Happiness - Noah Baumbach's New Wavevia The New Yorker
by Ian ParkerBaumbach and Greta Gerwig, the actress, met when she starred in his 2010 film, “Greenberg.” They have since become a couple and a writing team, and have just made, back to back, two movies about young women in New York. Photograph by Pari Dukovic.
Noah Baumbach, the writer and director, has been more willing than most to think of his films of the past decade—about disappointment, broken families, dying pets—as comedies. When “Greenberg” opened, in 2010, the spectacle of Ben Stiller as a sour, haunted man—an asshole in a down vest—was so off-putting, to some people, that one cinema posted a sign reading, “We must limit refunds to an hour past the start time.” A few years earlier, during a panel that followed a screening of “Margot at the Wedding,” an audience member compared Nicole Kidman’s character, a self-involved fiction writer, to Hitler’s mother. Baumbach recently told me that in 2005, when he began previewing “The Squid and the Whale,” which is based on memories of his parents’ divorce, he was “expecting more laughs.” He also recalled that, while showing the film to his mother, he began sobbing and had to leave the screening room.
Not long ago, at dusk, Baumbach was in an elegant old café in Berlin, having a jet-lagged late lunch with Greta Gerwig, the actress, before a festival screening of “Frances Ha,” his new film. A black-and-white comedy about young people in New York, it is filled with such a sweetly unfamiliar spirit of joy—or, at least, the prospect that life may hold satisfactions beyond survival—that Baumbach purists may dismiss the film as evidence of the kind of midlife giddiness that can lead to kite-surfing. “Frances Ha” is generous—some critics may say indulgent—in its handling of hip, floating characters who could easily be satirized. Baumbach, who is forty-three, with the collar-length, well-tended hair of a less worried man, seems to have made his “Manhattan,” and he has done so in partnership with Gerwig, who co-wrote the film and plays Frances, a dancer. Baumbach and Gerwig met when he cast her alongside Stiller in “Greenberg”; later, Baumbach separated from Jennifer Jason Leigh, his partner of nine years, and he and Gerwig became both a couple and a writing team. They kept this fairly quiet. When I first met them, in February, they had barely acknowledged their relationship in public, and they had not disclosed that, after finishing “Frances Ha,” they co-wrote a second New York film—something “looser and wonkier,” in Baumbach’s words—and worked together on a cartoon feature, now in development at DreamWorks Animation, about a woeful dog.
In the time that it took Gerwig to drink two beers, Baumbach weighed the case for ordering a glass of wine. They talked about the self-consciousness of Stiller’s character in “Greenberg,” and their own.
Gerwig, who grew up in Sacramento, said, “When I was a kid, I used to do my homework in the living room, where there was a picture window. I was hoping that someone would walk by and see me looking very studious in my living room.”
“I know that,” Baumbach said; he had experienced that sense of an imaginary audience, if not the suburban peace of mind. “When I was a kid, I would fantasize about my own funeral.”
Baumbach has a wary gaze and speaks in careful loops of retraction and calibration; it’s hard to imagine that he spent years doing improvised comedy, during and after college. He has a long, square-chinned face whose handsomeness he is said to recognize but not overprize. (“He treats it like he has a good computer,” Gerwig said.) When striving for clarity, he wiggles the fingers of one hand, but he is otherwise still. Gerwig, who is twenty-nine, also has a precise, literate mind, but she is more buoyant, and sometimes has the air, not uncommon among her contemporaries, of having swallowed a very low dose of LSD. Baumbach’s eyebrows are usually down, and Gerwig’s are up, over a pale, large-featured, casually glamorous face. It annoys her a little to be mistaken for the screwball she has sometimes played in movies, instead of being seen as an adept physical comedian. But, even when she’s off-camera, there is a lot going on: nods, ironic frowns, waist-height waves. One morning, Gerwig and I failed in an attempt to shake hands, our palms sailing past each other in the ornate lobby of Baumbach’s apartment building, on lower Fifth Avenue.
In Berlin, they recalled a recent evening when they had come across “Greenberg” on TV, and watched for a few minutes. Gerwig was the first to protest. As Baumbach recalled, “I was thinking, This seems pretty good.” He laughed. “You said, ‘If you’re going to watch this, I’m going to leave the room.’ ”
As Gerwig later pointed out, Baumbach’s films tend to begin with a sly signpost of the story to come. “The Squid and the Whale” starts with a family of four on a tennis court, and a young boy saying, “Mom and me versus you and Dad.” “Greenberg” opens with Gerwig’s character, an unmoored personal assistant in Los Angeles, walking a dog, then driving. The Steve Miller Band’s “Jet Airliner” plays, breezily, on the soundtrack. As she tries to switch lanes in traffic, she quietly addresses another car, in the film’s first line of dialogue: “Are you going to let me in?”
Watching this on TV, Gerwig could cope with the driving sequence, but when the scene changed—a party, a hookup—all she could see was acting. “I’m embarrassed by how hard I try, how much I go for it,” Gerwig said. “It’s as if you had access to a love letter you wrote a long time ago and—oh, Jesus!—even if you’re proud of it . . .”
