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Tue May 14, 2013
Gerwig, Baumbach Poke At Post-College Pangs
Originally published on Tue May 14, 2013 2:33 pm
In the film Frances Ha, Greta Gerwig stars as the title character, a 27-year-old living a good but not particularly successful post-college life in New York City.
Frances becomes unmoored, though, when her best friend decides to move out of the apartment they share and move on with her own independent life. It's a turning point Gerwig says is a common experience for many young people who've struggled in the years after college, when adolescence is lingering and adulthood has yet to fully coalesce. That period, however, must end — and it's that transition the movie explores.
"There's a grace period where being a mess is charming and interesting," Gerwig tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross, "and then I think when you hit around 27 it stops being charming and interesting, and it starts being kind of pathological, and you have to find a new way of life. Otherwise, you're going to be in a place where the rest of your peers have been moving on, and you're stuck."
Gerwig, who's also starred in films such as Damsels In Distress and Woody Allen's To Rome with Love, co-wrote the film with director Noah Baumbach. She's only 29 years old herself, and she says she was far from immune to post-college malaise and the bumpy transition to adulthood.
The tipping point for her, she says, came amid seemingly small indications that she was being taken seriously professionally.
"It sounds like I'm making a joke, but I'm not," she says. "Having health insurance made me feel like a real person. Up until then it felt like I was getting away with something, and if three things went wrong it would all fall apart. And so when I got health insurance a few years ago, I felt like a real person, but before then I felt like I was pretending. ... It went along with becoming a member of [the Screen Actors Guild] ... and I think it was a big moment for me because it made me feel like I had a trade."
This is not the first film Baumbach, who also directed Gerwig in his indie romance Greenberg, has made about 20-somethings fumbling toward adulthood. Before he made The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding, he drew attention with Kicking and Screaming and Mr. Jealousy, both about post-college life. Now in his 40s, he says his perspective on that phase of life has changed somewhat.
"What I didn't exactly know then ... [is that] I was not injecting enough adventure into my life at the time," he tells Fresh Air. " I was about to go into a period of my life that [involved] vast individual change ... I was about to begin that, and I think change a lot personally and, I think, change as a filmmaker."
That said, Baumbach sees a thematic thread throughout his work.
"I think all [my movies] are essentially about transition," he says, "and about squaring who you want to be with who you actually are."
Gerwig on friendships with men
"I have a lot of male friends who I really like, and I've always enjoyed the feeling of ... 'I'll never sleep with you and you'll never have that power over me, and we'll never have that relationship, and I get to meet all the people who have to deal with what you cry about at night, and I will never have to do that.'
"I was not a cool girl in junior high or high school, and I think I figured out [how to be friends with men] when I was in college. And for some reason that's been a hobby of mine ever since. ... It clicked all of a sudden, and I was like, 'You just have to be really nice to them and you have to tell them they're right about stuff, and that their thoughts are really smart and just treat them like they're the best ones in the room and they'll really like you.' "
Baumbach on why he shot the film in black and white
"I wanted to shoot in New York again, and I didn't really articulate a reason beyond that except that shooting [in black and white] in New York helped me ... see the city with new eyes, I think. Also there was something about black and white that makes the movie almost immediately nostalgic.
"It's a very contemporary story, and Frances is such a contemporary character. ... [Y]ou never know [when you reach] that moment when [something is] over, and I think that black and white in some ways sort of underscores that. It adds this sort of sense of past to something that's happening very much in the present."
Gerwig on weight and her character, Florence, in Greenberg
"Right before my senior year I lost an incredible amount of weight due to chain smoking and really poor personal behavior. And I felt so wonderful, and I wished it didn't feel as wonderful as it [did]. It felt liberating, and I felt great about myself, and people asked me, 'Did you get a haircut?' And I was like, 'No, I lost 25 pounds, you idiot.'
"I think it also gave me the confidence to kind of go make these movies and do all this stuff, because I was high on some kind of thinness. And then when I read the part of Florence, I almost felt ashamed. Because I felt like I had been trying to run away from being that person, because I thought that that's what I had to do to make movies. And then when I read that part I gained 15, 17, 20 pounds for the part, because I knew that was right. And I've never really lost it. I've just kind of stayed that weight. But I think when I read the script I understood it, and I also felt like, 'Oh, you didn't have to try to be another person to make art or to be an actress. You can be this person and someone will want to tell that story.' "
Baumbach on Woody Allen
"I was growing up in Brooklyn, and was actually going to Midwood High School — which I knew that Woody Allen had gone to as well — and I was just starting to write funny short stories. ... A teacher, I think, wrote a comment saying, 'This is like a Woody Allen short story,' and I had seen Woody Allen movies, but I didn't know he had written these funny things.
