Going Inside “Frances Ha” with Greta Gerwig
by Dan Casey on June 21, 2013
The rise of the manic pixie dream girl in pop culture isn’t necessarily a recent phenomenon; it’s just coincidental that these twee indie-darling types are dominating the TV and film landscapes as Zooey Deschanels and Zoe Kazans (what is it about the name Zoe?) strum ukeleles and infiltrate our psyches. Recently, we’ve begun to see more honest, grounded counterexamples of what these idealized girls are actually like in real life through TV shows like Lena Dunham’s Girls, writers like Tao Lin, and, most recently, in the indie feature Frances Ha.
Co-written with director Noah Baumbach, Frances Ha stars Greta Gerwig as Frances Handley, a 27-year-old modern dancer living in New York and stuck in a state of arrested development, an increasingly common phenomenon among twenty-somethings whose ascension into adulthood is delayed by college and the gradual shift towards starting families later in life. For lack of a better term, it seems like we have a problem keeping our shit together, and Frances is no exception.
Whimsical, waifish and thrill-seeking, Frances is shown in all her weirdness, selfishness, and immaturity as she spirals out of control while, seemingly, everyone around her begins cleaning up their acts. It’s an honest, raw portrayal of a very familiar character. I went to college with Frances. I’m friends with Frances. Hell, at points in my life, I’ve even been Frances. It’s an intensely relatable and touching film that is alternately captivating and cringe-inducing, like watching a car accident in slow motion.
To take you deeper into the world of Frances Ha, I caught up with writer/star Greta Gerwig to talk to her about crafting the story, if we’re screwed as a generation and whether or not you need to be obscenely wealthy to make it as an artist in the big city.
Nerdist: First of all, I really enjoyed the film. It’s excruciatingly enjoyable; I found it both captivating and hard to watch, and I mean that in the best way possible.
Greta Gerwig: Oh, I’m so glad. I feel like that’s what we were going for. Glad to hear it was successful.
N: Tell us a little bit of how this story came to life.
GG: It was a long collaboration in the writing process. We wrote it in the course of a year about, on and off. We’re very similar writers in that we both find the story we’re telling through the dialogue we’re writing, finding what the character is doing, what she’s interested in, as opposed to dictating the story and working backwards. So, it was really writing scenes and getting these moments and kind of discovering the story as we’re writing.
N: It has a very grounded, natural feel to it so if it’s occurring spontaneously. The dialogue has a very honest sensibility to it. To get that feeling, did you do a lot of improv on set? Or was it just painstakingly including all the starts and stops of natural speech?
GG: No, we didn’t do any improv at all. We were using the script to the letter. There was zero improv. It was really taking the time to get the script as good as possible and trying to execute it as best we could.
N: Frances is a very familiar character; that person who just got out of college, moved to New York, and tried to make a go of it in their chosen fields. I knew these girls; I’m friends with these girls, so I’m curious – what is it about this person that speaks to you?
GG: Well, I definitely think that, being in New York City in my twenties, I both sympathize with Frances and see Frances-like people everywhere. It’s interesting because to me the character really goes beyond that particular demographic. As much as it certainly evokes the specificity of living in New York in your twenties, it wasn’t intended to be, like, a global statement about a generation. It’s just really about this one person. I feel like that also happens in writing, that through specificity you find something universal.
N: Gotcha. I know you weren’t trying to make that statement, but it seems to me that through films like this, television shows like Girls, and the writing of people like Tao Lin, that, generationally-speaking, we have a problem getting our shit together. Do you think this is indicative of a larger trend or it more of a case-by-case basis?
GG: Uh, I think it’s sort of a case-by-case basis. I mean, I see people who do have their shit together of my generation as much as I see people who don’t. I think in some ways we’re, as a generation, much more honest about not having our shit together as opposed to previous generations who felt like they had to fake it until they made it.
N: Another line that really struck a chord with me – and I’m sure you’ve been asked about this a lot – Frances says, “Only rich people can be artists in New York.” It’s something that seems true of Los Angeles as well. It’s a hurdle that creative types run up against, but how much truth is there in that line, do you think?
GG: You know, unfortunately, I think there’s a lot of truth to that line, especially as New York has become prohibitively expensive to anyone besides the very rich. There’s still areas of Brooklyn and Queens and the Bronx where it’s possible, but it’s very frustrating to be a young artist without a trust fund. I’ve talked to a lot of people who feel that way in New York, and that’s nothing against people who have trust funds. It would be awesome if I had one. I don’t feel anything against that, but I just think it’s one of those things that’s very difficult if you’re trying to make a go of it in New York City.
N: Yeah, I think that’s pretty apt description. So, this is the second feature film you’ve written, correct?
GG: Well, I’ve been credited as a writer on a few feature films, but this really feels like the first one I’ve written that feels like a true representation of my writing, because the writing was so precise and there was no improvisation and it feels like, “Yeah, I wrote all these words, or I co-wrote all these words,” so I feel like it’s the first time that I can properly take credit as a writer. Yes, there’s been a few others, but, yeah.
N: Is screenwriting something you see yourself doing more of? Do you find you enjoy it more or less than acting?
GG: Well, I really started out doing everything, I was writing plays a lot in college, and also acting, and also directing. Really, in some ways, me writing or acting or producing, they’re really just me doing what I’ve always done but in a more public way. And I think that I’ve always been a person who found their sweet spot in exploring different positions in the film industry or theater industry and I think I’ll probably continue doing all that because it’s really where I’m most at home, wearing a lot of different hats.
N: It’s nice that you can just express yourself in so many different ways. That’s rad. Another thing I really enjoyed about the film is that, even though you go to other locations, New York very much seems like it’s a character unto itself. And, obviously, shooting in black and white is going to evoke comparisons to Manhattan. Was that at all a consideration going into this? Talk to me about the decision to film in black and white.
GG: It was a really intuitive decision in many ways: we didn’t intellectualize it too much. We decided we want to make it in black and white, it was like “Okay, yes. That’s right.” As with so many intuitive decisions, you find the logic in it after you make the decision. I think for us, it gave it this instant feel of “cinema” that we wanted to invoke, in the music and the way it looked, and the it was shot was done very formalistically.
It’s not handheld; all the shots are very composed. And the black and white made it feel like a moment of cinema, and that was very exciting. And it was also instantly nostalgic so it captured a mood that we were looking for in the writing of it, which was memorializing these moments as they pass. The moments of going for your dream but then giving up on it or changing it, or of the last great date with your best friends, or the last time you really go for something. I mean, those moments, you’re not aware that they’re the last moments while they’re happening, you’re only aware of them afterwards, and the black and white seems to speak to that melancholy and nostalgia for things that are just past.
N: I think it’s really interesting as well as a viewer, because you can see the before and after effects so you can sort of read into these things, but when they’re happening to you it’s hard to take that sort of top-down view.
GG: Right. Frances doesn’t know the end of the story. Neither does the viewer, but the viewer can see what’s happening more clearly than Frances can.
N: Yeah, exactly. All right, one last question: what would be inside your ideal burrito?
GG: Oh. Well, like, refried beans, Mexican rice, you know the rice that’s been cooked too well in the spices, Oaxaca cheese, that really great, melty Mexican cheese… I guess, like, carnitas and then sliced avocado on top with super hot salsa.
Frances Ha is in theaters now. Go see it! Or, if you already did, let us know what you thought in the comments below!