ARTS & CULTURE

Noah Baumbach, 'Frances Ha' Director, On Why He's Annoyed By The Will Ferrell Version Of 'Kicking & Screaming'

05/14/2013 08:46 am ET | Updated May 14, 2013
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Noah Baumbach directed his first feature-length movie, "Kicking and Screaming," in 1995, about that uncertain, post-college phase of life. (It's a personal favorite of this reporter.) Of course, the best known movie with that title is a 2005 effort about a youth soccer team starring Will Ferrell. (Not a personal favorite of this reporter, primarily because of the number of times I've switched the channel to TBS, only to see this version instead of Baumbach's.) As it turns out, Baumbach is annoyed by the similarities of these titles, too, and it has everything to do why the name of his new movie is "Frances Ha."

"Frances Ha," not called "Frances" because there's already a Jessica Lange film with that title, has been a darling of the festival circuit since it debuted at the Telluride Film Festival in September. Greta Gerwig stars (and co-wrote the screenplay) as the title character who wanders through life, jumping from one New York City apartment to another (with an occasional sprint down the street, scored to David Bowie's "Modern Love") as a never-ending parade of personal relationships seem to come and go.

I met with Baumbach in a New York City hotel room. At first meeting, Baumbach is pleasant enough, but slightly aloof -- which makes perfect sense considering that we are strangers. Slowly, the aloofness wears off -- this is a man who talks about the lack of expectations as a protection device -- and once it does, the conversation steers into topics as seemingly arbitrary as his brief stint as a "Saturday Night Live" director and the movie "Gremlins." (These topics are not as arbitrary as they seem.) And, yes, he explains the annoyance of finding out that your directorial debut has been overshadowed by a throwaway kids' soccer movie.

The praise for "Frances Ha" has been pretty high. Do you notice that compared to your other movies?
Yeah, I mean, there's a kind of a variation on praise that you start to recognize. But, of course, even movies that I've made that maybe were more polarizing -- the people who liked them, liked them a lot. But, yes, I think I can recognize something different.

What do you feel is one of your polarizing movies?
Well, I mean, I can only speak to the feedback I get. I mean, I don't make them any differently or think about them differently. But, I mean, "Margot at the Wedding," when it came out certainly had more of maybe a polarizing affect on people than I expected.

So is it surprising when the reactions differ so much?
A little bit. I mean, I think, in a way, you sort of stop expecting one thing or the other. Partly, I think, to protect yourself -- but, also, just because there's no way to predict it. You know, you go into all of them to do the best job that you can and make something that people are going to like. And then they do or they don't -- you can't predict it.

Did you feel with "Frances Ha" you were making something a little different than some of your other movies?
I didn't think about it very consciously, except that I was aware of what I felt was the right tone for this movie and this character. So, it was very clear to me how this movie should be shot and what the tone should be. I think because it was Greta and it was this character, I felt very protective of the character. I also felt kind of celebratory about the character and I think that all went into the style, the tone, the feeling of the movie. But, for me it's a matter of emphasis, really. Like, the world is equally the tone of "Margot at the Wedding" as it is "Frances Ha" to me. And it doesn't mean that one is better or worse than the other. It's just, sometimes, a story feels like it should be more one way and sometimes it should feel like another.

"Frances Ha" has a fun lightness to it, but it's also strangely depressing.
Well, I think this point in life and these kinds of intense friendships -- I mean, this is something Greta and I both have had a lot of experience with. And Greta was even going through some of this stuff in kind of real time while we were making it. I think the notion of friendship and the role of friendship in one's life -- and this being the first time in your adult life where you have to grow, or not. And your friendships are going to be affected by that. And it's obviously something that I was looking at with "Kicking and Screaming," too. But, you know, I think this is the first of many times that that happens, but it's probably never more intense than it is at this point.

When this premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, it was labeled a "secret movie." Is that a deliberate tactic?
It wasn't deliberate to keep it that secret, but it wasn't actually on the Internet until it got announced at Toronto.

It really was out of nowhere.
It was cool that it happened that way. To, you know, game the Internet [laughs] ...

And that feels good?
That feels good. But I didn't set out to do it that way. I mean, we kept a low profile because I kind of wanted it to be, I don't know, I just felt, you know, let's just do our work and not have to kind of deal with expectations. I didn't really want agents all over this submitting their actors. I kind of just wanted to kind of go audition people -- find a great pool of actors in New York and make something kind of simply, but kind of rigorously -- and take the time we needed to get it right.

