The joy and buoyancy of “Frances Ha”

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Noah Baumbach says his films often end up sadder than he wants, but his latest “Frances Ha” is different. (MPR photo/Euan Kerr)

“I don’t know. I try not to describe it,” laughed Noah Baumbach when asked to about his latest film. Nonetheless the director and writer of such cinematic depictions of modern angst as “The Squid and the Whale,” “Margot at the Wedding” and “Greenberg” sits in a room in his Minneapolis hotel and considers.

“Frances Ha” is the critically acclaimed movie he co-wrote with Greta Gerwig who also plays the title role. Baumbach was in town for “Visibly Human” a retrospective and dialog at the Walker Art Center recently. Now “Frances Ha” opens this weekend theatrically in the Twin Cities.

“I think the movie for me in many ways was dictated by the character and by Greta,” Baumbach said. “And as the character was formed in our writing process it was very clear to me that the movie should celebrate her and I also felt like the movie should reward her too.”

“Frances Ha” follows a few months in the life of a 27 year old woman living in New York who is coming to terms that she is on the cusp of adulthood. It’s not easy for her. She believes she is a dancer, despite strong evidence to the contrary available just by looking at the other members of her company. She is so close to her best friend Sophie that she breaks up with her boyfriend rather than risk damaging the platonic love she has for her friend. Then Sophie ditches her. Frances is also beset by money problems. Yet throughout it all she remains happy, and optimistic.

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Greta Gerwig as the ever optimistic title character in “Frances Ha” (Image courtesy IFC Films)

The film shows Frances soldiering on despite an ongoing series of humiliations both minor and major. Baumbach says the spirit, the buoyancy and the joy of the movie really was inspired by Gerwig initially and then by Frances. Audiences tend to leave the theater in a good mood.

This feeling of contentment may be unsettling to Baumbach fans who appreciate the way the director’s past work dwelt on the troubling sides of life. Another surprising thing is the movie seemed to appear as if by magic last year at the Telluride Festival.

Baumbach3.jpgBaumbach says he never meant to keep the production hidden. He says the reason no-one knew about it is simple.

“Nobody asked.” he said. “We were there. We were making it. It was not as if we were setting out to make a secret movie.”

He did however have some goals in how he made the film and says that could have played into the fact that people missed he was shooting a movie on the streets of Manhattan.

“I wanted to do something somewhat intimate.” he said. “I wanted it to be a smaller production. I wanted to have a production that was fleet-footed; something we could take on the subway and shoot. Something where we could take our time.”

While the film looks almost laid-back, it was shot with such a stripped down crew everything had to be carefully planned.

“There is a lot of work goes into making it seem so informal,’ he said. “We did a lot of takes. All those scenes and all those shots I spent a lot of time getting them as close to what I have in my head as possible. It’s some level of chaos and control that you are always working with on a movie. When it happens, when you hit it, it creates this great moment.”

“It was all scripted, there was no improvisation,” insisted Baumbach. “I have always really believed in getting the script as good as I can get it, then going to war with the army you have. Lets make this material work. But I am interested in a kind of informal feeling dialog.”

Baumbach says the project was born out of a desire to work with Gerwig, who also starred in “Greenberg.” He says as they developed the character, sending ideas and possibilities back abd forth, he quickly got a feeling of Frances, and how Gerwig would appear as her in the film.

“Greta is nothing like Frances,” he recalled, “But I had a sense of how she would play it. She just seemed clear to us.”

He says characters have always dictated how his films go.

“For instance like the last movie I made ‘Greenberg’ was about a 40 year old guy who hasn’t been able to get out of his own way, and whose ideas of himself and his ideas of how his life would turn out have not come to fruition. And he’s having a hard time with that and he’s not able to fully acknowledge that. And when he does acknowledge it he becomes angry,” he said.

“You know, I love that character but maybe it was a pricklier character to some people than a 27 year old girl who can’t get out of her own way, and has ideas of how her life should be, and doesn’t know how to maneuver herself in the world. But the character of Frances produced the joy and the hopefulness of the Frances Ha movie. I think that Greenberg got the movie that he should have too. I mean I think Greenberg is ultimately a hopeful movie but it’s a different path.”

‘Frances Ha’ represents something different of a different path for Baumbach: the film turned out the way he expected.

“Sometimes I’m not totally aware of the tone. I think this is going to be funnier than it turns out to be. They often feel sadder than I intend them to. But Frances, the final product, is the closest to what I envisioned going into it than anything else I have made.”

playfighting.jpgFrances (Greta Gerwig) and Sophie (Mickey Sumner) playfight in Noah Baumbach’s “Frances Ha” (Image courtesy IFC Films)

He says the decision to shoot the film in black and white was intuitive.

“I have always loved black and white movies, contemporary movies as opposed to black and white evoking a period because there is something that is already past tense about it once it is in black and white,’ he said. “And I think maybe it was my approach to the material because I am no longer 27 and at that point in my life so that the black and white in some ways for me made it past tense. But at the same time the movie is very of the moment, not that it is topical, but I feel like it is very active movie, it doesn’t feel like an artifact, it feels very alive and so I like that kind of contrast.”

When asked who “Frances Ha” might be for Noah Baumbach says he made it for everybody.

“I didn’t do this movie to take on the current generation and tell their story. I really did it because I felt the characters were interesting and funny and charming, and I wanted to work with Greta.”

“These are the things that interested me and the hope is that they interest as many other people as possible.”