By the standards of independent cinema, “Greenberg” was an acceptable commercial success, and it boosted the career of Gerwig, who previously had been in very low-budget and often improvised mumblecore films, like “Baghead.” After “Greenberg,” she worked with Woody Allen and Whit Stillman, and appeared in a remake of “Arthur.” But “Greenberg,” by not becoming a big hit despite the presence of Stiller, felt a little like a failure. “Some of the independent movies that make money have a very specific thing that you can tell audiences they’ll feel about it,” Gerwig said. “ ‘This will make you feel so happy.’ ‘This will make you feel something about your family.’ And anything that’s not that, if it’s ‘This will make you feel perhaps uncomfortable about choices you’ve made in your life’—”
“I like the ‘perhaps,’ ” Baumbach said, with a quiet laugh. “We’re not even guaranteeing that.”
“ ‘This will touch your deep feelings of failure and unworthiness,’ ” Gerwig added, and then remembered her father’s response to the film. “He said, ‘You know they play that Steve Miller song in the beginning? You think, This is really gonna make you feel great.’ ” She laughed. “He was ‘Yes!’ and then ‘What?’ ”
“Frances Ha,” Baumbach said, was like “if the song kept going—if you kept driving, and that Steve Miller song just kept going.”
Instead of “Action!,” Baumbach says, “Begin,” or “When you’re ready,” and then sits motionless but for a movement in his mouth, as if his tongue were searching for a missing tooth. Late one evening in March, he was on a sidewalk in the East Village, shooting a scene for the second film he has written with Gerwig. Still untitled, it will be released next year, in color, with Gerwig as a dauntless New York striver, and Lola Kirke—the twenty-two-year-old sister of Jemima Kirke, who plays Jessa on HBO’s “Girls”—as a Barnard undergraduate in awe of her. Baumbach compared the movie to “The Great Gatsby” and Jonathan Demme’s “Something Wild.” When it is completed, Baumbach and Gerwig will have made two films in which there’s barely a kiss on-camera. Such restraint, however, won’t block all comparisons to “Girls” (bright young women, New York).
As in 2011, when he shot “Frances Ha,” Baumbach was working with a digital camera, in a low-key, almost covert way. There was nothing about the project in Variety or on IMDb. For the permit paperwork, Baumbach had chosen a misleading and dull working title: “Untitled Public School Project.” (“Frances Ha” was “Untitled Digital Workshop.”) New York pedestrians know that a film production involves, at the least, a basket of unripe fruit under a white tent, and a lot of cables. In the absence of that—a small huddle around a camera, in the dark, as Kirke hurried across the street toward Gerwig, at a flower stand—Baumbach’s operation was almost invisible. A passerby explained knowingly to his friends, “This is N.Y.U.-land.”
Baumbach had compared his process to that of a student film, but he had added, “Of course it’s not, at all.” He is a fastidious and formal director, with an educated sense of the American and European canon and his possible place in it. He expects actors to say the lines he wrote for them, and to say them again and again. After the flower stand, the crew moved into Veselka, the twenty-four-hour restaurant on Second Avenue, which remained open to customers while Baumbach filmed until just before dawn. (Around 3 a.m., Kirke yawned and Baumbach called out, “No tiredness!”)
Even a modest independent film can cost more than a hundred thousand dollars a day; “Frances Ha” cost a fraction of that. Actors in “Untitled Public School Project” changed clothes in a van parked on Sixth Street. Baumbach has discovered that elective frugality gives him power. By working with a tiny crew, and by asking people to accept a percentage of the film’s earnings rather than up-front fees, he can impersonate Stanley Kubrick: he can afford to keep a production going week after week, revisit material that turned out badly, and fly to Paris to film a six-minute sequence. One recent day, he did fifty-five takes of Gerwig and Kirke searching through a closet. (Gerwig now finds it unnerving to do just five or so takes for another director: “I don’t know that we’ve actually thought about it enough.”)
Early one morning, Baumbach was in a modern house by a reservoir in Mt. Kisco, New York, shooting a scene for “Untitled Public School Project.” Gerwig’s character was visiting a wealthy ex-boyfriend and his wife, to ask them to invest in a restaurant that she wanted to open in the city. Kirke was also in the scene. The ex-boyfriend, self-conscious about his suburban life, reminisced about his days as a college-radio d.j., and rooted around for ancient weed in the back of the freezer. For much of the day, Baumbach gently urged his actors to speed up: “Don’t be polite about other people’s lines.” Breaking from his usual composure, he demonstrated how to dart up a flight of stairs and then turn and descend, all in one comic, high-kneed movement.
For Baumbach, who has often found dry, witty ways to tell stories of bourgeois inertia, this material had unusual bounce. “The whole sequence is sort of designed like an Ernst Lubitsch movie,” he said to me. “The trick is to hold this kind of style in a movie that also has Lola’s character, alone, in college—things that feel more realistic.” Later, he added, “If ‘Frances’ is a three-and-a-half-minute pop song, this is a five-and-a-half-minute song. Not that the movie will be longer; it’s like that thing of ‘Oh, you pulled off that organ solo in the middle.’ ” He went on, “We’re going for laughs more. Maybe. As much as we go for them.”
They worked for about ten hours. Between takes, there were stretches of silence. Baumbach had murmuring consultations with his co-writer; at one point, he put his hand an inch away from her lower back, without touching her.
“Movie time is like college time,” Baumbach said.
“Days are slow and months are fast?” Gerwig asked.
“If you had a test on Thursday, Friday felt so far away.”
