About the Production
Frances (Greta Gerwig) the exuberant 27-year-old heroine of Noah Baumbach's new comedy, FRANCES HA, is always on the move without ever seeming to get anywhere. The truth is she knows exactly where she wants to go, she's just unwilling to make the kind of compromises that might get her there. A fount of optimism, Frances is singularly compelling because she never lets anything -- including reality -- slow her down.
Sparked by a notion Noah Baumbach had for a story about a woman in her late twenties in New York, Baumbach and his star and co-screenwriter Gerwig passed ideas and themes back and forth via email. "I was thinking about a role for Greta initially, says Baumbach, "as I wanted to work with her again after GREENBERG, but I was also thinking about portraits of youth in films like the ones Truffaut and Rohmer did, many of which were in black and white." Baumbach and Gerwig had a unified sense of how they wanted the story to go. "I don't think either one of us ever had a moment when we said 'I didn't see it going this way, but let's try it,'" says Gerwig, who, previous to FRANCES HA, had written two plays and had co-authored screenplays. "It was more like everything grew naturally out of an unexpressed, mutual understanding of what the film wanted to be." Says Baumbach: "when you write something together, you forget who wrote what after a while -- it all fuses into one." Gerwig saw the script as a collaboration in the truest sense of the word: "I think it's more of an alchemy of sensibilities, where two things are combined that are totally different -- when they make something it's not just a combination of the two, it's greater than the sum of its parts."
While Gerwig maintains that Frances isn't her, or even a sublimated version of herself -- all the same she had effortless access to devising her character. "It's like there was another person inside me waiting to be written and acted," she says. "She came into the world just fully walking and talking, with her mannerisms and behaviors, what she wore and what she wanted. I really feel like I can't take credit for it, or account for it in any real way, because it felt like it was just waiting to be realized. Of course, I am going to take credit for it!"
At the start of the film, Frances (Gerwig) is living a life of seeming bliss with her roommate, Sophie (Mickey Sumner), who has been her best friend since college. Frances and Sophie have a relationship that has lasted longer and is more intimate and loving than any relationship either of them have had with men. Frances likes to describe them as being like "an old lesbian couple that doesn't have sex anymore." Says Baumbach: "Boyfriends have come and gone in their lives, but they have been constants for each other, more important than their romantic relationships."
What Frances hasn't picked up on is that Sophie's life has started developing and moving in a way that hers hasn't. She is more practical and wants a career, and a serious relationship with her boyfriend Patch (Patrick Heusinger). "Sophie is more clearly goal-directed than Frances is," says Gerwig. "She's better at looking at the world and seeing her realistic options, and Frances struggles when she's given the parameters of reality. She wants to listen to her heart first."
When Sophie abruptly announces that she's moving out of their apartment, Frances is shocked and emotionally shattered. The only way she can cope with it is to refuse to believe it actually happened and that she'll be able to convince Sophie that she's making a mistake and things will return to the way things were before. "Frances is pushing against reality in an unconstructive way, and it defeats her," says Gerwig. "She's like someone who is trying to open a door when there is a window open to climb through. You can say, 'there's another way,' but she can't give up the idea of 'I want to go this way.'"
Frances is just as stubborn when it comes to her career as a dancer. As evidence mounts that she is unlikely to ever advance from apprentice to principal member of her dance company, she refuses to accept it. "I've always felt that dance is a potent metaphor for things that have an expiration date," says Gerwig. "I've known a lot of apprentice dancers who reach a point where they've been doing it for years, and it becomes clear that they'll never be part of the company. Suddenly the life they've been preparing for is not the life they're going to get, and then what do they do?"
Sophie's departure sets Frances meandering through half a dozen apartments, and many cities. "I like to think of FRANCES HA as a road movie with apartments," says Baumbach. "Although Frances is moving places constantly, she's refusing to move forward in other ways, and I like the dichotomy of the character and the story: Frances is refusing change; she's stamping her foot, demanding that things be as they were." Unwilling to invite a new roommate into the Brooklyn nest they once shared, Frances stumbles across a room in a large apartment with two well-to-do acquaintances, Lev (Adam Driver) and Benji (Michael Zegen). While she can't afford the rent, she negotiates a temporary rate that she promises to supplement through her future earnings as a dancer. When the dance work doesn't come through, Frances finds herself basically homeless, so she puts her belongings in storage and heads off to Sacramento to visit her parents. "It was very important to Greta and me that Frances' economic situation be very real," says Baumbach. "I think Frances deciding whether or not to pay the extra $3.50 on her ATM charge is a major consideration for her and the movie takes time to present that." Not being able to stay at home forever, Frances returns to New York, where she crashes with Rachel (Grace Gummer), a principal dancer in the company that Frances apprentices with. While at a dinner party with some of Rachel's friends, Frances finds out that Sophie is moving to Tokyo, and hears a casual mention of an apartment in Paris owned by one of the guests. For reasons known only to herself, Frances takes a hasty trip to Paris, an action that is truly beyond her means. Now that her money has really run out Frances decides to move back to her alma mater Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, for a summer job. "At that point Frances feels like she's been cast out of society," says Gerwig. "She feels like she's wandering in the wilderness, and so it seemed fitting to literally put her in the woods near Vassar.
