Noah Baumbach‘s “Frances Ha” seemingly came out of nowhere to charm viewers at Telluride and Toronto last fall.
The Brooklyn-born director, whose previous films include “Kicking and Screaming,” “The Squid and the Whale” and “Margot at the Wedding,” made the made the movie quietly, co-writing it with his “Greenberg” leading lady Greta Gerwig and filming it in luminous black and white on the streets and in the subways and apartments of New York City.
The film follows Gerwig’s title character, a 27-year-old aspiring dancer who’s never quite gotten her life together; by turns funny, sad, touching and cringe-inducing, it approaches the mess that Frances has made with what TheWrap’s Alonso Duralde described as “an optimism and empathy … that feels genuine and earned.”
TheWrap spoke to Baumbach (left, with Gerwig) about the Woody Allen connection, shooting up to 40 takes for each scene and the leap of faith needed on the part of financiers.
Warning: His final answer contains spoilers.
You approached Greta Gerwig about making another film together after finishing “Greenberg,” but at that point how much of an idea did you have for this film?
I really just had a sense of a movie — doing something in New York that Greta would be the center of and maybe centering on being that age. I didn’t really know much beyond that. But working with her on “Greenberg,” I was struck by how hilarious she is, so I also had the sense that it could be funny.
So we just started emailing each other back and forth with pretty broad thoughts. They were things like, “Do you pay the surcharge at an ATM if you’re in a rush and you’re broke, instead of walking to a cheaper ATM?” Things like that that did make it into the movie, and then many things that didn’t make it into the movie.
Did you decide to shoot in black and white early on?
That was one of my first ideas. I felt like the black and white would both contrast and support what was essentially a very modern story and a very contemporary character.
And also, there was something about the character as she developed where all my visual ideas started going toward a more classical mode of shooting. I wanted it to feel kind of elegant and beautiful and epic at times, and the black and white certainly was part of that, and later the music. There was something about the intimacy of the story that I felt should be told in a bigger, bolder way.
When you make the decision to make a movie in black and white in New York City, do you always feel the shadow of Woody Allen and his “Manhattan” cinematographer Gordon Willis?
Well, of course we went right to that movie, to “Manhattan.” And “Broadway Danny Rose.” I felt like what we were doing was maybe in the tradition of it, but it was so much our story. It wasn’t so much of a shadow so much as it was something to get inspiration from, as a kind of bar you want to try to hit.
You famously shot 30, 40 takes or more of many of the scenes in this film. What do you get out of a scene when you do it that many times?
Well, I’m often interested in how much story you can tell with one shot. And so sometimes I tend to shoot many pages in one shot, without a cutting point. If the scene were shot in a more traditional way, you’d ultimately be doing almost as many takes, because you’d be shooting a master and then medium close, then close … So in some ways you’d be close to 40 takes anyway.
What we’re trying to do, often, is to get many pages to work in one shot. Maybe that’s where perfectionism comes into play. It’s sometimes getting the camera move right or changing our minds in the middle and deciding to block it differently. Sometimes two actors are on different trajectories within a scene, and you need to get them both at the same place at the same time.
And sometimes it’s me, and I’m having trouble figuring it out.
If you’re shooting traditionally, using coverage, you can piece a scene together using the best lines from many different takes. But if you’re shooting the whole thing in one shot, you have to hope that one take has everything you want.
Exactly. My friend Brian DePalma says he thinks coverage is a bad word. He says anybody can shoot a scene with coverage. I do think it’s more interesting to see how shots can evolve.
And it doesn’t need to be with wild camera moves or anything. It can just be with blocking, having an actor start in the background and walk to the foreground as the scene develops. I was thinking in some cases of the way Woody Allen blocks scenes, or how Ernest Lubitsch would block a scene.
A black-and-white movie with a script that was kept under wraps — this must have been a leap of faith on the part of the financiers.
It was a major leap of faith. I told them I was going to be black and white, but I did tell them that it wasn’t going to be experimental. I said it would be a movie that would stand with anything else I’d made. And they were really cool about it.
Not to give anything away, but there’s something quite refreshing about an ending that feels like a small triumph, even though it’s very much not what this character has spent the entire movie working toward and dreaming about.
Right. It was clear to me early on that the ending should be hopeful, that she should be rewarded for her struggles. At a Q&A recently, somebody said, “Did you ever think of not giving it such a happy ending?” And I think it was Greta who said the same thing you were just pointing out. She said, “It is a happy ending — but if you really kind look at it, she takes a desk job and gets a crummy little apartment. It’s hardly like she’s marrying a prince.”
We really wanted to create a context where those moves seemed big. Heroic, in a way. It was a movie where acknowledging that you’re not going to get what you fantasized about can be a very positive thing. That’s what growth is, you know?