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Still from "Frances Ha"
Still from "Frances Ha"via

How to steal like your fave indie filmmaker

Frances Ha director Noah Baumbach finds inspo in everything from Charlie Brown to the French New Wave

Learning a flight to Australia takes 14 hours, Ben Stiller in Greenberg just shrugs, “So that’s, like, seven movies.” That’s Noah Baumbach’s universe, where time is measured in films, because what else matters? It’s in Kicking and Screaming (1995) that Otis plans to never leave his job at the video store. And it’s in Frances Ha (2012) that Greta Gerwig’s trip to Paris culminates in Puss in Boots at the cinema. Out next month is Mistress America – a screwball comedy Gerwig co-wrote and stars in – which is certain to continue the trend. Remember, Baumbach’s just a cinephile who wants to tap you on the shoulder to let you know: he’s seen more films than you. So which does he streamline into his work?


One’s a neurotic New Yorker writer/director trying to recreate the Woody Allen films of the 70s and 80s. The other is Noah Baumbach. Notably, it’s in The Squid and the Whale (2005) that Baumbach apes the unsympathetic look of Husbands and Wives – both detail divorcing writers – with grainy handheld footage zooming in on the ugliness (aka humanity) of its characters. Admitting the black-and-white photography of Frances Ha was based on Manhattan and Broadway Danny Rose, Baumbach found his own Diane Keaton in Gerwig, except the “la-di-da” became “Yo, girl! What’s up?” (Gerwig dates Jesse Eisenberg in Allen’s To Rome with Love, suggesting the directors’ casts are interchangeable.)

And then there’s the failed documentarian storyline in Crimes and Misdemeanours, which reappears in While We’re Young (2015) with Ben Stiller interviewing an undeniably similar ageing philosopher. When pestered about Allen, Baumbach responded, “He was the single biggest pop culture influence on me.” Duh.


Baumbach, along with Wes Anderson, has always channelled the deadpan, bittersweet humour of Peanuts, a comic strip where grownups don’t exist – except to elicit wah-wah trumpet noises, that is. “There’s a certain Charlie Brown aspect to her,” he says of Gerwig in Frances Ha, “but without the sort of depressive nature of Charlie Brown.” The latter, however, is prevalent in The Squid and the Whale for Jesse Eisenberg, a fragile child who speaks like an adult; in his nearly empty bedroom lies an ornament of Snoopy atop his signature doghouse.

The doghouse reappears in Greenberg (2010), except it’s broken and Stiller can’t fix it. As a physically (but not emotionally) older Charlie Brown, Stiller is the perpetual loser waiting to kick a football. His dog, while not quite as anthropomorphic as Snoopy, is described by Gerwig as “a human in a dog costume”. (And, ugh, the “What would you rather fuck, Peppermint Patty or Lucy?” line from Kicking and Screaming. In a cameo, Baumbach picks Lucy. Good grief.)


Chris Eigeman only plays one type of character, but he does it better than anyone else. As an erudite know-it-all in Kicking and ScreamingMr Jealousy (1997) and Highball (1997), he was Baumbach’s star performer. But Whit Stillman got there first, casting Eigeman in suspiciously similar roles for Metropolitan and Barcelona. Other characters overlap, too – especially as Metropolitan and Kicking and Screaming are filled to the dinner party brim with self-analytical college preppies bluffing about literature. Later in Mr Jealousy, whether coincidence or not, the main couple – Eric Stoltz and Annabella Sciorra – are doppelgangers for the leads of Metropolitan. And, of course, Eigeman uncannily looks like Eigeman.

Then there’s Gerwig. For Stillman’s Damsels in Distress, she achieves her fantasy of becoming a dancer, by inventing and teaching The Sambola! in the final credits. Two years later, in Frances Ha, her character’s ambitions lead to choreographing a dance show. The Sambola! may or may not be a post-credits easter egg.


The defining shot of Frances Ha – Gerwig running through the street to David Bowie’s “Modern Love” – is actually an homage to Denis Lavant’s Olympics-worthy sprint in Mauvais sang. What’s that whooshing past? The indiscreet charm of a dreamer living in her own black-and-white French movie, from balancing by the Seine (à la Jeanne Moreau in Jules et Jim), to studying The 400 Blows on TV. And for bonus Truffaut, Baumbach samples Georges Delerue’s scores from Bed & Board and The 400 Blows.

In The Squid and the Whale, it’s Godard; when Jeff Daniels is wheeled into an ambulance, uttering what could be his dying words, of course it’s a line from Godard’s Breathless. If Baumbach acknowledges Adam Driver’s wardrobe in While We’re Young was lifted from Patrick Bauchau in La collectionneuse, is Driver cycling with Stiller a nod to Jules et Jim? Where does it end? Not in real life: Baumbach’s son is called Rohmer. (No daughter called La Nouvelle Vague, though.)


“Pop” is what Wes Anderson and Baumbach called Peter Bogdanovich. In return, he calls them “Son Wes” and “Son Noah”. It’s the kind of odd behaviour only acceptable for famous directors, although Bogdanovich earns the title by offering early feedback on his adopted children’s projects. Subsequently, whenever Baumbach channels the work of 1940s screwball – whether Preston Sturges or Ernst Lubitsch – into the present, he’s actually adapting the formula of Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc? (and receiving instructions from Bogdanovich along the way).

For Son Noah, Bogdanovich not only acts as mentor, he literally acts. He’s the psychiatrist in Mr Jealousy (before taking a similar role in The Sopranos), the embarrassing party guest trying to hang with the kids in Highball (like a real father), and briefly cameos in While We’re Young. Despite the autobiographical hints of Margot at the Wedding (2007), Baumbach is a good son, and co-produced Bogdanovich’s She’s Funny That Way. When’s the last time you helped payroll your dad’s Hollywood comeback?