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Gerwig, Baumbach Poke At Post-College Pangs

Director Noah Baumbach has made a name for himself with films such as <em>The Squid and the Whale</em> and <em>Margot at the Wedding.</em>
Wilson Webb
IFC Films
Director Noah Baumbach has made a name for himself with films such as The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding.
In <em>Frances Ha,</em> Greta Gerwig stars as a young dancer trying to find her way on her own in New York City.
/ IFC Films
IFC Films
In Frances Ha, Greta Gerwig stars as a young dancer trying to find her way on her own in New York City.

In the film Frances Ha, Greta Gerwig stars as the title character, a 27-year-old living a good but not particularly successful post-college life in New York City.

Frances becomes unmoored, though, when her best friend decides to move out of the apartment they share and move on with her own independent life. It's a turning point Gerwig says is a common experience for many young people who've struggled in the years after college, when adolescence is lingering and adulthood has yet to fully coalesce. That period, however, must end — and it's that transition the movie explores.

"There's a grace period where being a mess is charming and interesting," Gerwig tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross, "and then I think when you hit around 27 it stops being charming and interesting, and it starts being kind of pathological, and you have to find a new way of life. Otherwise, you're going to be in a place where the rest of your peers have been moving on, and you're stuck."

Gerwig, who's also starred in films such as Damsels In Distress and Woody Allen's To Rome with Love, co-wrote the film with director Noah Baumbach. She's only 29 years old herself, and she says she was far from immune to post-college malaise and the bumpy transition to adulthood.

The tipping point for her, she says, came amid seemingly small indications that she was being taken seriously professionally.

"It sounds like I'm making a joke, but I'm not," she says. "Having health insurance made me feel like a real person. Up until then it felt like I was getting away with something, and if three things went wrong it would all fall apart. And so when I got health insurance a few years ago, I felt like a real person, but before then I felt like I was pretending. ... It went along with becoming a member of [the Screen Actors Guild] ... and I think it was a big moment for me because it made me feel like I had a trade."

This is not the first film Baumbach, who also directed Gerwig in his indie romance Greenberg, has made about 20-somethings fumbling toward adulthood. Before he made The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding, he drew attention with Kicking and Screaming and Mr. Jealousy, both about post-college life. Now in his 40s, he says his perspective on that phase of life has changed somewhat.

"What I didn't exactly know then ... [is that] I was not injecting enough adventure into my life at the time," he tells Fresh Air. " I was about to go into a period of my life that [involved] vast individual change ... I was about to begin that, and I think change a lot personally and, I think, change as a filmmaker."

That said, Baumbach sees a thematic thread throughout his work.

"I think all [my movies] are essentially about transition," he says, "and about squaring who you want to be with who you actually are."

Interview Highlights

Adam Driver (left), known for his role on HBO's <em>Girls,</em> co-stars with Gerwig in <em>Frances Ha</em>.
/ IFC Films
IFC Films
Adam Driver (left), known for his role on HBO's Girls, co-stars with Gerwig in Frances Ha.

Gerwig on friendships with men

"I have a lot of male friends who I really like, and I've always enjoyed the feeling of ... 'I'll never sleep with you and you'll never have that power over me, and we'll never have that relationship, and I get to meet all the people who have to deal with what you cry about at night, and I will never have to do that.'

"I was not a cool girl in junior high or high school, and I think I figured out [how to be friends with men] when I was in college. And for some reason that's been a hobby of mine ever since. ... It clicked all of a sudden, and I was like, 'You just have to be really nice to them and you have to tell them they're right about stuff, and that their thoughts are really smart and just treat them like they're the best ones in the room and they'll really like you.' "

Baumbach on why he shot the film in black and white

"I wanted to shoot in New York again, and I didn't really articulate a reason beyond that except that shooting [in black and white] in New York helped me ... see the city with new eyes, I think. Also there was something about black and white that makes the movie almost immediately nostalgic.

"It's a very contemporary story, and Frances is such a contemporary character. ... [Y]ou never know [when you reach] that moment when [something is] over, and I think that black and white in some ways sort of underscores that. It adds this sort of sense of past to something that's happening very much in the present."

Gerwig on weight and her character, Florence, in Greenberg

"Right before my senior year I lost an incredible amount of weight due to chain smoking and really poor personal behavior. And I felt so wonderful, and I wished it didn't feel as wonderful as it [did]. It felt liberating, and I felt great about myself, and people asked me, 'Did you get a haircut?' And I was like, 'No, I lost 25 pounds, you idiot.'

"I think it also gave me the confidence to kind of go make these movies and do all this stuff, because I was high on some kind of thinness. And then when I read the part of Florence, I almost felt ashamed. Because I felt like I had been trying to run away from being that person, because I thought that that's what I had to do to make movies. And then when I read that part I gained 15, 17, 20 pounds for the part, because I knew that was right. And I've never really lost it. I've just kind of stayed that weight. But I think when I read the script I understood it, and I also felt like, 'Oh, you didn't have to try to be another person to make art or to be an actress. You can be this person and someone will want to tell that story.' "

Baumbach on Woody Allen

"I was growing up in Brooklyn, and was actually going to Midwood High School — which I knew that Woody Allen had gone to as well — and I was just starting to write funny short stories. ... A teacher, I think, wrote a comment saying, 'This is like a Woody Allen short story,' and I had seen Woody Allen movies, but I didn't know he had written these funny things.

"I think my parents had Getting Even, which was one of his collections, and when I read it I couldn't believe it. I thought they were the funniest things that I had ever read, but also felt like — this is the thing they say about great poetry or something — it's like your own thoughts brought back to you with added majesty. It was like my own funny ideas brought back, and he just seemed so smart and funny, and I just felt so connected to it from that point forward.

"Then I just kind of devoured the movies, and he was so much a part of my growing up, really. And I think at a certain point when I got a little older it was almost like a drug I had to kick. I had to get off Woody Allen; I was imitating him too much."

Gerwig on working with Allen

"Whenever you work with someone who you idolize, you realize ... he's just a person trying to make a movie as best he knows how. And that doesn't look so different from other people trying to do the same thing. And he's wildly smart and brilliant and funny, but it's moviemaking, and there's something kind of democratic about how difficult it is. Because everybody — whether you're Woody Allen or Noah or P.T. Anderson — it's hard. Making movies is a hard thing, and it's slow. So you can glorify the product, but the process is difficult no matter who you are."

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