Greta Gerwig Talks FRANCES HA, Filming on Location in NYC, Collaborating with Noah Baumbach, Her DreamWorks Animation Project, and More
Indie actress Greta Gerwig gives an engaging performance in the funny and charming dramatic comedy, Frances Ha, which she co-wrote with director, Noah Baumbach. Gerwig plays an apprentice dancer in New York who aspires to become a regular member of her modern dance company. Living her life with joy, optimism and self-delusion, she throws herself headlong into her dreams even as she struggles with friendship, love, ambition, and frequent setbacks. Opening in theaters on May 17th, the film is shot in black and white and also features Mickey Sumner, Adam Driver, Michael Zegen and Patrick Heusinger.
I recently landed an exclusive interview with Gerwig who talked to me about writing and starring in her second film with Baumbach, their effortless creative collaboration, what inspired her quirky character, how they auditioned all the roles to find a perfect cast of New York’s best actors, the immersive directing process, and the excitement of shooting on location on the streets of New York. She also revealed what she has coming up next: a film with director Mia Hansen-Love about the 90’s French club music scene, plans to re-team with Baumbach on a new film in New York, and their DreamWorks Animation project.
Collider: What is it about Frances and her comic misadventures that spoke to you when you wrote the script and when you played the character?
GRETA GERWIG: When I wrote the script with Noah, we didn’t know what it was going to be, so it started out with a collection of ideas that I had had, and I was sitting on and didn’t have a home for them. He had asked if I wanted to collaborate on something, and I sent him this list of ideas, and then we just started writing scenes separately and together. This character emerged from out of the scenes we were writing. He said, “We should write something that you can play.” But I don’t have any ideas when I think about myself acting, so I had to remove it from any of that while I was writing it. As we started writing it, we started calling Frances “our girl.” We said, “Maybe our girl does this” and “Maybe our girl does that.” And then, as we were writing about what our girl was doing, it started taking shape and her spirit started coming out. There are a million little things, but one of the best ways to get to know characters is to just put them in situations and see what they say. And so, I was writing these scenes, and Noah was writing these scenes where we just had Frances talking to people. We named her Frances because I love the name, and it’s also androgynous, which she is a little bit. I mean, she’s a woman but there’s something about her that defies gender slightly. In any case, she just started breathing on the page, and then once I started acting her, it was a whole different experience of embodying something that had been static and lifeless. Acting is always this way for me, but it was through the other actors, when we cast Mickey (Sumner), when we cast the boys, and when we had the characters that she lived with. That’s when I find who the person is. It’s through the other actors, because it’s hard for me to make a character alone in a room, but once you start interacting with someone, then you find it, or I do anyway.
This is your second collaboration with Noah Baumbach. Can you talk about what inspires your creative relationship and why it’s been so successful?
GERWIG: The first film we did together, I just acted in. He wrote alone. I got the script and I auditioned for it. When I got the script of the film, it was the best script I’d ever read, and I just immediately understood the writing. In some deep way, I understood what it was supposed to be like, and whether or not I could do that remained to be seen. But I felt like, “I know what this should be. If I were to direct this, I know what it should be.” Which is an odd feeling to have about a script, but I just knew it instantly. And then, with this movie, he had an inkling that we’d write well together. He knew that I had written plays and collaborated on other structures of screenplays which were then improvised, but he had a feeling that I might be able to do this, and luckily it was right. I can’t account for it. It’s one of the most effortless collaborations I’ve ever participated in. It feels like it feels when you’re acting with someone that you really connect with. You’re not struggling to understand what they’re doing. It’s like you’re both playing in the same imaginary world. It’s like sharing a dream with someone. It seems impossible, but we’re both in it. This is probably a weird example, but it’s like being on the same drug as another person and we’re all on the same high right now. Since then, we’ve written another screenplay together and it was the same feeling. We both have the same sense of rhythm and language, and liking a script to be said exactly, and writing the words exactly as we want them. I think that helps.
You give such an engaging, charismatic performance. Can you identify with Frances based on your own personal experiences?
GERWIG: Frances is very familiar to me. She’s not me, but she could only have come from me in a way. I feel like she was always inside somewhere as a writer and as an actor. I look at her as – not that it’s this funny but – almost like a comic creation. When people on SNL do great comic creations, like Kristen Wiig does Target Lady, she’s not Target Lady, but no one else could have done it. It’s that type of thing where you feel like that’s not you, but some part of you understands it so well that it’s seamless. That’s what Frances always felt like to me, like outside of myself, but only I knew it was there.
This film is about growing up, life, love and friendship, and one of the concerns that’s expressed by both sexes is about being “undateable.” Do you think that’s a genuine fear of a lot of men and women?
GERWIG: For Frances, it was a point of pride at one point that she was undateable. This feeling that she didn’t fit into hetero-normative structures, that she wasn’t able to settle down, and no man would be able to handle her. She thought that she and her friend were like that and that they would grow old together and be spinsters or something. As the movie goes on, she realizes that she doesn’t want to be left out of that aspect of life. I don’t think she becomes worried about it so much as there’s just a moment where she sees a man, Benji (Michael Zegen), who she could have probably dated, with another girl, and she thinks, “Everybody is moving on and coupling off and doing these things, and I haven’t done it and maybe that was the wrong choice.” For her, it’s more about that.
Frances comes to New York hoping for a lot of things in her life. How would you describe your character and her relationship to New York City?
