Cranky Hanke talks Frances Ha (and other things) with Greta Gerwig

Noah Baumach’s (The Squid and the Whale) new film Frances Ha opened recently in New York and Los Angeles to terrific reviews and a weekend of sold-out shows. With its bittersweet edge, this captivating comedy is poised to be one of the biggest art house hits of the year, and it comes to Asheville this Friday at The Carolina.

The week after the film’s pretty spectacular opening, I interviewed the film’s star and co-writer, Greta Gerwig (who is in a relationship with director and co-writer Baumbach). You may remember her — she’s a presence who’s hard to forget — from last year’s Damsels in Distress or as Jesse Eisenberg’s girlfriend in Woody Allen’s To Rome with Love. Gerwig first worked with Baumbach on the uneven and slightly off-putting Greenberg (2010), which is nothing like Frances Ha. From this, a friendship, a relationship and this collaboration evolved.

I have to say that this interview was pure delight. Greta Gerwig turned out to be friendly, articulate, enthusiastic—and just generally a real sweetheart. I’ve had lots of enjoyable interviews over the years, but this might be the first one where I came away wishing she was my friend. Here we have an excerpt from that interview. Here we have the full conversation.

Ken Hanke: I guess right now congratulations are in order. I assume you’re happy with Frances Ha‘s opening weekend.

Greta Gerwig: I am so happy. I am so relieved. It was such a great weekend. The critics were very supportive and, you know, it’s hard to tell if people go out to the movies anymore, so it was really great that they went.

I think that this is something that has such an immediate appeal that I’m not surprised by the turnout. I saw the film day before yesterday — in fact, I saw it twice — and right now I’m somewhere in between “I like it one hell of a lot” and “I’m in love with it.”
That’s a good place to be.

And the last thing I’d watched with you in couldn’t have been more different: House of the Devil.
Oh, my horror movie debut!

Well, you certainly had a memorable exit in it.
I never know how to feel when people tell me that’s their favorite scene of mine.

I don’t think I’d be comfortable with that.
No, it makes me feel like they’re crazy or that they really hate me.

Well, it’s not my favorite scene of yours, but I will say that Frances Ha looks like a good bet to be on my Ten Best list this year, and Damsels in Distress was on there last year.
Oh, wow! That’s so great! Damsels is one of my favorite films that I’ve done. I really love it.

It had an odd life locally. Some people took a really strong dislike to it. They were actually upset by it.
I guess it’s that Whit Stillman is such a specific style that sometimes it’s just not for everyone, but I feel like the people who liked it loved it.

Oh, definitely. On the other hand, I think that Frances Ha is going to be a real crowd-pleaser here, and be a film that will appeal to a broad audience.
I hope so. As much as I’m happy that it’s really big in New York and LA, I don’t think it’s a film that you have to live in New York to like.

The film really resonates in a broader sense. And I really like the fact that it’s very realistic, yet very stylized at the same time.
That was a very deliberate choice we made with the dialogue and the way that it was shot. Noah writes very specific scripts, but they seem naturalistic — that they’re just people talking — but they’re actually very written and very constructed. That’s something that I really just bonded to in his writing — and it was something I could do. We were doing the same thing with this piece, making this script as tight and as perfect as possible, but make it feel like it was real. When actually, we were doing like 40 takes, trying to set up shots that had as few cuts as possible. It was very formalistic. It was trying to create the most elegant way to tell this story. If it could be done in one shot, that’s the best version of it. We were looking for an almost presentational feeling of this epic moving tableau.

I can see that — and I’ll look at it with that in mind when I watch it again. I’m not finished seeing it, but I think I’ll wait till I can see it on the big screen.
I think it definitely works best in a movie theater, especially because it’s black-and-white and it just feels like a movie you should see in a theater. That might sound like an unsophisticated explanation, but it feels like you want to watch it with other people.

