Since his breakthrough The Squid and the Whale (2005), writer / director Noah Baumbach has specialized in dark comedies about deeply unsympathetic characters.

His seventh feature, Frances Ha, bucks that trend, somewhat. Its titular heroine, a wannabe professional dancer, lives an aimless life comparable to, say, Ben Stiller’s Roger Greenberg in Baumbach’s Greenberg (2010), but she is remarkably put-together, good-hearted, and more worthy of love and success than perhaps any of the director’s pervious characters. The film follows her misadventures and social traumas, including a “break up” with her best friend, as she nears the end of her carefree twenties.

We spoke with Baumbach and the co-writer / star of Frances Ha, indie darling Greta Gerwig, at a recent press junket.


I walked out of Frances Ha feeling totally elated, which to say the least, is not how your other films left me. When was the decision made to give Frances a more rewarding, uplifting character arc?

That wasn’t something I thought of before we started working but it did become clear early on that I wanted her to be rewarded. I felt kind of responsible to her, and wanted to produce a movie that celebrated her. I understand what you mean in relation to my other movies but in all cases I’ve just gone with how I feel, the tone I feel is right. To me the world is both uplifting, as in Frances, and complicated, as in, say Margot at the Wedding (2007). A lot of filmmakers I admire would have variations on a common theme, but could be both bleak or funny. It’s a matter of emphasis.

Are these characters based on people you know, or have known?

Not so much people I specifically know but people I always felt like I could know, or might have known. I wasn’t thinking of specific people. When I’m writing, I try to take from everywhere, bring it all to the table. The stuff that just isn’t right finds its way out. So you can forget where certain things came from.

You often make movies particular to a certain city, but not in a forced, obvious kind of way — few shots of landmarks, for example.

The New York of Frances Ha came from the title character. If she keeps moving, where would she go? Brooklyn, Chinatown ... within that I was trying to be as true to the (reality) as possible. If they lived in Times Square, I’d shoot them visiting Times Square.

Could you see yourself working on larger-scale or genre-specific projects?

I don’t know. I grew up watching filmmakers like Woody Allen, Hal Ashby, Scorsese — guys who always approached their work personally. It doesn’t mean I couldn’t make a more specific genre movie. But to me the real world is (inherently) cinematic — a girl lost in the city, trying to find an ATM. That feels like cinema to me.

And I have exactly the career I want. There’s no better luxury than that. I guess a better way to say it would be that I don’t think of (moviemaking) in terms of “size.”

The movie is filled with memorable characters, some of whom appear only briefly. Was there a much longer version cut down to feature length?

Oddly enough, what you see is pretty much the script as written. We’re actually working on the Criterion DVD now, but we have no deleted scenes (to provide).

Criterion might not stand for that.

Well, we’re doing other things for it, instead. My shoots are often cut shorter than the movie — the script for Frances Ha was a good 120 pages (in a final cut of 86 minutes).

greta-gerwig.jpgCO-WRITER / STAR GRETA GERWIG:

How did you and Noah develop the character of Frances?

Noah and I both use dialogue to develop characters and that’s how we found Frances. We found how she talked, how she was funny, sad, cocky.

You had to transition from co-writing the movie, to your separate roles of actor and director. Did that divide your “ownership” of the character?

The script was set in stone, and there was no improvisation on set, so there was (a clear) separation between creating and acting. My roles just switched. It didn’t feel like handing over the movie to Noah as much as I was letting it live.

A lot of Frances Ha felt familiar to me because some of my closest friends in college were dance students, like your character. Did you have any experience with that world before you made the movie?

I grew up doing ballet, but outgrew it — I wasn’t physically made for it and it can be quite punishing. I did more modern dance in college and loved it. I was so moved by the dancers’ stories. I knew a girl who was an apprentice with a dance company in New York ... when she turned 26, they basically told her, “You’ll never be a (professional) dancer with this company.” She’s good now, in medical school, putting the discipline she learned to different use, but I just thought that was the ultimate heartbreak. Of course, you should go for your dream but it’s necessary to readjust when it doesn’t work out.

Was there anything you alone brought to the story or character?

Certainly lines I know were mine, or Noah’s, but it was a pure collaboration in the sense of two people creating a third thing — alchemy. I’m not a musician but it’s what I imagine writing a song with someone else would be like.

Frances Ha opens in Toronto and Vancouver June 21, and in Montreal June 28.

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