EIFF 2013: Noah Baumbach on Frances Ha

Noah Baumbach speaks to The Skinny about Frances Ha, his latest collaboration with Greta Gerwig, ahead of the film's UK première at this year's Edinburgh International Film Festival

Feature by Tom Seymour | 07 Jun 2013
  • Frances Ha

In his ability to turn the neuroses of departing youth into compelling cinema, Noah Baumbach has taken Woody Allen’s crown to become the chief fable-maker of the big city condition. And in Greta Gerwig, a gangly 29-year-old from Sacramento, he has found his Annie Hall.

“When I auditioned her for Greenberg,” Baumbach says of his first collaboration with Gerwig on the 2010 film, “she was camera ready. She understood the character so immediately and deeply I felt I was learning from her. I think she connected to something very specifically in that character, but she has a Katharine Hepburn quality to her; she’s trained to do everything. She’s one of the funniest people I’ve ever met, and when she acts it’s not cerebral in the slightest; it’s so felt.”

That audition became something more; a month into the shoot of Frances Ha, Baumbach and Gerwig became a couple. Amid the film’s questioning and concern, the intensity and intimacy of new love is fervent; much of the film is shot in Gerwig’s own apartment, while a Christmas trip to Sacramento, in which Baumbach was introduced to her parents for the first time, is incorporated into the movie.

“Greta once told me she went to an industry party in LA, and a director complimented her on Greenberg before asking, ‘Were you just someone they found?’” Baumbach says in a clipped New York accent, before laughing down the phone. “With a lot of actors, you’re made aware of what a tour de force their performance is. With Greta, you don’t know where the acting begins or ends.”

After a decade of mumblecore movies, mainstream success has come to Gerwig, but you wouldn’t know it on the strength of Frances Ha. It’s a low-key study of development no longer arrested, of the precariousness of life – financially, socially, romantically and professionally – in the suspended time before it becomes ‘real.’

Gerwig, who also co-wrote the film, plays Frances, an aspiring dancer clinging to an apprenticeship and flat-hopping around Brooklyn after her best friend Sophie – “the same person, with different hair” – jettisons her for an uninspiring man. In the uncertainty of her life and the uncertainty of her choices, Frances asks us to contend with important questions: what are our 20s for? How do we bid them goodbye? How can we contend with the knowledge the life we earnestly imagine for ourselves might somehow fail to materialise?

Shot in a burnished black and white and with a gorgeous retro-pop score from French film composer Georges Delerue, Baumbach and Gerwig self-consciously evoke the freewheeling French New Wave films of Éric Rohmer and Agnès Varda. Yet this film is genuinely post-millennial, the best example of a recent subgenre of movies – Olivier Assayas’ Something in the Air, Harmony Korine’s Springbreakers, Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring and, on the small screen, Lena Dunham’s Girls among them – that could be called the Quarter Life Crisis canon.

“With a lot of actors, you’re made aware of what a tour de force their performance is. With Greta, you don’t know where the acting begins or ends” – Noah Baumbach

Baumbach, on the surface at least, seems always to have known how his life would pan out. The son of former Village Voice film critic Georgia Brown, he made his first feature, Kicking and Screaming, when he was just 27. Yet it hasn't exactly been easy. He has openly talked about the therapy he went through at the time, as any successor to Woody Allen should.

When asked about his early career, the composed voice on the phone becomes hesitant, mangled with ‘you knows’ and ‘kind ofs.’ “My late twenties, not unlike Frances’s, were a period of adjustment,” he says. “It was a period of discovering the script I had written in my head was not matching up to my experience. That was very hard for me to acknowledge. It took time for me to admit, and be open about, the fact that it wasn’t all going to plan, and that – actually – was OK. But now what do we do?”

The 43-year-old seems to have successfully passed through these moments of doubt. He has since made another seven features, with three more in production. He's also found time to co-write two of close friend Wes Anderson’s films – Fantastic Mr Fox (in which Mrs. Fox informs her husband, “I love you, but I never should have married you.”) and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou – and script Dreamworks animation Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted. He has an infant son, Rohmer, born only a few months before his marriage to actress Jennifer Jason Leigh ended in 2010. The boy lives in LA but Baumbach, a Brooklyn native, ensures he makes a trip to the West Coast every fortnight.

“In your 20s, you spend a lot of time feeling embarrassed,” Baumbach continues, still looking back. “Someone said something about my movies that I liked: ‘You know how embarrassed we all are.’

“But you have two choices, I think: to embrace and work with what you actually have, or to pretend it’s all going exactly as you imagined and rewrite the script in your head, which I suppose is the more narcissistic way to go at it.”

Given that missive, one might be forgiven for thinking Frances Ha is didactic, at worst dismissive, of the threats of a misspent youth. In fact, it’s a clarion call for taking your time. As A.O Scott writes in the New York Times, Frances Ha is “in the end less a satire or a cautionary tale than a bedtime story for young adults.”

“Yeah...” Baumbach drawls, considering the phrase. “Yeah, a bedtime story. I like that.”

Frances Ha has its UK première at Edinburgh Film Festival and is released across the UK 26 Jul