Noah Baumbach’s Graduate Dance

Published May 15, 2013

ABOVE: NOAH BAUMBACH ON THE SET OF FRANCES HA

“Tell me the story of us,” Frances (Greta Gerwig) asks her roommate, Sophie (Mickey Sumner), in the opening scenes of Frances Ha. Sophie explains, in neat terms, exactly how their lives will unfold in amazing, successful ways. Sophie will become a publishing mogul and Frances a famous modern dancer, taking over the world together from the Boston marriage of their Brooklyn apartment. Then, reality sets in.

Frances Ha is a movie about two friends coming to terms with the adult world a few years out of college. Sophie gets engaged to an investment banker and moves out of their apartment and into a more traditional adult life. Frances doesn’t. Rather, Frances drifts from apartment to apartment in an increasingly desperate quest to make the story of her life match up with what, in the past, she was sure her future would be.

The film is director Noah Baumbach’s second movie dealing with post-college life and his seventh overall. It is funny, sad, and occasionally wrenchingly awkward. We sat down the director to discuss the film, dance, and the way that life has changed for college graduates.

MICHAEL HAFFORD: You talked about finding influence in Truffaut and the French New Wave. Obviously that influenced your decision to shoot the film in black and white, but is there any other way that the French New Wave influenced your film?

NOAH BAUMBACH: Yes, but I feel like they influence every movie I make. Just because I really like those movies and those filmmakers, so I always feel like I’m thinking about them in some way. With this movie, because it was black and white, there was a more specific, more literal element that connects it to previous black and white movies. And the New Wave—a bunch of those movies were in black and white. But I suppose besides that, I was also thinking about some of Truffaut’s later Antoine Doinel movies. The ones that he did in the ’70s that are actually in color, but with Jean-Pierre Léaud, like Stolen Kisses and Bed and Board. And I was thinking about Éric Rohmer movies. He did a lot of movies in the late ’70s and ’80s and I feel like most of his protagonists were young women in the city. I didn’t look at those movies in any kind of particular way for this, I’ve seen them and loved and they were already in my head.

HAFFORD: Kicking around.

BAUMBACH: Yeah.

HAFFORD:  This is sort of your second movie about post-college, Kicking and Screaming being the first. Can you talk about how that experience has changed since you made that movie?

BAUMBACH: I feel like essentially the emotional, psychological issues are the same, but obviously my perspective on it has changed. There’s even a kind of distinct difference between the Kicking and Screaming age and the Frances age, even though it’s only a few years. I think when you’re right out of college, there’s still a kind of grace period. You can still drink like you did in college—at least you think you can. You’re still seeing people that are going to fall by the wayside because you have college in common. That kind of anxiety is what many of the Kicking and Screaming characters are dealing with because they’re taking it even one step further—I should say one step backward—they’re staying at the school to prevent anything from happening to them. With Frances, it’s that distinct period after that where—

HAFFORD: Things have started happening to you whether you like it or not.

BAUMBACH: Exactly. It’s going to start really interfering with your quality of life, your health, if you don’t adjust to life as it’s happening to you.

HAFFORD: Can you talk about the decision to structure the movie around her address changes?

BAUMBACH: In writing the script, it was a big solution for us. Once we came up with that as a kind of way to tell the story, it informed a lot of other things for us because it both informed the character and it also gave us a structure. This notion that she’s constantly moving but not really going forward.

HAFFORD: So that leads into a discussion of the ending. How do you see the ending? Do you see it as optimistic?

BAUMBACH: Yeah. I think it’s hopeful. But that said, I don’t know what’s going to happen to Frances. The movie ends there for me, too, but yeah, I do see it as hopeful. Do you?

HAFFORD: Yeah, I think to the character it seems a bit like giving up. But the entire time I was like, “Go! Give up!” [laughs]

BAUMBACH: That’s maturity you know, and that’s a positive. I mean the movie I made before, Greenberg, that’s a guy who couldn’t take a desk job like that, you know? And you see what happens.

HAFFORD: So you’ve worked as a creative person basically your entire adult life, correct? Have you ever had a desk job? Do you know what that’s like?

BAUMBACH: Sure, yeah. I had many jobs in high school and during college, and right out of college, but I didn’t have to make the decision Frances has to make. I also wasn’t in a career where your physicality plays as much of a role in whether or not you’re going to become a dancer or anything else. That’s one of the reasons we chose dancing. Dance is a profession with an expiration date for many people.

HAFFORD: This is the second movie that Greta has been in recently in which dancing is a very important aspect. Do you feel that dancing, in the way that it tells a story visually, is related to the filmmaking process?

BAUMBACH: Yeah, I mean, it can be. I think with Greta, too, she’s so physical as an actor that even when she’s not literally dancing, I feel like her physical comedy has grace and dance. If you think of dance in a more general way, I feel like she’s always dancing in Frances. Part of what motivated shooting, and writing her running down the street and dancing in the beginning of the Chinatown chapter, was in some ways what she has been doing the whole movie. I think the way we shot this movie—the blocking and the long takes—there is a kind of element, always. The rhythms of the speech, making sure the actors are blocked and going in and out of the frame in the proper way, there is a kind of choreography to it all that has some relation to dance as it applies to this movie.

HAFFORD: Not only that, but setting it in all these apartments is sort of like stages to move in and out of.

BAUMBACH: That’s interesting, yeah.

HAFFORD: So, can you talk a little about the decision not to show the script beyond what the actors needed to know and why?

BAUMBACH: [laughs] There are two things, one, is that I feel like often in auditions… for my taste, actors often come in too prepared. Obviously for other things, it’s the right thing to do. I like to be there with actors as they are finding it. And so that was the decision initially in not showing any of the actors the scenes before they came in to audition. They saw them in the waiting room, and read it before they did it. And so, in terms of the filming itself, I felt like why not continue that and just give them enough time with the scene so that they can memorize it, and just let them be there in the moment for that scene and not have to worry about the movie. I’m going to worry about the movie as a whole, that’s my job. They only need to know what they need to know. They can speak to this better than I can, but I’ve heard Mickey talk about it a bit because I’ve been in interviews with her, but I think it, hopefully, provides them with immediacy and looseness that allows them to invent more freely. I really like the results so it’s something that felt like the right thing to do for this movie.

FRANCES HA OPENS IN LIMITED RELEASE FRIDAY, MAY 17.