Frances' habit of moving so frequently is only one of the things thwarting her development. "There are certain filters that she does not have," says Baumbach. "She doesn't always seem to be aware of her audience. She says she finds it funny how people talk about their kids -- in front of people who have kids. I think she tends to assume that she has a sympathetic ear when sometimes she doesn't, but it's never mean-spirited." Frances also has a certain obliviousness to things that are going on with the people in her personal life -- like any evidence of Sophie's increasing discontent -- as well as her professional life, as when she rushes back from Paris for a meeting that could easily be rescheduled. Says Gerwig: "So much of what Frances goes through is externalized, and sometimes she doesn't remember that other people don't always say what they feel, or express what they feel."
While tracking Frances' wanderings, the interactions between Frances and Sophie in the present gradually reveal more and more about what their relationship was like in the past. "The challenge of the screenplay was to create forward momentum and then at the same time reveal both what is special and working in the dynamic between Frances and Sophie, and what needs to be fixed," says Baumbach. While Frances has flashes of anger, unreasonableness, and neediness, she puts everything out in the open; Sophie is more internal, distant, notably in the way she springs the news about moving out while they're on the subway. "I know Sophie really loves Frances; it's just that she doesn't love her too much at this point in her life," says Baumbach. "That kind of relationship is less important to her right now than it is for Frances. I think as the movie goes on you can retrospectively understand how it would be hard for Sophie to tell Frances that she's moving out."
While certain aspects of Frances' temperament are peculiar and self-defeating, there is also a part of her that is vivacious and irresistible. "She is open to life at the same time that she's seduced by fantasy," says Baumbach. "The scene of her running in the street in Chinatown with David Bowie on the soundtrack isn't just a moment in the movie, it's actually a representation of her ability to feel joy." Frances also has a dogged persistence to her -- when she falls down -- which often happens literally as well as metaphorically -- she jumps up right on her feet again. "There's a certain Charlie Brown aspect to her, but without the sort of depressive nature of Charlie Brown," says Baumbach. "There's no 'good grief' with Frances."
For a film about such a contemporary subject, Baumbach made the offbeat choice of shooting the film in black and white and using music from Georges Delerue, composer of such sixties classics as Truffaut's JULES AND JIM and SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER. "The movie is about, in some ways, how an 'ordinary life' is actually extraordinary," says Baumbach. "I wanted that for Frances and for the movie -- a style that had a certain kind of elevated movie beauty. The black and white underscored that, and I wanted music that felt big, lush and romantic." Baumbach adds: "there's something about the black and white and the look and feel of the movie that's both old and new at the same time -- it both evokes another time and is also totally timeless." Gerwig says the black and white reminds her of the strips of pictures that come out of photo booths. "Me and my friends would go to the State Fair in the summer and take those pictures," she says. "There was something instantly sad about them even while they were happening. They felt like something that was both nostalgic and of the moment. I remember getting them out and looking at them and already feeling like I'm going to be old one day looking at them. I think that was the feeling we were going for."
Most of the filming for FRANCES HA took place in August and September of 2011 in New York City, with a hiatus before filming in Paris (late November), Sacramento (late December), and with additional shooting in the spring of 2012. "We built our schedule in a way that if we didn't feel we got something, we could go back and do it again," says Baumbach. "These breaks also allowed Greta and me to think about scenes and the movie as a whole, look at footage and change things if we needed to." Baumbach adds: "In some ways knowing you have the time takes a certain amount of stress off you, so you can actually do the work in a way that is not radically different than how you'd do another movie -- you just don't have the anxiety."