I love seeing a film with an audience — a good audience. It’s a completely different experience. Plus, this film has such a creative and layered soundtrack that it needs theater sound. Let’s talk about that soundtrack for a bit.
Music plays a big part in it.

I don’t think you could have told me a week ago that I would ever see a movie in which Hot Chocolate’s “Every 1’s a Winner” was going to make a standout impression in my mind.
I’m so glad. Hot Chocolate playing over Paris. Well, part of it was that we used so much French music that we felt we couldn’t use French music when she’s actually in Paris, we have to use R&B or soul. We almost put [“Every 1’s a Winner] in during the editing process. We were trying different songs and it was like, “Is this too silly? Is this too ridiculous that Hot Chocolate would be playing?” But we loved it so much. Here she is, having the worst time, in Paris and “Every 1’s a Winner” is playing over the whole thing — so we decided to go with it. So many of the decisions on the movie were like that. You realize, “Well, I love it and if I love it maybe other people will love it.” So we decided just to go for it.

Well, I’m glad you did. I don’t even remember much liking the song when it was on the radio back in 1978, but your use of it is just perfect. And I don’t even know where you dug up that little Harry Nilsson track you used.
Oh, yeah, that. I love Harry Nilsson and we’d been listening to a lot of his stuff and Noah had tried to put it in another project he was working on and it didn’t work. It was just one of those things where we’d always been looking for a place for it. There’s something so simultaneously funny and yet sad about his music. And it seemed just perfect for that scene at Vassar.

I’m assuming that the idea of all the Georges Delerue music was built into the project?
Actually, we didn’t know it was going to be the Georges Delerue music. They were putting the Georges Delerue music in as temp track, thinking that we would have someone write a score. Then as we were working on it and making it, there was something about the music that you felt like this movie could hold it in a way that in another movie it might feel too…cute. I think retroactively it became more of a French New Wave reference than we ever meant it to when we were writing it.

It certainly gives it a New Wave feel. It…well, it sounds like a film from that era and it suits it.
It’s beautiful music and it’s almost too sincere. People don’t write that kind of sincere movie music anymore. Now it’s more bombastic. This music felt like romantic, but also handmade.

I think that’s a beautiful description of it. I’m curious about one thing. How much do you identify with the character of Frances?
For me, it was really a two-part process. Writing it was part of the process. A lot of it was made up, but a lot of it was taken from my life or from Noah’s life. So there’s that layer of using yourself in the writing. In the performing, there are parts of Frances that I’m like, but the character is almost like creating a more broadly comedic character — a more physical comedian in way. It felt more like a Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton type of performance. I think that was influenced by the fact that Noah shot me from pretty far away most of the time so that I could create a character from head to foot. Some films are shot so close that it almost feels like you have to do it all with your face and your voice as opposed to your whole body. We costumed Frances very specifically. She’s wearing the clogs and the leggings and the Polo dress and the turtleneck and, then, a bomber jacket over that and she’s carrying a backpack. And now we’re going to make her run — and that was always how I perceived the character as being this sort of exaggerated comedic construction. There were parts of it where I was allowed to go bigger and I don’t get to do that very often.

Well, it’s such a terrific performance. I think the film would be unthinkable without it. I mean it almost is the film. To me, your performance it completely what makes the film work. But since we’ve been told that we’re running out of time, can you tell me something about that untitled Noah Baumbach project that’s on its way?
It’s gonna be a little while before it’s done, but it’s a totally different type of a movie. It feels different and I’m actually really happy that we started writing it and we kind of started making it before Frances got the reception that it’s gotten, which is nice in some ways. I think if we’d known that people were going to like Frances as much as they have, we might have been paralyzed by trying to recreate it. I think there’s a lot of value in going ahead and working on the next thing without waiting to find out whether people like the first thing. You don’t want to be cute and try to get the same results.

And then you get blasted for trying to do the same thing anyway.
Exactly.

