Frances Ha - Noah Baumbach interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
NOAH Baumbach talks about working with Greta Gerwig and making Frances Ha and why he opted to shoot the film in black and white and set it in New York.
He also discusses his admiration for Woody Allen, why he always attempts to make films based upon personal experience and what he thinks about the future of cinema…
Q. The theme of age in the film is very interesting. What was it like working with Greta Gerwig, who is in her 20s, when you’re of a slightly older generation? What was it like looking at that 20-something world from a distance, having already been through it yourself?
Noah Baumbach: I think when we were both writing it, we were both able to come at it from both perspectives, just because when you’re writing you have to look at everything from every perspective. For me, I was able to look back at that time and know she’d be OK. I felt like I really wanted to reward her for what she goes through in a way…. that the movie should support her. Maybe when I was that age, it all was too raw for me. I may have been more self-critical. I would have approached it differently. From my perspective, anyway, I had a more care-taking perspective.
Q. How was working with Greta on a day-to-day basis? I gather you used a lot of takes? Do you feel you pushed her as far as you could?
Noah Baumbach: Well, Greta is so available as an actor and so present. It would depend on the scene. I think sometimes if I felt like we had it right away, I wouldn’t do that many takes. But I did feel like we had an opportunity on this movie to try to push things past. If you do a lot of takes, it’s its own narrative. There’s how things begin, then they usually get kind of bad for a while, and sometimes they turn into something new and, in many cases, better and more exciting. But she’s kind of right there in every take. She’s never not giving everything to a scene.
Q. The use of language… there’s a lot of childish language at the start. But they then go to quite adult dinner parties. Was that deliberate, the shifts in language?
Noah Baumbach: That was kind of embedded in the story and the characters and the anthropology of the movie. That dinner party was sort of structured to capture that feeling on both sides. But because we’re with Frances, that feeling of ‘I’m in the adult world and I don’t necessarily how to talk this way’ and that feeling that we all have at some point of “I’m old enough to be at this party and be sitting at the same table as these people, but I don’t feel like a grown-up in the way that I see these people as grown-ups’. So, the language was embedded in that.
Q. What was the collaboration like in writing this? And how did it differ from the way you’ve written with Wes Anderson in the past?
Noah Baumbach: The major difference… I think collaborating with somebody is like having a conversation. You start talking and if it’s a good conversation you don’t know who came up with what. You’re both contributing to it but you’re creating something that exists beyond the two individuals. So, the things that worked with Wes worked for him to direct, so that was specific in that way. With Greta, we weren’t in the same place a lot, so we ended up doing a lot of it over email and taking different scenes… she’d write one and I’d write one and then we’d swap them and re-write each other. But that was more for practical purposes. Ideally, it’s nice to be in the same room at the computer and talk it out as you write it, which we did a little of, but not a lot.
Q. Did you continue to tinker with it on the set?
Noah Baumbach: We arrived with the screenplay that we used. That’s the way I always do it. My feeling is that you’re more free and there’s more creativity if you have a fixed text.
Q. Is it easier to work with someone who acts and writes as well?
Noah Baumbach: Well, because it was Greta and we were doing this movie it was enjoyable. I think the thing for Greta is that she was really able to compartmentalise the writing and the acting. When she’s acting, she’s kind of coming at it as if she’s never heard these words before. And that was true on Greenberg, where she hadn’t written it, and it was essentially the same on Frances. But she’s a terrific writer and she really understands people’s speech patterns. I think we both come at dialogue similarly. It’s only a benefit. But when she was in a scene, I almost forgot she had also written it.
Q. What made you decide to shoot in black and white?
Noah Baumbach: I just wanted to shoot a movie in black and white [laughs]. And then I’ve had to come up with rationalisations for it.
Q. It’s like Manhattan…
Noah Baumbach: Well, it is. I think it maybe goes to asking about my perspective on the material. I felt like there was something about the contemporary nature of it that I wanted to shoot classically and somewhat epically in a way. I almost wanted to celebrate, even though it was an intimate story, in a bigger, cinematic way. And the black and white has a kind of classic feeling to it. I felt like Frances should have a kind of beautiful romantic cinematic movie, even if she’s deciding whether or not to pay a fee at an ATM machine. Why not make that cinematic in its depiction?
Q. Does it kind of cause any problems with distribution?
Noah Baumbach: What’s been nice about its reception is that it doesn’t matter to people seeing it. It’s only of benefit. But yes. When you make a movie in black and white, the movie will be worth less than it is in colour. That’s just the reality of it. But you kind of have to decide not to care.
Q. Did you choose the New York and Paris locations because they are romantic?
Noah Baumbach: Well, it’s why I chose Paris to some degree because in another movie, this would be the transformative trip for this character. But in our movie, it was just going to be more of the same [laughs]. But it could look amazing. But New York I chose because I’ve grown up there and it has meaning for me because it’s of my life. But I also think that by shooting it beautifully and in black and white, both sort of acknowledging the romance and the classic New York as you know it from movies, but then telling the story of a very contemporary New York… that it’s expensive and hard to live there in any kind of artistic or bohemian way unless you have a lot of money. That was interesting to me because that’s how I feel about the city. I do really love the city but that bothers me… the way of the world.
