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Finding the Life Behind the Moments that Resonate: Greta Gerwig Discusses FRANCES HA (Q&A Screening)

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At a Q&A after a screening of Noah Baumbach’s fabulous new film Frances Ha on May 18th at the Landmark, lead actress and co-writer Greta Gerwig discussed her collaboration with Baumbach, developing the story, casting, the film’s naturalism, and the choice to shoot in black and white. There’s some really useful information here for screenwriters about the writing process, collaborating, and letting go of scenes that don’t work.

Since Gerwig says it best in her own words, the following are answers from her to questions from interviewer Janelle Riley and the audience, edited and re-organized under the subjects below. Also below is video from a segment of the Q&A, a link to the podcast of the entire Q&A, and my final thoughts on Frances Ha and “Modern Love.”

On her collaboration with Noah Baumbach

Frances Ha began as a writing collaboration between Noah and I. He asked me if I had any material that I might like to give him and I sent him a list of observations and character ideas and little pieces of dialogue. He thought it was really exciting and he sent back other ideas. Then we just started writing scenes and then the character of Frances came out of these scenes we were working on.

We generated much of the writing separately and emailed it back and forth with each other. He would edit what I sent and I would edit what he sent. And then we amassed 200-300 pages, started reading it all out loud and got a sense of the rhythm of it and the rhythm of the characters, and we refined it from there. We always had a real shared vision for what it would be, and it was not totally articulated, it was just understood.

He wrote Frances just as much as I wrote Frances and I wrote the boys and everyone else just as much as he did. It was really pretty equal freight on both sides.”

Greta Gerwig, “It was about finding the life behind the moments that seemed to resonate.”

Greta Gerwig, “It was about finding the life behind the moments that seemed to resonate.”

On developing the story

In the initial email I said a woman deciding whether or not she would pay the fee on the ATM, and Noah said let’s find out what that scene is and what’s happening when that happens. It was about finding the life behind the moments that seemed to resonate.

It was scene based so you know we’d have little moments that we wanted to expand into scenes or find the whole scenes. And sometimes it would just work out that one or the other of us would say, ‘OK, why don’t you take a crack at the dinner scene or I’ll take a crack at the Paris stuff or whatever it was.

Originally the section in Sacramento was much much longer and if that had been the case, we would have had to cast actors for my parents. But Noah said it was too many characters to add in the middle of the movie and it took the focus off the story we were telling. It was actually heartbreaking to me to cut those pages. Because you know I have that sort of youngish writer thing of ‘I wrote them,’ which is so juvenile.

We found the arc [of the story] from the pieces, we didn’t really have an arc [in the beginning]. I find whenever I write with an arc or an outline I find it really boring and bad. It will be something like, ‘It’s a reporter who’s up against something.’ I don’t even know what that movie is. For me, I can only find story through detail and character and things that seem to have a feeling behind them.

That whole [‘Don’t treat me like a three hour brunch friend’] scene – I have a lot of really close female friends and there was a very painful transition that happened in my life, that I think happens in a lot of people’s lives, when you realize you’re not going to live in a house with your friends forever and you get angry with them… I did.

Greta Gerwig, "It was about half way through the writing process that we were like, 'this is a love story... You're rooting for them to be together but you don't really know what that means."

Greta Gerwig, “It was about half way through the writing process that we were like, ‘this is a love story’ between Frances and Sophie… You’re rooting for them to be together but you don’t really know what that means.”

It was about half way through the writing process that we were like, ‘this is a love story.’ Once we knew it was a love story between Frances and Sophie, we went back and we tried to ‘beat’ it out like a traditional love story – she has the girl, she loses the girl, she tries to get the girl back, and make the girl jealous. You know, what it would be if it was a heterosexual romantic relationship, but we’re doing it for this film [about their friendship]. You’re rooting for them to be together but you don’t really know what that means. That was sort of an arc imposed on it after the fact.

