Here’s another awkward moment, in case Greta Gerwig is taking notes for a sequel: When a sliver of downtime presents itself on a recent Thursday afternoon at the W Hotel in downtown Manhattan, her lunch waiting in the hall, she decides to stand at the food cart, eating a chicken breast and side of fries half-concealed by a room-service tray.
Gerwig doesn’t yet notice that I’m sitting alone in the hallway, suddenly the audience to the meal. When the interview starts several minutes later and she realizes what happened, the 29-year-old blonde film veteran is apologetic, explaining, “You just never know when you’re going to get a chance to eat during these things” — like an actress getting caught tucking into a meal is a serious offense.
Shot in black and white, Gerwig’s new film Frances Ha follows her as a flailing 27-year-old dance apprentice navigating the financial and personal struggles of the first half-dozen post-college years, those growing pains that seem simple and charming in retrospect years later. But of course, reality creeps in and discomfort soon abounds.
And yet, Gerwig is self-conscious where Frances is not, carefully choosing her words and trying her best to hide her chewing (Frances goes to town on fried egg bagels like a starved refugee). The actress and character share an earnestness and optimism, but the Sacramento native has a talent and work ethic that far exceeds anything her screen persona could ever even fake. Gerwig began the process of writing the movie upon invitation from Noah Baumbach, which came in an email he sent shortly after they worked together on 2010’s dramedy Greenberg.
Writing Frances Ha, says Gerwig, took about a year. “It was a long process. It was hard too; I’d never really worked that intensely on a piece of writing,” she says. “I’d written things in college, and then plays after college, but I’d never really gotten farther than two drafts in, and so I’d never learned how to take something apart and put it back together. The curse of a little bit of talent is that you’re a lot lazy.”
Following her graduation from Barnard, Gerwig spent most of the last half-decade as part of the mumblecore movement, a loosely defined genre of digitally shot, minimally budgeted and well-reviewed movies that often went unseen by the public at large. Working alongside Mark and Jay Duplass and Joe Swanberg, among others, she says she grew as an actress, but has also grown out of that creative phase. Many of the films (iincluding Swanberg’s LOL and Hannah Takes the Stairs) were semi-improvised — “I can feel it now, when [improv] happens in movies, and I can feel myself resisting it,” she says — creating a certain set of habits that had to be broken.
“I don’t mean this to be arrogant, but I can write dialogue all day. That’s my comfort zone,” Gerwig explains. “Making the dialogue count toward the story — I always resist it, but then I love it when it’s in place, because I feel resistant, it almost feels like I’m forcing a structure on something that doesn’t want to have a structure. But then I love structure, and I love it when I see it in other people’s work. I just have to implement it and I let it sit for long enough that I get comfortable with it.”
Of her contributions to the script, Baumbach — now also Gerwig’s boyfriend — says, “There’s no way to quantify it. I think why we work well together is it felt very much of one voice, so when she would work on a scene and send it to me, it always fit with whatever I was doing.” The pair were in sync even over the internet, assembling the screenplay by passing it back and forth through digital edits.
“We weren’t in the same place a lot of the time just because of work and life,” Baumbach says, “and so a lot of it was done by email, but that was just more by necessity. Because the movie was broken into chapters, in some cases it was easier to divvy up sequences. She would work on something and I would work on something and then we’d switch.”
Baumbach and Gerwig bring together two generations of New York filmmakers who have erred toward the personal and specific, eschewing the big and bombastic for small, poignant domestic stories. Gerwig’s mumblecore movies often painted portraits of listless twentysomethings in lo-fi, studying the banal for a glimpse at human nature. Baumbach — since starting his career with 1995’s Kicking and Screaming, a movie about post-grads from Vassar who delay their entry into adulthood with heady conversation and angst — has done much of the same, with a heady and intellectual dressing.
Just as he did with 2005’s The Squid and the Whale, Baumbach in Frances Ha zeroes in on the particulars of the anxieties and struggles of the white and fairly well-to-do. The subject matter is a staple of the indie film world, both celebrated and derided for its insular focus, hailed as insightful or dismissed for being self-involved. The Squid and the Whale was loosely based on Baumbach’s adolescent struggles with his parents’ divorce; Frances, while not explicitly about Gerwig, is very much an examination of millennial malaise, a generation trying to extend childhood while embracing the trappings of adulthood.
It’s a point that is brought up by an angry audience member several days later at a special sneak screening and Q&A on a rooftop in the Lower East Side, who accuses the movie of having no “social value.” Baumbach mostly dismisses the remark in the public forum, but it’s a perception of which he is not unaware.
“They’re basically psychological and emotional struggles that can be true under pretty much any circumstances,” he says of Frances’ subject matter, with an obvious subtextual reference to all of his movies. “All of us kind of are squaring our ideas of ourselves and what we think our lives are going to be, versus how our lives are actually turning out. I think that not only does pretty much everyone have to deal with in their lives, it’s something they deal with over and over again throughout their lives. For me, it’s because it is coming from a psychological and emotional place, and so the story or the milieu is what I’m trying to do, is match one with the other. And I tend to write about people, or kind of, who I feel I know or understand.”
It’s a style that took him a long time to develop from his roots as a cinema-obsessed kid growing up in Brooklyn.
“I think there’s that kind of thing where you’re young and because you like all movies, once you start thinking about, if I ever did this, you kind of imagine yourself making all movies. You’re like, I’ll make Raiders, I’ll make 48 Hours, I’ll make Road Warrior, I’ll make Hannah and Her Sisters, I’ll make She’s Gotta Have It,” he says. “You think you’re going to make everything, and I still like everything. But I think the concept of understanding yourself and who you are and what you are drawn to and want to do, I make the movies I want to make, and then I write the things that mean something to me. But I also grew up in the wake of the auteurist ’70s directors, and Woody Allen was such a kind of figure in my life as a filmmaker, and that notion of that career as I got older always seemed to me as the career that I should try to emulate.”
As both an of-the-moment story and classic love letter to New York, Frances Ha seems in some ways like a modern descendant of Allen’s Manhattan; with its focus on a young woman trying to find her way into adulthood and surrounded by aspiring artists with paternal benefactors, Frances Ha has inevitably been compared to HBO’s Girls.
Perhaps the best way to draw the distinction is that Girls’ creator/star, Lena Dunham, is like a young female Woody Allen, all nerves and quips and Jewish sensibility amounting to a particular brilliance; Gerwig is like the non-Jewish women Allen has cast as leads in his movies (Diane Keaton, Mia Farrow), smart and independent and (at least on screen) seemingly more carefree than he could ever imagine being himself.
It is incumbent upon any actress to speak positively about the project that she’s currently promoting, whether she likes it or not, but Gerwig is genuinely glowing about Frances Ha, which is understandable given the number of ways its production changed her life.
“I might in five years feel like, What a useful effort and feel like I’ve moved beyond it, but I really love the way this movie feels and the way Noah directed it,” she says. “The script that we wrote, it’s the closest I’ve ever seen — acting- and writing-wise — that I’ve come to what I love about movies.”