Interview with Noah Baumbach, director of Frances Ha

Noah Baumbach

Noah Baumbach is essential New York City. From the Berkman family in  The Squid and the Whale  to Roger in  Greenberg,   Baumbach embodies the essence of New Yorkers. In his latest film,  Frances Ha,  title character Frances is no different. Baumbach co-wrote the film with lead star Greta Gerwig, and directed it in beautiful black and white, creating an instant New York classic.

Unlike some of his other films,  Frances Ha  takes a more optimistic look into coming of age and adulthood. Baumbach explains this transition in tone, “It came from the character, and the story. As we were writing, the tone was clear to me. The sense of joy, and the hopeful ending. In some ways, it was very clear that we had to take care of this person and reward her for what she’s going through. I wasn’t thinking about it in any relation to my other movies. You kind of just trust that if you’re doing it, it will have your personality. For Greenberg , the movie and tone fit that character. And for Frances Ha , the movie and tone fit her.”

Despite being mostly set in New York City, Frances Ha  has a very French feel. It’s romantic, and electric. Taking inspiration from Godard and Truffaut, Baumbach says, “I was thinking about the French New Wave a lot. Not even specific films in relation to Frances Ha , but more so the spirit of those films. The production spirit – at least what I imagine the production spirit was like – the stripped down, fleet footed crews that they had for those films, especially the earlier ones. But also, the energy and spirit of Truffaut’s films, or the studies of youth in Godard’s films. I’ve seen these films so many times, they are in my bloodstream.”

Baumbach is known for his character studies, and often his characters have a confused perception of themselves in relation to how others see them. This is certainly the case with Frances. To Baumbach, this is a funny notion to explore, with endless writing possibilities. He continues, “I also think it’s something we all face as adults. Maybe not in such a radical way like Greenberg or Frances, who misjudge their audiences when they’re talking. We are all trapped in our heads, and we have ideas of ourselves. We have ideas of who we are versus ideas of who we hope we are. The story in our head and the story laid out in front of us are going to be different, and I think, in some ways, Frances is going through the first major version of that into adulthood.”

Throughout Frances Ha,  Baumbach films co-writer and star, Greta Gerwig very lovingly, in a Woody Allen/Diane Keaton sort of way. This gives the film a lot of its charm. Working with Gerwig for the second time, Baumbach talks about their working relationship. “Greta was my collaborator, and my inspiration. As writers, we were doing the film together. And as a director, I had worked with her before so I knew what she could do and how she worked which made me a better director for her. With this movie, I let her take the lead and I tried to honour and celebrate her and her performance, and that character of Frances. That informed pretty much everything else I did.”

Mickey Sumner and Great Gerwig in "Frances Ha"

Mickey Sumner and Great Gerwig in “Frances Ha”

Frances’ best friend, Sophie, is played by Mickey Sumner, daughter of musician Sting. Gerwig and Sumner have undeniable chemistry. Having famous parents had nothing to do with getting the role, though. “I auditioned a lot of people in New York. Mickey came in a few times for me, and then I brought her in with Greta. As soon as they sat down together, we knew. What’s interesting in New York is that there are people with interesting parents who come in who are immensely self-assured and talented because they come from a show background. Sometimes there will be someone I go to right away with a script, but in the case of Frances Ha , it was old-fashioned auditioning. Except for Greta, I was discovering people through auditions.”

Baumbach is one of Wes Anderson’s go-to collaborators. Co-writing  The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou   and  The Fantastic Mr. Fox,  Baumbach talks about the differences between writing for someone else’s film, and writing for his own film. “If I’m writing to direct, I am seeing it in a different way, then if I am contributing to something that someone else is ultimately going to form and direct. When I am working with Wes, I am trying to help him make the film he wants to make. A lot of it is invention, and in that invention, I am trying to help him to find what’s going to work for him, because that might be different from what would work for me. When I am writing for myself, I ultimately know what feels right to me. I know it because I’m the one who’s going to have to finish it.”

Frances Ha  is done making its festival rounds, so if you missed it at TIFF 2012, make sure you catch it in Toronto theaters starting Friday, June 21, 2013.


Danita loves musicals, Bette Midler, sandwiches, any Real Housewives franchise, great horror films, and The Golden Girls. She’s a bookworm, cinephile, and celebrity stalker. If she’s at home, she’s in her pajamas.

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