Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.
To say that the films of Noah Baumbach are divisive is to be…well, absolutely correct. There is something so eternally "white" about the problems of his characters as to be a bit grating to some, but I've always had a soft spot for his brand of complaining and dark humor.
I remember being utterly fascinated by Baumbach's first movie, 1995's KICKING AND SCREAMING, because it reminded me of conversations I used to have with friends about any- and everything. He perfectly captured the eternal dialog that people have with each other that can be picked up weeks or months after they end. Then along came THE SQUID AND THE WHALE, the Oscar-nominated (for best original screenplay) work, in which Baumbach threw open a window looking in on the venomous, dissolving marriage of a New York couple in the 1980s. The film struck a chord with people (including me), and showed divorce for the ugly and painful thing it can turn into if left unchecked. Of course, millions of people know divorce is often terrible, but I've never seen it put on display like this before. And it showed us how deeply fucked up the children of parents like the ones in this film can become during the process. It's one of the most difficult films I've ever experienced, and I recommended the brutality to everyone I could.
Baumbach's MARGOT AT THE WEDDING was another vitriolic look at New Yorkers (this time the setting is Long Island) who spend most of their energy pushing each other's buttons. The characters in this film seem more mentally damaged than those in SQUID, but the writing is just as stinging and mean.
I was afraid he'd go even darker with his next film, but he seems to have gone more accessible and funnier with GREENBERG, starring Ben Stiller and a relative unknown actress, Greta Gerwig, who has emerged from her mumblecore roots and become something of an indie darling bordering on mainstream quirky girl (a la Judy Greer) in works like NO STRINGS ATTACHED, TO ROME WITH LOVE, DAMSELS IN DISTRESS and LOLA VERSUS.
Baumbach and Gerwig have paired up again (in more ways than one) with the single-girl-in-New-York comedy FRANCES HA, which gives Gerwig a chance to show us her range while still playing the slightly sad and adrift 20-something, who can't seem to pull her life together; Gerwig co-wrote the film with Baumbach, and apparently the two began dating as they shot the film. I don't bring this up during my interview with Baumbach, but it's clear that his admiration for Gerwig as an actor and a personality is there.
Despite have a female protagonist, FRANCES HA may be Baumbach's most personal work (and if we believe the rumors, the pair may have already shot a follow-up film), and the stark, beautiful black-and-white result is part Lena Dunham, part Woody Allen and part Baumbach.
Capone: Hi, Noah. How are you?
Noah Baumbach: I’m good. How are you?
Capone: Good. It’s been a few years. I think I talked to you last for MARGOT AT THE WEDDING. I think that was the last time, but it’s good to talk to you again.
NB: You sat GREENBERG out.
Capone: I guess I did, but I don't remember getting the chance to talk to you for that. Alright, well let’s jump in here. There’s a lot to talk about here. I was, I think, most struck immediately and pleasantly by the use of black and white for FRANCES HA. What was it about this story that felt like color just wouldn’t do it justice?
NB: Well, it was mostly intuitive. I just wanted to make a movie in black and white, but that said, I think it was the very contemporary nature of the story and the character. It felt very present to me, and I think there’s something about when we were first working on it, and the script was forming. There was something about Greta at the center of this movie and the humor that we felt was going to be in it. I guess the nature of the character and her struggles. It was a way to make something that intimate epic. I pushed that with the music as well. I felt like it was a way to celebrate this person and her struggles.
Capone: New York always seems to look both more elegant yet more gritty at the same time in black and white. There are certainly some pivotal black-and-white New York movies that people might think of when they watch this movie, but were you conscious of that?
NB: Of course I was thinking of black and white and looking at other black-and-white movies--the Woody Allen films and some of the New Wave movies. It’s true what you say, there’s something old and new about it at the same time, when you are photographing something contemporary in black and white. It also was a way for me, because I shot GREENBERG in LA, and LA was very much a part of that movie, and I wanted very much to shoot again in New York, and in some ways this was new way to see the city. It was like I was seeing things differently because of the photography.
Capone: You’ve done several films where you are the sole writer, but now you actually have a handful of collaborators. How different is the process when you are working with someone else, and that person might read something you write and say “That doesn’t work.” Or does that never happen?
