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Mistress America
Still from "Mistress America"Courtesy of Fox Searchlight UK

The six degrees of Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach

As Mistress America hits theatres, we examine the extended reach of the dynamic movie duo

What’s not to love about two passionate creative types who are just as committed to each other as they are to their loftiest endeavours? Art historians worth their salt would be foolish not to name-drop Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, and Miranda July and Mike Mills as cases in point. On the strength of their spotless track record alone, I’d add another indie cinema power couple to the mix: Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig.

Since first hitting it off on the set of their misanthropic rom-com Greenberg, this on/off-screen pairing (they co-write while she stars and he directs) has collaborated on two remarkably astute portraits of contemporary New Yawk women: aspiring, late-twenty-something dancer Frances Ha and zany girl-about-town Mistress America. The latter screwball picture, which opens Friday in cinemas, should establish them once and for all as a creative tandem to be reckoned with. To celebrate their winning comedic chops, we charted a handful of compelling film folk who have gravitated in the Baumbach/Gerwig orbit at some point in time.


Last notable film project: While We're Young (2015)

Next notable film project: Mistress America (2015)

Direct Connection to Greta Gerwig: Noah Baumbach directed Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha (2013), Mistress America (2015) and Greenberg (2010).

Baumbach, a born-and-raised Brooklynite schooled on François Truffaut, Éric Rohmer and Woody Allen, has won over legions of fans with his poignant, existential narratives, replete with characters who refuse to see the world as it really is, indefinitely postponing the idea of getting on with their lives and growing up.”

“When collaborations with other artists are any good,” reflects Baumbach, “they totally can’t be articulated. It’s a kind of chemical, emotional thing. Most of my collaborations, certainly my written collaborations, have either resulted in friendships or, in the case of Greta, romance. They’ve been extensions of the people I like. They’re not purely work relationships. They’re very specifically motivated too: Greta and I wrote Frances for her to play the part, and for me to direct it. Same with Mistress America.”


Last notable film project: While We're Young (2015)

Next notable film project: Mistress America (2015)

Direct Connection to Noah Baumbach: Greta Gerwig starred in Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha, Mistress America and Greenberg. She also co-wrote Frances Ha and Mistress America.

Gerwig has long embraced young women at a crossroads, either reeling from a nasty breakup, walking away from a doomed Paris romance, or reassessing a potential hoofing career. While her fictional counterparts are far from having figured it all out, the actress-turned-screenwriter (and soon-to-be director) has wisdom to spare on New York as the ultimate existential playground, given that the city has served as the high-powered backdrop of choice for both Mistress and Frances Ha.

“Nobody moves to New York not to achieve their dreams,” she explains. “It’s the place I chose as my home when I was 18, like Lola Kirke’s character (in Mistress). I was just out of college, working different jobs, trying to make ends meet and be an artist somehow, and I remember the feeling that it didn’t matter how hard you hustled, or how early you woke up… because somebody woke up earlier than you, was hustling harder than you, and was more talented than you. I think that could be an overwhelming feeling, where it paralyzes you, but it really energized me and made me feel connected to all the people who were strivers.”


Last notable film project: The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Next notable film project: Nothing yet scheduled.

Direct Connection to Noah Baumbach: Noah Baumbach wrote The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) and Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), which Wes Anderson directed. Wes Anderson was also a producer on Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale (2005).

From Rushmore (1998) and The Darjeeling Limited (2007) to The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson’s self-contained cinematic worlds all share his immediately recognizable stamp: symmetrical compositions, whimsical colour palettes, frequent nostalgic nods, and a recurring family of game thespians.

“Wes is one of my closest friends, so when we wrote Life Aquatic together, it was a collaboration that very much came out of our friendship and meals together – to the point where we would write it every day at lunch, at the same restaurant,” recalls Baumbach. “I’ve learned a lot from Wes: he obviously has an incredibly personal and singular approach to how he does things, and he does them very much the way he wants to do them. There’s so many things about filmmaking that are there to distract you or knock you off your game, and watching how Wes set it up for himself, I was very impressed by how he did it right out of the gate. Just to have the confidence to believe that his way was the best way to do it.”