The cinematographer, Sam Levy—at thirty-nine, Baumbach’s oldest colleague in the room—took responsibility that day for hair and makeup. The production designer drove the minivan that brought Baumbach and his actors back to Manhattan. In the passenger seat, Baumbach evaluated possible posters for “Frances Ha”—all of them using an image of Gerwig, caught in a modern-dance leap, by the fountain in City Hall Park. He then began a call with Scott Rudin, his producer, about the casting of a film, “While We’re Young,” that he will direct, this fall, in a much less pared-down way. The script, which he wrote a few years ago, is about two New York couples, one in their early forties, the other in their twenties. Stiller will play the older man, a painstaking documentary filmmaker, who becomes entranced by how lightly the younger man treats the enterprise of creative work. As Baumbach put it, “The young guy sees it all as collage. There’s no genius—you just take what’s useful and you put it all together.” The screenplay is “about realizing that you’re not the young people anymore.” (Rudin told me that Baumbach is “tremendously good at turning psychology into behavior.”)
On the phone, Baumbach resisted the suggestion of a particular actress for the role of Stiller’s wife, calling her work “too manicured.” As he talked, Lola Kirke, two rows behind, described, drowsily and half-seriously, a manicure that she planned to get when the movie was finished: a happy face on one finger, a cannabis leaf on the next, and so on. Gerwig, who at times served as a generational liaison between Baumbach and Kirke, said, affably, “What are you, fourteen?”
Baumbach was still on the phone—“No, not her. Not for this”—when the van stopped in midtown, in front of a building where DreamWorks has an office, and moments later he and Gerwig were in a bare, well-lit room, videoconferencing with executives in California about whether or not cartoon dogs should be seen in hats.
This is Baumbach’s third animated film. He co-wrote Wes Anderson’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (2009), based on the Roald Dahl novel. For a children’s film, it has unusually strong notes of melancholy: at one point, Mrs. Fox tells her husband, “I love you, but I never should have married you.” A year later, he rewrote “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted” for DreamWorks—a lighter assignment, encouraged by Stiller, who plays the franchise’s lion hero. Baumbach and Gerwig’s screenplay, not yet fully green-lit, is about a Brooklyn mutt, Freddy, who becomes separated from a young girl named Heidi when her parents divorce. Artists in California had sketched a few sequences and showed this material to Baumbach and Gerwig, who were delighted. Baumbach, who plans to direct the film, gave notes, including “The squirrel seems . . . not necessary” and “I love the mustache.” He wondered if it was still realistic to show home delivery of newspapers. Gerwig said, gently, “It’s pretend. Dogs also don’t talk.”
Baumbach and Gerwig then read aloud from a scene that was soon to be storyboarded. Freddy has set off to look for Heidi, who may be in Manhattan, and he has met a guide called Wise Dog, who imagines himself to be sophisticated. Together, they reach the top of a building under construction in Brooklyn. “A blinding light comes through the door,” Baumbach said. “They would approach the edge of the building, and, as their eyes adjust to the light, you’d see Manhattan in the background and the little dogs looking at it.”
Gerwig read Wise Dog’s line: “Every time, it takes my breath away. This, and side two of Rod Stewart’s ‘Every Picture Tells a Story.’ ” (Baumbach later said, “Let’s see if that line makes it into the multiplex.”)
Baumbach continued, “Then Wise Dog says to Freddy, ‘So that’s where you want to go, huh? Manhattan?’ ”
Gerwig read Freddy’s line: “That’s where Heidi is. That’s where I need to be. I know I’m meant to be with her again. I feel her love all around me. And, with every step and every breath, I love her more.”
Although “Frances Ha” surprises with its optimism, it is driven by familiar Baumbach questions: How do people leave their twenties behind? How hard is it to abandon a version of oneself into which one has put some effort? Frances, twenty-seven, is underemployed as a dancer, and she reacts poorly when Sophie, her best friend, played by Mickey Sumner, evolves into someone who has things to do that don’t include her. Frances runs out of money. She’s in motion—switching apartments, changing day jobs—but making no progress. She is given the test that Roger Greenberg apparently failed: in his twenties, he messed up a potential career in pop music, and his life stopped. In “Greenberg,” we meet him at forty.
That late-twenties moment is still vivid to Baumbach, and part of the charm of “Frances Ha” has to do with the way it combines, in one character, a partial self-portrait of two writers, from two generations. If “Girls” describes the life of a certain kind of mid-twenties New Yorker, “Frances Ha” overlays that experience with memory, and the result is as romantic as a forgotten pop song that, years later, revives a place and a mood. The sensation is enhanced by a soundtrack featuring seventies acts like Hot Chocolate and Harry Nilsson.
“At the Frances age, I was kind of agonized,” Baumbach said recently. Brought up in a bookish Brooklyn family, he attended Vassar, and worked as a messenger at this magazine; by the age of twenty-seven, he had made “Kicking and Screaming” and “Mr. Jealousy,” two commercially released films about talky young men in sports jackets. (A third film, “Highball”—shot in six days—was released on video, against Baumbach’s wishes.) Although his two early releases were, at times, infected with the glibness of Woody Allen’s lesser work, they were fairly well received, and “Kicking and Screaming” became a cult favorite, released on DVD by Criterion. But Baumbach felt unsatisfied. “I was ridiculously young. I felt so old,” he told me. He has a rather pitiful memory of flying back to New York from the Toronto Film Festival, hauling the reels of “Mr. Jealousy,” which had failed to impress a distributor. “My persona was, Everything’s O.K., I’m right on track. I was so afraid to admit that I was disappointed or upset.”
