Frances Ha is new territory for writer-director Noah Baumbach. To briefly pigeonhole him as a filmmaker, he’s not the type of storyteller we expect to show someone joyously running down the street cued to David Bowie’s “Modern Love.” We’d expect to see a character breaking down talking about how much they hate the poppiness of that Bowie song and the people who love it. Roger Greenberg or Bernard Berkman wouldn’t have been a fan of that song or the character at the center of Frances Ha, Frances (Greta Gerwig).
She’s Baumbach’s most conventionally likable character yet. She has plenty of financial and career drama, but, even with some of that despair, Baumach’s picture, which he co-wrote with Gerwig, has a happy personality to it. Happiness is not the a feeling generally associated with Baumbach’s directorial work, but he seems comfortable with that new territory.
Here’s what the director of Frances Ha, Greenberg, and The Squid and the Whale had to say about Gremlins, his love of Woody Allen, and intimate stories:
Were you one of those writers who wanted to write Gremlins 3? [note: there's a joke in the film of a young writer discussing Gremlins 3.]
Yeah. Certainly when I was young…I liked every kind of movie, as I still do. But when I was sort of thinking about, like, “Oh, maybe one day I’ll be a filmmaker,” I didn’t really distinguish between Gremlins or She’s Gotta Have It, or whatever the movies were that I was liking at that time. I think there’s always a part of yourself when you’re that age when you think you’ll kind of make every kind of movie. So, Gremlins 3 certainly was part of that.
And you ended up making these intimate, immediate type of dramas. When did you know you were going to tell those kind of stories?
So you are saying you don’t see the influence of Gremlins? [Laughs]
[Laughs] I’m sorry. I don’t see much of Joe Dante in Frances Ha.
Also, at a young age, in my teens I started to discover the filmmaker element in movies I liked and then sort of movies that, I suppose, more personal in their execution, or at least more intimate in their execution. I came of age during Jarmusch, Spike Lee, the Coen brothers, and David Lynch. In retrospect, it was an exciting time in independent film. And Woody Allen always…I guess I always felt was always there in my life. I loved his writing. I loved his movies. I really admire the kind of career he made. And so, it was just sort of what I was drawn to, and the movies that mean something to me. It’s the story I find myself wanting to tell.
Over the years I’ve seen interviews with you where you’re almost always asked how much of the movie is based on real life. Do you take that as a compliment when people assume the movie has to be based on your life because it feels real?
Yeah. I mean the two questions that I tend to get on a regular basis are about how much of this is autobiographical and how much of it was improvised. I choose to take those both as compliments even though because the movies feel personal and I suppose, as you were saying, there’s a kind of intimacy or a sort of dissimilitude that feels maybe off the cuff or invented on the spot. But the truth is they are rigorously scripted and I’m not comfortable improvising on set, really.
Since this movie does follow a female protagonist, are there less questions over how personal Frances Ha is?
Yeah. I think Greta is getting more of them on this one than I do, so I can sit this one out. But, of course, the big secret is this is the most personal. [Laughs] I don’t know if that’s true.
[Laughs] Much of your directorial work has followed a struggling artist. Here you have a dancer who doesn’t get the dance, and then Greenberg, a failed musician, and then Bernard, also a struggling writer. Is that a very conscious point of interest for you?
It’s not conscious so much in that I’m thinking about them as struggling artists. I’m drawn to people who…Perhaps in the sort of specific cases all three of those characters share this sort of, in their individual ways, they share a…they all have an idea and a script, in some ways, of how they kind of hope and want their lives to be. We’re meeting them at sort of different points in this narrative. Frances is obviously younger, and Greenberg is even younger than Bernard was. But that script and those ideas of them…ideas they have about themselves and how their lives should be are coming into conflict with life as it actually is. I think an artistic pursuit, in some ways, I suppose it’s a career path that success is a kind of romantic and…that sort of success comes with trappings that are different. I mean the idea for Bernard, if he had Norman Mailer’s career, or if Greenberg had become a successful musician, or if Francis gets to dance, we know who those people are, the famous versions of those people. So I guess all this is to say that’s partly why I am drawn to those professions.
For yourself, how do you define success? Is it the box office numbers, reviews, or your own personal satisfaction?
It better not be the box office numbers. You know, of course my best self would say if I feel like I made a good movie, that’s what success is. But, you know, I live in the real world. I think the trick is to kind of understand the differences, just not conflate them. I think we live in a culture where this sort of box office focus has gotten conflated. I think if a movie does well at the box office we kind of accept the fact that it’s worthy in some way. Maybe it is as commerce, but it doesn’t mean that it’s creatively good. So, of course you want as much success as possible for the movies themselves. But you kind of try to separate that from your own personal satisfaction.
I’m curious about Greenberg in that regard. That was actually my favorite film of that year, but it was met with a mixed response. For yourself, even with that mixed response, do you consider that movie a success?
Yeah. I was very proud of that movie and I had a great time making it. I think if you are going to make a movie about somebody who’s at war with themselves and the world and having a certain amount of difficulty getting out of their own way, and then, thus, has a kind of, at times, prickly personality, I think from that standpoint the movie did quite well. I feel like it depends what kind of standards you hold it to. But it’s nice hearing from you that it was your favorite movie of that year. That’s a good thing.
How do you feel as a filmmaker now? I know for Squid and the Whale you said that’s where you began to feel your most confident. Do you keep feeling a sense of maturity or more confidence behind the camera?
Yeah, I do. I think every movie is its own thing. As soon as you start rolling the cameras you are working with nothing. The same way every time you start a script you are drawing upon the experience that’s gotten you to this place, but you still have to write it. And the same thing with the filmmaking. It’s like you are starting all over again each time. In some ways I’m not always aware of what is changing or developing about me as a filmmaker. I’m kind of just approaching the material and trying to do what’s right for the material I’m filming. But that’s it, too. I’ll learn new things on every movie.
That’s a good philosophy. Mr. Baumbach, thank you so much for your time. I look forward to seeing Gremlins 3 from you one day.
[Laughs] All right. I’ll try to get that for you.
Frances Ha is now in limited release.