With Hannah Takes the Stairs and Nights and Weekends, and the writing I had done before, it was mostly, almost like devised scenes. The plot was worked out and they worked out our characters, but then we would really just improvise the scenes. [This is the type of] writing I felt like I had really done in college and right after college. I wrote a lot of plays. [Frances Ha] was the first piece of writing I had done that was really any good.

On casting and taking the lead role of Frances

I didn’t want to act in it. Writing something and then acting in it is like making a whole cake and eating it, like by yourself. It feels gluttonous, but secretly good.

I said to my agents [UTA], maybe I’ll play Sophie and someone else can play Frances. And they said, are you stupid, you’re going to play that part. So it was like, OK, I’ll do it. I’m really happy I did. Acting, all arts, pretty much all of life involves massive self doubts, so I just indulge in mine.

Doug Able [was the Casting Director], he’s great. He casts out of New York. He’s just got great taste in actors. He really did an amazing job gathering people from NY and LA and asked who we wanted because we had total freedom to cast whoever we wanted.

The actress who plays Sophie, Mickey Sumner, walked into the audition. And she’s brilliant and she’s British and blonde and sexy and not at all like Sophie. She never gets recognized when we’re at film festivals. She’s one of those actresses that’s totally transformative.

Sophie

Sophie

Mickey Sumner

Mickey Sumner

Hopefully [outside actors coming in and the best person getting the part] happens more often than not. I love actors. I love casting great ones, and even when they don’t get the part, just the process of auditioning was so exciting. It was the first time I got to see things I’ve written interpreted by people who made it sound great.

I’m not great at [the audition process]. I’ve gotten better at it. I was lucky. Auditions are always strange. I did so many when I started out, I feel really immune to the rejection, became it’s almost an exercise in itself. It almost has to be because it’s too overwhelming otherwise to just get ‘No’ all the time.”

Greta Gerwig, “I really found the character of Frances in an almost heightened comedic full body performance...almost like Chaplinesque.”

Greta Gerwig, “I really found the character of Frances in an almost heightened comedic full body performance… almost like Chaplinesque.”

On the differences between Gerwig and the character of Frances

I put a lot of personal things in the writing process. I also made a lot of stuff up. I’ve never been a modern dancer. I’ve never gone to Paris for three days. There’s lots of things that are just utterly fictionalized.

But I think for me the acting of it became it’s own experience and challenge and I think I really found the character of Frances in an almost heightened comedic full body performance. Part of that is because Noah shot it from so far away and gave me so much of the frame to play in, and he did such long takes. It was almost like Chaplinesque, and I was able to explore the character. And I treated almost the whole thing like a dance, which seemed appropriate because she was a dancer. There’s certainly things of me in it. But it’s also utterly morphed and exaggerated.

I loved ballet while I was growing up. I went to a college that had a really good modern dance program and I took modern dance there but I was never great at it. But I had friends who were.

And I had a friend who, when she graduated when she was 21, got an apprenticeship at a modern dance company in New York with Mark Morris. It was a big deal because she got free classes and she got to learn the choreography. And when she was 26 they told her, ‘You’ll never be a part of the company.’ She’s given her 20’s to it, it was utterly heartbreaking — the thing you were preparing for isn’t going to happen.

I always wanted to do something about that in a film. And I also just thought modern dance — as opposed to ballet which is so vertical with airlessness — is so grounded, and so about being on the floor and falling. When I took modern dance, they kept telling me you have to learn how to fall and you can’t tighten, you can’t brace your muscle, you have to give into the floor. And I always thought that was like a beautiful metaphor for life.”

Greta Gerwig, “For me, I can only find story through detail and character and things that seem to have a feeling behind them.”

Greta Gerwig, “For me, I can only find story through detail and character and things that seem to have a feeling behind them.”

On capturing the naturalism

I think it’s really a testament to the actors we hired which are great and Noah’s filmmaking that it feels improvised and it’s anything but. There’s only one line that’s improvised and it’s when my mother in the film, who’s also my mother in life, says when she’s talking about the cutting boards, “As soon as I found red ones, there I was.” Which is my mom just talking about her cutting boards. I wish I could take credit for that line because it’s a really good one. Other than that it’s all written.

