Frances Ha is a coming-of-age film set in NYC, shot entirely in black and white, about a 27-year-old aspiring dancer (Greta Gerwig) floundering while everyone around her, including her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner), grows up. It’s a topic not too far afield for its start, 29-year old Gerwig, who even when co-starring with Ben Stiller in 2010’s Greenberg, found herself driving around LA with no money and no place to stay.
The Mumblecore ingénue stars and also co-wrote the film with boyfriend Noah Baumbach (who last directed her as the girl who puts up with abusive, transitioning Bushwick-carpenter loser played by Stiller in Greenberg). She’s down-to-earth, quirky in an unaffected way, endearingly scatterbrained (aren’t we all?). I want her to be my best friend, but I had to settle for a phone interview. Gerwig, who lives in Manhattan, chatted with us about whether it’s true that only rich people can be artists in New York, her favorite places in Brooklyn and what constitutes a “happy ending” for the struggling youngs today. The movie is in wide release today.
There have been a number of comparisons made between Frances Ha and Girls. How is your character Frances different from Lena Dunham’s Hannah? Any thoughts on why the young-artsy-broke-girl-in-Brooklyn thing is so compelling to TV and film right now?
Well, I don’t really like to do the “here’s how we’re different” thing. I just feel like it kinda diminishes both (projects). I love Lena’s show and I think she’s hilarious, and I feel like there are things we share and there are also things that are different, but to enumerate them feels kind of cheap. I mean the only thing I can definitely say for sure is that Frances doesn’t kiss.
Does it annoy you that seemingly every story these days about a young woman in Brooklyn gets put into the same box as Girls?
It doesn’t bother me. Really, the only way it would bother me would be if someone were to say “I hate Girls, and therefore I hate your thing because it reminds me of it.” But if people are like, “I really dig Girls, and I also really dig your thing,” then that’s like, awesome, because then it’s just a way to talk about something you like, like you know, The Beatles and The Stones. I don’t know, they’re both British?
What can you say about the decision to omit nudity and sex in the film? Frances never gets any and she doesn’t seem to mind; she’s almost asexual. It’s a film about struggling with relationships in your twenties, but none of the conflicts between the characters arise from sex. Her roommate Benji jokingly refers to her as “Frances Undateable” throughout.
She sees it as a badge of honor, that she feels she is un-pin-down able by any man, and that nobody could possibly handle her, and she wants that to be true of herself and her best friend Sophie. She wants to be beyond sort of heterosexual convention in a way. Her status as a human is higher than her status as a marriageable or dateable woman. We weren’t looking to make an androgynous character but we were looking to make a character whose gender is not the first thing you think about them.
TimeOut wrote that “Sam Levy’s gorgeous B&W cinematography does for Brooklyn what Manhattan did for Manhattan,” but really, the movie is set all over New York, from Brooklyn to Chinatown to Washington Heights. Are viewers mistakenly reading the film as another Brooklyn story because that’s what we’re so used to seeing lately?
It’s also filmed in Paris and Poughkeepsie and Sacramento. We always sort of thought of it as a road movie where nobody goes anywhere, really. But, I mean, nobody ever just lives in Brooklyn and doesn’t leave Brooklyn. One of the qualities of Frances and the way we costumed her is when you live in an outer borough and you work in Manhattan you leave for the whole day, which is why you need your backpack and all this stuff you might possibly need to wear for the day. So I don’t really feel like there’s an isolated experience of just Brooklyn; I think one of the qualities of Brooklyn is like, popping in and out of Manhattan.
Frances Ha could be seen as a kind of sequel to Baumbach’s 1995 debut Kicking and Screaming, which was based on his undergrad at Vassar. In Frances, there are semi-autobiographical aspects taken from your life, too: your actual parents play her parents in the film. What was the process of navigating your different personal experiences while co-writing the film?
We didn’t say, like, you went to Vassar, so we’ll use that, and I grew up in Sacramento, so we’ll use that. I think we both really shared this desire to have things mean something to us in this highly constructed world. We did most of the writing separately, and then we’d email the scenes back and forth, and work on scenes together later.
How did your experience as a post-grad in New York (Gerwig went to Barnard) inform your writing of Frances’s character? Did you ever do something impulsive with money you didn’t have, like when Frances flies to Paris for the weekend on a credit card?
No, that woulda been too crazy. I had a lot of moments in New York feeling down and out in the big city. I definitely had moments where I felt like I didn’t have anywhere to go. I actually have more moments like that in LA because in New York I have friends and family and there’s always a couch I can sleep on.
In LA, there was a moment, after Greenberg premiered, that I was like, I have no money, I have zero dollars, and I remember driving past the theater in Los Feliz and I looked up and there was a picture of me on the marquee and I didn’t have anywhere to stay that night. Luckily my parents had friends in town in LA .
There’s a reoccurring theme in the film about what it means to be an artist in New York. There’s that line Sophie says, “Only rich people can afford to be artists in New York.” How true do you think that is?
I think in some ways other cities have taken the mantle of places where artists move, like you know, Pittsburgh or Portland or Austin, and in a way New York has lost its status a little bit as being the place to go if you want to be an artist because it’s so prohibitively expensive. And I think that’s really sad and it’s a real loss. It’s gonna eliminate people who are like, experimental musicians and don’t come from trust funds. It’s a bummer for New York.
I remember telling someone “I feel like such an amateur when I write,” and they said, “Well, you are an amateur,” and there’s something about that that made me think, you’re right. I mean, like, you are a fake artist until you’re not, and in some ways Frances giving up the idea of wanting to be a dancer and that being her identity and her job, giving that up in order to get a day job and put her own life together, to me she becomes more of an artist because she gives up the idea of being an artist, in a way.
The film has been criticized for wrapping up too nicely, which takes away from its real-life credibility. Can you speak about the decision to give Frances a happy ending? Did you at any point consider ending it differently?
It’s interesting when people are like, “Oh my God, it’s so happy.” I’m like, But is it? She takes a day job and rents a crappy apartment. Like, I think one of the triumphs of the film is that it makes you feel like her just living her life is the happy ending. She simply says, “You know what, I’m gonna take that day job, I’m going to make my choreography, I’m going to just be happy for my friend and let her live her life, and I’m gonna sign the lease on a little tiny apartment.” That’s it. And those things are available to her from the beginning of the film, but she’s not able to let go and just accept them. I don’t know why people think it’s so outrageously happy, I think it’s totally realistic.
What’s one of your favorite free activities in BK? Favorite bar? Restaurant?
I always love Brooklyn summer stage, in Prospect Park. I saw Mos Def and talib Kweli when I first moved to New York and I loved it, it was really fun.
My favorite bar is this Polish bar in Greenpoint that I don’t even know the name.
Wait, is it The Palace Café?!
Yeah! It’s the place. It’s so good.
My favorite restaurant is Roberta’s. It’s really good, really tasty. That pizza joint.
Frances Ha is now playing in theaters nationwide.
Follow Kate, Brokelyn’s resident Frances: @yatinbrooklyn.