"I think my parents had Getting Even, which was one of his collections, and when I read it I couldn't believe it. I thought they were the funniest things that I had ever read, but also felt like — this is the thing they say about great poetry or something — it's like your own thoughts brought back to you with added majesty. It was like my own funny ideas brought back, and he just seemed so smart and funny, and I just felt so connected to it from that point forward.
"Then I just kind of devoured the movies, and he was so much a part of my growing up, really. And I think at a certain point when I got a little older it was almost like a drug I had to kick. I had to get off Woody Allen; I was imitating him too much."
Gerwig on working with Allen
"Whenever you work with someone who you idolize, you realize ... he's just a person trying to make a movie as best he knows how. And that doesn't look so different from other people trying to do the same thing. And he's wildly smart and brilliant and funny, but it's moviemaking, and there's something kind of democratic about how difficult it is. Because everybody — whether you're Woody Allen or Noah or P.T. Anderson — it's hard. Making movies is a hard thing, and it's slow. So you can glorify the product, but the process is difficult no matter who you are."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. You may have gone through a period in your life similar to the one described in the new film "Frances Ha." It stars Greta Gerwig as Frances, a 27-year-old single woman who graduated from college a few years earlier, but still doesn't act or feel like an adult. The film was co-written by Gerwig and Noah Baumbach, who also directed the film. They're both my guests.
They previously worked together on the film "Greenberg," which Baumbach directed and co-wrote, and Gerwig starred in opposite Ben Stiller. Gerwig's other films include "To Rome with Love," "Damsels in Distress" and "Baghead." Baumbach also directed "Kicking and Screaming," "The Squid and the Whale" and "Margot at the Wedding."
When "Frances Ha" begins, Frances is living with her best friend from college, Sophie. Frances wants to be a dancer, but she's not progressing at the company where she's an apprentice. Sophie works in publishing. In this scene, Frances asks Sophie to retell what they call the story of us.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "FRANCES HA")
GRETA GERWIG: (As Frances) Tell me the story of us.
MICKEY SUMNER: (As Sophie) Again? All right, Frances. We are going to take over the world.
GERWIG: (As Frances) You'll be this awesomely bitchy publishing mogul.
SUMNER: (As Sophie) And you'll be this famous modern dancer, and I'll publish a really expensive book about you.
GERWIG: (As Frances) The D-bags we make fun of will put on their coffee tables.
SUMNER: (As Sophie) And we'll co-own a vacation apartment in Paris.
GERWIG: (As Frances) And we'll have lovers.
SUMNER: (As Sophie) And no children.
GERWIG: (As Frances) And we'll speak at college graduations.
SUMNER: (As Sophie) And honorary degrees.
GERWIG: (As Frances) So many honorary degrees.
GROSS: Frances and Sophie are so close, Frances says we're like an old lesbian couple that doesn't have sex anymore. When Frances' boyfriend Dan suggests that she move in with him, Frances insists she has to stay with Sophie, with whom she shares the lease to their apartment. Frances breaks up with her boyfriend, but soon after, she's stunned when Sophie tells her she's moving to another apartment.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "FRANCES HA")
SUMNER: (As Sophie) Are you OK with it? I really don't want to do it if you're not OK with it.
GERWIG: (As Frances) I kind of thought that we were going to renew our lease.
SUMNER: (As Sophie) Yeah, but we never talked about it.
GERWIG: (As Frances) I could have moved in with Dan.
SUMNER: (As Sophie) Not if you broke up.
GERWIG: (As Frances) That's why we broke up.
SUMNER: (As Sophie) Really?
GERWIG: (As Frances) No.
SUMNER: (As Sophie) We could always look for a place together, if you want, you know, but it's really hard to find stuff in Tribeca.
GERWIG: (As Frances) I can't afford Tribeca.
SUMNER: (As Sophie) I'm not leaving you. I'm just moving neighborhoods.
GROSS: That's a scene from "Frances Ha." Noah Baumbach, Greta Gerwig, welcome to FRESH AIR. The movie is about that transitional period after college, before you really feel like an adult, before you have an income, a profession, a home, maybe a family. But you're probably approaching this from different perspectives. Greta Gerwig, let me start with you.
