Arts Desk

Director Noah Baumbach on Frances Ha, Twentysomethings, and Great Pop Songs

Early in his career, Noah Baumbach made the delightfully wry film Kicking and Screaming, which followed a group of college buddies who go through a sort of existential crisis upon graduating college and spend the subsequent year loitering around campus instead of leaping into adulthood. It’s a terrifically personal mediation on, well, the same kind of crisis many feel after graduating from college.

Kicking and Screaming served as a launchpad for Baumbach’s career, distinguishing him as a unique voice in indie film, and led to collaborations with (of course) Wes Anderson on a number of screenplays. But while Anderson built a career on fantastical, idiosyncratic films, Baumbach’s work turns more inward with works like The Squid and The Whale, Margot at the Wedding, and Greenberg.

In his newest film, Frances Ha—something of a spiritual sequel to Kicking and Screaming—Baumbach reunites with his Greenberg star Greta Gerwig (with whom he co-wrote the film) to tell the story of a 27-year-old who is stuck at a crossroads as she bounces through living situations in New York City, Paris, Sacramento, and Poughkeepsie. Recently, I spoke to Baumbach over the phone about Frances Ha, working with Gerwig again, his film scholarly upbringing, and how pop music factors heavily into the film.

Washington City Paper: Location plays an integral part in the narrative, and each different city setting—New York City, Paris, Sacramento, Poughkeepsie—is inherently characteristic of that setting. Was this a deliberate part of the script?

Noah Baumbach: Well, at a fairly early stage in the script process we came up with the idea of different chapters being different locations and subsequently using addresses as chapter headings in a way. I think that discovery for us both gave shape to the movie and I think it also informed much of what we did after that. It also underscored what we’d been trying to figure out up until that point. It said so much about the character, the movie, the time and life, New York City. It was all kind of there in that structure. All this is to say that it wasn’t that we were necessarily setting out to tell different stories in different locations, but that the location idea, I think, was a big discovery for us while working on the script.

WCP: Right, it didn’t feel as if the different locations told different stories so much as they characterized Frances in a different thematic light.

NB: Yeah, that’s definitely true of her, but I think it’s true of all of us to some degree. You know we’re all different people in different contexts. Who we are with our parents is different than who we are with our friends, or people of the same sex, or different sex, or people we’re interested in romantically, whatever the case may be. I think that’s also part of each one of these chapters and something that Greta does brilliantly: You feel that change while she maintains this strong consistency of the character.

WCP: How did you make the choice to shoot in black and white?

NB: Initially it was just intuitive; I wasn’t really an intellectual choice. But retrospectively, I knew the material, landscape, and character all felt very contemporary to me and I think the black and white contrasts that and supports it by making it almost immediately nostalgic. There’s a kind of old and new theme going on at the same time, and I think that’s right for this story because it’s about—well, for Frances it’s about the present—but it’s about a moment in all of our lives: This late-20s time when we’re making a transition from young adulthood to adulthood. I think the black and white makes that idea both nostalgic and present.

WCP: Greta comes from this mumblecore film background that's rooted in improvisation. A lot of the dialogue and interactions in this film feel very loose and natural. How much of the film was improvised?

NB: It was all totally scripted; there was no improvisation in the movie. We worked together earlier on Greenberg and when I was auditioning her I had sort of a question of if she could do this. I thought she was brilliant in the films that I’d seen her, but they were largely improvised, so I was wondering if this was something that she’d be interested in, working with some text that was largely not going to change. I found that she’s actually more comfortable that way. The thing with Greta is that with a fixed text, she’s more freed up as an actor. Going into this one we’d already had that experience, so we wrote the script together and by the time we were shooting we knew what we were working with.

WCP: I read that both of your parents were film critics and your brother is a film professor at Columbia University. How did that upbringing shape your cinematic sensibilities?

NB: Well, when I was a child my parents were film critics, but I didn’t think of them like that. They were of the culture: They were teachers, they were fiction writers, they also loved movies and wrote about movies, but they didn’t feel like film critics in any traditional sense. I always thought of them as just writers and that was sort of what that culture was like in the ‘70s. But, that said, movies were highly valued in our household and we were taken to lots of movies. In many cases movies I wasn’t quite ready for at the time.

I grew up with movies, but I didn’t know anybody who made movies and the process of making movies always seemed so mysterious to me: I didn’t know how it was done! But I loved going to them and watching them, so when it was something I set out to do as an adult I felt like I understood the medium in some kind of intrinsic way because I had watched so many of them growing up.

WCP: Greta’s character Frances really seems to tap into a specific mid-20s ennui of reaching a crossroads in your life. Since most of the characters in your past films have also been very personal, I’m curious about how you connect to Frances?

NB: I think what you’re responding to in all my movies is—in some ways—less biography and more the personal nature of them. For me, this is just as personal a film as any of them. Obviously, this is a story of a 27-year-old girl and I’m a 43-year-old guy, but that time in my life was similarly one of big change and transition for me. A change and transition I didn’t realize I was in as I was in it. So, as Greta and I were exploring this character and this milieu, I was immediately very connected to it; very drawn to it. For me, [this film] is not different—I mean every movie I make is different—but what draws me to them and why I choose to make the one I make is in some ways a mystery to me, but I kind of just try to go with what seems interesting and kind of hope it is to other people as well.

WCP: Along with location, the film’s pop-heavy, throwback soundtrack is also one of the most striking elements. Can you talk about the motivation behind the music?

NB: I wanted the music to be big and romantic and celebratory and hopeful. I wanted it to feel good. That was the case with all the pop songs I used, they were all songs that I would always play and immediately want to play again as soon as they’re over. It’s an almost indicative quality to a great pop song. And I think Greta and I, in some ways, always thought of the movie as a pop song. A great pop song is in some ways like a great movie: Something that you could watch and as soon as it was over just play again. So I picked songs that that really gave me that feeling.

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