In some ways, the movie is about the romance of practical decisions.
The fact is, everybody has to make practical decisions in their lives. No one just has things handed to them, even people with money. I feel like it’s heroic for Frances to make these decisions because one of the hardest things to do in life is to let go of the ideas that you have for yourself, that you hope for yourself. The fact that she’s able to do it is heroic. I think the people around her who have money from their parents is both an indication of what I was saying, of what is going on in New York… the people who all seem to be struggling artists are actually funded [laughs]. And Frances is making that discovery because she just assumes they’re all in the same boat.
Q. Do you know a real-life Frances?
Noah Baumbach: I know people like Frances, I did know people like Frances. I identify with Frances too, from my 20s. But Frances was also a kind of comic character that we came up with. In a large part, I wanted to create something for Greta to play that I thought would be funny but also kind of have an authenticity to it.
Q. Where did you first encounter Greta before you cast her in Greenberg? And what impressed you?
Noah Baumbach: I saw a movie called Hannah Takes The Stairs and I thought she was really great. So, I requested that she audition for Greenberg. At the time I didn’t know if she was more comfortable doing movies where they improvised more, or if she could do something that was written. But I discovered that she much prefers to do scripted material.
Q. Manhattan has been mentioned, so how do you feel about the Woody Allen comparisons?
Noah Baumbach: [Laughs] I’m fine with it. Woody Allen is great.
Q. How big an influence has he had on your career?
Noah Baumbach: I almost can’t quantify what his influence is because I grew up watching his movies and reading his comic essays. I went to the same High School he had gone to. I grew up in Brooklyn. I was just so connected to him. I remember when I was old enough to see Annie Hall, I felt like he was speaking only to me. Obviously, lots of people feel that way. It’s so like part of my creative childhood and development. There was a time where I just sort of imitated him almost exactly when I was a kid. So, where it is now, it’s like I’m so familiar with it that I don’t even know any more where it enters into my own work.
Q. Have you ever met him?
Noah Baumbach: I have….
Q. And what did the child in you think about that?
Noah Baumbach: Oh, the adult in me even [laughs]! It was great. It was cool. He was kind of who I hoped he’d be.
Q. When I saw The Squid & The Whale, it had a big impact on me. Do you have a lot of similar feedback from people telling you how they related to it?
Noah Baumbach: I’m always happy to hear it, even if it means that maybe they didn’t have the best childhood. I’m making things for an audience. I’m making things that I feel invested in and that are personal to me, but I’m doing it for an audience and for people to have an experience. So, I’m always happy to hear those things.
Q. Was The Squid & The Whale autobiographical for you?
Noah Baumbach: I used a lot of my autobiography in that movie because it helped me invent things, which is true of all the movies, but used in different ways. Often I find if I use things that are more clearly autobiographical, those are usually the less revealing things. And then the stuff where I feel like I’m revealing more, I’m hiding it in ways that might not be as apparent. But I like to use, in all the movies, locations, people, clothing, names… I like bring stuff from my life into the movies because it’s such a good creative place to be. If I’m shooting on a street from my childhood where I had memories, even if I’m shooting something for Frances where I’m not literally telling that story, it’s a place I like to be. I find it puts me in a good creative space. So, to various degrees, it’s part of all of what I’m doing when I’m writing and making movies – I’m bringing personality into it.
Q. You have Adam Driver, of Girls fame in it. This seems like the movie that Girls will eventually get to – but you’ve already made it…
Noah Baumbach: So, they can just stop now [laughs]! Well, it’s interesting because when I cast Adam he had maybe shot the pilot but Girls hadn’t aired or anything. So, it wasn’t a reference I was deliberately making. But I understand the comparison. They’re 20-somethings in New York City.
Q. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas recently made some interesting comments about the future of cinema. How do you feel about them as an independent filmmaker. Do you find it hard to stay in cinema or will you look more to HBO and cable to get your stories made?
Noah Baumbach: Yeah, obviously things are changing in some way in the way people watch movies and where they go to see movies. A lot of that is out of my control… or should I say all of it is! But the fact of the matter is that most big studio movies are not for me, as a viewer or as a filmmaker. I’m fine with superhero movies… with my son, I’m happy. There are some good ones to go and see. But Hollywood is not making movies for adults, really, anymore.
So, I don’t know what’s going to happen to that business. I feel they know much more because they’re in that world. I think that whatever happens, I think the positive of it is that technology now allows for people to make movies in a much… they can look great in a much easier way than you used to be able to. Maybe, the one good thing about the end of film – celluloid – which is a sad thing in a general way… I do think these cameras are so sophisticated now you can make a movie and if there’s an audience for it, you can find a place for it. I think that’s a positive.
Frances Ha is released in UK cinemas on Friday, July 26, 2013