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Interview: Noah Baumbach Talks 'Frances Ha', Liking His 'Unlikeable' Characters, What's Next & More

The Playlist By Erik McClanahan | The Playlist May 14, 2013 at 11:04AM

We recently had the good fortune to speak with filmmaker Noah Baumbach as he starts the long, winding road of press for the upcoming release of his latest film, the sublime black-and-white character piece and uproarious comedy "Frances Ha," starring Greta Gerwig (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Baumbach). The writer/director, shot 'Frances' on the quick and quiet (hardly anyone knew it even existed until it premiered at the Telluride Film Festival last year), though he claims he didn't set out to keep the movie a secret.
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Noah Baumbach

We recently had the good fortune to speak with filmmaker Noah Baumbach as he starts the long, winding road of press for the upcoming release of his latest film, the sublime black-and-white character piece and uproarious comedy "Frances Ha," starring Greta Gerwig (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Baumbach). The writer/director, shot 'Frances' on the quick and quiet (hardly anyone knew it even existed until it premiered at the Telluride Film Festival last year), though he claims he didn't set out to keep the movie a secret.

Regardless of Baumbach's motives, he seems quite taken with this approach to film-making, as it was near impossible to get even a morsel out of him when asked about his follow-up, which we've since gotten a little more info on. While he was cagey to divulge much of anything on this new film, he did open up about plenty of other things, not least of which is the quite wonderful "Frances Ha." It's one of Baumbach's best films and perhaps sees the filmmaker turning over a slightly different leaf in his cinematic interests, following a lead character who, despite her classic Baumbach-ian stasis in life, is a much more sympathetic, less-prickly person the audience will no doubt enjoy following onscreen. In our review from Telluride last year, we noted that for Baumbach "it marks an exciting new period in the filmmaker’s oeuvre and one that will hopefully yield many more collaborations with the endearing and charming Greta Gerwig... The alchemy between them has produced a seriously funny, sad and engaging dramedy and it's one of Baumbach's best efforts to date." Read on for more on the film, plus plenty of other cool nuggets, from its director.

Noah Baumbach, Frances Ha
In just about all your other films except "Frances Ha," there's this idea of the unlikeable protagonist, which you've pushed more intensely with every film. Why are you attracted to that?
I never think of them as unlikeable. I really don't. With "Greenberg,"  I had been interested for a while in this character, where things hadn't panned out the way he wanted them to, and he couldn't acknowledge that was the case, and he was too embarrassed to admit it. The more I explored that guy, I suppose the character became pricklier. But I always had great affection for him. So I understand to some degree what people mean when they refer to [my] characters as unlikeable, but I actually disagree with it. 

So you're not setting out to challenge the audience, you actually empathize with these characters?
Yeah, I think that's how people can be. Some people are that way. From where I sit, these are all people who are not unlike people I've come across in my life. It doesn't mean I see all people this way. They all felt like true characters to me.

"I understand to some degree what people mean when they refer to my characters as unlikeable, but I actually disagree with it."
They're definitely characters you don't often see represented in cinema.
Right, for instance, with "Greenberg" I became aware after I made it that there was probably another version of this movie where Ivan was the protagonist and Greenberg was his difficult friend. And maybe that would've been the more accessible way to do it [laughs], and maybe I should've tried it that way. For whatever reason I thought let's come at it from the other guy's perspective.

"Frances Ha" does seem different from those films. Greta Gerwig stars here, she's naturally likeable and adorable. The camera seems to love her. Yet she does retain those qualities of all your characters. She's in stasis, unable to realize her dreams...
Yeah, Greenberg is a 40-something-year-old guy whose ideas about himself and his life haven't been supported by his actual experience, and it created the character of Greenberg as we discover him. I felt like that was the right movie and tone for that character. Frances, on the other hand, is 27 and can't get out of her own way, she has ideas about her life and how things should be that aren't supported by her experience as well but it's a different trajectory for her. She is more open to experience. She is able to adjust herself and make those difficult decisions. Taking a desk job is a heroic moment, in a way, for her in in this movie. This is the movie that is right for this character. I've always felt like it's a matter of emphasis. They're different people at different times in their lives and different circumstances, but I feel like both are equally true. And Frances was so inspired by Greta as an actor, what she can bring to a part. And also, what she did bring in the writing process. It would've been truly unsatisfying to not reward Frances, because the character deserved it, I felt. But with a different character it could feel false to reward them.

Frances Ha
You've worked with Greta, whom you're in a relationship with right now, on the past two films and before that with your wife at the time, Jennifer Jason Leigh. I'm curious, why are you attracted to working with significant others and people you're close with in real life?

Both of them just happened to be remarkable actresses and people I would want to work with anyway. Many of the crew members I work with and continue to work with were friends or have become close friends and so we keep working together. And I like casting friends of mine or people I know in parts I know would be perfect for them. I like to bring things and people that mean something to me in to my work. I think it brings something out in the experience for me that's not really quantifiable. I like shooting in New York because I have such a connection to the city. I have so many memories there. Even in movies that are less directly autobiographical than, say, "Squid and the Whale" I use places from my life. In 'Frances' we used Vassar where I went to college. Even though it's under much different circumstances for Frances than it was for me when I went there, it does bring something out in the filmmaking. I think with Jennifer and Greta, they're two of the best actresses around.

You've mentioned elsewhere that you wanted "Frances Ha" to have the feel of a pop song that you immediately want to listen to to again when it's over...
There's something very musical about the structure of the script and the rhythm of it. It has lots of little moments followed by longer scenes. And lots of little bursts of scenes and moments and then a scene will play out almost in real time. The music in the movie too is so strong and grand and romantic and joyous, both the score but also the pop songs that are in it. It was more something I thought about afterward. I'm not musical. I don't think I could actually write a pop song but this is the closest I could come to it.

This article is related to: Noah Baumbach, Greta Gerwig, Interviews, Interviews, Frances Ha


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