those, but I do love those films. I looked at black-and-white films, as we were trying to figure out what kind of black-and-white it [would be]—it’s different from movie to movie. What was interesting was shooting Frances with Benji [Michael Zegen] and Lev [Adam Driver from HBO’s Girls]. We put Lev in a fedora hat and a cardigan and Benji is wearing a tie. I dressed them like that since I imagined that is what those guys would be wearing today living in Williamsburg or Chinatown or wherever they are living in New York right now—but seeing it in black-and-white, of course it looks like the French new wave style, which is what these kids are getting their styles from anyway, so it came around the other way. It was like, “Oh, now we have an homage,” while we were just trying to shoot Williamsburg. I think it was true for a lot of the movie, in a way. All the influences you mentioned are true for me and were considerations, and definitely the Woody Allen movies. In Manhattan, it wasn’t just the photography, but also the music—especially with the Gershwin music, it’s so romantic, cinematic and big and grand. It supports the black and white and I think in cases of both movies, the stories are not epic, they are both actually small relationship stories, but they can hold this big style and context, which I think can become sort of fun.

Talk a little bit about Greta’s performance. She is featured in just about every scene and I felt that anyone who sees Frances Ha is going to be able to connect with her performance.

She’s so funny. She was [also funny] in Greenberg, but I wanted to see Greta in more of a comic character. I think she can do broader, funnier things while always remaining authentic and it always feels connected, which I think is hard to do. She reminds me a lot like those Carole Lombard movies, almost in like another time, and same thing with someone like Diane Keaton and Teri Garr. But it is something that Greta does that’s very much her own. It’s very pleasurable to work with somebody like that, and she’s that way as a writer. She can write a hilarious one-liner but also keeping in the realm of the character, [in a way] that’s true to the story and it doesn’t feel pushed or forced. I like working with her. As a writer, I would look forward to a scene she would send to me and be working on; I would just enjoy reading it. Likewise, when we started shooting a scene, although we’d written it and discussed, I was always surprised how she came at the scene.  Greta can do 40 takes of a scene and find a way to add spontaneity to every take.

I don’t know if you read film criticism of your own films, but Roger Ebert passed away yesterday and I was wondering if you knew him at all.

I got to meet him a couple times, and he reviewed a few of my movies. I stopped reading reviews of my movies a few years ago, but I grew up on him and watching the show. The thing I always responded [to] about him was—and in some ways this is more of a rarity then it should be with criticism—±I always felt like he had an entirely authentic reaction to a movie. Even when I totally would disagree with him, I completely believed [that was] how he felt. He would change his mind on movies—I can’t remember if it was Taxi Driver he gave a bad review to, but then took it back and that was amazing. For as someone as great as Pauline Kael was as a writer, you can’t help but feel a lot of the times she wanted to feel a certain way before she went into the movie and she had an agenda, or too many people have liked this movie so she is going to take it down, whatever her thing was—not that [it] wasn’t her own authenticity. I feel the way that Roger Ebert responded to movies is how we should all hope to respond to art.

What do you hope audiences take away from seeing Frances Ha?

I don’t feel anything in particular; I want people to feel good about it. A friend of mine saw it when I was first showing it to people and he said, “It’s like a happiness machine.” I guess if everyone felt that I would be happy about that. I hope her joy is infectious; I mean, that’s how I felt when I was making Frances Ha.