For his seventh feature film, Frances Ha, writer/director Noah Baumbach makes something of a departure. He still captures characters at a transition period in their life with a serio-comic tone, but present in Frances Ha is something not commonly seen among Baumbach’s characters – optimism. Thanks in large part to a wonderfully bright performance from Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha offers a completely earnest glimpse at the struggles of transitioning from youth to adulthood including lost friendships, increased responsibility, and financial burdens.
According to Baumbach most of the movie’s success happened by accident, or because it simply “felt right.” I had a chance to sit down with the director when he was in Minneapolis for a retrospective of his work at the Walker Art Center. Read excerpts from our conversation below:
ALEX: In my reading about Frances Ha it sounds like it was a movie that sneaked up on people. It wasn’t on a lot of people’s radar as something you were working on.
NOAH: Yeah at one point we weren’t even 100% we were going to make this movie. Then when we went ahead and made it, I wanted to make it in a totally stripped down way. The fact that people didn’t find out about it was not by design.
NOAH: A lot of that was Greta, but I think it was also just the character we found ourselves writing. We didn’t set out to write the character in any specific way, but I think we both felt like we understood her very quickly. Not a lot of discussion went into “who is Francis?” We kind of just knew. The joyful elements of the movie all felt right for this character. It was clear to me that the movie should reward the character.
ALEX: That was something I definitely appreciated. Even though things weren’t going her way, it still felt like everyone was on her side.
NOAH: Yes, exactly.
ALEX: When I saw a modern New York being shot in black and white, I inevitably thought of Woody Allen’s Manhattan. How much of an influence was that film?
NOAH: I’ve always loved that movie and I think you kind of have to contend with it if you are shooting a contemporary black and white film in New York. I love the quality of the black and white in that movie, the Gordon Willis photography is stunning. Also, I love his use of music – the Gershwin music is timeless, celebratory, romantic, lush. The music we use, a lot of it is Georges Delerue or music from older French films, also has that kind of romance. It’s like “cinema.” Whenever you shoot black and white, it will always evoke other times. It’s like immediately nostalgic.
ALEX: It really felt like you were catching all of these characters in the middle of something. Many of the scenes were very short and scenes cut away in the middle of dialogue. Talk a little bit about that choice.
NOAH: I’ve done that a lot actually. In this movie, in the script stage even, there was a very musical quality to it. It just felt right for the movie, probably because it’s what that time in your life feels like – either flying by or going on forever. It’s also sort of how memory works and the black and white supports that feeling. Even the opening montage with Greta and Sophie, it’s like Frances’ perfect day with her friend. It’s both mundane and glorious, sort of like how she would remember it when it’s all over.
NOAH: It was a breakthrough in the script writing process when we figured out how to keep bringing Sophie, or the presence of Sophie, back even when Frances was moving to different places. That was the challenge in writing it, because it’s almost like a road movie where no one goes anywhere. Then we had to figure out how to keep Sophie alive if she wasn’t able to be in all of the places. There were things like the Paris sequence, which we kept in just because they were funny, but then having Sophie call her when she was in Paris gave it even more meaning. It’s interesting, though, because we never even considered a male love story. When we were done I think we were kind of proud of that, but it wasn’t like we set out for her not to have a boyfriend.
ALEX: What advice do you have for any young filmmakers who are trying to get their movies made today?
NOAH: The difference between when I was starting to make movies and now is definitely the technology. In a way Frances is a good example of this. It’s far from my first movie, but I think it was made with the spirit and energy of a first film and shot digitally with a small group of people. I kind of realized you can do that now. You don’t need to build this monster that most movie sets are. Here comes the advice part: if it’s the right material, you can just go out and do it. I think that’s what I would do. There’s not really an excuse anymore. It used to be that a small movie would look smaller, but I don’t think that’s the case anymore.
Frances Ha is currently playing in select cities. It expands to most major cities tomorrow.