By then, he had met Wes Anderson, who became a close friend and a collaborator. “Rushmore,” Anderson’s second movie, was released in 1998, a year after “Mr. Jealousy.” “I saw that he really was doing what was interesting to him, and he was trusting that that would be interesting to other people,” Baumbach said on a rainy afternoon, when we met at Bar Pitti, in the West Village. “Mr. Jealousy” was “kind of personal, but kind of genre-y”—a romantic comedy. “And I saw ‘Rushmore’ and I thought, He’s comfortable making his own genre.” Anderson released “The Royal Tenenbaums” (2001) and “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” (2004)—which he co-wrote with Baumbach, largely in Bar Pitti—before Baumbach finished his next film.
After “Mr. Jealousy,” Baumbach started therapy, though he feared that it would disrupt mysterious paths of creativity. He discovered that the process let him write. “It was a huge change in my life,” he said. “I was less afraid to be embarrassed.” In the first of three scripts apparently connected to therapeutic discoveries, he reëxamined his teen-age years without his usual self-protective equanimity.
The final script of “The Squid and the Whale” was fiction, but the first outpouring was pure memoir. In the nineteen-eighties, Baumbach, the older of two brothers, was an assured, popular student at Midwood High School. According to his longtime friend Matthew Kaplan, Baumbach had little doubt that he would become a filmmaker: “He’d say, ‘This is what I’m going to do.’ ” His father, Jonathan Baumbach, taught at Brooklyn College, published experimental fiction, and had written about film in Partisan Review. His mother, Georgia Brown, also published fiction; she was later a film critic at the Village Voice. The family lived in Park Slope. (Thanks to a location scout who happened to knock, the Baumbachs’ dining room appears in “Heartburn,” when Meryl Streep pushes a Key-lime pie into Jack Nicholson’s face.) One evening, when Noah was fourteen, his parents asked him to make sure that he came straight home after seeing a movie with friends. He knew what was coming. “I watched ‘Romancing the Stone,’ knowing my fate,” he recalled. Back at the house, he began to cry even before the announcement was made: his parents were separating, and his father was moving to a house across the park, where the boys would sleep on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Saturdays, and every other Thursday. That awkward custody arrangement was unchanged in the movie.
It was not a remarkable story, but Baumbach’s sardonic screenplay, which was nominated for an Oscar, was clear-eyed about the sorrows and pretensions of adolescence, and it created, in the figure of the father, a singularly uneasy egotist. After years of trying to raise funds, Baumbach eventually shot it in twenty-three days, “in a kind of fever dream.” Jeff Daniels played the father; Laura Linney the mother. Baumbach had not shown the script to his parents, who until then had read everything he wrote, although he did give a cameo to his father. When Noah showed the film to his mother, he recalled, “It was like a cat bringing a dead bird as if it was a present. It was a tribute, but it was also a rebellion.”
The film was released in 2005. Baumbach found it painful to read reviews that noted only the parents’ flaws: the narcissism of the father, the blitheness of the mother. Baumbach now regrets that he didn’t include a few more notes of homage. “My dad was a great movie companion,” he told me. “He wouldn’t diminish ‘The Jerk.’ If I liked it, he liked it. He could see it through my eyes.”
Georgia Brown lives for much of the year in Italy. When she was in New York a few weeks ago, I visited her house in the West Village and was introduced to Michael Cary, her partner, a retired architect and high-school teacher, who in “The Squid and the Whale” was reinvented as a tennis pro, played by William Baldwin.
Brown was wearing the kind of outfit that her son wears: a gray cardigan over a white shirt. She recalled a scene in the film where Frank, the younger of the two boys, returns unexpectedly to his mother’s house one evening. She comes downstairs, half-dressed, followed by the tennis pro—“What’s up, brother?”—and Frank learns of the romance. Brown said that this was based on a real incident, but that it had been Noah, not his younger brother, who had come back to the house. “It was when I was first going out with Michael, and the kids were supposed to be at their dad’s. I could hear somebody in the kitchen, and I came downstairs and said, ‘Oh, Noah, I have to tell you that there’s somebody here with me.’ And he looked up with this radiant smile and said, ‘Mom, that’s just like in the movies!’ And then he put it into a movie.” She laughed.
She found the film “an immense, and delightful, therapeutic triumph,” but was initially shocked by the representation of Walt, the older boy, played by Jesse Eisenberg. Whereas Noah had been so charismatic at that age, she said, Walt was “tense, humorless, somewhat sycophantic.” One could also say that he was scathing, especially toward his mother—“You disgust me”—but Brown didn’t see him that way. She described Noah’s shaping of Walt as a brave creative choice. I asked if the film had shown her that Noah was less happy at the time than she had realized, and the question seemed to surprise her a little. “I’ll think about it,” she said. Later, she e-mailed a response: “You mustn’t assume that my picture of real-life Noah as this charming, quietly hilarious, confident boy underestimates the boy’s capacity for spite, fury, and, most especially, grief.”
Baumbach was slightly taken aback by his mother’s recollection of the staircase incident. He recalls extreme discomfort. Although he may have said something about movies, he told me, any smile would have been counterfeit.