The actors in the film weren't ever shown the entire screenplay, only the scenes that involved their characters, and these scenes were only doled out to them around the time they played them. "I think it can be hard for actors on a long movie shoot, no matter how experienced, not to sometimes play a scene as it falls in the movie, versus the scene in how it falls for their character," says Baumbach. "This is particularly true towards the end or at a turning point in the story. I just felt like this was an opportunity to try it another way, and only let the actors know the movie from their perspective, and the scenes from their perspective." Says Mickey Sumner, who plays Sophie: "At the beginning I was a little frustrated and wanted to know everything, but by the third day I realized that it was actually a very good way to work. I didn't have to stress about what was coming up; I could stay very present and in the moment, and just focus on the day's work. We mostly shot chronologically and there were things I didn't need to know and it was interesting when new information would come up, like: 'That's my last name? I'm Jewish?'"
Although Baumbach had collaborated on the screenplay with Gerwig, and knew the lines backwards and forwards, watching her perform as Frances proved to be a totally different experience. "Greta would say a line or have a reaction in the scene that was both totally unexpected to me, and at the same time totally what I wanted but couldn't articulate," says Baumbach. "As an actor she's very much in the moment. There's nothing planned, or at least nothing feels planned. And then she has the technique and craft to do it again for another nineteen takes which is also necessary when you're making a movie in this fashion." Baumbach feels that one of Gerwig's greatest virtues, as both a writer and an actress, is her sense of humor: "She's one of the funniest people I know, and more importantly, when she acts she's funny in a way where it doesn't feel like she's doing comedy. She can be Frances and be really funny -- but it's Frances who's being funny, not her. She never sells out the character for a joke."
Gerwig felt motivated to do her absolute best because of Baumbach's perfectionism as a writer and director: "There's so many colors and nuances that we tried to get with every take that he pushed me to ask a lot more of myself than I had asked of myself before," she says. "I really deepened as a film actor through working with him. I developed a lot more stamina for creating a performance over a long period of time. It really is like running a marathon." Gerwig felt he had the same perfectionism as a writer that he did as a director. "He wanted to make everything as perfect as it could be -- to make every moment, every line, every choice as fully realized as it can be, and then doing it again and again and again."
While the role of Sophie is quieter and less ostentatious than Frances, it is no less crucial. It was important that they be able to give off the impression that they had known each other for years. After auditioning a lot of people, Baumbach and Gerwig chose Mickey Sumner. "There were lots of amazing actresses who came in to read," says Gerwig, " but Mickey had something that was special -- she didn't overplay it. She didn't make a weird voice, or pretend like we were really close friends; she just treated me like you would treat a close friend -- without a lot of bells and whistles, just kind of honestly." Gerwig continues: "She also played Sophie with a kind of impenetrable quality, that I think really works, because you can understand how frustrating she was for Frances, because she's kind of hard to read in some scenes." As Baumbach's approach was to not over plan the movie, Sumner came into the film with little contact with Gerwig before shooting. Still, she didn't find it difficult to create the appearance of a long-term friendship: "Greta is such a wonderful human being to be around, so it's very easy to fall in love with her -- and I did. I think it's lovely when you play friends and then you become friends."
FRANCES HA is in many ways a love story between two best friends. Frances loses Sophie, and then struggles obsessively and unsuccessfully to get her back. What she doesn't understand is that she hasn't lost Sophie at all, she just hasn't figured out how to be friends with Sophie in a new way. "Their lives are on different trajectories," says Sumner. "Sophie is falling in love with her boyfriend Patch. He may or may not be the right person for her, but she loves him, and is trying to make it work. Frances' problem is that she wants their relationship to be the way it was. The movie's about growing up, and about moving from that awkward position of college where you're still like a kid, into womanhood, where you're making adult choices. And it's awkward and painful and I know from myself, there are some people you were friends with in college who are no longer part of your life."
While Sophie is more practical than Frances, and seems to have her life plotted out, things don't always turn out as perfectly as she had hoped either. "There are glitches in Sophie's plan, and things happen that make her have to reevaluate her situation," says Sumner. "This leads her back to Frances or rather it leads them back to each other." Says Baumbach: "in order for Frances to really be a good friend to Sophie again, she has to come to another point -- she has to develop, she has to mature, and be okay with herself."
Most contemporary movies about twenty-somethings tend to focus on the ways the current generation differs from previous ones, but Baumbach doesn't believe that is really true: "They may have cell phones and the internet, but they have the same commitment to friendship, and the same money and work issues that my friends and I had at that age." Baumbach suggests this timelessness by photographing the modern New York in black and white and it's this offbeat conjunction of time and style that breathes new life into our perception of FRANCES HA and makes it unexpectedly new. Also, by imbuing the story with the emotional resonance of fondly remembered classic films, Baumbach doesn't artificially raise Frances' stature so much as he reveals her in all her exuberant, unstoppable glory. "I wanted to give Frances a grand cinematic portrait," says Baumbach. With FRANCES HA, he has done exactly that.
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