Having played a romantic foil for Ben Stiller in Noah Baumbach’s 2010 movie Greenberg, Greta Gerwig now finds herself at the center of Baumbach’s new film Frances Ha, about a dancer struggling through her late 20s in New York. It’s a great role for Gerwig, not least because she co-wrote it. Now here she is to talk about screenwriting, similarities between her life and that of her character, and why her hometown of Sacramento, CA, plays a central role in the film.
So, what was it like to write a starring role for yourself?
After [Noah Baumbach and I] had made Greenberg together, which had been such a great experience for me as an actor, and I loved the screenplay so much, I felt like if I were ever to really write and make movies, I would want to emulate the way Noah writes.
Later on, he emailed me and said that he had been thinking about trying to do a movie in a different way than he had done, meaning with a more stripped-down crew and a lot smaller, but also a lot more freedom to shoot lots and lots of days. In effect, trying to keep each day cheap, so that you could shoot many days. That’s the big thing on independent films: The day count is usually really low. It’s like you’re cramming a regular-sized movie into a minimovie.
I guess there’s a way in which it’s kind of exciting, but it’s also hard. It’s one of the only arts that have that. … So, he had this idea of how he wanted to shoot it in, and he asked me for my ideas. … I [had] collaborated on screenplays [before], but I never felt like they were writing in the true sense, because they were more devising situations and giving them to actors and having them improvise. Which is a very different process … but it didn’t satisfy the part of me that wanted to write. So I started with a few pages of ideas I had for little moments. Like being poor and deciding whether or not to pay the surcharge at an ATM. Or there was an exchange of dialogue where someone asked someone else to guess how many civilians have been killed in Iraq, and they guess a number that’s way too high, and that person gets upset because they wanted them to guess low. That kind of exchange, you know? Like, going to someone’s country house and hearing them fight. … You try to pick the most evocative moments.
I should say that the film is more coherent than this process might imply—partly, I think, because of Frances wanting to be a dancer.
We figured out pretty early that she was a dancer. I think it’s that it really does have an expiration date as a profession, and it’s really something that at 27, if it’s not working out, it won’t work out. And there are very few things that are like that. I think that I also had a particular investment in this idea of her that she wants to be a dancer, but she doesn’t want to be a choreographer, and people tell her, “Well, why don’t you?” And she’s not doing it. It’s something that I found as an actor—there’s a parallel to me between acting and dancing, in that you’re a vessel for other people’s words or movements, as opposed to having authorship. It’s similarly passive in some ways. You have to be chosen. I think that’s part of what’s difficult about it. And if people don’t want to choose you, then you have no way to do it. And so there’s a powerlessness in it. And in the end, in her own little way, she takes her power back, and she starts making something, which I think is a journey that I feel really close to.
Like you, Frances hails from Sacramento, and in the movie she comes home for a while. I really like the view of Sacramento that we have here.
The thing was, because we were mainly shooting in New York, it would have been much cheaper to go shoot that stuff in Connecticut or something. And so much of the movie is fiction anyway. But to me, if you’re lucky enough to be from a place, to really be from somewhere that you feel inside of you, then photograph that place! There’s something about it that’s resonant beyond just knowing that she’s not from New York.
I feel so emotional about Sacramento, and I love it so much. It looks different from Connecticut. It’s flat. It feels middle-class in its bones. It’s got a lot of nurses and teachers and government workers. There’s no fanciness to it. There’s something very democratic about it. And there’s a way in which Frances is so dwarfed by New York—literally, by the buildings. And then when she’s in Sacramento, she’s the size of everything around her. We couldn’t have quite gotten that in New Jersey or Connecticut.
I don’t think any other film has given us that picture of Sacramento.
I had actually written a much longer section for Sacramento, and we had to winnow down to just what’s in the movie. It was actually a really hard writing cut to make, because Noah was like, “We just can’t introduce all of these characters in the middle of a movie!” So we ended up making it almost like a montage, and that’s when I said: “Well, since there aren’t actually any lines, let’s get my parents to do it. Let’s actually go shoot there, and we’ll go to my actual dentist, and we’ll go to all these places and use it in a way that I actually could use it because it’s in a fictional world.”
If I was making something that was exactly my life, I wouldn’t have been able to use it in the same way. It gave me permission to just crib directly from it. And I wanted it to seem like a good, comforting place—that you kind of almost want her to stay there, but you know that she can’t.
My mom didn’t want to do it at first because she was worried—and I understand why—that we would show it like it was a bad place, and Frances had gotten out of a hick town or something. And I said no, that’s not what it is. It’s almost about showing this possible life that’s not actually possible anymore.
That’s all the more poignant, because it resembles your actual life—yet the process of making this film seems like a sort of happy ending for you.
I feel so happy that this movie exists, because when we showed it for the very first time, I felt like, physically, a weight had been lifted off of me, or something had loosened inside that I didn’t know was tight. I’d never quite had the experience of making something that if I hadn’t, part of me wouldn’t have been realized. It’s a kind of relief: Good, I got it out, I made it! I’d never quite had that until now. And it’s kind of incredible.