Jonathan Baumbach claims to have taken Noah to Truffaut’s “The Wild Child” when he was two. (“Maybe five,” Noah told me.) He described the teen-age Noah as “extremely confident and poised—but, you know, poise often hides a certain anxiety.” When Jonathan first saw “The Squid and the Whale” (for which Jeff Daniels borrowed his brown corduroy jacket), he left the screening room feeling anxious but “got over it very quickly.” His son called, half an hour later, “wanting to know why I hadn’t already responded to the film.” He added, “Noah’s joke is that ‘The Squid and the Whale’ was me at my worst, ‘Margot’ was Georgia at her worst, and ‘Greenberg’ was him at his worst.”
Late one night, in Berlin, Baumbach and Gerwig had drinks with Scott Foundas, a friend who is a film critic and a former programmer at the New York Film Festival. The conversation touched on “Margot at the Wedding” (2007), which starred Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Kidman, as Margot, visits Leigh, her sister, in a big house on an island somewhere in the Northeast, and takes her twelve-year-old son, whom she treats, at times, like a disappointing ex-lover. (“You used to be rounder, more graceful.”) The movie, though memorably fraught, is perhaps overfilled with ideas for smart short stories. It can feel like an application for membership in cinema’s first rank. Baumbach acknowledges his debt to Éric Rohmer, a director he loves, and to Ingmar Bergman’s “The Silence,” a film that also starts on a train, and involves two sisters, a boy, and strange things seen from a hotel window. Baumbach explained to Foundas, “I wanted the feeling of when you’re inside, and having a conversation, and the light starts to fade outside, and you don’t turn on the light. That’s what the whole movie looks like.” Earlier, Gerwig, thinking of that light, and of a shot of a child’s shoe dropped on a forest path, and of seemingly lurid goings on in the house next door, had joked, “I thought it was a horror movie.” Baumbach replied, “I thought I was making a comedy.”
The film received several angry, confounded reviews. In Time, Richard Schickel called it “no more than an invitation to wallow in ill-defined neuroses,” adding, “He’s the kind of filmmaker who thinks that if he sets his star to masturbating on camera, he’s making a statement, when all he’s actually doing is signifying the true spirit of the movie.”
Foundas, an admirer of the film, recalled that Steven Soderbergh had recently said to him, “People seem to be willing to accept complexity in behavior in television in a way they don’t in movies.” Foundas went on, “Even in comedies—in ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm,’ where Larry David behaves reprehensibly all the time—people are willing to entertain two thoughts at the same time. But movie audiences seem to want a simpler, or more obviously entertaining or spectacular, experience.”
“Do you think it’s because they’re seeing these characters over a longer period of time?” Baumbach asked. Earlier, he had observed that traits one could accept in a novel’s protagonist, or in a complicated friend, often seemed loathsome to modern moviegoers.
“What Margot says to her son upsets people because their mother said that to them, or they’ve thought about saying that to their child,” Foundas said, then laughed. “Whatever it is, there’s clearly a limited appetite for it.”
Before “Frances Ha,” this seemed to be Baumbach’s fate: to pursue a literary career through the medium of film, while ruefully noting that, in the nineteen-seventies, someone who had made work like this might have had a reputation as a mainstream director. “Greenberg” is an explicit attempt to channel the work of Philip Roth and Saul Bellow. “With the title, I was thinking of Portnoy or Herzog,” he told me. “I can’t say this well, but I felt I could do cinematically what I loved about those writers and those books.”
Gerwig noted that Roth and Bellow often told a story “relentlessly from one point of view.” In film, though, “when you put a camera on something, you’re here and that’s there.” Instead of inhabiting a man’s psyche, you had to put up with it, across the room. “Greenberg” is a good and funny film, but one wonders if Baumbach has always fully recognized the cinematic challenge of presenting difficult people, even as he meets the literary challenge of acute, merciless portraiture.
“Greenberg” was shot in 2009. Because of Gerwig’s background in improvised movies, Baumbach put her through many auditions. She recalled, “There was a little bit of ‘Do you know what you’re doing? Can you do this in a controlled way, or are you just some weird person who has no shame?’ ” Baumbach came to realize, he said, that “Greta has old studio-system chops. Carole Lombard, Katharine Hepburn, they could be in something totally dramatic, or totally funny; they could sing, they could dance. ‘Frances’ was intended to be a showcase for her to do a lot of this.”
After she was hired for “Greenberg,” they began to discuss her character, Florence, and some of Gerwig’s thoughts were dropped into Baumbach’s script. One was a remark that Florence makes to the man she brings home from a party: “I’ve been out of college now for as long as I was in, and nobody cares if I get up in the morning.” (Gerwig graduated, from Barnard, in 2006.)
They shot in L.A., largely in the house of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s mother. Leigh played Greenberg’s ex-girlfriend and shared, with Baumbach, the film’s story credit. After that, Baumbach and Gerwig had little contact until the movie’s world première, at the Berlin Film Festival, almost a year later. The film was released in March, 2010, shortly after Leigh and Baumbach—who had been married for five years—had their first child, a son they named Rohmer.
Leigh and Baumbach separated a few months later. If the split was connected to his experience working with Gerwig, this remains hidden: Baumbach and Gerwig firmly place the start of their romance at a point after his separation. Baumbach thinks that aspects of his divorce might eventually appear in his work. There’s already some reflection of it in the animated movie about the mutt, whose story, Baumbach said, contests the thought that “divorced families are flawed families. There are no flawed dogs or flawed families.” Baumbach shares custody of his son. Now three, Rohmer lives primarily with Leigh (and the family dog, Freddy) in L.A., where Baumbach keeps a home; he tries not to be away from his son for more than two weeks at a time. One morning, I met Rohmer in New York, in Baumbach’s bright, never-ending apartment: he was wearing gold battle armor and was knighted by Gerwig after slaying his father, the dragon.
