This piece originally appeared in print in So It Goes, Issue.2, Autumn 2013.
Hollywood truisms aren’t hard to come by: film is a fine balance between art and commerce; scripts are mercilessly butchered by ruthless studio executives; ‘you’re only as big as your last movie’ etc. One adage that demands closer inspection is that there are no three-dimensional roles written for women. In the wake of Kristen Wiig’s Bridesmaids and Lena Dunham’s Girls comes Frances Ha, as much a statement about rudderless, modern youth as it is a nostalgic throwback to the heyday of Woody Allen and the Nouvelle Vague. So It Goes talked to the writer-star of Frances Ha about New York, ‘Mumblecore’ and one day playing a man...
“I write because I love to write, not because I love to write for myself. And I act because I love acting, not because I burn to act what I create. But I think they will be linked forever in some form for me.” Greta Gerwig is wary of shouldering too much praise for both authoring and acting the lead in the disarmingly likeable Frances Ha, “It’s like baking a cake and eating it all yourself,” she says, embarrassed. She has no right to be modest. Gerwig’s loosely autobiographical screenplay is a triumphant generational statement that in the wrong hands could have jarred and irritated with its self-conscious literary whimsy. Directed by her real-life boyfriend, Noah Baumbach, the lm luxuriates in a creamy black and white and is at once poignant, revealing and funny. Baumbach is occasionally criticised for his one-note, insular depictions of white, middle-class urban malaise. But like his acutely observed portrait of the downfall of a Park Slope nuclear family in 2005’s The Squid and the Whale, Frances Ha is an all-too-welcome example of two young filmmakers choosing the quiet and personal over the big and bombastic.
Raised in Sacramento, California, Gerwig wanted to be a professional dancer, like Frances. She speaks with a curious mix of awkward charm and formidable intelligence, a range of literary and theatrical references peppering the discussion of childhood, college (at Barnard) and writing herself into the role of Frances, “Her particular struggles, economically and artistically and emotionally, are all things I have felt or I have been scared of, or thought ‘But for the Grace of God go I!’"
Before Ha, Gerwig could already lay claim to being the doyenne of indie cinema with starring roles in 2010’s Greenberg, Whit Stilman’s polarising Damsels in Distress (2011) and Woody Allen’s To Rome With Love (2012). But it was as one of the leading lights in the lo-fi and fiercely naturalistic film movement – ‘Mumblecore’ – that Gerwig came of age. With minimal budgets, low production values and improvised dialogue, films like Baghead (2008) and Hannah Takes The Stairs (2007) indelibly shaped the actress, “It was incredibly helpful for me to have a totally blank page to experiment with and on, and I am grateful to those filmmakers for giving me the opportunity to fuck it up with no fear. I think the fearlessness is something I always try to remember from those people and those times – our total lack of self-consciousness.”
By writing their own material, writer-actors like Gerwig and Dunham are slowly carving out more dynamic and nuanced roles for leading women, but Gerwig is predictably cautious about the progress, “Every couple of years there is a slew of articles about how it’s changing,” she says earnestly. “I think it needs to happen about a million more times to feel like it’s actually changing, but yes, I think there are more opportunities there for women to feel like they are allowed to sing their own song. Gosh, that sounds very ‘women’s college-y’ but I went to a women’s college so that’s mostly how I sound.”
Before college, Gerwig wrote in her high-school yearbook that in ten years’ time she wanted to be living in New York and making a Woody Allen movie, a feat she achieved right on time. What do the next ten years hold? Without breaking breath she says, “I want to work with P. T. Anderson, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the Coens, David O. Russell, Wes Anderson and Steven Spielberg. To write a play that’s produced in New York, acted by professional actors and reviewed in the New York Times by Isherwood or Brantley – I hope the review will be good, but if it’s bad I’m still okay with that fate.” She then pauses for a long time... “I want to act on stage and play a man – maybe Richard III as a woman and her deformity is that she’s a woman? No, that’s terrible, but I would love to play a male villain on stage. IAGO? Just kidding... or am I?” Ten years from now, there’s a good chance she may have done all the above and more.
Photographer Helena Christensen
Photographer’s Assistant Anders Wallace
Creative Direction James Wright
Producers James Wright, Rafael Fuchs
Stylist Erin Walsh @ The Wall Group
Stylist’s Assistants Adam Ballheim, Raquel Castellanos, Gemma Shane
Hair Marco Santini @ The Wall Group
Make-up Brigitte Reiss-Andersen @ The Wall Group
Digital Technician Timor Raz
Retouching Green Capture, New York
Special thanks to Fuchs Projects