You're about the same age as the character, in your late 20s. What are some of the complications of that period of life that you've experienced, that you wanted to portray in the film?
GERWIG: Well, I think for me, the period of life right after college, there's kind of a grace period where being a mess is charming and interesting. And then I think when you hit around 27, it stops being charming and interesting, and it starts being kind of pathological. And you have to find a new way of life, otherwise, you're going to be in a place where the rest of your peers have been moving on, and you're stuck. But...
GROSS: But you've been making movies for several years. So I'm thinking, like, how bumpy could that ride have been for you?
GERWIG: Well, I think that anybody who does anything in the arts feels very close to failure, because it seems like it's so possible to not be doing it, because even when things are going well, it feels like they're always about to fall apart and about to not work. And so I don't ever feel - it's not like I spent my 20s feeling like everything's going great, and aren't I successful.
But I think I also - it's also she's in an emotional place where I think I definitely went through, where she's realizing her friends aren't her family, which is difficult.
GROSS: Can you just say a few words about what that was like? I think a lot of people go through that, thinking that their friends are their family, and their friends understand them better, or their friends understand things nd ttheir family, and they
GERWIG: Yeah. I mean, I think when you're in college, particularly, there's not a lot of boundaries. And you leave your family, and then you go instantly form a new family of friends, and then that carries on into your early and mid-20s. And then, suddenly, when people start coupling off in a very serious way or choosing - rightly choosing selfish things over groupthink at that point in life, if you're not there yet, it's traumatic, because you're watching these people around you make decisions for themselves and what they need, as opposed to what is the group doing.
And I think that that's really - I think high school students - I'm not saying college students don't understand this movie, but I think high school students get it, and I think adults get it. But I think what's interesting is when you show it to college students, none of them really believe that's going to happen to them. They think that their friends and their lives will be the exception to this rule, and that they will stay as close as they are, and it'll never happen to them. And I feel like they're almost incapable of seeing into the future and realizing that, like, you will love each other, but it will not be in the same way.
GROSS: Would you have been in that category in college?
GERWIG: Completely. I mean, I would have been in that category way after college.
GERWIG: I really - I extended that period of thinking we would all live in a house for far too long.
GROSS: And just one other question I want to ask you, Greta, before bringing Noah into the conversation. Your character has a line where she's apologizing for not having a functioning credit card after offering to pick up the tab.
GROSS: And she says: I'm embarrassed I'm not a real person yet. Is that how you felt until recently? Did you write that line?
GERWIG: I don't know who wrote that line. I think I - did I write that line?
NOAH BAUMBACH: You probably wrote it.
GERWIG: I probably wrote it. I think that the changeover point for me was actually - it sounds like I'm making a joke, but I'm not - having health insurance made me feel like a real person. Up until then, it felt like I was getting away with something, and that if three things went wrong, it would all fall apart. And so when I got health insurance a few years ago, I felt like a real person, but before then, I felt like I was pretending.
GROSS: Why did health insurance do it?
GERWIG: I don't know. It was - I mean, it went along with being - becoming a member of SAG, which I...
GROSS: The Screen Actors Guild.
GERWIG: Yeah, Screen Actors Guild. And I think it was a big moment for me, because it made me feel like I had a trade. It's just a guild, and it shouldn't make you feel affirmed as a person, but for me, getting a card in the mail that I could carry in my wallet that said you're a member of the guild made me feel like I was a - like I had a place in the world.
And my parents kept me on their insurance for as long as they could, but it was scary. It was, like, if I broke my arm, I don't really know how I'm going to pay for it. But that's a very real feeling when you're in that place.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. No, absolutely. Noah Baumbach, let me bring you into the conversation. You're approaching the characters in the movie from different generations and from different genders. Noah, you're in your 40s. Greta, you're in your 20s. Noah, you're a man, and Greta, you're a woman.
GROSS: And Noah, this is the third time you've made a movie that relates to that transitional period in a young person's life. Your first two films, "Kicking and Screaming" and "Mr. Jealousy" were about people in that period. In fact, what I want to do is play a clip of an interview you and I did in 1998 after "Mr. Jealousy." And so here's an excerpt of that interview. So this is me and Noah Baumbach in 1998.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)
GROSS: Your first two films, "Kicking and Screaming" and "Mr. Jealousy," are about that period of almost limbo after college, or at the tail end of college when you're not quite a fully formed adult yet. You don't have, like, a full life of your own yet, but you're not really a student anymore, either.
