Mumblecore's darling and BFF of Lena Dunham on why the best jokes aren't funny
Taken from the July issue of Dazed:
Aficionados of low-budget American independent cinema cottoned on early to the freshness and kooky charm of Greta Gerwig. Roles in films such as LOL, Hannah Takes the Stairs and Nights and Weekends made her the face of mumblecore, but it wasn’t until she appeared opposite Ben Stiller in Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg that mainstream audiences caught up. Gerwig, who was born in Sacramento and now lives in New York, has re-teamed with Baumbach – this time as star and co-writer (and real-life girlfriend) – for one of 2013’s most winning comedies, the bittersweet Frances Ha. It’s a series of black-and-white glimpses into the life of Frances, a 27-year-old dancer left adrift in New York City after being abandoned by Sophie (Mickey Sumner), her flatmate/best friend.
Dazed Digital: Frances Ha grew out of an email exchange with Noah Baumbach, right?
Greta Gerwig: Yeah. After we made Greenberg he said, ‘Are you interested in writing something together that maybe you could be in? Do you have any ideas for something we could make under the radar, with a great deal of freedom?’
DD: And did you?
Greta Gerwig: I had three pages of bullet points of just ‘moments’. One was deciding whether or not to pay the fee for the ATM, when you’re like, ‘Do I do this or do I try to find a McDonald’s where they only charge 99¢?’ They were just little things about life. He was excited about them, and said, ‘They’ve made me have all these other ideas. Let’s explore this world.’ So we started writing scenes and passing it back and forth.
DD: Was there a precise moment when it felt like it was becoming a film?
Greta Gerwig: After we had written a lot of different scenes we came up with the idea that each sequence is a different address, and it’s about the peripatetic lifestyle in that way. Then there was a moment when we figured out that this is a love story between Frances and Sophie – she loses Sophie, then spends the whole movie trying to get her back in different ways, and that runs parallel to what’s happening in her artistic life. Once that crystallised it started feeling like a movie, and then the sections became chapters as opposed to vignettes.
DD: You wrote movies and plays before this. Did you learn anything new working with Baumbach?
Greta Gerwig: I learned so much about screenwriting. I had not had the experience of, as they say, ‘killing your darlings’. There was a 40-page section that he said just didn’t fit, and I was like, ‘No! What are you talking about?’ I was heartbroken.
DD: What do you like about him as a director?
Greta Gerwig: He’s so relentless and precise. That’s the kind of work I want to be making, where you do 40 takes and you get it as perfect as possible. There is a part of me that loves spontaneity or pure energy or pure emotion or ideas, and I think he is a filmmaker who is very good at putting literally, but also figuratively, a frame around that, and saying, ‘Let’s capture that. And now do it again, 40 times.’ When Frances goes home to Sacramento, her parents are played by your real-life mum and dad...Yep, those are my parents. They were very weird about it. My dad wanted to be in it, but up until we got there my mom kept saying, ‘Can’t you cast an actress?’ I said, ‘But that would be so weird, if it’s Dad with some other woman.’ They settled into it, but they were worried I was trying to show that I had come from a bad place. Because, you know, there’s a grand history of writers selling out their families.
DD: Do you share Frances’ optimism?
Greta Gerwig: I think Frances has a touch of madness. She’s kind of relentless and I don’t have that. But I am an optimist, ultimately. I’m always looking for the way in which the hopeful story is true and real, and just as real as a downbeat one. There’s a reality to experiencing grace and joy that is just as worthy of exploring as pain.
DD: You lived in an apartment with six other women after college. You have said that leaving was a painful experience. Does Frances’ painful split with Sophie reflect this?
Greta Gerwig: Yes! That is how I felt.
DD: Sophie is an amalgam of those women?
Greta Gerwig: Yes, yes, yes. Sophie is an amalgam of six ladies, and an idealised version of them, too. This apartment I lived in was made for two people and I slept on an inflatable mattress for two years. It was squalor, but so fun. I loved them so much I felt like we were a family, and it was incredibly traumatic when it went away because I thought, ‘You’re not really going to move in with him, are you? This is not really happening.’ I suddenly had to call up my best friend to see if she wanted to go out to lunch, it was so depressing. I was like, ‘I used to sleep in the same bed with you. Now I have to call you and see if you’re free for lunch? That just makes me want to die.’ But that’s growing up; you have to leave that behind. But I wouldn’t be sad if I found myself living on a commune one time. And that’s why I like movie sets as well, because I like the intensity of group experiences, and that’s what movies always are.
I’ve done a lot of awkward sex. I’m kind of done in that area for the moment
DD: Did you make the mumblecore films while you were living in that space?
Greta Gerwig: Yep, it was the same time. That apartment is used in some of the films. The scene in Frances Ha when I’m running to the apartment is like a heightened experience of what I feel when I’m in New York. I grew up in Sacramento in a neighbourhood built right after World War II. Those low-to-the-ground houses – it’s like the first idea of what suburbia became. I love those landscapes, there’s something so sad about them. But when I’m in New York I’ll be walking and it will just hit me: I live in New York City! I can walk everywhere. I can take the subway. This deli is always open. There’s always people on the streets. People are doing things. There’s symphonies and museums and late-night movies and diners, and you never have to get in a car. And you run in to people. There is something about the joy of that that we looked to capture. I never danced down the street. I’m not ridiculous. But that’s the way it feels inside to me. The joy of living in New York City can sometimes take me by surprise and kind of overwhelm me.
DD: What was the dream when you were doing those early films like Hannah Takes the Stairs and Baghead?
Greta Gerwig: I was still in the process of figuring out where I was going to land as a person. It didn’t feel like, ‘Ah, yes, I am having my career.’ It felt like, I am making these things, which is wonderful fun, but I’m also working a ton of other strange jobs – tutoring in high schools, working in bars, working as a nanny and applying to graduate school – because I don’t know if this is going to lead to anything.
DD: How do you feel now?
Greta Gerwig: I have a sense that I am a proper actor, and working towards being a proper writer, and hopefully a director. The dream now is to only make things I really love.
DD: You’ve done mainstream films like Arthur and No Strings Attached. How important is popularity for you?
Greta Gerwig: I make films – I’m not Emily Dickinson writing poetry in her attic – and I definitely want an audience. But for me, saying ‘I’m going to mould myself into what people seem to like’ is a losing battle. All you can do is do the things you think are really great and worth it, and hope to God that people come to see them.
Frances is much more outwardly comedic than Florence in Greenberg. Do you enjoy playing comedy? I don’t feel like I’m the lady Will Ferrell or anything, but even as an audience member, I have trouble totally understanding something that has no levity. It can be dark humour. But I’m only interested in comedy that’s connected to something that’s not funny. There’s nothing I like more than a joke that doesn’t work, but deliberately.
DD: You and Lena Dunham are friends. Do the same things make you laugh?
Greta Gerwig: I hadn’t seen Girls until after I made this movie, but I love it. Yeah, talking to her is so fun. Three hours can go by and it doesn’t feel like any time. It’s so fun to interact with her brain. We’re interested in different things though, thematically. I’m not really into sex in movies right now – I might be later – but she is exploring super-interesting things about that in a totally revolutionary way.
DD: Do you feel you did that in the mumblecore films?
Greta Gerwig: Yeah, I’ve done a lot of awkward sex. I’m kind of done in that area for the moment.
DD: Lena helped you make audition tapes. Did you ever get work from them?
Greta Gerwig: Oh my God! I was auditioning, and she would read the other part while I was on camera, and we couldn’t get through some of them because they were so ridiculous. I was auditioning for action films, and having to say ridiculous things. But I did get some call-backs off them!