Last notable film project: Grace of Monaco (2014)

Next notable film project: Irrational Man (2015)

Direct connection to Noah Baumbach: Starred in Noah Baumbach's Kicking and Screaming (2005).

Once hailed as the “Queen of the Indies” by Time magazine, the continually mesmerizing Parker Posey has never shied away from deliberate affectations or sharp emotional climaxes in her portrayal of feisty women. These include a bitchy high school ringleader in Dazed and Confused (1993), a yuppie, latte-wielding hoot in Best in Show (2003), and a soon-to-be college grad ready to kick her apathetic beau to the curb in Baumbach’s directorial debut, Kicking and Screaming.

“Parker’s body of work at the time – she really elevated everything she was in,” he recalls of Woody Allen’s latest muse, who will most likely be reteaming with the filmmaker on his next project. “She was, and still is, so distinct. She’d have ways of reading things that would totally surprise you. You’d have it in your head as one way, and she’d read it as another, and it would be kind of peculiar, but coming from her, you’d always end up liking it better.”


Last notable film project: Happy Christmas (2014)

Next notable film project: Digging for Fire (2015)

Connection to Greta Gerwig: Worked with Greta Gerwig on LOL (2012), Nights and Weekends (2008) and Hannah Takes The Stairs (2007).

Connection to Noah Baumbach: Noah Baumbach produced Joe Swanberg’s Alexander the Last (2009).

The ubiquitous “mumblecore” shortcut writers shamelessly used to label any DIY production that was partly improvised, starred a fresh crop of amateurs, was made on the cheap, shot outside of the LA/NY hubs and centered around mostly Caucasian, predominantly urban twenty-somethings grappling with a grab-bag of acute angst? Since becoming a festival darling a decade ago, Joe Swanberg has been a prime target for such micro-budget pigeonholing, alongside peers Andrew Bujalski, Lynn Shelton and the Duplass brothers.

The hyper-prolific filmmaker has always kept up a frenetic production schedule, embracing daring formal experiments that find him and his multi-hyphenate co-stars stripping down, and exploring uncomfortable truths often shot with unflattering lights and lenses. Greta Gerwig proved to be among those most game to challenge her craft, starring in LOL, Hannah Takes The Stairs and the most audacious, Nights and Weekends, about a withering long-distance relationship. The story goes that Baumbach was quite taken by Gerwig in Hannah, which led to her eventual casting in Greenberg.


Last notable film project: Laggies (2014)

Next notable film project: Nothing yet scheduled.

Connection to Greta Gerwig: Worked with Greta Gerwig on Nights and Weekends.

Mumblecore’s most prominent female helmer also starred as Greta Gerwig’s sister in the aforementioned Nights and Weekends, but by then, Shelton had already released her quasi-autobiographical, struggling-actress debut, We Go Way Back (2006). This master of succinct storytelling generally shoots in her native Seattle, and was inspired to finally take a stab at filmmaking in her forties after attending a lecture by fellow French “late bloomer” Claire Denis.

Shelton has been showered with praise for her singular comic sensibilities: Humpday (2009) charts the complicated dynamic between two straight male buds who make a pact to shoot an amateur gay porn; and the improvised Your Sister’s Sister (2011) serves a superb exploration of fluctuating sexual identities, with Emily Blunt, Rosemarie DeWitt and Mark Duplass (the latter two being recurring players in Shelton’s oeuvre). Laggies, her latest and largest-scale production yet, finds Keira Knightley in full arrested development mode, contending with a fairly debilitating quarter-life crisis.


Last notable film project: While We're Young (2015)

Next notable film project: Star Wars: Episode 7 (2015)

Connection to Noah Baumbach: Starred in While We're Young and Frances Ha, both directed by Noah Baumbach.

Connection to Greta Gerwig: Starred in Frances Ha with Greta Gerwig.