We did so many takes. We would average about 40 takes per setup. I think something happens where like you almost pass through it being good and then it being bad and then you get bored and something else happens — it’s like every intellectualization of the scene is beaten out of you and then you’re just responding and there for the other person, and being a character and not an actor.

I think that’s how he prefers to work. We had 50 days of shooting on this. He definitely devised this system in order to indulge himself. That’s the way he likes to do it. He always felt like he was hamstrung by a schedule on a lot of films, that you just have to get this shot because you have to move on. Which is sometimes useful because it has its own energy and its own momentum. But there are times when you just want to say this scene isn’t working and let’s break it down and why isn’t it working and let’s do it again.

He really likes a lot of takes, he really wants specific things from scenes. He wants subtle layers of emotion, and it’s hard to create that in three takes. We did most of the rehearsal on camera. Noah likes everyone to discover things there, he doesn’t like people to come super rehearsed. And because we had such a long schedule, we were able to do that.”

 Greta Gerwig, “We wanted it to feel grand and cinematic, in a way that maybe the character Frances would think that she was living in a glorious black and white movie.”

Greta Gerwig, “We wanted it to feel grand and cinematic, in a way that maybe the character Frances would think that she was living in a glorious black and white movie.”

On the reason to shoot in black-and-white

Black-and-white was an early decision in the writing. While the script took about a year to write, we felt like just intuitively [about black-and-white]. Then we did all these tests on camera, like warm black-and-white, more like Manhattan, less like Raging Bull. You know like, even when people are in shadow, you can feel their faces.

And with the colorist and the DP [Sam Levy] and the late great Harris Savides [DP on Bambach’s films Margot at the Wedding & Greenberg] we came up with this look. And as soon as we had a look we were satisfied with, we said, ‘Yes, black-and-white.’ I think part of it is it’s a contemporary story but we wanted it to feel grand and cinematic, in a way that maybe the character Frances would think that she was living in a glorious black and white movie.”

My Final Thoughts on Frances Ha & “Modern Love”

Frances Ha is a very unexpected, atypical uplifting comedy that focuses on friendship and self discovery rather than a romantic relationship. Frances doesn’t need a man to make her happy. The focus is more on her finding herself, both her figurative place in the world, and her own literal dwelling in New York City. Frances is such a lovable character because she’s struggling through her 20’s, struggling to find herself, like many people do, and she does it with such a lust for life. You can’t help but love a character who’s broke, yet takes off for Paris for three days on a whim — wouldn’t we all love to do that.

David Bowie’s “Modern Love” is such a perfect theme song for Frances because modern love “walks beside” her and “walks on by.” When her boyfriend asks her to move in with him in the beginning, her response is, “But I can’t.” She doesn’t know why, but Frances is just not equipped for a modern romance. They break up and another romantic relationship is not brought up again. The story becomes about her and Sophie, and her plight to find herself.

The scene of Frances dancing through the streets of New York set to “Modern Love” shows her carefree style and displays Gerwig’s remark that Frances thinks she’s living in a glorious black-and-white movie. The black-and-white was a great choice and certainly gives this contemporary film an immediate nostalgic quality. Yes, it’s reminiscent of Woody Allen’s Manhattan is some ways, but Baumbach really sets this film apart from Allen by not concentrating on the romantic relationship, whereas most of Allen’s films do.

 

Frances Ha opens nationwide this weekend and is playing in more than 50 cities. And you can go to the Frances Ha website to find out where it’s playing (click on Buy Tickets at the top and then look for your city).

 

VIDEO: Segment from Frances Ha Q&A


Q & A with star and co-writer Greta Gerwig after the 5/18/13 showing of co-writer/director Noah Baumbach’s FRANCES HA at the Landmark, Los Angeles, CA.

 

You can listen to the entire Q&A podcast on Landmark’s website.

And you can go to the Frances Ha website to find out when it’s being released in your city (click on Buy Tickets at the top and then look for your city).

Permanent link to this article: http://cinematicinspirations.com/2013/06/08/francesha/

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