GROSS: So it's that in-between period where you don't know exactly what you're going to become. You don't know if you'll be successful at pursuing the thing that you want to pursue, if you're lucky enough to know what it is you want to pursue yet. Why does that particular transitional period interest you? I guess it's in part because of your age, still being in your 20s, yes?
BAUMBACH: Right, 28. I'm interested in how, sort of, friendships or relationships that have developed over a long period of time, when people go through times of sort of individual change - in "Kicking and Screaming," it's a group dynamic - how that group dynamic changes when each of them individually have to sort of move on.
Do they end the friendships? Do - how do the friendships change? And that was sort of a big thing interested me in that movie. With "Kicking and Screaming," it was people who had graduated college, and they just didn't want life to happen to them. They wanted no experience. They wanted to stay where they were.
And with "Mr. Jealousy," it's people who now have had some experience, and I think now they're afraid that nothing will happen to them. And they want as much experience as possible, so they create these kind of, sort of, neurotic adventures for themselves to somehow inject adventure into their lives.
GROSS: OK, so that was Noah Baumbach, recorded in 1998. And now Noah Baumbach, with my other guest Greta Gerwig, has co-written and he's directed the new film "Frances Ha," which has a similar theme. So, Noah, how has your take on that period of life in your 20s, after college, before you found who it is you are as an adult and what you're going to be doing professionally, if you're lucky enough to be doing something professionally, how has your take on that changed?
BAUMBACH: Well, I've stopped using the phrase inject adventure.
BAUMBACH: Other than that, I was OK with how I sounded.
BAUMBACH: Well, it's interesting, because what I didn't exactly know then, although - is that I think I was really going through a lot of - I was not injecting enough adventure into my life at the time, or too much adventure. I was just - I was about to sort of go into a period of my life that was of kind of, I think, vast individual change, you know, that I was alluding to.
And it was a long period after "Mr. Jealousy" and my next movie, and so when I hear that clip, that's what I'm thinking about, is sort of a - I was sort of about to begin that, and I think change a lot personally, and also change as a filmmaker.
But, all that said, here we are talking about the same time in life in another movie, and I think - you know, I mean, I was interested in making this movie because of Greta, and I wanted to make another movie with Greta. So I was shoehorned into the age of 27, because that's what she is.
But, you know, I - even the movies I've made that aren't about people in their late 20s, in "The Squid and the Whale" and "Greenberg" and "Margot at the Wedding," I think all are sort of essentially about transition and about squaring who you want to be with who you actually are. And so, I don't know, I keep coming back to this.
GROSS: My guests are Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig. They co-wrote the film "Frances Ha," which she stars in and he directed. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
My guests are Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach. They co-wrote the film "Frances Ha," which she stars in and he directed. Gerwig plays Frances, a 27-year-old who still doesn't act or feel like an adult. She's been sharing an apartment with her best friend from college, Sophie.
Frances is actually kind of in love with her girlfriend Sophie, but probably not in a sexual way. They do everything together. They have their private jokes. They lay in bed together side by side, talking and laughing. And Frances, your character says we're like the old lesbian couple that stopped having sex.
GROSS: And so she feels really betrayed and lost when Sophie decides to move into a better apartment with another girl, and then things only get worse because Sophie has a boyfriend that she's getting serious about. And then Frances moves into an apartment with two young men, one of whom is played Adam Driver, who's also in "Girls."
And Frances and the other guy who lives here, played by Michael Zegen, have a similar relationship to the one that she had with Sophie. They have their private jokes. They laugh. They can lie in bed together and joke and laugh, and it kind of makes you think about how ambiguous and open-ended all relationships have the potential of now.
Like, her relationship with Sophie has the potential of being sexual. It won't be, probably, but it has that potential. At the same time, her relationship with this, you know, young man, Michael, has the potential of being sexual, but it probably won't. They're probably just going to be good friends, and that's OK. They can be good friends, even though he's a man and she's a woman, and neither of them are gay.
So I'm just interested in both of your thoughts about that ambiguous, open-ended nature of so many relationships now that could have a sexual outcome, but, you know, probably won't, but you can't rule it out.
BAUMBACH: Yeah, that's interesting because going to your previous question to me, I think that may be something that I found different about this generation than maybe when I was in my 20s. I certainly didn't think that way. I was more clear, I think, about whether this was going to be a friendship or a romantic relationship.