After his separation, Baumbach worked on the scripts for “While We’re Young” and “Madagascar 3.” He also had his first conversations about an adaptation of “The Corrections,” Jonathan Franzen’s novel, for HBO. He would direct; he and Franzen would write it; Rudin would produce it. They eventually mapped out four seasons of ten episodes each, and in 2012 shot a pilot, with a cast that included Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, and Gerwig. HBO passed on the series. Baumbach, and others, declined to show me the pilot. “We were trying to do too much,” he said. “It was too expensive. We were jumping around in time: every episode would go back in time, and you’d see the family at younger ages, but as a result there was everything I try to avoid when making movies: old-age makeup, young-age makeup, different actors playing the same characters at different ages.” A key member of the pilot’s production told me that Baumbach seemed to be “just trying to get through it,” and was disengaged and unavailable: “It was, Boy, we really need more time with Noah.” To get a decision required “pulling teeth.” The pilot was unfinished when it was shown to HBO. Baumbach, who recognizes that he is not a natural showrunner, recalls that, when it was over, “I said to Greta, ‘How could I have miscalculated this?’ She said, ‘You don’t really watch TV.’ ” He laughed. “I was like, ‘You’re right.’ ”
In the summer of 2010, while Baumbach was helping to set this multimillion-dollar enterprise in motion, he had thoughts about a lightweight digital movie, and a connected thought about working again with Gerwig. He asked her if she had any suggestions for a film in which she might act. Gerwig, in her post-“Greenberg” boom, was shooting “No Strings Attached,” with Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman. “I wrote a list, and then I sat on it because I was scared to send it,” she told me. “It was just ideas, either for a character or scenes or situations, and they weren’t necessarily related.” She finally e-mailed it to him. “He loved it,” she recalled. “He said, ‘I can totally see this in a movie and I can see what kind of movie it is. Let’s keep going.’ ”
On March 3rd, a trailer for “Frances Ha” was posted online. Baumbach and Gerwig were in a hall in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, shooting a pop-concert scene for “Untitled Public School Project”; the night before, he had prepared by watching “The Last Waltz.” Between takes, Baumbach showed me the trailer, which starts with Frances and Sophie larking around New York, to ebullient music borrowed from Truffaut’s New Wave classic “The 400 Blows.” The soundtrack then changes to David Bowie’s “Modern Love”: “I know when to go out / I know when to stay in / Get things done.”
Baumbach and Gerwig were being pressed by the distributors of “Frances Ha” to promote the trailer, but they both lacked Twitter accounts. Baumbach wrote to Stiller, with the subject line “Embarrassing email,” and asked him if he would mind tweeting a link to the trailer to his nearly four million followers. Gerwig texted Lena Dunham, the creator of “Girls,” who is a friend of theirs: nine hundred thousand followers. “She’s so good at it, so plugged in,” Gerwig said. “She’s the Oprah of hipsters.” Both friends coöperated.
Not long afterward, I met Baumbach at Bar Pitti again, and he showed me the earliest “Frances Ha” document that he’d been able to find: a list of first thoughts that he and Gerwig had compiled after she sent her original note. It was written in both the first person and the third person: “I keep thinking about a leather jacket. Not a cool one, just something a friend had given her because she didn’t want it anymore. Maybe it’s too big, and there’s no perfect season to actually wear it.” (Frances does have this jacket.) “She should have moments where she actually appreciates the city, walks through the park because she can, and that kind of stuff. But it’s hailing. I don’t know. I was hailed on once.” There were suggestions about running, mid-date, to an A.T.M.; having bruises one can’t account for; a reckless trip to Paris. These are all in the movie. In one striking sentence, Baumbach and Gerwig seemed to set themselves an onerous writing challenge: “Maybe she has some idea of how she thinks the world should work which people make fun of, even she knows is ridiculous, but in the end kind of happens for her.” In slightly different terms, they pulled this off.
There was little here about a best friend, and this absence reinforces one possible reaction to the film: that the story of Sophie is perfunctory, and too evidently has the task of framing the portrait of Frances, and of steering the film away from romantic comedy. (Gerwig’s early idea was to give the film no shape: five disconnected episodes.) The document also has many ideas that never reached the script: “She becomes involved with obese women on a message board online. She claims also to be obese”; “Her dog died while she was away.” Much of what was excluded points to embarrassment and sexual exposure. One sentence reads, “She should be naked and conflicted about it.”
At Bar Pitti, Peter Bogdanovich, the director and actor, joined Baumbach for dinner. They have been close since Bogdanovich played a therapist in “Mr. Jealousy.” Separately, Bogdanovich also became friends with Wes Anderson. “I call them Son Wes and Son Noah, and they call me Pop,” Bogdanovich told me. This summer, Baumbach and Anderson plan to produce “Squirrels to the Nuts,” the first feature that Bogdanovich has directed in more than a decade. Baumbach sees, in this gesture of cross-generational solidarity, a reflection of the support that Bogdanovich gave to Orson Welles in his later career. (Among other things, Bogdanovich published a collection of admiring interviews.) Discussing “Squirrels,” Baumbach and Bogdanovich bonded over the annoyance of dull yet unavoidable shots. “It’s ridiculous!” Baumbach said. “ ‘She glances at them for this one moment,’ and we’ve got to actually do that moment!” They talked about Robert Altman—Baumbach said “totally singular” at the very instant that Bogdanovich said “overrated”—and Baumbach remembered an answering-machine message that Altman had once left him, which his mother later accidentally deleted, “along with a message from my therapist the weekend he died, trying to change our appointment.” He paused. “Little did I know, he was changing it forever.”
