By Alan Scherstuhl
By Charles Taylor
By Melissa Anderson
By Inkoo Kang
By Amy Nicholson
By Sam Weisberg
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Chuck Wilson
As easy as it is to interpret Frances as an autobiographical role for Gerwig, the film is very much a joint effort with 43-year-old Baumbach, who immediately recognized a kindred spirit after casting her as a self-deprecating caretaker in Greenberg, opposite Ben Stiller, who played a caustic 40-year-old recovering from a nervous breakdown. Baumbach and Gerwig had never met before she auditioned; she was then all but unknown outside of a handful of mumblecore movies (she played the title role in 2007's Hannah Takes the Stairs, which she also co-wrote).
Baumbach says they struck up a friendship during production. At the time, he was married to Jennifer Jason Leigh, who also starred in Greenberg and who gave birth to their son just before Greenberg was released in March, 2010. Baumbach and Leigh separated a few months later. He and Gerwig began speaking publicly of their relationship only this past February. "It's not a secret, but I don't really talk about it," she says. "I acknowledge the existence."
Baumbach hadn't read Gerwig's work before he asked her about a collaboration, but says he was struck by how "authorial" she was. After Greenberg wrapped, "I just asked her, almost like, what was on her mind?" he says by phone from his West Village apartment. "What would be interesting for a movie if we did something in New York about women in their twenties? The first thoughts that she sent to me were so inspired and funny and true, I felt like I could see the movie even though I didn't know what movie we were making yet. I responded and it became a kind of conversation."
It was a conversation that took place over e-mail, "for practical purposes," says Baumbach, because Gerwig was away from New York—in Italy, filming with Woody—for much of the year it took to develop the script. "We started out more casually, sending a document back and forth," Baumbach recalls. "This was before we even knew we'd follow through on this—we were just kind of trading ideas. And then as it started to take shape, she'd take one scene and I'd take another. As we got closer to the production, we found time when we could be in the same room at restaurants sometimes, at the computer, and start to really finish it." Their partnership has yielded not only Frances Ha, but two more forthcoming projects: a New York film currently in post-production, known only as "Untitled Public School Project," in which Gerwig also stars, and an animated feature in development for DreamWorks.
It's hard to avoid comparisons between Gerwig and another auteur of neurotic twentysomething New York women—though she is quick to note that "Girls wasn't on the air when we wrote this." Frances Ha can certainly be seen as a corrective to Lena Dunham's series, whose "girls" strike many as blithely entitled. Where Hannah Horvath worries that happiness undermines her gravitas and yearns for experience for its own sake, Frances's New York existence, says Gerwig, isn't so much entitled as it is precarious. "She really has a feeling of 'I can't go home,' which is the majority of people's experience in New York. If making a stupid decision is the difference between staying here or leaving, things count for a lot more."
Leaving New York would be, in the end, the worst breakup of all. Like Woody Allen and Alvy Singer, neither Gerwig nor Frances can imagine it. It was hard enough to film the demise of the friendship. Gerwig says that the ending of Frances Ha was inspired by Annie Hall's final scene, when Alvy meets once more with his now-ex-girlfriend, Annie. "I will probably start crying when I talk about it—sorry. When he hugs her, and the voiceover says it's just nice to see her again," she says, her eyes welling up on cue. "And you're like"—she sniffles a bit, channeling Keaton once again—"Ahh, that's how life is."
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