Interview: Noah Baumbach talks Frances Ha

Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha. Picture: complimentary
Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha. Picture: complimentary
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Noah Baumbach is talking about what life was like when he was 27 years old. This is the age of the lead in Frances Ha, Baumbach’s sixth feature film and his most joyous and compassionate to date.

Frances (the ‘Ha’ is explained in the film’s lovely final frame) embodies what it is to be 27. She is lost yet hopeful, graceful yet clumsy, deluded yet self aware, and broke but full of ideas.

“I wouldn’t say Frances Ha is autobiographical but it’s definitely very personal,” says Baumbach, 43, slowly and uncertainly. We’re in an Edinburgh hotel, and Baumbach, a famously cerebral and fastidious director, is displaying all the social unease and awkward charm of one of his characters. Meanwhile Greta Gerwig, who plays Frances, co-wrote the film with him, and has since become his partner, can be heard laughing and talking nineteen to the dozen to another journalist next door. The conversation is a little more intense on our side of the wall.

“I would say the kind of emotional and psychological state of this, erm, sort of, age...,” Baumbach trails off before trying again. “I suppose 27 is a time of confusion and conflict. I identify with that. I think I was going through a lot of change at 27 but I didn’t know it was happening until it was over.”

By the time Baumbach was 27 he was a filmmaker living in Manhattan. He had written and directed two small but critically acclaimed films. Kicking and Screaming, a low-fi talkie comedy about four college graduates with a bad case of arrested development, and Mr Jealousy, about a young writer’s dysfunctional relationship with his girlfriend. He had led what you might call a charmed life, the kind you recognise immediately from the movies. The graduation from Vasser with a BA in English (again, like Frances). The spell working as a messenger at the New Yorker. The childhood in the Brooklyn brownstone with the intellectual and emotionally unavailable parents – in this case novelist and film critic Jonathan Baumbach and Village Voice critic Georgia Brown. The attendant trips to the cinema, and earnest discussions around the dinner table afterwards. And, of course, the neurosis.

“Twenty seven is an odd age,” Baumbach muses. “I found myself having made two movies but I felt like I hadn’t yet done what I knew I could do. I was having trouble getting a third movie made. I was in a bit of a crisis but it didn’t reveal itself.” Seven years later the crisis lifted and he wrote and directed the movie for which he is still best known. The Squid and the Whale, based on his own childhood and his parents’ bitter divorce, was an indie masterpiece; a quirky, sweet, and occasionally brutal film shot on handheld camera. Apparently when he first showed it to his mother, he ended up leaving the room in floods of tears.

“By the time I made Squid I was really ready to do it,” he tells me. “For the first time I could really access stuff in myself and translate it into a movie. It sort of changed how I did things. I put everything I had into that film. I felt like it was my... I couldn’t mess it up.”

Does he feel, as many have claimed, that the films he has made since – Margot At The Wedding and Greenberg – have become increasingly misanthropic and embittered? “I don’t agree with the idea that my characters are unlikeable,” he says after a long pause. “I don’t... every movie is... you know… I set out to make comedies every time.” He chuckles and then sighs. “Sometimes people tell me otherwise.”

Frances Ha is the anomaly: a Baumbach film about a genuinely loveable if occasionally embarrassing character. “I think it was clear to me when we were writing her that the movie should protect and honour Frances,” says Baumbach with a shy smile. “Both Frances and Greta have such spirit and hope and romance. But I still wanted to make a film that felt good but acknowledged the melancholy of youth.”

The result is as close to feelgood as Baumbach gets. Frances Ha is a film about female friendship, and how many of those do we get to see amongst all the bromances? It’s also a romantic comedy without a romance. Shot in hyper-glossy black and white, it stars lots of world-weary hipster actors (Mickey Sumner, Sting’s daughter, Grace Gummer, Meryl Streep’s daughter, and Adam Driver of Lena Dunham’s Girls) and is as much a love letter to New York as it is to Frances. The influence of Woody Allen, Richard Linklater, the French New Wave, and the screwball comedies of the 1940s and 50s are all here. In fact Frances Ha has been branded Baumbach’s Manhattan. Gerwig is a kind of modern cross between Diane Keaton and Katharine Hepburn: the wisecracking broad who is forever falling down and then jumping right back up again.

“Woody Allen’s movies are so much a part of me,” Baumbach says. “I grew up watching them over and over and would read all his comic pieces for the New Yorker. In some ways his influence is so much there that I can’t even locate it any more. Frances Ha captures my feelings about New York because the beauty and romance is also cut with the reality of the city today. Young people who don’t have money struggle there. You can’t be an artist in New York any more without being rich. This movie mourns and celebrates the city at the same time.

“I wanted this film to have the classic feel of old and new New York,” he continues. “I’ve always been a very precise director but I haven’t always had the luxury to take my time. We took more time with this movie than I’ve ever had before. Squid was a kind of fever dream – we shot it in 23 days. With this one, I set up a smaller crew and explained to everybody that it would go on a while. We shot mostly in sequence and did a number of takes of many scenes.”

We talk about Baumbach’s collaboration with Gerwig, whom he met after casting her in Greenberg. Frances Ha began as a long series of emails exchanged between them over a year. “In the end we both wrote everything,” Baumbach explains. “It feels very even in the way a good collaboration does. I think of it as a conversation. When you have a great conversation with someone, you can’t really remember who started it or who said what. It becomes its own animal. With a good collaboration you don’t really remember whose lines are whose. And then every so often we would get together, read it aloud, and tinker with it.”

The result was both a script and a romance. It seems that Baumbach, who was previously married to actress Jennifer Jason Leigh (with whom he has a son), fell in love with the character and the actress as they were writing her. By the time they were shooting, he and Gerwig were involved. So Frances Ha ended up being a romantic comedy in which the romance happened off screen. “Right, that’s interesting,” he says. “I hadn’t thought of it like that.

“But of course it can be a distraction too,” he continues. “Yet there was a real feeling of closeness on the set, and not just for Greta and me. And, erm, you know... before I was with Greta I felt inspired by her. In a way it didn’t change anything actually being involved. The whole experience of making Frances Ha was charged and exciting.”

Frances Ha is on general release from 26 July