“How did you get more attractive?” Bogdanovich asked.
“Oh, Peter,” Gerwig said. She told him that “Untitled Public School Project” still needed a title.
“Look for song titles—they’re always the best,” Bogdanovich advised.
At Baumbach’s urging, Bogdanovich told a story about once being encouraged by Cary Grant to sneak into a theatre where one of his movies was playing, to relish the laughter. He then told another, about a call from Grant. This was when Bogdanovich was in a long relationship with Cybill Shepherd. “Cybill and I were getting all that bad press,” Bogdanovich said. “Couldn’t open a newspaper or magazine without something nasty. And Cary calls me and says, ‘Peter!’ ”—Bogdanovich had the voice—“ ‘Will you for Christ’s sake stop telling people you’re happy, and stop telling them you’re in love?’ ‘Why, Cary?’ ‘Because they’re not happy, and they’re not in love.’ ‘I thought that all the world loves a lover.’ ‘No. Don’t you believe it.’ ”
One could think of “Frances Ha” as an e-mail courtship that accidentally created a fine movie. At lunch in Berlin, Gerwig looked for a way to describe the experience: “It’s sort of like—this is a ridiculous way to say it—but like a nun in a convent singing over a wall to someone she knows is on the other side. And the person thinking, That song is for me, but not really knowing it’s for them, but then it was for them. And then they meet one day.” She added, “I re-watched ‘The Sound of Music’ recently.”
Though “Frances Ha” has no romantic plot, it is an expression of an emerging love affair. Baumbach said, “I think so. You can say that. If we say it . . .” He put a finger to his mouth and made a quiet vomiting sound.
“Oh, my God,” Gerwig said.
He said, “It always felt important that Frances get a victory and be protected in the movie, and I’m sure on some level it was because I wanted to protect Greta.”
“I also think we have to believe in a happy ending,” Gerwig said. “We have to, otherwise what is anybody doing? I always have this frustration that, in a therapeutic sense, it can feel you have one of two ways of relating to your parents: one is you’re in denial, and the other is you can be really angry at them. And I’m, like, there has to be a way in which you just love them.” She continued, “And I feel that there has to be a story that’s true to its marrow and also filled with joy. There has to be that. Otherwise, it’s utterly depressing.”
She went on, “This is lofty”—a lot of emphasis—“but in one of Hamlet’s soliloquies he says, ‘This brave o’erhanging firmament,’ and he’s talking about the air and the stars and how everything is so alive and so beautiful, and at the end of it he says, ‘It means nothing, it means nothing, and I don’t want to live.’ And I’m, like, ‘How can you see everything and then feel that way?’ I always want to find the reverse of that—to see all the darkness and find the light, as opposed to see all the light and resonate with the nothingness.”
Baumbach imagined the article being prepared: “ ‘At that point, Gerwig launched into a “Hamlet” soliloquy.’ ”
“So bad,” Gerwig said, in mock shame, telling Baumbach, “Or it’s going to show up in the next thing that you write on your own.” That last remark, though joking, pointed to some likely evolution in their work relationship. Gerwig recognizes aspects of herself in the character of the younger woman in “While We’re Young”—including a moment at a dinner party, witnessed by Baumbach, when Gerwig couldn’t stop laughing while telling a story about seeing, as a child, her dog torn apart by Rottweilers. Gerwig has since written her own script, alone. When she showed an early version to Baumbach, he offered to direct it. He also asked if he could help her finish writing it. “He wanted to absorb it,” she said, laughing. She thought for two weeks, and then declined, having decided to direct it herself. I asked if he had been gracious about her choice. “Yes,” she said. “Half-gracious.”
Baumbach described “Frances Ha” as a more even collaboration than past ones, in which he’d either supported someone else’s vision (Anderson) or asked others to support his (Leigh). Gerwig recalled worrying that if she acted in “Frances Ha” people wouldn’t believe that she really co-wrote it; because of the improvisation in her past, “It would be ‘He shot her while she was talking and gave her a credit.’ ” A writing partner who deepens someone’s work even as she lightens it does not want to be mistaken for a director’s muse, like the actresses who inspired Bogdanovich, Woody Allen, or John Cassavetes. When we talked in New York, Gerwig said, “Noah’s a realist and pragmatist, and he sees things without adornment. Which is helpful for someone writing about how people actually are and how they feel. For me, I feel like the adornment sometimes is what is true.” Gerwig occasionally goes to church. “Noah says, ‘You do that because you’re a guilty person.’ ” She laughed. “No, I think I do it because it connects me with a story that I don’t think is true, but I think is somehow resonant. Everything doesn’t have to be true to have power.”
Baumbach started shooting “Frances Ha” in August, 2011, after Gerwig returned from Italy, where she had acted in Allen’s “To Rome with Love.” Baumbach asked himself if he really was making a movie if nobody knew about it. One key location was the Chinatown apartment that Gerwig shared with roommates, furnished with vintage chairs and shelves of vinyl records.
A month or so into the production, Gerwig and Baumbach became a couple. They had tried this a few months earlier, while writing, but they had failed, and Gerwig had started another relationship. She now broke up with her new boyfriend, explaining, “I’m in love with Noah.”
