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Noah Baumbach

The Filmmaker Discusses his New Film, Frances Ha

May 17, 2013 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


Writer and director Noah Baumbach is an admitted overachiever. By the ripe old age of 26 he’d already broken out on the indie scene with his acclaimed 1995 debut feature, Kicking and Screaming. He’d follow it up two years later with Mr. Jealousy, and then go on to write and direct the Academy Award-nominated The Squid and the Whale in 2005, Margot at the Wedding in 2007, and Greenberg in 2010. (He was also a co-writer for Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Fantastic Mr. Fox.)

Baumbach’s new film is Frances Ha, a comedy about a girl in her late 20s going through a turbulent transitional period in present-day New York City. Despite a series of setbacks in following her dreamsa failing dance career; a best friend who’s growing away from her; having little to no romantic prospectsFrances approaches life with a magnetically positive outlook. The film stars Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote the film with Baumbach, as well as Mickey Sumner and Adam Driver.

Austin Trunick (Under the Radar): There’s a quote that I found interesting, and it came from Greta, where she described this film as portraying a time in Frances’ life when she’s passing out of her youth and into adulthood. Obviously by her age, you were already a filmmaker. Was there a time in your life where you went through one of these transitional periods?

Noah Baumbach: It was actually right around the same time as Frances. I actually made two movies by the time I was 27, but that was admittedly overachieving at the time. I believe I went through a period after the second movie where I had my own version of what Frances goes through. I had to sort of become an adult.

From what I understand, the ball started rolling for this film just following Greenberg, or just shortly thereafter?

It was actually shortly after Greenberg came out, but about a year and a half after Greenberg was made.

Did the story and the world come first, or the character? What was your starting point?

Before we had any materials for the script, I approached Greta about doing something again, and I wanted to do something that she was the center of. I kind of knew I wanted to do it in black and white at that time, and in New York, but that was probably about it. I’d asked her for ideas and thoughts she’d had about being a 27-year-old in New York, because that’s what she was. She wrote down a series of thoughts and observations that I thought were very inspiring. They promoted a lot of other ideas. I started to respond immediately and either add on to things she’d written, or add my own things. This kind of dialogue, at this point over email, went back and forth, and this script came from that. They were things like: “Do you pay the surcharge at an ATM?” Those were the sort of things that were on there that maybe in another context might feel trivial, but for this movie and this character, they seemed big and cinematic.

Greta’s a wonderful actress. We can appreciate that easily because we see it on screen. What does she bring to the equation as your co-writer?

She’s just a great writer. She’s really funny. We would often divvy up scenes, I’d say “You work on the Vassar section; I’ll work on the dinner party.” Ultimately we’d pass them back and forth, we’d both work on everything, but I would always really anticipate and look forward to her sending me her scenes. They were so entertaining and funny, and revelatory. I’d almost get spoiled, because I was always excited to see what she was going to do. It also made me want to get better and work harder on my scenes, because I had to match her.

Mickey Sumner was also fantastic as Frances’ best friend, and she’s relatively new to film acting. How did you find her for this role?

She just auditioned. I think Greta had met her maybe once before, but I didn’t know her. I just loved her audition, and then when she read with Greta it felt very connected. They weren’t actual friends, but they suggested chemistry and a history that felt like the friends they are in the movie.

Adam Driver’s another young actor whose career is quickly rising. Had he auditioned for his part, as well?

Yeah. He may have been shooting Girls at the time, but Girls wasn’t out yet. He was great, and surprising. He’s always got this surprising take on things, but it’s always the right take, even though I don’t expect it.

You’re a New Yorker. Are there locations you used in the film that you had a special attachment to, or had wanted to shoot in from the beginning?

I always do when I shoot in New York, because I have so many associations with almost every part of the city. Some, obviously, go deeper and are more personal than others. With this move we shot at Vassar, which is where I went to school. That isn’t New York City, but New York State. We shot in Park Slope partly; Ditmas Park, which is where my father lives. Now that you say it, most of these locations I have some sort of relationship with from my childhood.

Was it liberating to shoot on digital?

Yes, but it took a lot of time because this was the first time I shot digitally and I was shooting in black and white. I was doing two things I hadn’t done before, photographically. I did a number of tests with a great group of people. We tested cameras, we tested post-processing, and how we were going to make it black and white. When we found it, I was really excited by what it was going to look like.

What about was it about Frances’ story that led you in that direction, towards shooting in black and white?

I thought because it was such a contemporary story, that the black and white might complement that. It might bring a bit of nostalgia to something that was essentially present.

Some of the musical choices did that, as well.

Yeah, the music kind of followed suit. I wanted not only to shoot it black and white, but I also wanted it to feel very elegant and beautiful; not documentary black-and-white, but in line with the movies Woody Allen did with Gordon Willis. Something that felt kind of cinematic and almost grand, in its way, and the music followed suit. I was using old scores from ‘60s and ‘70s French films that are sort of lush and romantic and beautiful. And the pop songs we used too, they all kind of enhanced the picture. I think that was a great discovery. Because Frances as a characterand Greta’s performancewere so filled with light and joy, I thought the movie should celebrate that.

I thought it worked well because it had such a positive spirit. You never seemed to be too critical of Frances, and she never really gives up in spite of bad decisions and bad things happening to her. Was there ever any impulse, perhaps early on, to take it in a more melancholy direction?

There really wasn’t. I felt very clear early on that this character should be rewarded or protected, in a way, by me as the filmmaker and by the movie. Her gains in the movie are very modest if you take them out of context: she takes a desk job, she gets a small apartment. These are very modest, but in the context of the movie they feel huge. I felt like we needed to celebrate that. I never had any impulse to go in another direction with that.

(www.franceshamovie.com)



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