And I - that was something, I think, when we were working on the script, and I was - I don't even know if we really talked about it so much, but I kind of picked up on it and went with it, because I really, I found that very interesting, that idea.
Even Frances goes on a date with Lev, Adam Driver's character, and then comes back to his apartment. And then in one quick move, he puts his hand on her shoulder, she reacts in a strange way, then Benji comes home. And it's now, it's automatically switched from possible romance to friendship, to now she's going to actually just move in and be their roommate.
And I liked very much, narratively and also character-wise, how that was possible in this movie, that that could just change. And I think the way you've described it is true. I think that's - like I said, I don't think we talked about it or really articulated that, but I think I kind of picked up on that, in some way. I was sort of aware that that was - felt true for these people.
GROSS: I think a lot of people will have experienced the awkwardness of this moment that you portray in the film, where Frances is living with two men in their 20s, and then one of them keeps bringing dates home and taking, you know, the woman he's brought home into his bedroom. And she's, like, she's the girl living in this house with two guys.
So it's - there's something just so inherently awkward about that for her.
GERWIG: Yeah. I mean, really that - it's not emphasized in the movie, but Noah and I talked about when we were writing that section, like, when is the last time in life that you can ask someone: Do you want to see my room?
GERWIG: And we thought that that was funny, because it's so childlike to tell someone: You want to see my room? And you start saying it maybe when you're four, and, like, you should stop saying it by the time you're 27. And that was kind of, like, we thought - I don't know that anybody even notices that joke.
But I think a lot of the movie involves like that when is the - like, that you don't know when the last time of something happening is. You just know when it's over. Like, the opening sequence is this, like, glorious day between her and Sophie and this idea of, like, you don't know what the last great day you'll spend with your best friend is. You just know when you've never had that day again.
And that - anyway, the bringing the girls into the room was, like, about that sort of - I mean, it's terribly awkward, and - but I - like, I sort of liked the way Frances dealt with it, which was that in her - I think I always thought that she decided in her mind that she would be the cool, friendly, lady roommate who would be really cool with all these girls coming over and shake their hands and learn their names, and that she would be the hip girl on the inside who doesn't have to have a sexual relationship with these guys, and that she's going to be magnanimous to the women coming in and out of this apartment.
GROSS: Were you ever in that position?
GERWIG: I might have been.
GERWIG: I have a lot of male friends who I really like, and I've always enjoyed the feeling of, like, this sounds probably really - I've always enjoyed the feeling of, like, I'll never sleep with you. And I - you'll never have that power over me, and we'll never have that relationship .And I get to meet all the people who have to deal with what you cry about at night, and I will never have to do that.
GROSS: And I can tell those girls, oh, you're really pretty.
GERWIG: Yeah, it's, like - or I can feel like I can - it's like I - I think I didn't have - I was not a cool girl in junior high or high school who had friends who were boys. And I think I figured it out when I was in college, and I - for some reason, that's been a hobby of mine ever since. But I was - in junior high and high school, I couldn't figure it out. And then it clicked all of a sudden, and I was, like, you just have to be really nice to them.
GERWIG: And then - and you have to tell them they're right about stuff, and that their thoughts are really smart and just treat them like they're the best ones in the room, and they'll really like you.
GROSS: So have you had girlfriends who you were as close to as Frances is to Sophie?
GERWIG: Yeah. I had - I went to a women's college. I went to Barnard. So that's kind of a breeding ground for beautiful, messed-up female friendships.
GERWIG: And so I had a lot of them. I mean, I had a real group of girls that I was very much - there were six of us, but - so it wasn't - it wasn't like I just had one. But I loved them a lot, and we lived together after college for a few years.
GROSS: So this was your alternate family?
GERWIG: This is my alternate family, and we really did. I had a fantasy that we were going to start a checking account for a fund that we would all buy a house together. This was my fantasy. And it never happened. We never started a fund for a house together. But, I don't know, I guess I've always felt like if there's a way to live as a family with your friends, that that would be the good thing to do. But I don't think anybody else feels that way.
GROSS: Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach will be back in the second half of the show. They co-wrote the new film "Frances Ha." Gerwig is the star. Baumbach directed it. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach. They co-wrote the new film "Frances Ha." He directed it and she stars as Frances, a 27-year-old single woman who's still having problems making the transition from college into adulthood.
Greta Gerwig, your character of Frances is a dancer. Do you dance? Do you have against background?
