Wednesday, May 22, 2013

<i>Frances Ha,</i> Friendship, Wankers, and the Oboe: Talking with Greta Gerwig and Mickey Sumner

Posted By on Wed, May 22, 2013 at 11:28 AM


In Noah Baumbach's latest film "Frances Ha," Greta Gerwig (who co-wrote "Frances" with Baumbach) and Mickey Sumner play Frances and Sophie—the closest of close friends. It's the kind of friendship where they fall asleep watching movies in bed together, have the same fantasies of being invited to universities to receive honorary degrees, play-fight in the middle of the street with a loose and intimate physicality, and even pick up each other's phone calls without letting it go to voicemail. They're the best of friends. In real life, Gerwig and Sumner only really met through filming this movie, but have the same easy, familiar way of talking with each other that demonstrates a true connection. I spoke with them recently about the film, whether or not "douche" is the American version of "wanker," and how exactly to interpret mysterious dreams about oboes.

I thought this film portrayed that specific time of close female friendship, before its importance gets replaced by romantic relationships, better than any other film I've seen.

Gerwig: I have a group of really close female friends that I went to college with, and we kind of moved into the world together and went through some painful and beautiful experiences together. And then also Noah still has a group of friends that he grew up with, and he had the experience in his 20s with his best friend where even though they were in relationships with other people, really they were in a relationship with each other, even though they were straight and they were dating, it was all kind of about the other person who was his best friend. And so for both of us we really felt this story deeply, this transition of friendship in your late 20s and how painful it is...and that’s it.

Sumner:Is that it? What was the rest of the question?

Yeah, that ‘s it, I mean it wasn’t even really a question was it. Ah, well. Anyway.

Gerwig: Yeah.

Did you guys know each other before filming?

Sumner: No, I mean, I knew who she was, and we’d met...

Gerwig: We’d met once, through a mutual friend. But to be honest I don’t think I even put it together through your tape because you were so different during the audition. And I was like "Oh yes, I met that girl."

Sumner: So, yes, we sort of found each other through filming.

Gerwig: I think when she auditioned too, Sophie felt like a real person, like she didn’t feel just like "Frances’s friend." Something we’d talked about was that we someone who was a great actress but also beautiful and who could hold her own, like she had just as much of a life as Frances, like she wasn’t there to like serve Frances’s story, and that you could go off and make a movie about her too. And Mickey had that quality that communicated the depth of a life, so you wouldn’t be like "Oh, well they’re just friends," you’d be like, "Oh, she’s a real person."

Well, that was one of the things I felt, was that every character had their own inner life and obviously Frances was the focus but there wasn’t any character who felt hastily drawn in. Sophie, in particular, even her actions that weren’t necessarily sympathetic were understandable and portrayed objectively. One of the things I think was interesting was this kind of obliviousness that some of the characters had—a filterless quality. Do you think that's specific to this generation of young people?

Gerwig: I don’t think of it as a generational movie as much as I think about it as a movie about these people. I do think that people have blind spots in how they see other people and one of the troubles that I think Frances has with Sophie is that she sees her frozen in this time and when she finally sees Sophie as not exactly this stable person that she built her up to be, she realizes, “I haven’t really been looking at my friend for the last six months and she hasn’t been looking at me.” And there’s a line where Sophie says “I’ve always felt so competitive with you.” And Frances says “Really? I don’t think I knew we were competitive.” And that is sort of the way that you can miss each other if the idea of the friendship becomes bigger than the friendship itself, and I don’t think that’s generational. I think that’s something you constantly, or I always have to check myself with, what’s the content and the life of it, not just the idea of it.

