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.
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."
Frances Ha also has a charm influenced by the French New Wave of the 1950s, another inspiration Gerwig will not deny. However, as with Allen's influence, the presence of filmmakers like François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard reared its head organically. She notes that it took her and Baumbach by surprise.
"We really didn't start talking about the French New Wave specifically," she says, "but as we progressed, and we were shooting in black and white, and we did all these tests to make sure we could get it in the kind of black and white that we wanted it, we really found all these moments where suddenly the French New Wave was popping up, like they were shots that were suddenly like Band of Outsiders, and then we would follow through with saying, 'Well, it looks like Band of Outsiders, so maybe we'll just try to get that shot and we'll reference.'"
The film also features brief flourishes of music by Georges Delerue, who worked with virtually all the directors associated with the French New Wave. Originally, Gerwig recalls, the idea to use this music was an in-joke during the production process. But it turned out to have a witty quality that added a layer to the narrative both Gerwig and Baumabach could not ignore.
"The Georges Delerue music [was] individually put in as place holders as the movie unfolded and developed," she says. "It just really felt like it belongs in the movie. Just as the big, classic rock ... kind of poppy music, like Hot Chocolate and David Bowie and T. Rex and Harry Nilsson, this classic French cinema music belongs in this too. It was also one of those things where it felt like a joyful discovery of the French New Wave while we were making it."
Gerwig has never shied from calling herself a cinephile or movie nerd. She seems comfortable with participating in a movie that can reference important influences in modern cinema while still maintaining relevance as straight-ahead entertainment, so one wonders if she would like to direct. "Yeah, I hope to, in the next little bit," she reveals. "That's something I realized I really want to do. It was never something I realized I could do for a long time, and I don't know why exactly, but I just never thought that I would be able to or that I'd never be any good at it, and I think I no longer believe that," she says with a boisterous laugh.
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One of the obstacles, she admits, is her own prejudice of the director's chair having been dominated by men. "To be honest it's a lame excuse, but it just seems very male, and it seems like it was just something that men said they wanted to do in college. I didn't really know any women who said they wanted to do it. It wasn't until really being out in the world and meeting filmmakers like Lynn Shelton and Lena Dunham and Liz Meriwether, who's a writer, and Diablo Cody, and there's so many of them that I didn't know them," she says with another giggle. "And it wasn't until meeting them that I think, in my 20s, that I had built up a reserve of confidence and a feeling like it's not just a boy's club."
Follow Hans Morgenstern on Twitter @indieethos.