When I saw Frances Ha, I was having a bad day. It was pouring with rain, a number of other mitigating factors had taken place, things involving public transport and blisters, nothing too earth shattering, but enough to grouchify.
After the film I was on a high so intense I immediately had to have a wild night, fuelled by many, many Campari-and-sodas, ending in a free and rollicking dance in an apartment to David Bowie’s Modern Love, a song that features on the soundtrack. I recounted this to Noah Baumbach, the director of the film and he immediately laughed. I hope he laughed in a good way because I cared what he thought – not something I admit often – I cared because he’d made my day in a way that not many people ever can.
I cared because his creation is a delight. A beautifully shot black-and-white homage to the late 20s push and pull of working out who you are – and coming to terms with the fact that may not be who you think. There is a warning here too, for I am about to multi-reference Woody Allen because the joy I felt seeing this was on a par to the joy I feel from Allen.
It is both fresh and nostalgic. It felt both like my new favourite film and the last scene of Annie Hall, looking through a window at a situation, which is all too familiar. The story, one of a best-friendship between Frances (Greta Gerwig, also the co-writer) and Sophie (a wonderful Mickey Sumner), where Frances was far more emotionally invested, is pitch-perfect. That’s the topline. The thing that demands you to watch is that it perfectly captures period in your 20s where you are coming to terms with the fact that the YOU you’re projecting may not actually be the YOU you are or the YOU you’re ever going to be.
Baumbach, who you may know as the writer and director of The Squid and the Whale and Greenberg, is also a delight. He’s written with Wes Anderson and he’s made a seminal film about 90s slackers in Kicking and Screaming when he was in his mid-20s. He is, at least in my mind, the modern day indie pin-up for American, and predominantly New York, filmmaking. Shy at first, his New York accent opens up as we talk, one thought at a time.
“I feel like it’s something we all have to do, we all have to wake up to life as it is as opposed to life as we hope it is, imagine it is or want it to be, and I think we have to do that over and over again throughout our lives, I mean, to different degrees, so I don’t think it goes away.” Perhaps the fresh-nostalgic clash comes from the fact that Baumbach and the star of the film, Greta Gerwig wrote this together.
They met when she was cast as Ben Stiller’s lost assistant in Greenberg, which is, as Baumbach pointed out, also about “a character dealing with the story he has for himself and the story he’s actually living”. Gerwig, a handsome blonde actress previously best recognised as the face of Mumblecore, was discovered, both by Baumbach and the greater universe. She now has charmed the greater public with her perfect comedic timing in films like Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress and Allen’s To Rome with Love.
Baumbach knew he had to work with her again. And so he emailed her. “My idea for the movie was to work with Greta, so it all came from the notion of collaboration. I didn’t know initially that we would write it together but when we first started engaging and sending ideas back and forth, it was clear to me I should just follow her in a way.”
His nervous laugh doesn’t necessarily give the game away but the mask certainly slipped a little. I can’t help but think how romantic this situation is. Yes, they’re dating but it happened sometime during the process of Frances Ha and they don’t talk about it – at least not in the separate conversations I had with them and I wasn’t going to start it off.
Gerwig, like the film, is two-sided. On one hand, her voice is warm and giggly and thanks me for making the time to talk to her. It feels easy, like you’re talking to your most fun girlfriend. On the other hand, her intellectual instincts are so strong and precise, the fun delivery distracts from a brain whirring at lightening speed. She oftentimes will spill out an answer and then rephrase again, which is endearing and gives her just that sense of freshness that her character Frances enjoys.
“I read the script he’d written for Greenberg and I just had this instant feeling of ‘I didn’t write this but it’s how I hope I write when I do write’,” she says. “It is very precise and very specific word choice and very casual, even though it’s not. So that was really good. That’s the first hurdle.” Baumbach, clearly, was not aware of hurdles. “She had so many funny, good ideas and I thought, ‘well, let’s explore this stuff and turn it into a conversation and collaboration’,” he says and I hear him smile down the phone. This means I can’t help but think that the reason Frances Ha is infused with so much romance is because it was created with that energy bubbling behind it. That, and talent.
“Most of the writing was back and forth on email,” says Gerwig of the writing process. “Noah and I approach things very similarly which means that we find the story we’re telling through dialogue mostly … I mean, we really write to find out what the movie is rather than deciding what the movie is and then writing it.”
I get the sense there was a strong connection from the very beginning, both striving for the same things, both equals. It doesn’t matter what they’ve done before, it matters what’s going on now and they both seem to have the ability to recognise a kindred spirit. Gerwig agrees. “I think we both share quite a bit of, like, a sense of editorialising life as it’s happening, which I guess means you’re some kind of writer. As something’s happening you’re commenting on it or seeing it through the lens of when you’re older. I think it was certainly helpful for me to have a writing partner who was past this age, because it allowed him access to a vantage point that my melancholy tendencies don’t have.”