Sumner: I think also what Greta and Noah, their great thing, is they bring people who have great moments and flawed moments, but it’s never judged. I remember asking Noah when I was doing the break-up scene, “So, I am a bitch?” and he was like, “No,” and I was like “I’m not a bitch, but I’m just telling her right there that I don’t want to live with her?” And he was like, "Right. You’re not a bitch. You’re just want something different from her.” But there was no judgment, and I don’t think that’s ever done. I think there’s so many characters that are judged by the writer and the director but I think in Frances everyone has their great moments and their flawed moments like in life, and I think that’s the greatness of it for me, acting in it, because I got to be multi-faceted and I wasn’t just just one way.


Gerwig: We did talk a lot about not selling anyone out. Sophie, like in that moment, she might seem kind of harsh, but then you see Frances in the rest of the movie and it’s like, well, she had to do it. She had to—can you imagine telling that girl that you don’t want to live with her? You’d have to do it brusquely or else you’re going to end up living in Brooklyn with this woman till they’re both old and gray because that’s kind of what this woman wants. Sophie has to pull away. So it’s like she’s being selfish in a good way—she’s acting for herself.

Sumner: Which is the adult thing to do.

Gerwig: We also talked about at the dinner party, when Frances makes an ass of herself, we didn’t want the people there to be mean to her. They weren’t mean. Nobody’s mean to Frances. Nobody’s out to get her. We wanted everybody to have their say. But so then at the end, when everybody shows up for her even that girl Rachel, who doesn’t even really like Frances, but she’s not like a bad person, she just thinks Frances is kind of annoying and Frances is kind of annoying. It’s so easy to treat characters harshly, and so hard to treat them fairly, and you want to show them without glorifying them and without vilifying them and I think that’s something that Noah in his work does so well, he just takes the time to treat them like human beings, and that was just never going for the joke of that moment.

Frances is always moving throughout the film, sometimes quite literally running and dancing down the streets. Do you think she's settled at the end? Does being settled and stationary mean growing up and being ok?

Gerwig: Well, she felt like she was going to be ok. I think you leave feeling she’s going to be ok, or at least that’s what I was trying to do in the ending and I don’t know what the rest of Frances’ life is but I think...she’s going to be able to enter the next phase of her life, she’s going to do it and they’re going to be fine. I feel like I think of movies, movies and plays, but especially movies, but I always think of them as gifts because you work so hard on them and they take so long to make and then it’s like this ninety minute thing where...I think it’s beautiful because it’s a disproportionate amount of labor for what it is, and I don’t know, I always get so touched by that. And I like having a frame on the movie, I like that you tell this story that has a beginning, middle, and end and has this structure and it holds a life at a moment. I love that. It sounds weird and it sounds almost old-fashioned because it’s like making this perfect present for someone to see. I love looking at paintings, Mickey’s an artist as well. And I love looking at paintings because to me there’s something about theatre and paintings and films and when I look at a painting, like a Picasso or a Van Gogh at the Met, and it’s like I just can’t believe that they put it all on this box, like it’s just one painting of one field and it has so much emotion and there’s so much in it, and it’s just in this box. I can’t even totally explain what it is, but I feel like there’s so much art and design around us and there’s so many moments of great songs or great television shows or great videos but something that’s contained for some reason it’s just moving. The containment makes me emotional. Mickey was in a play recently. Even when I was sitting, waiting for the play to begin, I was emotional about the stage. There were all these people there sitting waiting for people to act for us.

Sumner: It’s sacred. And I hate religion. But it’s spiritual. When you sit in a small dark place and you watch another life that might transform your own life, or not, even if it just amuses you, it’s spiritual. Without sounding like a wanker.

Gerwig: I wish I can use the word wanker. It’s such a good word.

Sumner: You can, just without the “r.”

Gerwig: I feel like the American equivalent of the word "wanker" is "douche."

Sumner: Douche is a good one. I use douche.

So what's next for you? Anything specific?

Gerwig: I’m writing a lot. I’m having weird dreams while I’m writing. I had a dream the other night that I was given a really expensive antique oboe and I was like, "I gotta learn how to play the oboe." What does that mean?

Sumner: I think it means you’ve got to learn how to play the oboe. I love the oboe.

I think that's everything then!

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