FRANCES HA directed by Noah Baumbach, written by Baumbach and Greta Gerwig, with Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Adam Driver and Michael Zegen. 86 minutes. A Mongrel Media release. Opens Friday (June 21). For venues and times, see listings.
Imagine Diane Keaton at the time of Annie Hall, Dustin Hoffman before the release of The Graduate, or a post-Steel Magnolias, pre-Pretty Woman Julia Roberts. That's the sort of aura around Greta Gerwig.
This is a special moment for the actor. Over the years, indie fans have praised her fresh, spontaneous performances in no- to low-budget films like Hannah Takes The Stairs, Nights And Weekends and Damsels In Distress. But Frances Ha, the lovely new movie she co-wrote with Noah Baumbach, should take her to that next level.
"Isn't this wild?" she says, when I mention the film's success in the U.S., where it's expanded from four to over 200 screens in a few weeks and earned an impressive $2.3 million. "It's a black-and-white movie about two girls where nothing crazy occurs. I can't believe it's happening."
Of course, Gerwig is being modest. What she's leaving out is Baumbach's atmospheric direction, their carefully observed script and her luminous presence as Frances, a 27-year-old apprentice at a New York modern dance company who loses her boyfriend, job, apartment and - most painfully - her BFF, Sophie (Mickey Sumner), and must grow up and take responsibility for herself.
In a suite at the Trump Hotel, Gerwig bounds toward me, grinning and holding out her hand. She's wearing an elegant black dress and a cream-coloured jacket: a smart look for a Hollywood "it girl" and grown-up enough to separate her from the half-dozen manic pixie dream girl actors trying to break through to the mainstream.
Except for an adorable smirk where one side of her mouth occasionally rises knowingly, and her penchant for using her arms to illustrate a point, Gerwig seems nothing like Frances, a goofy, lovable semi-hipster who has a bit of a slouch, likes to break into dance (take a look at the film's poster) and frequently sports an old black leather jacket.
That's fine with her. She's given up trying to convince people that she's not the characters she plays on screen.
"It used to bother me, but it doesn't any more," she says. "If people think they're watching a real person on screen, then it means they're invested in the movie. I hope I get to play a lot of different parts. But I can't be engaged in making films and characters and also sitting in judgment of myself. It's too hard."
What she does think about is how to physically inhabit a character. It was one of the qualities that led Baumbach to cast her in his previous film, Greenberg, where Gerwig's unanchored personal assistant formed an unusual bond with Ben Stiller's misanthropic loser.
"What's remarkable about Greta and is true of a lot of great actors I've worked with, like Nicole Kidman, is how they use their whole body," says Baumbach in a separate interview. "They fling themselves into a scene. They're so alive, it's almost like they vibrate."
Frances Ha features not one, but two running-through-the-streets-of-New-York scenes, plus Gerwig gets to dance, playfully fight and curl herself on the sill of a window, smoking.
"I always think of characters as full-body," she says. "It's hard for me sometimes when cameras are really close. Maybe it's because I don't feel I'm a very good face actor, but I always feel claustrophobic when I have to perform like that.
"It's not because I think I have a great bod," she continues, laughing. "It's just how I experience a character's emotions and what they're going through. Maybe I'm not a traditional film actor. I think great film actors have that pinhole ability to make it all come through in their eyes. I've always felt like I've needed a lot more space than that."
Baumbach says Gerwig harkens back to great actors of the studio era like Carole Lombard and Katharine Hepburn.
"They could do comedy and drama," he says. "They could sing and dance, because they got lessons on the lot. Greta is of that ilk."
After Greenberg, the two collaborated on the script for Frances Ha. Baumbach knew he wanted to shoot something with her in New York (Greenberg was filmed in L.A.) in black-and-white. Gradually, the story and characters took shape over conversations and emails.
Gerwig compares writing the script with Baumbach to being in a band and penning a song together.
"You're both contributing your own particular thing, but then it's one song at the end," she says. "You can't pick out who did what, and it makes something greater than the sum of its parts. It went beyond ‘Here's what he's good at, here's what I'm good at' to make this third thing."
Obviously, one of the things Gerwig brought to the table was a fresh look at women's friendships. Frances's symbiotic relationship with Sophie - they call each other a lesbian couple who've stopped having sex - is the heart and soul of the film.
"There are no songs or movies about breaking up with friends," she says. "It's kind of like this strange isolating experience that's not mirrored back to you in culture. So it's hard to even explain to other people what you're going through when you're going through that. But it's as vivid to me as any traditional romantic breakup."
It's no coincidence she's good friends with Girls creator Lena Dunham, whose look at the lives of 20-something New Yorkers has also struck a chord with audiences. (Coincidentally, the series' Adam Driver has a small role in Frances Ha as a trust fund kid/artist who temporarily rents out a room to Frances.)
Are their stories all part of the zeitgeist?
"Maybe it's just that the daughters of second-wave feminism are writing," says Gerwig, astutely. "I think there are a lot more women who are producing work right now. All aspects are being covered - not just female friendship. There are more women writers, directors, show runners and producers than ever before. So you're going to get a broader range of experiences being portrayed."
After the filming of Greenberg, Baumbach broke up with his wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh (who co-wrote and had a part in that film). During the filming of Frances Ha, he and Gerwig began dating.
When I ask if it became difficult to separate work and personal life during the making of the movie, Baumbach is a little awkward. ("When you're working, you're working," he says.) Gerwig is more open.
"It didn't change anything," she says. "I think it's just a way we communicate. I keep using music as an example, and it sounds so dorky, but when you see musicians work and jam together, you feel like they're talking to each other through music. I feel with Noah and me, film is a way we've always talked to each other. I don't know that that'll ever change. He's making movies separate from me, and I'm making movies separate from him, but I hope it's a conversation that continues. It's just fun."
Speaking of separate movies, now that she's broken through to a new level of visibility, would she consider making, say, a blockbuster action movie?
"If Jerry Bruckheimer wants me in a movie, I'd do it, because how crazy would that be?" she laughs. "One of the nice things about mostly doing work you believe in is that people don't hire you for things you'd be a wrong fit for. In Hollywood, so many people think, ‘How can I make myself into the type they want?' Well, you're probably not that type, because very few people are. It's better to say, ‘Who am I? What am I doing?' And if they want that, they know where to get it.
"If they don't want me, that's okay. I can't spend my whole life trying to be someone else."