And then you’ll get blasted for not doing the same thing.
You know, I think the hardest thing about being an artist or a writer or anyone who puts something out there of themselves to be consumed and judged by other people is that you have to live through the ones that are received well and the ones that are received badly. And it really creates a camaraderie between filmmakers and actors and writers and, after a certain point, everybody’s had bombs, everybody’s had misses and you get calloused in a good way. You can share your war wounds and it’s kinda like it’s the price of admission. It’s really about doing the next thing — to challenge yourself, to engage yourself to what you think you are and what you think your art is. We’re still learning what this new one is, but it’s totally different. I can tell you that.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

20 thoughts on “Cranky Hanke talks Frances Ha (and other things) with Greta Gerwig

  1. Jeremy Dylan

    Greta Gerwig turned out to be friendly, articulate, enthusiastic — and just generally a real sweetheart.

    Ken, you tart!

    I have to say, I’m looking forward to this one. Hopefully, it will make it to my neck of the woods sometime soon.

  2. Ken Hanke

    I have had pretty good luck in the matter, but it’s so gratifying when you interview or otherwise encounter people you like because of their work and find out they’re every bit as nice as you’d hoped.

  3. Big Al

    I have only seen Gerwig in two films, “Damsels…” which was cute but did not blow me away, and “From Rome..”, which put me to sleep (no fault of Greta’s, her part was so minimal).

    BUT..

    There is something pleasantly cute and familiar about her in “Damsels…” and the previews for “Frances Ha”. I just can’t place it, but she makes me feel like I know her and that wherever she is, everything will be alright in the end. Kinda like a goat calming a nervous racehorse..?

    As weird as this may sound, it is in fact a compliment.

    Anyway, I look forward to this film.

  4. Ken Hanke

    she makes me feel like I know her and that wherever she is, everything will be alright in the end. Kinda like a goat calming a nervous racehorse..?

    Well, apart from making her sound like the Deanna Durbin of the Bovidae world, I can see where that’s a compliment.

  5. Ken Hanke

    As much as I like Ms. Gerwig, I have no immediate plans to tackle those.

  6. Xanadon't

    I can’t say that I have any mumblecore itches that need scratching, but I have to admit that I’m tempted to give Hannah Takes the Stairs a look since it features Mark Duplass too.

  7. Ken Hanke

    Up to you, but I’ll note it wasn’t until Your Sister’s Sister that I liked Duplass.

  8. Xanadon't

    I actually really liked him in The Puffy Chair and was fond of the movie as well, despite that annoying arbitrary zoom thing those guys seem to love so much.

  9. Ken Hanke

    My introduction to Duplass was Humpday — a movie I started out not much liking and ended up pretty completely detesting. This does not make me anxious to dig back into the core of the mumble.

  10. Xanadon't

    Yeah, there are all sorts of problems with Humpday and had I encountered that one first I’d likely never bother with The Puffy Chair either. I will say though, that The Puffy Chair is actually way more in line with Lynn Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister script than anything else Mark Duplass has written.

  11. Me

    I would say Katie Lyn Sheil is the new rising
    queen of the small films, it seems like she is in every thing I watch these days.

  12. Ken Hanke

    I will say though, that The Puffy Chair is actually way more in line with Lynn Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister script than anything else Mark Duplass has written

    Okay, I will go so far as not actively avoiding it, but I still don’t imagine I’m going to seek it out.

  13. Jeremy Dylan

    I would say Katie Lyn Sheil is the new rising
    queen of the small films, it seems like she is in every thing I watch these days.

    Nothing against Ms. Sheil, whom I have no reason not to think is excellent, but a quick glance over her credits reveals only two films I’ve heard of. In these, she played ‘Girl’ and ‘Ex-Wife’ respectively.

  14. Xanadon't

    I’ve only ever seen her as “waitress”. But it would seem she’s a multi-talent to be reckoned with.

  15. Ken Hanke

    I love how an advert for a line of clothes is called a short film.

    Considering the date on that, I’d guess it’s either coincidental or Dunham’s doodle is derivative of Frances Ha. And Wes Anderson, come to that.

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