Hannah Horvath’s erratic yet vulnerable shirtless Girls beau has rapidly become one of Hollywood’s most in-demand leading men – one who exudes equal parts menace and sultriness – for the likes of Scorsese, the Coen brothers and Baumbach. After working with the 6ft 3in former marine in Frances Ha, Baumbach thought of Adam to take on the part of Jamie, the ultra-connected, hipster documentary maker in While We’re Young, “as he would made the whole film make sense”, argues Baumbach.

“Adam is obviously a brilliant actor, but there’s something seductive about the way he plays a part. it’s both surprising and inevitable at the same time. For While We’re Young, I wanted someone you could believe (Ben Stiller’s character) would fall for. Adam really made sense to me. He and Greta are not dissimilar as actors in that they provide a kind of benign rebellion – they’re both there to please you as a director, but they’re also making it their own at the same time, which is what you want as a director. You bring these people in to kind of interpret it. He’s really unafraid of that, and it can be thrilling.”


Last notable film project: Tammy (2014)

Next notable film project: The Lazarus Effect (2015)

Connection to Noah Baumbach: Starred in Greenberg directed by Noah Baumbach.

Connection to Greta Gerwig: Starred in Hannah Takes The Stairs and Greenberg with Greta Gerwig.

One last mention of the “M” word, as Mark Duplass, along with his brother Jay, have proven themselves highly skilled as actor-writer-director triple threats. From starring alongside Greta Gerwig in Greenberg and Hannah Takes The Stairs, to directing her in Baghead, to starring in projects spearheaded by Shelton, Swanberg and countless others, Duplass perfectly embodies the strong sense of community that runs through this talented bunch. Beyond sharing a stark aesthetic, a naturalistic approach and an unimpaired filmic philosophy, we forget that this happens to be a very tight-knit group of friends. The Duplass siblings’ latest televisual endeavour, the shrewd snapshot of fortysomething coupledom billed as Togetherness, will return for a second season on HBO.


Last notable film project: The Double (2013)

Next notable film project: American Ultra (2015)

Direct Connection to Noah Baumbach: Jesse Eisenberg starred in Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale (2005).

Direct Connection to Greta Gerwig: Greta Gerwig was Jesse Eisenberg’s co-star in To Rome With Love (2012).

With recent turns in the avant-garde doppelgänger thriller Night Moves and the stunning David Foster Wallace two-piece The End of the Tour, Jesse Eisenberg has expanded his repertoire beyond the confines of charmingly awkward introverts and disaffected, self-deprecating pricks. Early on in his career, he shined in Baumbach’s semi-autobiographical The Squid and the Whale as a wounded, angry 16-year-old reeling from his parents’ divorce.

“I worked with Jesse when he’d just done a couple things,” recalls Baumbach. “The part he has to play is someone who doesn’t always behave terrifically because of his circumstances, and his adolescence, but you had to really feel for him at the same time, and Jesse was able to do that. Be kind of wicked and funny, unafraid of the sort of adolescent behaviour, but also be human without ever playing it, to provide this depth of feeling. It’s all there with him. He’s somebody I’d like to work with again at some point.”


Last notable film project: Magic in the Moonlight (2014)

Next notable film project: Irrational Man (2015)

Direct Connection to Greta Gerwig: Greta Gerwig starred in Woody Allen's To Rome With Love.

For many years now, film scribes have championed Baumbach as his generation’s answer to Woody Allen, given his singular insight, humour and melancholy in exposing the modern-day anxieties afflicting New Yorkers of all stripes. Baumbach remembers stumbling upon Woody’s body of work as a teenager as one of those revelatory moments.

“I almost felt like his movies and his humour pieces for The New Yorker were made specifically for me. I grew up in Brooklyn, we actually went to the same high school, and his sensibility was very relatable to me. I was inspired by what he did as a filmmaker – his very personal, European influenced way of doing it, which also touched on screwball comedy, the sort of talk-y, 1930s and 1940s American comedies, and obviously Marx Brothers, Bob Hope, Chaplin… I think all that stuff goes into my work as well. The way he used to talk about Bob Hope, Groucho Marx and people who were huge discoveries for him, he was that for me.”

Mistress America is out in cinemas Friday