Here, she has just summed up the plight of my entire 20s: too melancholic to see things for what they are, striving for something – or in fact – anything. To describe the feeling of ‘being inside your own head’ struck a chord and should for any writer – as external or internal as one may be. Like I said, she’s the friend you wished you had. As is the character she created with Baumbach, Frances.
Baumbach rewards Frances for her romantic lack of direction. “Because Frances was going to have to grow into the reality of her life as it is as opposed to how she thought it would be, we should reward her romanticisim at the same time and give her romance too.” He considers this for a moment. “We didn’t know that the friendship was going to be the love story. Friends are everything to you when you’re that age, so that just became the truest relationship to focus on.”
At 29, Gerwig is still vibrantly living in this moment. When I ask her about the demise of the friendship, she talks fluidly, as if this is something she’s turned over and over in her mind and not because she’s probably been asked about it by journalists.
“I think we were both really attuned to the idea of, the way the movie opens with them having this perfect day. You don’t know what the last great day you’re going to have with your best friend is, you just know when you’ve never had it again.” A moment of silence creeps up on us both as we both take in the poignancy of what Gerwig has said. She tries the next sentence a few times before she finds just the right way to say it. “I think that was … We really felt that … These things that pass in life that have no memorialising mean they have no markers and you just know that they’re gone.” Baumbach agrees. “I made a movie about divorce and divorce is a forced transition so you know it’s happening and you have something to focus on, it doesn’t make it any easier … For Frances, often for people in their late 20s, there’s a change happening and they don’t know it’s happening until it’s already over.”
The instant-nostalgia is completely enhanced by the black and white, beautifully treated by Pascal Dangin, the photo whisperer and my art director idol. I mention this to Gerwig, which sparks off a long conversation about our favourite black and white New York movies – all Allen – Stardust Memories, Broadway Danny Rose and of course, Manhattan.
“The black and white was definitely playing with (instant nostalgia). I mean it looks like something that’s gone already. I also think it was this effort to give her this beautiful, grand, cinematic film that she would not guess she’s living in” Gerwig pauses. “Black-and-white film to me feels like we’re at the movies … It’s impressionistic, it’s not actually how you see the world because we see the world in colour.” Satisfied, she lets out a big sigh. I wonder if this is, subconsciously, why I’ve always sobbed in black-and-white and why scenes like Charlotte Rampling staring into camera in a perfectly-lit-black-and-white shot in Stardust Memories
are the ones that have caught me the most off-guard.
The music (as Baumbach says, a combination of “beautiful and romantic”) includes Georges Delerue, he of the French New Wave era, as well as big, BIG numbers like David Bowie’s Modern Love. Those big emotions we all feel in our 20s, huge, graphic reactions, over-emphasis of everything, they’re enhanced and epitomised by this music. Baumbach laughs when I describe this in a rambling, over-the-top way. “I felt like it could be a further expression of the character and her experience, so she gets the tax rebate and it’s this celebratory music…” That music was Hot Chocolate’s Every 1’s A Winner. And it really works. He goes on to describe the use of Delerue in New Wave film as “an element that is hidden in the scene that’s been bought out by the music” which makes me want to watch Jules and Jim forever to just see what he’s talking about.
It’s quite easy to slip into a dream-like place when talking to Baumbach, to drift off to a world which feels like the world they’ve created here. In this world we would editorialise our lives, collaborate with people we love, probably have torrid love affairs and, most of all, have dance parties in our apartments to David Bowie. We’d talk about ideas and maybe we’d over-analyse things in the way that one might at 4am. However, it would be exciting. And beautiful. And imperfect, with moments of bliss. The night I saw the film I felt alive in a way I hadn’t for a while – if just for one moment.
We’d be complicit too – we’d actively give into the process of the world. Just as Gerwig has with Baumbach. “Noah and I speak the same language and I feel like he’s so capable of looking and seeing what I’m giving him and where I need to go and how we’re going to get there, that it’s very easy for me as an actor to give over to that process and let that be.”
As the instant nostalgia creeps up on me, I think about how much happier I am that I’ve spoken to them and been allowed in to their world, if only for a few hours and how I’m already excited for their next film, which they are already shooting.
Gerwig leaves me with this: “There’s a line in the movie where he says ‘Do you want to go to the movies?’ and she says ‘Movies are so expensive now’ and he says ‘Yeah but you’re at the movies’… I mean, it was a desire that was totally reliant on someone wanting the same things that we wanted. But also, to remember what it feels like to go to the movies and sit in a dark room and watch images on a screen. It can really make you feel things and transport you. There’s something very simple about it and very pure.” Simple, pure, romantic bliss.