Frances Ha's Greta Gerwig on Lena Dunham, Woody Allen, and Her Dream of Directing
Before this week, the films of New York writer/director Noah Baumbach threatened to pigeonhole him as a grim observer of embittered human behavior. Then the 43-year-old invited 29-year-old actress Greta Gerwig to co-write a script with him. Frances Ha, the result that opens in Miami today, pitches a shimmering curveball into his filmography, most recently known for Ben Stiller's misanthropic turn in Greenberg and Nicole Kidman's cruel mother in Margot at the Wedding. With Frances Ha, Gerwig has brought out in Baumbach a lighter touch that has no equivalent in his oeuvre.
Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha
It's easy to understand how it happened. Even speaking over the phone from New York, Gerwig exudes a luminous quality. When she laughs, it takes up both exhale and inhale. One cannot help but wonder if she, who is now Baumbach's girlfriend, had a part in bringing some brightness into his work, but she refuses to take any credit. "It's equal parts him and me, but it's also something we could have only made together," she explains.
"I think it's the first time in a movie that he's directed where he's had a full co-writer and co-creator," she continues, "and I think that it's not just that I made it happier. I think it's just that when we worked together, this is the kind of film that we make, and I think it's just about this particular alchemy between us that makes this kind-of-feeling movie."
Frances Ha follows a 27-year-old woman (Gerwig) learning to let go of her best friend and roommate (Mickey Sumner, Sting's daughter) who's ready to move out for a better-paying job on the other side of town. Meanwhile, Frances is left to figure out how to make her own opportunities in her career choice: modern dance. On the surface, the film's concern with text message-speak and "very aware" Manhattan apartments featuring vinyl records might reveal an indulgence in people still growing up as members of Generation Y. However, Gerwig notes, Frances Ha is more concerned with the notion of quarter-life crisis that resonates beyond generational boundaries.
"Although the movie is about a certain age, in a way I don't really see myself as writing about or commenting on my generation or even see myself or identify myself as part of a generation or another, because I think, from the beginning of time," she pauses for a laugh, "I really do think 27 is a kind of a big age. I think it's an age that people pass through their youth. You kinda don't realize it until it's over, and I think that she's in that moment of passing through her youth. I read this book called The Shadow Line by Joseph Conrad, and it's about a man who takes over a ship when he's 27. I just feel like there are all these references to that age, and that being an important change of a point."
Though the film unfolds in contemporary New York, the movie was shot in black and white. It's not stylized monochromatic black and white, but has an incandescent quality that recalls early Jim Jarmusch, who first shot on black and white film simply because it was cheaper.
But Frances Ha also exudes a nostalgic love of film similar to Woody Allen's use of black and white for works like Manhattan. Gerwig says she is flattered by the comparison. "I think that for both Noah and I, Woody Allen is so in our experiences of what movies are and the kind of movies we love that it's almost invisible in terms of an influence because it's so big, if that makes sense."