There's a moment in Frances Ha when a young woman tells Greta Gerwig's 27-year-old Frances that she has the face of someone older than that. Gerwig is older — she's 29. And in conversation, the star and co-writer of director Noah Baumbach's movie has the voice of someone more mature still.
Not the speaking voice — she doesn't sound worn or aged — but something else. A knowledge, an authority. The veteran of Hannah Takes the Stairs, Greenberg, Baghead, Damsels in Distress, To Rome With Love, Lola Versus, Nights and Weekends and the Russell Brand remake of Arthur cites influences who died before she was born or left this world when she was still a child. And she doesn't simply name-drop; she uses such references to amplify points that she's ready to make about her own career and process.
Frances Ha, which opens in Kansas City May 31, comes loaded with Gerwig's strong sense of cinematic heritage. The movie, in which Frances awkwardly juggles the gradual loss of best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) and a more sudden stagnation in her career as a dancer, is set in a contemporary New York. But Gerwig and Baumbach (the maker of The Squid and the Whale and Greenberg, and Frances Ha's co-writer) have imbued their project with old-school sensibilities.
The film is shot in Woody Allen black-and-white. It doesn't shy from physical comedy, and it favors Georges Delerue and 1980s David Bowie on the soundtrack. Gerwig and Baumbach (the two are also a couple) have put Gerwig's own sensibilities front and center. As she tells The Pitch by phone, even the rare scenes in which Gerwig isn't on camera bear her stamp.
The Pitch: There have been a lot of movies and TV shows lately that deal with young people who haven't found their way in life, but Frances seems a lot more sympathetic than some of those characters do.
Gerwig: It's not that she's without direction. It's just that her direction is not working out. The things that she had at 21 seemed really great — they seemed positive and going in the right direction. At 27, those things seem less positive and less promising.
For example, her apprenticeship with the dance company. At 21, it's a big deal. She feels very special to do this. At 27, when she's never going to join the main company, it just seems less good. It's something everyone can relate to, whether they're in their 20s or beyond, is this idea of sometimes you have to give up the life you were planning to live the life that you have.
Frances hangs out with a lot of people who say things like, "The last couple of times I've been to Rome or Paris," while she's barely able to cover her rent, much less afford to travel.
Sometimes there's a real blitheness to people who are successful and doing well, and they don't realize it's a heartbreaker when someone is listening to it.
During your amusingly clumsy dance sequences, I was reminded of silent comics like Buster Keaton, in that while it's funny to watch you take the falls, there's an evident risk.
I'm a huge Buster Keaton fan — and Chaplin — but particularly Buster Keaton with that kind of acrobatic looseness and then precision. You need to be a dancer and an athlete in some way. I always thought about the performance being a full-body performance, that it wasn't just my face or my voice. It really existed head to toe.
The way Noah shot the movie really allowed me to do that. That was kind of where that idea of a physical comedic persona came out of with this character, and dressing her in all these specific ways: with the clogs, and the bomber and the backpack, and watching her run. There's something about that that feels almost like a movie from the '30s.
I grew up dancing and I love dancing. We obviously made her a dancer, and I've never been a professional dancer, but I love it a lot. We almost wanted to treat her like a dancer, like the way Fred Astaire said you need to shoot a dancer from head to toe at all times. We were like, let's shoot like that as much as we can. That really influenced the look of the movie.
Another thing about the look of the film is that it reminds me that Orson Welles said that black-and-white was "the actor's friend." Do you think that's true?
I've heard that. I think one of the things it does is, it creates this sense of almost timelessness and nostalgia, which I think takes you out of something that feels really ephemeral and makes it seem like it's part of the tradition of film.
It's also so beautiful, and I think people look beautiful in black-and-white, too. Obviously, I love a lot of color films, and I think color can be very emotional and used very well. But there's something almost impressionistic about black-and-white because it makes you almost able to experience more the emotions of the film and the faces of the characters more purely because it's not literal to life. I think it gives the film this thing that Orson Welles is spot-on about.
Your education is in English and philosophy. Have you written anything for publication?
I've written a couple of things that are for the printed page, but I have trouble writing if I can't think of it being embodied and said out loud. I'm almost like I'm a prewritten-word human. I feel like my brain is engineered like those of people who listen to epic poetry. There's something about speaking things out loud that I just understand it more.
It's hard to totally explain, but I read out loud to myself even when I'm reading novels because I really like to hear the words and the way they sound. I think I've always veered toward theater and film because it's dramatized and it's performed. There's this performative aspect of writing that I just understand better. I feel that even if I were to write novels, I'd probably make it into some weird performance art where someone reads it out loud.
There's an autobiographical edge to your work and to Baumbach's. For example, when Frances goes home from New York, she goes to Sacramento, your hometown, and those are really your parents.
In some ways, I felt really safe doing it, and it was the right decision because it's so written and because it's so structured. Not a single word in the movie is improvised. It's all very scripted and tightly controlled.
Because of that, I felt quoting directly from my life felt that I was putting it in something that was real and built a fictional world around it. It felt like I was using it in a way that was more like the Al Hirschfeld drawings, where he did caricatures of Carol Channing and he always hid his daughter's name in them.
Oh, yeah. Nina.
You look for the "Nina" because it's in there. Obviously, everybody with the Internet can look it up and know that's where I grew up. But if you were just watching the film, and you had no idea — I just like having some ideas that are real, that are really, truly resonant for you. To me, the landscape for Sacramento is so specific.
We talked about not shooting it there because it's a pain in the ass. We had to move the entire production to Sacramento for a week to shoot these little scenes. It was as inconvenient as going to Paris. But what was great about it was, we could have gone to Connecticut or something and just shot a suburb.
But to me, that landscape doesn't look the same. There's something about the way that Sacramento looks and feels to me, like those first suburban houses that are right after World War II that are low to the ground, ranch-style houses. [Frances is] literally the size of the landscape in Sacramento, and in New York she's dwarfed by the landscape.
Originally, the Sacramento section was much longer. So when it was long, we figured we would have had to hire actors. Because we winnowed it down to almost be an impressionistic montage, I convinced my parents to actually be the parents, because I love them and I think they have great faces.