GERWIG: Yeah. I grew up dancing. I did a lot of ballet. I loved ballet. Then I did other kinds of dance as well. But I never was a dancer. I was never professional.
GROSS: I read that you fenced also.
GROSS: Was that in college?
GERWIG: No. I actually fenced in high school after - junior high and high school after I - I had kind of a painful experience with ballet. I think that a lot of girls do that are not quite right for it, and my body wasn't quite right for it, but I loved it so intensely and I was so heartbroken when it seemed like I would never really be a professional ballet dancer. But there was actually a fencing place in Sacramento that had opened up right after I stopped dancing. And my mom read in the newspaper, the Sacramento Bee, that dancers make good fencers because they have quick feet. And so I started, she signed me up and I just, I loved it instantly and I competed a lot and I was pretty good, mainly because I was just insanely competitive and really tall. So those things help with fencing.
GROSS: It's funny. I was going to make a joke about how not useful fencing is. But if this was a few decades ago and you had just signed on to the MGM Studio, they'd be teaching you how to fence, if you were a guy anyways. I'm not sure if you were a girl if they would be teaching you how to fence.
GERWIG: I mean looking back at my childhood, I never - I didn't have a thing of like I'm going to be an actor. But looking at all of the activities that I took on, they all had a theatrical component to them that I really - I mean I loved fencing so much and then I had my birthday - my 15th birthday at the Renaissance Pleasure Fair and I made my friends dress up in Renaissance clothes and then watch me fence. It was really weird but it was really sweet. And my mom got all these costumes for everyone because, it was - but, yeah, there were all these theatrical things I was doing even though they weren't directly theater or acting.
GROSS: The movie "Frances Ha" is in black and white. Noah, why did you want to shoot in black and white?
BAUMBACH: Well, the last movie I had made, "Greenberg," was in Los Angeles and I wanted to shoot in New York again, and I had the idea of doing it in black and white. And I didn't really articulate a reason beyond that except that I think shooting that way in New York helped me kind of see. I mean I grew up in Brooklyn and I've lived in New York my - for most of my adult life and it helped me to sort of see the city with new eyes, I think. I think also there was something about black and white which makes the movie almost immediately nostalgic.
It's a very contemporary story, and Frances is such a contemporary character that it makes it sort of - this goes to what Greta was saying earlier, I think about this time in your life, and that it's, you never know that moment when it's over, and I think the black and white in some ways kind of underscores that. It adds this sort of sense of past to something that's, you know, happening very much in the present.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig, and they collaborated on the new film "Frances Ha." And now you also worked together on "Greenberg," which Noah, you wrote and directed, and Greta Gerwig, you starred with Ben Stiller. Let's hear a scene from "Greenberg." And the film is about, you know, Ben Stiller plays a guy in his 40s who has had a nervous breakdown, has just gotten out of a psychiatric institution and is going from New York to LA to basically housesit for his brother and sister-in-law. And Greta Gerwig plays this couple's personal assistant. So Ben Stiller and Greta Gerwig, you know, end up meeting and spending time together at the brother's house. And then he goes over to her place for a drink; they start awkwardly kissing and then she kind of puts the stops to things. And here's how it goes.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "GREENBERG")
GERWIG: (as Florence Marr) Can we take it slow? I'm sorry. It's just that I just got out of a long relationship and I don't want to go from just having sex to just having sex to just having sex.
BEN STILLER: (as Roger Greenberg) Who's the third just having sex?
GERWIG: (as Florence Marr) You, if we had sex.
STILLER: (as Roger Greenberg) OK. Then who's the second?
GERWIG: (as Florence Marr) A guy I met at this gallery thing.
STILLER: (as Roger Greenberg) You slept with him?
GERWIG: (as Florence Marr) Yeah, I did.
STILLER: (as Roger Greenberg) How did that go?
GERWIG: (as Florence Marr) What do you mean? The sex?
STILLER: (as Roger Greenberg) Yeah. Well...
GERWIG: (as Florence Marr) It was pretty awkward.
GROSS: A short scene from "Greenberg." Was that all written or was some of that improvised?
BAUMBACH: That was all written.
GROSS: Greta, your character of Florence in "Greenberg" is so unsure of herself and unsure what she wants for herself. And it's so interesting, like you've described yourself back when you were a competitive fencer in high school as being like super competitive.
GERWIG: Right. Yeah.
GROSS: And, you know, the character you play in that is just the opposite of that. Like she doesn't really usually know how to push back or what she wants, a little directionless.
