NOAH Baumbach’s Mistress America is a playful study of growing up and a love letter to his home city of New York
Probably still best known for The Squid and the Whale, his caustic and affecting take on his parents’ divorce, if you had to reduce Baumbach’s cinematic concerns to just a couple of ideas, you’d be on fairly safe ground with identity (how do we work out who we are?) and New York. The tension is how we want the world to be and how it really is; who we imagine ourselves to be and who we really are, played out against that city of possibilities. In his critically acclaimed first film, Kicking and Screaming, it was post-college malaise, in Greenberg it’s turning 40, and he moved on a few years with the recent While We’re Young. In Frances Ha, his first collaboration with Gerwig, it was being 27. And now with Mistress America it’s the challenge of being both 18, with everything ahead, and 30, with a sense that there’s still a lot ahead but you’re not really sure what you’re supposed to be doing with it.
Tracy (Lola Kirke) arrives in New York to go to college. Her dorm is depressing, her one ambition – to get into the Mobius literary society – thwarted. She has a tense (and funny) relationship with a geeky fellow wannabe writer, Tony (Matthew Shearer), but generally it all seems like a bit of a let down. Until she meets Brooke (Gerwig), the daughter of her mother’s fiancé and so her soon-to-be-sister. Brooke is a fitness instructor, an interior designer, she’s opening a restaurant and has an idea for a superhero called Mistress America. Brooke emerged as a minor character in another project says Baumbach, but she demanded attention. “When Greta was saying the words and doing it, it was just very funny. We ended up moving her out of that movie and fashioning this movie around her. In a way it’s like Brooke inspired Mistress.”
Tracy is enthralled and enchanted by Brooke, but she’s not entirely taken in by her. Yes, she wants her harebrained schemes to work, but she’s also mining her as a subject for her short story. Brooke’s failings are as clear to her as her glamour. “We thought of Brooke as somebody who in some ways is almost too smart for her own good,” says Baumbach. “She actually has integrity and that’s the problem. We talked a lot about those people that you meet when you’re younger who feel exciting and dangerous. They have a big impact on you but you outgrow them quite quickly. Retrospectively you understand that this was never going to last. It’s about people bouncing off each other at this point in their lives. One will continue to grow up, that’s Tracy, and Brooke is going to have to grow up too, just in a different way.”
Frances Ha was a celebration of film-making and of Gerwig. This new comedy is a tribute to both. Baumbach first worked with Gerwig on Greenberg in 2010. She played a twentysomething free spirit and her career to that date had matched that description. She had been in mumblecore movies, made her own work and Hollywood was interested but she was keeping a safe distance. With Frances Ha, Gerwig found her place cinematically and she and Baumbach became a creative partnership. It’s clear from the way Baumbach speaks that the creative process behind this film has been truly collaborative. Even the transition from being co-writers to director and actor is, he says, “pretty easy”.
“It’s not even something that was even discussed really. It’s just something that we’ve done intuitively. Even when I’m directing a script that I’ve written myself, there’s a part of me that’s working as an interpretive director as if I didn’t write the script. I think Greta does that very much as an actor too. I think that’s what’s great about the performances as Frances and Brooke – they’re so present and so not calculated even though on some other level she totally understands these people and it’s real craft. From moment to moment it’s alive.”
Thematically there are many links between Frances Ha and Mistress America. It’s not just Gerwig or that Frances and Brooke are both a bit embarrassing as well as kind of lovely, or the fact that the focus is on female friendship or the melancholy of youth. And the setting is part of that continuity too.
“Growing up in Brooklyn I feel I almost have more in common with my friends who grew up in other states or countries even in terms of the relationship with Manhattan,” he says. “It seemed so exotic and foreign. Of course now I’m an adult and I live there and all anyone can say is it’s all tourists and it’s just a place for foreign billionaires to put their money and everything is happening in Brooklyn.” He laughs. “Of course that’s true and money has changed it, but I still love it and find it alive. A lot of the time there’s nowhere I’d rather be than just walking around Manhattan.” In terms of movies, he says, he can’t even explain it, it just “feels” right.
There is a sense that as a filmmaker Baumbach has become more light-hearted. He leans over to pour more coffee, “everyone thinks I’m happier,” he says with a roll of his eyes. “I’m trying to be happier in my life all the time. I am happy, you know, about many things. But the degree to which it influences the movies, I have no idea.” He references other filmmakers, with long careers, who have shifted the tone of their films, but only as a matter of emphasis rather than wholesale. “I like that. I like the fact that Robert Altman movies all feel like Robert Altman movies but some are wackier and some are more serious. I love having those different experiences with the same authorial voice.
“I’m interested in what the flexibility of a movie is – can it hold this? With Frances, her running down the street to the David Bowie song, it felt good and it felt right but it’s kind of fanciful. But it doesn’t take you out of the movie, in some ways, it draws you further in even though it’s an artificial moment. The more I do it, the more I think I’m open to those kinds of things.”
In Mistress, it’s less one shot and more a tonal shift in one section of the film. It moves into a kind of set-piece farce. “There were aspects of that sequence that scared me because I was working in a way that was slightly tonally elevated in a way that I was out of my comfort level. It was good, but I’d leave the set that day and think, I hope that worked.”
It makes me interested as to what comes next, I tell him, and he looks a bit nervous. “After saying all this, I’m probably going to fall on my face. You’ll see the next one and think he’s totally all over the place.” He smiles and leans back, looking perfectly relaxed.
• Mistress America is released on Friday