Greta Gerwig is one of those actresses you just want to have brunch with someday. Watching her in the irresistible new film “Frances Ha” (which she co-wrote with director Noah Baumbach), you get the sense that she’s one of those down-to-earth stars, like Jennifer Lawrence and Lena Dunham, that aren’t afraid to be a bit goofy and can spin even the most mundane topic into something worth laughing about.
She's appeared in a slew of mainstream and indie movies the past few years, with roles in Woody Allen’s “To Rome with Love,” “No Strings Attached” and the Ben Stiller-vehicle “Greenberg” (also directed by Baumbach). Now a real-life couple, Gerwig and Baumbach looked to French New Wave cinema when creating the black-and-white “Frances Ha,” which received overwhelming praise from critics and one of the best specialty box office debuts of the year when it opened in New York and LA earlier in May.
“Frances Ha” dances into Valley theaters this weekend, opening at Harkins Camelview 5 in Scottsdale on Friday, May 24. The East Valley Tribune had the pleasure of catching up with Gerwig to discuss the film, the challenges of shooting in New York and what movies she’s looking forward to later this year.
Q: So to begin with, I loved your New York Times piece about the bathroom-stall scene and the 42 takes you shot for a mere 28 seconds of dialogue. What were some of the other more challenging scenes to shoot, in terms of number of takes or just the chaos of filming on the streets of New York?
A: Well one of the reasons I picked that scene to go over and dissect was because I actually thought it was pretty representative of the whole movie in terms of take number. I mean we really did tons of takes. It wasn’t frivolous or pointless; I would say most of the movie is constructed out of the second-to-last take or the last take. It was really something that we were using as a tool to find layered, nuanced performances combined with the very best camera blocking we could come up with. It wasn’t just madness without a purpose.
I would say the most challenging parts were kind of, I suppose, the stuff just on the streets of New York because we couldn’t control the foot traffic or anything like that. There was a lot of uncertainty as far as maybe your shot gets blocked or stuff like that. You just can’t know ahead of time how the film is going to work out.
That was challenging but it was also kind of great because we got all this cool street life that’s actual street life as opposed to extras. I think sometimes extras can be used really well in movies but I feel like for the most part I can always tell they’re extras and I like that we have actual footage of people in New York.
Q: I read one interview where you said you believe people “wear their cities in their bodies and on their faces.” How would you describe Frances’s relationship with New York or how she “wears” her city?
A: Well I think one of the things that we talked about and wrote into the script was pretty early in the script where we wrote in some costume choices. I think the defining factor of living in New York City as opposed to Los Angeles is you don’t have a car so you have to carry everything you need for the day on your back, especially if you live in an outer borough and it takes you a long time to get home. So when you leave for the day, you have to have everything with you that you could possibly need that day. So you have to have, like, street clothes, the clothes you wear for dance rehearsal, you’re carrying deodorant and makeup and a brush, a change of clothes, I mean, like, maybe you carry a computer.
So that element of Frances having everything on her back that she needs for the day is something that I feel like is particular to New York City. In a way, it forces you to kind of like economize and reduce the number of things that you have because not only do you have to carry stuff with you but also space in New York is so limited that you can’t have that much stuff, like you literally can’t have that much stuff. I think you’re kind of forced to travel light in all ways and I think we wanted to show Frances running a lot because it feels like it’s the pace of the city, like she’s running, she’s tripping over herself, she’s moving with the pace around her.
I think that’s something that New York feels like to me as opposed to when she’s in Sacramento, which feels a little slower and like she has time to stretch out. Things like in Sacramento, she’s literally the size of the landscape and in New York, she’s dwarfed by the landscape, and psychologically what that does to you.
Q: Was there anything that you and Noah watched or read while writing “Frances Ha” that influenced the story or its tone in any way?
A: Yeah, I’ve been watching a lot of Éric Rohmer’s “Six Moral Tales.” I find them very inspirational and they have this kind of presentational quality to them; this very presentational, talky quality that I really like and Noah loves them, too. It’s sort of going for almost the more intellectual conversations because they have them in those movies or like there’s this speech where Frances talks about what she wants out of life. I mean we made it more traditionally cinematic but there’s something about that speech that I feel like in Rohmer movies, he’ll just give characters philosophies that they explain and I love that the whole movie just stops and you listen to a character explain their philosophy on love or on life or something. There’s nothing inherently cinematic about it but he somehow makes it kind of cinematic.
I also just like ideas. I was a philosophy major so I think I always respond to someone, even if it’s kind of a crackpot theory, I’m totally into just listening to someone explain how they think the world works. I just find it really interesting.
While we were writing it, there was the film “Another Year” by Mike Leigh. I love that movie; it’s great, it’s the best. The way it’s divided up into seasons – that’s what kind of gave us the inspiration to demarcate the movie into parts from where she lived. I really like in the movie the way there was elapsed time. You’d kind of be figuring out what happened in between these two sections. I just thought it was an amazing movie and I really loved it. I love Mike Leigh and I re-watched “Career Girls” and “Naked.” I find his actors really inspiring and the way he’s such a good storyteller but it’s so subtle, you don’t even realize the story’s being told. I find that really inspiring.
A lot of books, too, I mean I’m a pretty big reader. There’s a Joseph Conrad novella called “The Shadow-Line” that I found very inspirational for this. It’s about a 27-year-old man who takes over a sailing ship. [Laughs.] I know, I know, it sounds so far away from the movie but I actually found thematically, I just felt like basically it was the same story, just different circumstances.
Q: I know that in the past, Noah has compared this film to a pop song. Is there a song that you associate with Frances or one that reminds you of her?
A: Well I think what he meant by that and what we felt when we were talking about it was there’s this visceral experience when you hear a great pop song and you kind of play it over again instantly. It’s just short enough that you have to hear it again and you keep playing it as if there’s going to be more song one of the times. I think most of the songs I feel that way about are rock ‘n’ roll from like the 60’s and 70’s. I feel that way about a lot of different artists, like obviously Bowie but you know, T. Rex and The Rolling Stones. I feel like the list is too long. Luckily we got Bowie’s “Modern Love,” which I feel is the quintessential pop song.
Q: To wrap things up, what are some films that you’ve enjoyed recently or movies that you’re looking forward to this year?
A: Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell” I think is so great. I really, really loved it. I’m excited for… what else am I excited for? [Laughs.] I’m excited for Alexander Payne’s black-and-white movie (“Nebraska”). I’m excited for the Coen Brothers’ new movie (“Inside Llewyn Davis”). Yeah, I think that’ll do it. Oh, and I’m excited for this movie called “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” by David Lowery. We actually came up on the film festival circuit together like around 2006, 2007, so I’ve known him for a long time and I’m so proud of him and I can’t wait to see the movie.
“Frances Ha” opens Friday, May 24, at Harkins Camelview 5 in Scottsdale. To learn more about the film, visit http://www.franceshamovie.com/.