Over Christmas, they flew to Sacramento, where Gerwig’s parents still live. In the film, they play the part of Frances’s parents, and in one scene they see off their daughter at the Sacramento airport. That day, Baumbach was short of time, and there had been little preparation. He needed Gerwig to reach the top of an escalator and look back at her parents, standing below, holding their dog. “I’m thinking, Give that look that will be heartbreaking,” Baumbach told me. “I didn’t say that, but it’s what I’m thinking. And Greta just turns around, and it was the look you see in the movie”—the ache in an ordinary family farewell. “It’s a killer.”
“Thanks, Noah,” Gerwig said, touched. “I was happy with that, too. Whatever that was. That’s how I feel every time I leave.”
After screenings, Gerwig has been happily surprised by the reaction of people who are the age of Frances’s parents. “They say, ‘I thought she would go home and it would be a bad place and they would fight. I’m so happy they were just good parents.’ ”
On their last night in Berlin, Baumbach and Gerwig were sitting on low square stools in the second-floor lobby of a Berlin theatre, eating pretzels. Baumbach wore a dark suit, and Gerwig wore a maroon coat and orange stilettos that required her to hold on to handrails, or Baumbach, when in motion. They had just made a red-carpet entrance at the festival screening, with autographs and photographs, and then taken their seats in an audience of two thousand. When the film began—Frances and Sophie, play-fighting in Tompkins Square Park—they had crept out to the lobby, with Jeremy Barber, their agent.
Fans of “Greenberg” would recognize Barber’s laugh; he is the man who, during Greenberg’s birthday dinner, claps as he laughs, prompting Greenberg to say to Ivan, his old friend, “Laughing already demonstrates appreciation. The applause seems superfluous.”
There was laughter from the theatre. Baumbach recalled standing outside a screening of “Kicking and Screaming,” when a woman came out and asked him to agree that the film was terrible. “I said, ‘It was all right.’ ” He laughed. “I couldn’t go either way—I couldn’t create a character who said, ‘Yes, it was terrible!’ or said, ‘I made it, you bitch!’ I said, ‘Oh, it was O.K.’ ” Barber had been carrying the contents of Baumbach’s pockets, including his house keys and his ChapStick. Baumbach took back the latter and, with the particular happiness with which a self-protective person allows himself to sink beneath the waters of affectionate mockery, listened to Barber and Gerwig riff about his ChapStick tic, which he gave to Roger Greenberg. Gerwig pressed him: “Where do you buy it?”
“You can be aware that something is idiosyncratic, and give it to a character, but keep doing it,” Baumbach eventually said. “And I feel I’m so different from Greenberg in so many ways.” It’s hard to get a good measure of Baumbach’s anxiety levels. “He could have been Greenberg,” Stiller told me. “Noah’s so smart and observant, of it all, that, without the success that he’s had, it would be a pretty painful existence.” Baumbach regrets food orders the moment he has made them. When he starts comparing airlines and flight paths, a look comes over Gerwig’s face. Greenberg is surely quoting Baumbach when he says, “I wish I could be one of those guys who doesn’t care where he dumps his coat at a party.” But this is not exactly self-doubt: Gerwig told me that, not long ago, she made a joke about always falling for nerds. “And Noah said, ‘I am not a nerd.’ And I realized, Oh! You don’t think of yourself as a nerd at all!” Greenberg’s discomfort sits atop a mountain of self-regard and single-mindedness; his worry is not that he is worthless but that the world risks underestimating his worth. Baumbach is not this person, and he has a sense of humor, but he has been directing people since his teens, and has firm passenger-seat opinions about which exit to take off the West Side Highway. At a press conference for “Frances Ha,” he compared the film to “the records Paul McCartney made after the Beatles. He made them in his basement, and they were really big-sounding but also intimate.” This is the grandest possible way to describe modest cultural ambitions. Baumbach could have given the thought to Jeff Daniels for “The Squid and the Whale.”
After Baumbach finished shooting “Frances Ha,” he spent months refining the footage. The richly textured black-and-white images of the finished film are the product of repeated digital manipulation by Pascal Dangin, a retoucher known as the “photo whisperer.” Baumbach began to show the film, which was still unannounced, to friends. Peter Bogdanovich wrote an effusive e-mail that began, “Son of mine, I’m extremely proud of your accomplishment.” Baumbach’s actual father regards “Frances Ha” as Noah’s best film.
Baumbach’s earlier movies are not despairing. They end with things at least no worse than they were at the start, after a period of awkwardness. (“A Noah happy ending,” in Stiller’s words.) Nobody dies, although you worry about the animals, which seem to carry the burden of human mortality. But those films are wary of mollycoddling an audience. “Probably, at some level, I’m not quite letting you laugh, and then getting annoyed when I don’t get the laugh,” Baumbach told me.
When “Frances Ha” was shown at the Telluride Film Festival, last September, it received a standing ovation. For Baumbach, it was “a very nice feeling to have a movie where you can actually experience the reaction,” rather than guess at it. Gerwig said, “We lived the Telluride fantasy, which is that your movie is loved and people stop you in the street.”
In the Berlin lobby, Baumbach and Gerwig heard sudden cheering. They rushed back to retake their seats. As the applause continued over the end credits, and over David Bowie, Gerwig sang along—“Church on time”—and danced a little in her seat, and gave Baumbach a look that said, This could be worse.