GERWIG: Right. Yeah. Yeah. Florence was really hard. I mean I loved Florence and I felt like when I read the script I instantly understood her and even how she held herself or how she drove a car. I felt like I understood the parts of her body that she didn't like. And, I don't know, there was something about her that I just I felt instantly this deep empathy with her. But playing her, I didn't purposely try to Method act or anything, but I think characters get under my skin and I felt very vulnerable the whole time we were making the movie and very unable to stand up for myself, and very, it was like I was having trouble finding my fire sometime after that too because I didn't have another project to go into so I didn't have a way of getting her out of my system, and it was a hard time because she's so exposed. She's like a bug without a shell or something. She doesn't have anything to protect herself, and that's how I felt.
GROSS: It's interesting that you said you knew the parts of her body that she didn't like. I bet that's not in the script, but how did, like what parts of her body didn't she like and how did that help you knowing that?
GERWIG: I felt like she had skirts that were too small and she could feel her thighs rubbing together when she walked. I just knew that. I don't know how I knew that but I knew - and I knew that she was too tired to really do anything about - I'm actually, as I'm talking about it, I get emotional about her. I just, I could feel her not looking at herself in the mirror because she wouldn't, she would know it would make her sad. And there's something about that that I understood and I just - I felt like it would make her tuck herself in in a way to try to protect herself but she can't.
GROSS: You're saying that as if you really understand what it's like to have those kind of body issues, but I wouldn't think that you would have had them yourself.
GERWIG: I don't know that any woman gets out of life without having some body issues. I mean I had - I had the - I think a lot of teenage girls go through this, as you gain, when you turn about 15 you gain weight in ways that you didn't know was possible suddenly because you're going through puberty. And I, I never was overweight but I went through a period of time where I was bigger. And then when I was in college, right before my senior year, I lost an incredible amount of weight due to chain smoking and really poor personal behavior. And it felt so wonderful and I wished it didn't feel as wonderful as it does and it felt like liberating and I felt great about myself and people asked me, did you get a haircut, and I was like no, I lost 25 pounds, you idiot. But I felt, and then there was something about when I read Florence that - I mean I think it also gave me the confidence to kind of go make these movies and do all this stuff because I felt like I was high on some kind of thinness. And then when I read the part of Florence, I almost felt ashamed because I felt like I had been trying to run away from being that person because I thought that that's what I had to do to make movies. And then when I read that part, I gained 15, 17, 20 pounds for the part because I knew that was right and I've never really lost it after that. I just kind of stayed that weight. But I think there was - it was like when I read the script, I understood it and I also felt like, oh, you didn't have to try to be another person to make art or to be an actress. You can be this person and someone will want to tell that story.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig, and they collaborated on the new film "Frances Ha." Noah Baumbach directed it. Greta and Noah co-wrote it and Greta Gerwig stars in it as Frances.
Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach. They collaborated on the new film "Frances Ha." Greta Gerwig co-wrote the movie with Noah Baumbach. She stars in it and he directed it.
So I want to ask you both just briefly about Woody Allen, 'cause I know, Noah Baumbach, he's been an influence on your work - perhaps even shooting your movie set in Manhattan in black and white is inspired in part by Woody Allen's "Manhattan," which is shot in black and white. And Greta Gerwig, you acted in Woody Allen's recent movie, "When in Rome." So can you each talk a little bit about his influence on you? And Greta, if you could talk about, you know, what you learned working with him?
BAUMBACH: Well, when I was in high school, I guess, and I was growing up in Brooklyn, and I actually was going to Midwood High School, which I knew that Woody Allen had gone to as well - and I was just starting to write funny short stories. And somebody gave me a Woody Allen - or a teacher, actually, I think, wrote a comment saying, this is like a Woody Allen short story, and I had seen Woody Allen movies, but I sort of didn't know he had written these funny things.
And I think my parents had "Getting Even," which was one of his collections, and I - when I read it it was like I couldn't believe it. I thought they were the funniest things that I had ever read, but I also felt like - this is the thing they say about great poetry or something - it's like your own thoughts brought back to you with added majesty or something. It's like that was like my own funny ideas brought back, and he just seemed so smart and funny, and - but I just felt so connected to it and from that point forward I think I was, you know, then I just kind of devoured the movies and, you know, he was so much a part of my growing up, really. And I think at a certain point when I got a little older, I almost had to - it was almost like a drug I had to kick. I had to like get off Woody Allen, because like I was imitating him too much. I remember being on a date with a girl in college and realizing I was just like acting like Woody Allen in a movie. And...
