When not exuding urbane, Salinger-weaned New Yorker chic, or, relatedly, co-writing the occasional Wes Anderson film, Noah Baumbach makes movies of his own, typically involving witty portrayals of flawed individuals enduring tragicomic family dysfunction or estrangement from their own lives. These include The Squid and the Whale and Greenberg, the latter of which introduced Baumbach to leading lady Greta Gerwig, now his romantic and creative partner. In Baumbach’s new film Frances Ha, a black-and-white frolic co-written with Gerwig, she plays an artistically inclined young woman in New York whose diminishing prospects don’t get her down. Here’s what Baumbach recently had to say about the picture, which opens today in San Francisco.
Frances Ha has been playing in film festivals since last fall, gathering steam for its official release. What are people saying about it?
Everyone has their own take, or their personal reaction to it. It sort of depends. I think maybe it depends on their expectations, or their feelings about other things I’ve done. About this movie in particular, the black-and-white has been a point of conversation.
Was that a risk?
Well, I mean, artistically, it seems like only a gain. I love black-and-white. From a business perspective, which we must consider too, black-and-white movies just don’t sell for as much as color movies because there’s not the market for them. But I decided not to care about that. I did a number of tests to make sure that I could get it to look the way I wanted it to look. I felt like I wanted to shoot not just in black-and-white but also shoot something in a kind of classical way, and I wanted it to be beautiful, and have real texture. So it took a while to sort of figure out how we were going to accomplish that.
Did you know early on that the black-and-white shooting was part of the concept?
Yeah, I did. At the time it was more like an instinct. But I always like contemporary movies in black-and-white, and I think this movie felt so contemporary both in terms of the character and milieu — it’s very much New York City right now. And because of that I think the black-and-white makes it almost instantly nostalgic. And I thought the contrast of those two things kind of rubbing up against each other was right for the movie. The old and new simultaneously.
Would you talk about your collaboration with Greta Gerwig, and where this character Frances came from?
It started off very casually. It was emails, of me just asking her if she had ideas. I said I’d like to do something again with her, in New York. And she was 27 at the time, so, you know, the character was 27. She wrote me a bunch of thoughts and observations, both from her own life and from friends. I found it so inspiring and funny and true. It got me excited about what this could be. So I responded, and started adding to it, and over time it sort of turned into the screenplay, and the character came out of that, too. We kind of both understood the character somehow, innately, without ever really discussing it. We obviously discussed who she was, but we didn’t seem to acknowledge that she might be unusual in any way. It was just someone who seemed like the right person for this movie.
Greta has a knack for showing vulnerability with real confidence. How do you make use of that?
She has great access as an actor to vulnerability, yeah. She’s not afraid to really open up. She’s also so funny at the same time. For me the combination of having somebody who’s incredibly funny but also incredibly present and authentic at every moment, and unafraid to just let a scene take her where it’s going to take her, well, that’s a great thing to have at the center of your movie. And it’s also why I’d wanted to do this with her, ’cause I’d already seen it on Greenberg. and I knew she could do it in this movie. And, also, we did many takes. So you’re also asking someone to do this sometimes up to 40 times or whatever. So she’s both very in control and very confident in what she’s doing, but she’s not trying to control it. She just sort of lets herself surf the scene.
Your voice is specific, but so is Wes Anderson’s. Talk about collaboration. What are the differences for you between realizing your own vision and someone else’s?
Well, with the movies I wrote with Wes Anderson, the goal is very clear, and I’m trying to give Wes as many good ideas and thoughts as possible for a movie that he’s going to make. So it’s different than if you know you’re going to direct it, and it really comes down to that: If I’m directing it versus if I’m not directing it.
Does that make it harder? Or does it alter your decision-making in some way?
It’s essentially the same process. It’s just that you’re not gonna control it in the same way. So there’s no reason to try. Whereas if I’m writing something for myself, or even writing something with someone for myself to direct, I’m always trying to think: How this will fit in to the thing I’m also trying to make. Writing and directing are intertwined for me, but you really have to compartmentalize them, too. You’re always writing as the director, and directing as the writer, but at the same time you almost have selective amnesia.
You’re the child of two prose writers, and you’ve done both adapted and original scripts. Do you find tension between the literary and the cinematic? Or is that a false dichotomy?
Well, for instance, with Greenberg, one of my ideas about that was that I wanted to make a movie almost in a literary tradition, sort of like a Philip Roth character. But it’s something that’s entirely different from trying to turn a Philip Roth book into a movie. That, I think, would be folly, in a way. And I think that distinction is very clear for me. I guess there are things form literature that to me feel cinematic that I’ve drawn upon in my movies, but at the same time I think I just have a kind of feeling if I’m reading a book whether it would make a good movie or not. Or at least how I would see the movie. I don’t know what that is or why.
Readers and moviegoers both can become territorial.
That’s why for me it’s more interesting to create things expressly to be movies that might have some connection or relation to things I’ve read. But they are very much movies. I think it’s also a question of the things I find cinematic. Like an early thing in Frances Ha: Do you pay the surcharge at an ATM machine if you’re broke and you’re in a hurry? Out of context it might not, you know, make some Sight & Sound list or something, but that seemed like a great movie moment to me.
For those of us who’ve seen a lot of movies, it’s hard when watching Frances Ha not to think of other films and other filmmakers. Among others, Woody Allen comes to mind. How do you think about your peers and predecessors?
When I discovered Woody Allen movies as a kid, and also his New Yorker writing, it was like crack. I couldn’t get enough of it. And it was infectious, too: In high school, everything I wrote sounded exactly like Woody Allen. I was just ripping him off. It’s just so in the air, or in my air, anyway. So I don’t even know anymore. Certainly for this movie I looked at Manhattan and Broadway Danny Rose and Stardust Memories, but that was more photographically; I was looking at the black-and-white ones. But of course on another level I know I’m doing a contemporary story in New York, and that’s what he was doing, and that’s something that obviously was personal to him in some way. He was the guy and that was the career about which I thought if I could ever do that, that would be amazing.
What I like about Woody Allen at his best is how well he integrates his own influences. You can tell he loves Bergman films, but he’s not paralyzed by the high standard. It seems like a hard trick to pull off: How do you come after all these other people and take lessons from them but also be true to yourself and make fresh work?
You just do it. You trust that this is the only time you’ve done it, so it’s going to be your version of the stuff. We can only imagine Bergman had the same issues. We know he did. In his memoirs he talks about having breakdowns! I think everybody kind of wrestles with it. But in some ways I think that is what maturity as a filmmaker is: It’s that you can kind of stop worrying about that stuff, and also borrow from it shamelessly.