GERWIG: For a lot of people, and for her, New York is a place of ultimate hope and ultimate dreams. When you don’t come from New York, and you come from a middle class background far away from New York like she does – Sacramento – it’s like every day is a tightrope walking act, and if three things go wrong, you have to go home in a way. It feels like you don’t get that many chances at failure because it all can come apart so quickly. It’s an expensive city. It’s a hard city. It’s cold. I mean, I went to college. I’m not someone who’s an immigrant who’s struggling in that way, but between New York and L.A., I had someone tell me very early on, “If you’re going to be broke anywhere, it’s better to be broke in L.A. At least the weather is nice.” I was like, “You’re right.” I didn’t take them up on that. I love New York, but it’s a rough city. It’s not dangerous now the way it was in the 70’s or the 80’s, but it’s still a rough city. It’s hard to hack it there. Life is harder than it is on the West Coast. To be able to deal with that, you have to have a lot of aspirational feelings pinned on being there. I love New York, so I totally agree with Frances.
How was the experience of shooting on location in New York?
GERWIG: It was a dream. It was wonderful. We had so much fun. It was a lot of work, but it was incredibly exciting because we got to do these things where we had controlled environments, and then we had things where they would just put us on the street and follow us in a mini-van which was really fun. So we had this combination of stuff where there were uncontrollable elements, like just getting on the subway and shooting until the police came and found us and kicked us off. It was that push and pull between control and chaos that I think gives it the feeling that it does. I love just seeing shots of New York inside of a fictional movie that are not controlled. I do not like shots with extras, I have to say. I don’t mind extras in other scenes, but I love New York City streets just as they look. I don’t even care if someone looks at the camera. It doesn’t bother me. In a lot of Scorsese movies in the 70’s, people looked at the camera. You feel like you’re actually on a street as opposed to feeling like you’re in some weird, altered pretend land where everybody’s checking their watch or something.
You’ve worked with quite a few different types of directors. How would you describe Noah’s method of directing and the vibe on set?
GERWIG: Noah does more takes than any director I’ve ever worked with. He runs a very quiet set and he runs a very hard working set. He has such an intense level of dedication to what’s happening that he cultivates a group of people around him who have an equal level of dedication. Nobody asks, “When is lunch?” or “When are we stopping?” or “How long have we been going?” That’s just not part of our sets. It’s complete immersion. He has a ‘no cell phone’ rule. Nobody checks their cell phone. Nobody reads on set. It’s like, “If you’re there, you’re there. If you’re not on board with that, don’t work on this movie.” It’s great because I think people are really happy – I know I am – in immersive experiences, but it’s so hard for people to give up their cell phones or their ideas of being connected to everything all the time in order to get that immersive experience. That’s the best way to make art. It’s almost like you have to treat it like you’re going into a submarine, and Noah totally agrees with that. There’s not a real other life that happens outside of the movie while it’s being shot, which I like.
How was it acting opposite Mickey Sumner, who plays your character’s best friend, Sophie, and the rest of the actors on this film?
GERWIG: All the actors were brilliant. Mickey was such a huge part of it. We auditioned so many people, because it’s such a particular part to have to fill, and she’s so brilliant at it. It’s something that I wouldn’t have been able to list the qualities that she had ahead of time, but there’s something about her when she auditions. It was effortless. It was like, “There’s Sophie. That’s her friend.” It just was instant. We auditioned for all the characters, and they really all were the best for the part. There was something about how they just did it and then you thought, “Yup. That’s them. We don’t need to look any further.” All of the actors are like a snapshot of some of the best actors in New York right now. That’s really special. It’s a big cast, too. Patrick Heusinger, the guy who plays her boyfriend, Patch, went to Julliard. He’s a great trained actor and he’s amazing in it. I feel like you remember everyone because they’re all so perfect for their parts, even though it’s a big cast. There’s the girl who plays Benji’s girlfriend, Caroline (Maya Kazan), for one scene who says, “Proust is too heavy to carry on the plane.” She’s perfect. I feel like we were just so lucky with the people who came out and auditioned.
What do you have coming up next?
GERWIG: I’m acting in Mia Hansen-Love’s new film. She’s a French director and I’m going to be in her movie. She’s made two movies in French. This is going to be her third. It’s a three-hour epic about French club music in the early ‘90s. I play an American. It’ll be really fun. I love her. She’s an amazing filmmaker. She’s on my dream directors list. Apparently, she liked me, and I was like, “Great. I’ll go do your movie.” It’s untitled right now, so I don’t know what it’s called.
Any future plans to reteam with Noah Baumbach? I understand you’re planning another film that’s set in New York?
GERWIG: We’re not really talking about it. Something that we so enjoyed with Frances Ha is there was nothing written about it before anyone saw it. It was exciting at film festivals last fall that people got to see it for the first time without really knowing anything about it, which is rare because everything is usually written about it in advance so much. But, we are doing that, without elaborating anymore on it.
What about your animation project with DreamWorks?
GERWIG: Oh yes, I’ve collaborated with Noah on that, but that’s very nascent. Those movies take a long time to make. We’re working on that, but it’s in its early stages, too. Everything is in its early stages. It’s so frustrating because you always want to be able to say, “I have another movie coming out in a month.” I love everything I’m doing, but when you go on the other side of the camera with writing and directing, things take a lot longer, whereas actors can be in two or three movies a year.