GERWIG: That's so funny because I felt like I spent most of my adolescence trying to act like Diane Keaton.
BAUMBACH: Well, we should have met then. I...
GROSS: Yeah. It wouldn't have gone well. No.
BAUMBACH: No. No.
GERWIG: We would've broken - yeah.
BAUMBACH: Yeah. I'd say, Greta, you have a losing personality.
GERWIG: Ouch. Gosh.
GERWIG: La dee da.
BAUMBACH: But in some ways, coming back to "Frances," I think I was sort of at a point where I was ready to embrace it again. And of course we were shooting a movie in New York in black and white, and you know, I was thinking about "Manhattan" and "Broadway Danny Rose" and "Stardust Memories," the ones he did that Gordon Willis photographed, and there's such majesty in the photography. And those movies are sort of, you know, they're intimate stories, they're people sort of working out their own stuff, and - but the photography and often the music in those movies treats it like a grand cinematic experience. And I think, you know, that's how I, you know, ultimately feel about those little things and, you know, about intimate stories. I think they are cinematic and grand, and that's how "Frances" felt to me. That, you know, this, you know, watching this woman decide whether or not to pay a surcharge at an ATM machine when she's in a rush and broke, to me felt like it could be big cinema. And so I went about shooting it that way.
And scoring it that way. And I think a lot of that sort of came from seeing how he treated this material. The other thing I think about Woody Allen, that - I mean, there's very many things, but another thing is I think the blocking in his movies is really remarkable. I mean it's connected, I think, to, like, '30s and '40s screwball comedies and Ernst Lubitsch movies or, you know, Howard Hawks or George Cukor.
I mean this sort of - he sets frames where actors move in and out and go in and out of doors. And when the camera does move it's always the right move. You're always going with the right - following the right actor, the right character, at that right moment. And that was something that I thought a lot about in "Frances" was blocking. And, you know, we shot a lot of long takes and a lot of takes of these scenes.
And I'm always interested in how much of the story can you tell in one shot before you need to cut. And I think that's something I was learning from his movies even when I didn't know I was learning that from his movies.
GROSS: Greta? What was it like to work with him?
GERWIG: Surreal. I mean, I, like, the whole - it was surreal to work with him because I - he's, you know, he's the whole reason I, like, moved to New York and love New York and will stay here forever. His movies and the way he portrayed New York City and what was possible here. So to get to actually just even audition for him was sort of - felt like if it doesn't go beyond this, I'm OK with that.
I got to stand in a room with him. Actually, we just literally stood. Nobody was sitting down. I walked into a room and he was standing and his casting director was standing. And then I stood there for probably 45 seconds. And then he said thank you. Thank you for coming here. And then I left and I was...
GROSS: That was it? That was the audition?
BAUMBACH: That was it. Yeah. I stood in a room.
GERWIG: Nailed it.
GERWIG: No. I made one joke that sort of made him laugh and then I made another joke that did not make him laugh. And then it was over. And so I - but then anyway, I got the part and it was amazing. But it's also, you know, whenever you work with someone who you idolize you realize they're - I mean, it's so - they're just - he's just a person trying to make a movie as best he knows how.
And that doesn't look so different from other people trying to do the same thing. And he's, you know, wildly smart and brilliant and funny but it's movie making. And there's something kind of democratic about how difficult it is, because everybody, whether you're Woody Allen or Noah or, you know, P.T. Anderson, it's hard. Making movies is a hard thing. And it's slow. And you can glorify the product but the process is difficult no matter who you are.
GROSS: So we only have a few seconds left, but can you tell us either the joke Woody Allen liked or the one that he didn't?
GERWIG: I told him - the one that he liked was I told him I - I lived in Chinatown. And he said why do you live in Chinatown? And I said I know a guy. Which, I don't know why I said that.
GERWIG: But he sort of laughed. And then I made a joke about texting, which I said something like my dad - I don't know what it was, but it didn't work. And then he was like, well, thank you for coming in. And I was like OK. Texting jokes, not - didn't fly. So.
GROSS: OK. Well, I want to thank you both for joining us so much. Greta Gerwig, Noah Baumbach, thank you both so much.
BAUMBACH: Thank you.
GROSS: Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach co-wrote the new film "Frances Ha." She stars in it; he directed it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.