Correct me if I'm misinterpreting this. There are a couple digs at "SNL" in this movie. A character, Benji, at one point brags about how he might have a job writing for "SNL," then laments that "SNL" has gone downhill. I feel those digs are aimed at that type of person who says those thing, not "SNL."
Right. Someone thinks the opposite?

I know of at least one person. Not the majority. I pointed out that you've written sketches for "SNL."
I did. I did two.

"Clearing the Air" and "New York Underground." But you're making fun of the people who are dismissive of "SNL."
Of course! No, I love "SNL." And I had a great time there. I made two shorts for them.

I just rewatched "Clearing the Air" today.
That was fun to do. No, I love that show and I like Lorne a lot. And, yeah, that's totally Benji, within probably a few hours saying, "I might be able to get a job there," then a few hours later dismissing the show. Because he's already come to the conclusion that he'll never work for them. I also like "Gremlins."

There is a "Gremlins 3" reference in this movie. You know, "Gremlins 2" is surprisingly bizarre.
"The New Batch." Yeah, it is weird. They're sort of making fun of it at the same time that they're kind of doing another one. Yeah, it's a weird one.

That should be your next movie. You should make "Gremlins 3" and shock the world.

[Laughs] Shock the world! A sort of sequel to "Frances Ha" -- it's set up in "Frances."

If you watch a full "SNL" from 1977, it's got its ups and downs, just like today. I feel people tend to cherry pick the best stuff from past eras.
Right, yeah, it just seemed like such a kind of easy, dismissive, comment that someone might make. But, I totally agree with you. I think it's remarkable the consistency that show has maintained.

Would you ever do anything for them again?
Yeah, I'd love to. It was good timing. I was here and I wasn't working on anything else. I had just sort of become friendly with Bill and Fred. And I had adapted a book that Lorne was attached to as a producer. And, so, I was sort of hanging out with those guys and it was really fun to do. But, yeah, I would definitely do it again.

There's a scene in the movie where someone touches Greta's shoulder and she makes a honking noise in response, followed by a lot of silence. Is something like that scripted or did she just do that? I have to admit, I caught a case of the giggles after that scene.
Yeah, that was in the script. I'm trying to remember how it was phrased -- it was like, "Frances makes a sound that she immediately realizes afterwords is a mistake." It was like, yeah, the character would react so impulsively that they would have no control over what their reaction was. What was fun about it was that it was written in, but I never asked Greta how she was going to do it or what it was going to sound like. So that was fun to shoot it.

You didn't know what the noise would be.
No. A lot of the times stuff that's funny in the movie, you're not necessarily laughing on set. But that was something that was very funny, even there.

We hear David Bowie's "Modern Love" twice during this movie.
Actually, if you saw it in Toronto, you only got it once -- and then I brought it back.

I did notice that.
Two music things changed: One is The Rolling Stones asked for too much money, so, I had to swap out their song with a T. Rex song that's in the movie -- which I think actually works better. The other, which was actually a nice effect if you were in a silent screening room, was you just heard the sounds of the city while the credits rolled. But, the problem is I saw it with these full audiences and people then are talking over the credits. I realized no one can hear it, so, it just sounds like silence. And then that provided the opportunity, which I think is actually the right thing, which was to bring that song back.

I think that song is the perfect pop song. When I first heard it when I got the "Let's Dance" record as a kid, I really remember very vividly that feeling of I couldn't believe how it sounded. I just loved how it sounded. And I kept playing it over and over again. I think in someways Greta and I think of "Frances" as a pop song, as a movie. And so it seemed like the right companion.

I can't tell you how many times I'm flipping through the guide on my cable box, see "Kicking and Screaming" and think hot damn. It's never your version.
Right.

Was that annoying when that movie came out with the same title?
Yeah. It was very annoying. The same year, "Crash" came out, too -- or right around there -- I imagined David Cronenberg was annoyed as well. I mean, actually, that was something that I was very conscious about because an obvious title for our movie was "Frances." And there's a very good movie with Jessica Lange called "Frances" about Frances Farmer. It kind of pushed Greta and me to get more inventive with the title and, ultimately, I think to come up with a kind of great ending for the movie. So, I wish the filmmakers of "Kicking & Screaming" had maybe done similar -- [laughs] worked a little harder to figure it out.

"Kicking and Screaming ... at a Soccer Match"
Yes, yes. Yeah, something. But, you know, I don't think -- it sort of is what it is. I feel like except for your getting tricked, I feel maybe we've won the war. Maybe we lost the battle, but we might win the war. I'm also lucky, you know, Will Ferrell has made a bunch of brilliant comedies -- and that wasn't one of them.

Mike Ryan is senior writer for Huffington Post Entertainment. You can contact him directly on Twitter.

'Frances Ha'

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