Q&A

Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig on Making Frances Ha, the Film's Fashion Choices, and the Best Dish on the Menu at Bar Pitti


After establishing herself in mumblecore films like Joe Swanberg's Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007) and Nights and Weekends (2008) and Jay and Mark Duplass' Baghead (2008), Greta Gerwig significantly broadened her fanbase with her roles in Woody Allen's To Rome With Love (2012) and Greenberg (2010), director Noah Baumbach's follow-up to Margot at the Wedding (2007). As Gerwig and Baumbach's professional relationship took a turn for the personal (they're dating), the pair collaborated on a new venture, Frances Ha (in theaters May 17), which tells the story of a twentysomething aspiring modern dancer who vacillates between half-hearted dalliances and her uncertain job prospects but pours herself into her relationship with her college friend Sophie. Shot in black and white, Frances secures Baumbach and Gerwig's position as a writing, directing, and acting powerhouse.

Details caught up with the couple to talk about personal style, their approach to collaborating, and the film's unavoidable comparisons to Lena Dunham's Girls.

DETAILS: In the new movie, Frances is this irrepressible aspiring dancer who frolics her way through life. Can you discuss the symbolism and how it relates to the project's influences?

GRETA GERWIG: We knew early on that Frances was going to be a dancer, and it worked really well in terms of things that have expiration dates. It's like sports—if it doesn't happen by a certain age, it basically won't happen. And the kind of dance that I was doing [at Barnard College] was modern dance—this style called release technique. I wasn't great at it, but a lot of it is about learning how to fall and getting yourself very close to the floor. You jump, but it's literally more grounded than something like ballet. We don't have Frances give a speech about what she thinks about dance, but I always felt that all those release-technique elements made for a potent metaphor for what she's going through in her life.

NOAH BAUMBACH: The dancing was Greta's idea, and it worked for many reasons: the expiration date, the fact that it's a great visual occupation, and that it's anthropologically right for the character. I feel very connected to older movies and to my childhood in New York, but at the same time, I knew that, with this, I was shooting a very contemporary story about New York right now with a very contemporary character. So it was kind of baked into the whole project—this idea of old and new. And I'm not even always conscious of that. I think it's just how I see things.

DETAILS: Can we talk, specifically, about the wardrobe? Describe the choices that were made in dressing Frances and the other characters.

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NOAH BAUMBACH: Well, there's the scene where Frances is spending her first night with [roommates] Benji [Michael Zegen] and Lev [Adam Driver], and the three of them sort of drift back into their room. Lev is wearing this fedora with a T-shirt and a cardigan, Benji's got a white shirt and a tie, and Frances is in her dress. It looked so French New Wave—it looked like Band of Outsiders, or Jules and Jim, or something. And I love those movies anyway, but I was really just dressing them to look like people in Brooklyn right now, so it showed that those influences are so out of my control. They're just…in the water. Greta had a lot of ideas about Frances, like the bomber jacket and the backpack—there was always a lot of weight on Frances, even though she was light on her feet.

GRETA GERWIG: We wrote that Frances would wear a big leather jacket that wasn't "cool" but maybe just something that someone gave her once. And we gave her all these weird floral dresses underneath her bomber jacket, which felt oddly feminine and delicate next to her jacket, and big shoes and all this other stuff she's wearing. So much stuff is happening on her. And I think part of that was wanting to create something stylish but also something indicative of people who live in New York, in the outer boroughs. If you go out, you have to take everything with you for the whole day, because you can't go home. You don't really have the option. That was a big part of her and the way she looked—this sort of portable home.

DETAILS: How would you each describe your own personal styles of dress?

NOAH BAUMBACH: Hmm. I don't quite know how to describe it, but I tend to wear a button-down and a jacket. And often corduroys.

DETAILS: Why corduroys?

NOAH BAUMBACH: I like the way corduroys feel. I like the sort of jean aspect of corduroys, but also the texture of them. They probably remind me of my childhood, too, I think. I wore cords, and my dad had a corduroy jacket.

GRETA GERWIG: Noah has a very classy, restrained style and a very established look, whereas I'll go through intense phases. Like, I went through a period where I just wouldn't wear pants. For nine months, I only wore dresses. I just could not understand why anyone would want to wear pants! I bought, like, four fifties-housewife dresses, and I rotated them. And people got so used to seeing me in these dresses. Then, three weeks ago, I went back to pants and T-shirts. And Noah was like, "What happened to all of those dresses you were wearing?" I get infatuated and slightly Asperger's-y about fashion. I do the same thing with food.

DETAILS: We'll get to food. The music is also a huge part of the texture of Frances Ha, and like the other elements, it's a memorable mix of things—classical, banjo, eighties standards. What was the philosophy behind the soundtrack?

NOAH BAUMBACH: We wanted things that felt kind of bold and often joyful and romantic. I used a lot of scores from older French New Wave movies, and it kind of just elevated and warmed the material. It went alongside the photography—I wanted something that felt cinematic and big for this character. Likewise, the pop songs—the movie felt, in a way, like a pop song to us, like something you could just play once and then play again. The songs are mostly songs that just feel really good and felt right for the moments that we put them in.

DETAILS: There are a lot of indie films that feel like they're just chatty for the sake of being chatty, but this one fills its dialogue with a lot of weight and meaning. Can you describe the challenges of having characters talk versus having them actually say something?

