If Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach are the modern day Diane Keaton and Woody Allen, then "Frances Ha" is their "Annie Hall," except with the color palette of "Manhattan." Shot in relative anonymity, and not officially announced until the Toronto International Film Festival unveiled its 2012 lineup last July, the black-and-white film focuses on the title character (played by Gerwig), a struggling 27-year-old modern dancer coming of age in New York. ("I'm sorry, I'm not a real person yet," Frances says at one point.)
Gerwig and Baumbach co-wrote "Frances Ha" together, giving the film an infectious blend of energetic pathos. (Their on- and off-screen relationship was documented in a recent New Yorker profile.) With "Frances Ha" out on May 17, Gerwig, 29, spoke to The Huffington Post about the film's hush-hush origins, her thoughts on fellow 2013 indie sensation "Spring Breakers," and whether things are getting better for female writers in Hollywood.
You and Noah have discussed how "Frances Ha" wound up being a secret project. Was that secrecy intentional?
We didn't set out and say, "Don't tell anyone about this." Part of that was just functional with how we were shooting it. We shot this over a long period of time. We were presenting it to [the actors] as, "Here are the pages that you're in, but you don't know how it fits together." So we were just calling it the "Untitled Noah Baumbach Project." But then there was a point where we realized no one knew about it, and then we did make the active decision of, "Let's not talk about it." It felt like you so rarely get the opportunity to do something that people don't know about. I love that experience. I love reading intelligent criticism about films, but I try not to do it beforehand. I try to almost go into the theater with nothing. It's hard to create that experience in this day and age. That said, I'm certainly glad that people know about the movie now.
Unfortunately, it's kind of a one-shot thing. Your next project with Noah, "Untitled Public School Project," was discussed at length in that New Yorker profile.
You can't do that again. I know. We talked about it because we were like, "Should we not?" Then we were like, "It doesn't matter. People will know." It's fine. The thing is, though, that we did get that film pretty much done. So it's like, "Well, it exists!"
After the New York Film Festival screening of "Frances Ha" last year, Noah compared the film to a pop song. I love that designation, and think it's a budding trend. This film, "Spring Breakers" ...
That was like a fucked-up pop song. I simultaneously loved it and hated it. It's so weird, but I'm so impressed that made as much of an impact and has done as well as it did. I'm so glad for it, because it is so weird. Deeply weird. I loved it. You're sort of like, "I feel sick and I kind of can't believe this and it's hilarious, but I also feel dirty, like I want to take a bath."
Exactly. Not that "Frances Ha" is like "Spring Breakers" ...
No, no, make that comparison.
... but was the goal in the writing process to make the film as poppy as possible?
One of the things that's interesting about the movie is it was much sadder on the page. It was bleaker on the page. When I was acting it, however, I found this broadly physical comedic performance inside myself, which I didn't know I was going to do. It really lightened everything. It made it feel like it was floating. It felt sparse and taut on the page and then once it was given to the actors -- me and everyone else -- it felt like it started bubbling. It's hard to explain totally, but it's really exciting when you give it to people and you're like, "Oh, it's working." It almost feels like the spell worked. It also helps that the actors we chose are all really great. We didn't want to make a movie that felt heavy, but I don't think we knew just how effervescent it would feel.
This is obviously a very personal film for you: your parents play Frances' parents; you're working with Noah; you've done all this press. As an actress, do you ever feel that you're jeopardizing a sense of mystery by putting yourself out there like this?
I don't know that mystery has ever been my strong suit as a person, so I don't feel like I'm giving up some Garbo-esque reclusion. In some ways I feel safer with this movie exposing myself because it's so written and structured. It was pored over and made as perfect as possible on the page, so I felt like I could put my parents in it as found people. It didn't feel exposing as much as it felt like, "Oh, this is a really good and true detail I can add in now that I know I have this superstructure around it." But I feel like if I was making a movie that was just improvised and just on the fly, I would never put them in it. It would feel much too much like those are my people and this is my life.
I don't know, though, that the films I'd like to make would benefit from reticence. Sometimes I try to cultivate it but it feels so fake for me. Whenever I think, "Oh, just be boring and don't say anything about it," I remember growing up in Sacramento where my only access to knowing films and actors were in interviews or books. I used to go find those things. I feel like because of how much I benefited from people just talking about how they did things, I owe it to my young self to be open about it. I even read my contemporaries or younger than me -- I read what they say. I'm fascinated. Then I'll have some experience with an artist who I think is great and they will not talk about anything and I'll think, "God, they have it right. You shouldn't talk!"
You mention contemporaries and I know you're planning to direct a film in the future. Do you look at how harsh the media can be on female writers and directors -- like the kind of visceral criticism levied at Lena Dunham -- and worry that could also happen to you?
I hope it doesn't happen to me because I have very thin skin. I wish I was one of those people who was like, "Fuck all y'all! I'm going to do it anyway." But I'm totally not that person. I'm so affected by what people think. I think it's one of the tragedies of people who make things: they really do care more than anybody else what people think. You have to have a weird combination of caring and not caring to actually get something done. I think what's really amazing about right now, though, [is the opportunity]. Whenever people say, "Oh do you wish you had been born in a different time?" It's like, "Not as a woman." As a woman, pretty much now is the best time. It's only gotten better in the last 100 years and I feel the more women who are writing and directing and running companies and doing everything, the less it's going to be an object of scorn and fear and judgment. Because it will be less spectacular. I think as we continue it will just keep getting easier for women to do it. Hopefully, my sistas and I absorb the scorn together! [Laughs] It's hard, but we're all in this together.
"Frances Ha" is out on May 17.
This story appears in the special Summer Issue of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store, available Friday, May 24.