Note: This article is also included in our year-end creative wisdom round-up.
Noah Baumbach makes movies about people. Well, except maybe for The Fantastic Mr. Fox, which he cowrote with Wes Anderson and was about a family of foxes and an opossum. But since his first film, Walking and Talking, the 43-year-old Brooklyn native has made movies about people in conversation.
His latest film, out this weekend, is Frances Ha. It’s about a woman who dances in a world where dancing is odd. The low-budget, black-and-white movie has drawn comparisons to Woody Allen’s Manhattan.
Here, Baumbach talks about the tiny ideas that lead to bigger ones, how collaboration is really just one long conversation, and why he pared down to make Frances Ha.
"I tend to start with things that are small," says Baumbach. "I don’t really mean they’re small, because they have big reverberations." For instance, in Frances Ha, the earliest small ideas came out of his desire to work with actress Greta Gerwig, who costarred in his film, Greenberg (and is now his romantic partner). "I wanted to make another movie with her and I wanted to make a movie in New York. And since she was 27, it was going to be about a 27-year-old."
As they began their collaboration, mostly via email since Gerwig was traveling for work, she wrote to him about that debate one goes through when at an ATM: Whether to hit "yes" or "no" prompted about accepting a bank’s fee. "Even though it could almost be, like, a line in a stand-up act," he says, "it’s an observation that said so much about who this [character] could be, and I didn’t know who Frances was yet or anything about what the movie could be." And, in fact, that very debate, that small moment at the ATM, is one of the relatable details that made it into the film, about a young woman on the verge of adulthood, struggling to find who she will become as she endeavors to stay afloat in the city.
Baumbach says that’s typical of how he works. For 2010's Greenberg, with Ben Stiller in the title role, Baumbach first had notions of driving in Los Angeles. "I was thinking about [the character] Greenberg and about Los Angeles and then [those entities] start speaking to each other: What is Greenberg’s relationship to driving in Los Angeles?"
Baumbach continues: "There was something about walking in L.A., a nondriver in Los Angeles. It so spoke to his resistance to the world, he’s not accommodating to everyday life, so to then put him in a car culture and it made that even stronger. . . . That idea generated a lot of other ideas and informed the character." The resulting film is a portrait of a man lost at midlife, at odds with much of the world around him.
"I don’t talk things out so much when I’m working alone, but with Greta, the talking becomes the work," Baumbach explains. "That’s the nice thing about collaborating with someone: Your work becomes a conversation. Ideally, we would have been in the same room a lot, talking at the computer, like the thing that movies do when they try to make writing interesting"—by which he means you see a couple seated at desks that face each other and they high-five a lot. "No, it’s not like that. We were really not in the same place a lot unfortunately. We were emailing back and forth and then after a while we did divvy up scenes."
Because the movie is broken up in chapters, it was easy for them to divide the work: One would focus on the sequence set at Vassar while the other would work on the dinner party scene. "We would then go over them and make a bigger pass. It’s fun to do it that way. It’s like I’m getting new scenes to read and it’s for this movie," he says excitedly. "Sometimes things would conflict and we’d have to make a decision—'That can’t happen here because this is going to happen,' but that’s the fun of it, too."
Since Baumbach and Gerwig are collaborating on two other projects—an animated movie for Dreamworks, about a dog, and another, New York-set feature that they’ve been filming lately—they will, at times, switch gears. "Sometimes we go back and forth because the animated movie is being written over a longer period of time. But whatever’s up next needs to get the main attention. It’s important to make time. When I’m in a mode of writing I am [very disciplined]. I used to get up and write every day even if I wasn’t working on a specific thing. Now, when I have a thing I’m in the middle of, I do that but when I’m not, time can go by when I’m not writing at all."
Even Baumbach needs inspiration in order to begin to sit down and write. "I find a lot of writing happens when you’re not actually at the computer," he says. "So I carry a notebook." Ideas that he gathers in the course of a day he will then use when he’s at his computer as a sort of writing prompt. "Those things help. Bringing them to the computer helps. You have something to input and that can start you off, but often once you bring them to the computer they don’t seem as inspired as they did on the subway the day before, like, 'oh, god, that’s brilliant,' and then I’m like, 'Why was this even a good idea to begin with?' "
For Frances Ha as well as their next movie, Baumbach and Gerwig decided to go as minimalist as possible with the production. "I had a way I wanted to work," he reports, "to strip the film crew down to its barest essentials, knowing I would lose certain things because I wouldn’t have the support I need. I thought [Frances Ha ] was the right movie for it, being small and, to some degree, more private." He likens what he envisioned to records that Paul McCartney made after The Beatles and both before and after Wings, such as Ram. "He played a lot of the instruments and he made [those records] in his basement," Baumbach says, acknowledging that McCartney’s basement is probably unlike yours or mine. "But still, to my mind he was in his basement. And yet the records aren’t small in scope, they’re soaring even."
It’s the soaring that Baumbach was going for, soaring from a small place. "I wanted it to be elegant and beautiful and have this intimacy. I wanted to be able to move faster." So how small? Fifteen people? "Something like that," he says. "I think you could mistake us for a student film." It was a way to shoot in New York while allowing the city to go about its business around them. "For that reason, too, to not call a lot of attention to yourself. It’s like how we shot a lot of the Greenberg stuff. Of course, it’s different when you’re shooting with Ben Stiller—people notice him. But no one walks in L.A., so you’re kind of free to do it. We do the proper channels"—by which he means getting permits and such—"but it’s about keeping it small and quiet."
Baumbach also wanted to shoot over a long period of time. "You can only get a small group to commit to that. I think there’s this kind of crazy thing about traditional filmmaking: There’s all this money, all these people and as soon as you start shooting, you have to make a schedule. That’s the time you have to do it—there’s one day for this and one day for that."
The extended timeframe was an unconventional indulgence. "I felt like, Wouldn’t it be great to shoot a movie until you felt like it’s done, as opposed to when the clock runs out? And wouldn’t it be great, too, if an actor doesn’t feel well that day, which inevitably someone doesn’t—or someone just isn’t on or something isn’t right or I’m not feeling it—that we can say, 'Let’s come back and do this tomorrow’? That’s a great feeling. What ends up happening, of course, is you end up actually doing that very little, but once you have the pressure off, everybody can just kind of get it right the first time." He’s used to making movies under pressure, of course. "The Squid and the Whale I shot in 23 days. I would have loved more time for it at the time, but in some ways that kind of kamikaze way of shooting was right for that movie."
"[This new way of working] allowed me to do many, many takes. There’s a real rigor to how we shot these scenes; they take a while. We’re often shooting a high page count in one take, not many takes of someone picking up a phone. It’s really about trying to get it right, and not obsessively, but trying to get it right in a way where you don’t feel like, 'I don’t think we’re going to do better after that,' as opposed to, 'Okay, we’ll take that.'"
[Photos Courtesy of IFC | Pine District, LLC.]