Frances Ha interview: Baumbach & Gerwig on trusting the ground
"Tell me the story of us."
What sounds like pillow talk between a couple well into their twilight years is actually one of the many heartfelt exchanges between best friends in-platonic-love Frances, an amateur dancer who has trouble leaving places, and Sophie (Mickey Sumner), her roommate who is, as Frances says, essentially the same person just with different hair.
In Frances Ha, notoriously unsentimental writer-director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding) crafts a beautifully realized, black and white-lensed look at female friendship and quarter-life malaise with Greta Gerwig as his star and co-writer, whom he reunites with after 2011's Greenberg. But when asked about whether he set out to make a decidedly happy movie after years of difficult dramas, he says nothing was planned.
"From an early point in the writing process, it was clear to me what the tone and feeling of the movie should be," Baumbach offers over the phone. "I felt sort of strongly that the character needed to be rewarded for her struggles."
Though the notion of mid-20s rootlessness is not new - a topic Baumbach himself explored with 1995's Kicking and Screaming - the duo, dating since 2011, has made a winsome movie that shows our protagonist leaping, stumbling and twirling her way to a total of five different addresses as she tries to, borrowing a phrase from the movie, become a real person.
Her newly nomadic lifestyle is a direct result of Sophie's choice to move to a neighbourhood that Frances can't afford and the fact that it feels like a break-up is no accident; this is a love story.
"When we were writing the character of Frances, it just became clear at some point that she was very much in love with her best friend," Gerwig says, also on the line. "And I think once we realized that, the structure of the love story became part of the movie even though it wasn’t a romantic love story in a traditional way.”
In the movie, we see the pair doing the kinds of mundane things couple do: falling asleep in bed while watching a movie, with Sophie imploring Frances to take off her socks, sharing the occasional cigarette and daydreaming about what their lives will be like when they’re older and successful.
Part of the fantasy involves Frances as a world-famous dancer though we see that at 27, she’s just good, not great, stuck in the role of apprentice and without the grace one would expect from a woman who’s dedicated her life to movement. But then that's the point.
"I knew a lot of great dancers in college and there was an idea that they were playing with [and] in techniques I was learning about there was a lot of choreography that had falling in it and I thought that was really beautiful and thrilling to watch," Gerwig says. "And it's also a neat metaphor for, I think, what Frances is going through in life.
"When I was taught how to fall in dance, they explain if you tense up against it, if you try to muscle your way through it, you'll bruise and you’ll be hurt but if you give into gravity and if you trust the ground and you soften into the fall, your body will protect itself."
|Mel Writer-director Noah Baumbach on the set of Frances Ha (Courtesy of Mongrel Media)
Of course Frances can't account for her bruises, bleeds when she falls and is constantly called undateable by a guy who clearly thinks the opposite, a particular lack of self-awareness Baumbach says he can recall as he looks back from the ripe age of 43.
"Certainly the time in life, the changes that are going on for her at 27, living in New York, [having] limited means, I was certainly thinking of my own 20s," he says. "I was going through a lot of changes at 27 that were happening at the time and it was only in retrospect that I realized, 'Wow, I grew up so much during that period of my life.' And I think that's something that's true for Frances; there's actually a major transition for her but she doesn't see it, she'll only know it when it's over."
That transition is played out without making Frances a pitiable, pathetic sort - quite the opposite in fact. Thanks to Gerwig's astutely comedic, full-bodied performance, audiences can't help but root for her to get her life in order and will likely smirk knowingly at Baumbach and Gerwig's honest look at getting to your 30s in one piece.
After the film enjoyed a warm reception during last September's Toronto International Film Festival, and sitting at fresh rating of 90 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes, Gerwig is pleased, if surprised, by the response.
"When you make a movie, it feels like you're inventing a language and creating a world and then right before you show it, you think 'Oh my god, is anybody going to understand this language we made? Maybe no one will understand the language,'" Gerwig says with a giggle. "And then when they laugh, or they respond, you feel like, 'You not only understood the language, you're a native speaker of the language and we were able to reach you.' It's not every movie that connects quite so strongly but it is sort of the reason for doing it."
Frances Ha opens in select Cineplex theatres June 21.