NB: Since I’m the director, I get to say that. [Laughs] All of my movies are completely scripted, and the scripts are really rigorously worked on. I’m not precious about it when I’m working on it, but I really try to get them to the point when I’m shooting I can follow the text, that we have to interpret the text. I’m not interested in improvising or adding stuff. So in that way, none of it is really different. Working with Greta was really fun, because I just loved what she was writing, and we often weren’t in the same place, and she would work on things. We would work on separate sequences and then we’d swap. I would be excited to see what she was going to write. I always found everything she wrote so pleasurable to read. It was, almost selfishly, I would just await what she wrote, because I wanted to just be entertained, and I think we found quite easily a unified voice. It never felt like we were writing a different character, or if we worked on different sections it didn’t feel like, it always felt like it was of the same piece.
Capone: When you started to see pages and scenes from her, did you see something in the character, particularly her character, that maybe you hadn’t put there but she added where you could say, “Okay, I’m going to build on what she has done here. I’m going to add that element to this character from this point forward.” Was it that specific, or was it more organic than that?
NB: Well I think we worked on the notes. Before we started writing, we had a written conversation, an email of ideas and thoughts. In those cases, often I would build on something she did, or she would build on something I did, and we would kind of expand and then talk about it and if we liked it, see where that took us. That happened too when we were writing, but I think by the time we were writing, we had it a lot in our head. I’m trying to remember now. By the time we were writing it, it was very difficult after a while to know who had worked on what. Maybe that is what you’re saying. [laughs]
Capone: At some point, you just became one voice it sounds like.
Capone: There’s this portion of the film where Frances is just lying to everybody, even people that are trying to help her, she's avoiding their help by lying. I was really baffled by this, and yet it felt very believable. It’s self-destructive behavior certainly, but I was kind of curious what that was about with her.
NB: Well I just thought of it was being 27. She lies to Colleen who runs the dance company, because it’s too painful for her to accept the fact that she’s being offered a desk job and not a role in the company. It’s technically a lie, but I always looked at is as less of lying and more she’s perpetuating her fantasy life, and what’s happening in the second half of the movie is so much of her life is not living up to that and her relationship with Sophie [her best friend, played by Mickey Sumner] is another one.
She wants things to stay the same with Sophie, and they can’t. It’s very difficult for her and painful for her. So it’s very hard for her to trust, I suppose, that other people can accept the honesty and the truth of her situation, and she is continuing to run. Of course, it’s in that process that she is able to grow up. These are technically lies, but I didn’t think of it as so much that “Frances is now lying a lot.” I really saw it as much more motivated by that time in life.
Capone: For better or worse, the film felt like I was watching the first 10 years of my life after college passing before my eyes. I always got a sense with many of your other films that there’s a sizable personal element to them. Does this film capture a particular time in your life where you might have been in a similar drifting state?
NB: Definitely and I think 27 was a real--I didn’t know it at the time, but in retrospect--marker for me. I think that the next few years of my life, I changed a lot after that, and it was only looking back on it that I can see that. That was very interesting to me about Frances, even though her literal circumstances were very different from mine. I felt very connected to that.
Capone: I did want to ask you at least about one of the things I know that you’ve got coming up; you're doing another film with Ben Stiller. Can you tell us anything about that, including when you might be shooting that? I’ve seen some casting announcements about it.
NB: We’re shooting in September-October, and it’s called WHILE WE'RE YOUNG.
Capone: And beyond that, is there anything you can say? Is it steeped in secrecy?
NB: [laughs] It’s not steeped in secrecy, but it’s more fun to see it later.
Capone: True enough. I did like the GREMLINS 3 reference in FRANCES, by the way. You got it so close. They just announced yesterday that they're re-launching GREMLINS, and I thought “Oh, he almost got it!”
NB: That’s funny.
Capone: Alright, Noah thank you so much for talking. We’ll talk next time then, hopefully not so long into the future.
NB: Hopefully you don’t sit the next one out.
Capone: Hey, it was not my choice, I promise you! Thanks a lot.
NB: Thank you.
-- Steve Prokopy
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