NOAH BAUMBACH: I think I've always been drawn to the notion of talk as cinematic. We [filmmakers] are all taught that if you can show it, you don't need to tell it, but I tend to write characters who are always talking their way through life, with conversation as both a means of intimacy and a means of distance and deflection. I write people who are sort of talking to figure themselves out. Dialogue—and I think this is true for Greta too—is often my way into a character and how I discover scenes. It's sort of been a major weapon of mine in how I approach these things. I guess it just ultimately seems right for these characters to be talking a lot.

GRETA GERWIG: Working with Noah on this movie, I really learned about streamlining a script and winnowing it down to the least amount and still keeping it sparkly. We generated so much material, and what's actually in the movie is probably less than an eighth of what was generated. So I think that process of editing is really important. Just because you put words on a page and there's 110 pages of it doesn't mean that it's good. You need to force yourself to cut what doesn't fit. It's something Noah was used to and I wasn't, and it was painful. It's a cliché of writing to say you have to kill your darlings, but you really do. Writing can be very self-congratulatory if you're not ruthless with yourself.

DETAILS: There's a point when Frances says she's "not a real person yet" because she doesn't have a credit card, and it reflects her identity as an overeducated, underemployed adult-child who can't quite take the next step. Can you share your thoughts on how this archetype has become so common in our society, in Girls and beyond?

GRETA GERWIG: I think some of it has to do with the economic climate that many people are graduating into and the loans that they find themselves saddled with. Nobody's able to pay off anything they own now until they're, like, 40, which is depressing and also scary. But, beyond that, in a funny way, I don't feel comfortable speaking generationally, because I don't feel of my generation. I'm clearly of my generation, but I've always felt older than everybody else. I never felt like I was swimming in the zeitgeist, I always felt like I was outside of it or catching up to it. I was never the first person to wear Toms, I was the one who wore them the second summer they were out. I both live in the past and behind the times. I also think that, whatever the zeitgeist is, the 15-to-30-year-olds get saddled with it, but really, everyone is participating in it.

NOAH BAUMBACH: I think the thing with Frances that was always very clear to us was her economics—the fact that she doesn't have money and is trying to live in 2012-13. It's real story for her—all of her decisions have some kind of economic component. At the same time, though, when she calls herself poor, Benji says, "You're not poor, that's offensive to real poor people." But that's how she feels. We wanted all of that to be real and not just acknowledged, and in that way, I think it was very much about right now, and about the economics of New York City, and the near impossibility right now to live a bohemian life in New York unless you can finance it.

DETAILS: Greta, at the press conference for To Rome With Love, you showed this total, unaffected giddiness over simply being in a Woody Allen movie. Is it hard to stay grounded like that when you gain more success, and does it help to work with people close to you, like Noah?

GRETA GERWIG: It's not hard to stay grounded. It's so easy, because of people like Noah or Woody or [Damsels in Distress director] Whit Stillman. These people I've had the privilege of working with, and others as well, they're the people I really love and admire and look up to. And every time I get to work with one of them, it's like being able to talk to your gods, in a way. [Laughs] I know it sounds cheesy, but it's true. I don't think I will ever feel blasé about it. I think I will only feel in awe that I get to be close to it at all.

DETAILS: Your first collaboration together was Greenberg, which, for you, especially, Greta, really served as a breakthrough vehicle. Can you describe how your professional partnership has evolved since then and where you feel it's headed?

NOAH BAUMBACH: I felt like we really collaborated on the character of Florence in Greenberg, even though Greta didn't write it, she was just acting it. But with this one, we really were collaborators from start to finish. It was much more thorough, so I think we both would love to do it again and create something new.

GRETA GERWIG: Collaborating on this script was a huge step forward and amazing for me. We've written a couple more things since then, and then I wrote something alone, and he's directing something this fall that he wrote on his own. So, what I hope happens is that we both keep working in our separate spheres but keep finding ways to circle back. Because I think artistic collaborations that work are really, really rare. It's like having a band. You know, if you can keep a band together, it's like, "Make as many albums as you can before you all hate each other!" [Laughs] Because it seems inevitable that bands end up not liking each other, but with us, I feel very much that we can continue, and I, of course, would love that.

DETAILS: I understand you both frequent Bar Pitti in the West Village, often together. What are each of your favorite things on the menu?

NOAH BAUMBACH: Greta makes fun of me because I go there all the time and I still stare at the menu, like, "What do I want?" The classic there is the Rigatoni Pitti, which I love. But there's also a great fish soup, like a stew. They only have it in certain seasons, but when they do, I always get that. It's great.

GRETA GERWIG: For me, it's definitely Rigatoni Pitti. It's like, turkey sausage and cream sauce and peas and rigatoni, and it's so good. It's like the ultimate comfort food. Sometimes when I'm walking around in New York, I think about Rigatoni Pitti! [Laughs] But I love all the pastas there. They're delicious. I feel like Bar Pitti is singlehandedly keeping me five pounds above my fighting weight, but I don't give a shit because it's so tasty.

—R. Kurt Osenlund is an arts and entertainment writer and editor based in Brooklyn. Follow him at @AddisonDeTwitt.

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Photo (left): Noah Baumbach; Photo (right): Wilson Webb
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