'Frances Ha', a comedy about the misadventures of a dance student, taps 1980s indie films for its look and feel

Nostalgia for 1980s America infuses director Noah Baumbach's latest film, a comedy starring Greta Gerwig, writes James Mottram

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 August, 2014, 11:28am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 August, 2014, 11:28am

Noah Baumbach knew exactly what he wanted when he set out to make Frances Ha. "I wanted to make a movie like a first-time director might try to make," the independent filmmaker says.

With a career stretching back to 1995's Kicking and Screaming, and including such films as The Squid and the Whale (2005), Margot at the Wedding (2007) and Greenberg (2010), the 44-year-old American is far from a newbie. But he wanted to channel the innocence with which directors approach their low-budget debuts - just without the chaos. "It's very much a movie by choice and you can feel the difference."

We wanted her economic situation to be an integrated part of the movie. In New York, you have to make money to survive there
noah baumbach, director 

Co-written with actress Greta Gerwig - they first worked together on Greenberg - the result is a beguiling indie comedy chronicling the misadventures of a struggling dance student, Frances (Gerwig). "I think she came from both of us," the actress says. "I don't know where she comes from but I feel very lucky that she arrived. I keep using the example of Athena springing from Zeus' head, and that's what it feels like - just fully formed. This person is here, but I don't know where they came from."

However she arrived, Frances is a remarkably relatable character - an Annie Hall for the digital generation. Much of the movie deals with the student as she bounces between apartments, failed relationships and an artistic career that's going nowhere. "The way she talks and the way she moved in the world, we both inherently understood what that was," says Gerwig - not surprising given how similar she is to her character. Both hail from Sacramento, love dance and know how hard it is to make ends meet in high-rent Manhattan.

With much of the world still recovering from a global recession, Frances Ha shows the harsh realities of trying to live an alternative lifestyle. "We wanted her economic situation to be an integrated part of the movie," says Baumbach, who grew up in Brooklyn. "In New York, you have to make money to survive there. There's a line in the movie where [Frances' friend] Sophie says, 'All the artists in New York are rich', and it's [true]. It's not good for art and it's not good for the culture."

The 30-year-old Gerwig particularly related to Frances' problems. Intending to study musical theatre, she moved east to New York, where she pursued a degree in English and philosophy at Columbia University's Barnard College. "I had a group of people, friends, and I shared a room with a girlfriend and lived in a crazy apartment," she says.

"We were paying US$350 each, but we knew how to do it. We had a support group of girlfriends. There were months where one of my friends paid my rent, and then I paid her back because we were all scraping by. If you don't have that support, it's hard to move there at 21, especially in this economy."

Even as Gerwig established herself as a leading light in the "mumblecore" movement of indie films, her personal life didn't immediately pick up. "I did have a couch-surfing period," she says. "I had moments in LA … even after Greenberg opened, there was a night where I didn't know where I was going to stay. Luckily, my parents' friends were in LA to visit their daughter, who had just had a baby … so they let me sleep on the couch in their hotel room. But I had a moment of driving past a cinema marquee that said Greenberg and I saw my face and I thought, 'I don't know where I'm going to stay tonight!'"

Aside from Gerwig, who received a Golden Globe nomination for her portrayal of Frances, the film stars many up-and-coming indie actors, from Mickey Sumner and Grace Gummer (daughters, respectively, of musician Sting and actress Meryl Streep) to Adam Driver, who has gone from Lena Dunham's TV series Girls to being cast in the upcoming Star Wars: Episode VII.

"One thing I like about the movie, as a document of this time, [is that] we have a lot of exciting young actors," Baumbach says. "I grew up in the '80s and there were a lot of New York movies, like Desperately Seeking Susan, where you had all these great actors of the time."

Indeed, watching Frances Ha is like going back to the 1980s in a time machine - to the days of black-and-white no-budget indie movies; films such as Jim Jarmusch's Stranger than Paradise and Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It. Add in works by the French New Wave and Woody Allen, and "all of that was informing my decision-making", Baumbach says.

It's not just the cinematography that lends the film this retro-cool feel, with characters appropriating fashions from the era - something Gerwig has seen around her. "All my friends and cohorts in New York, they dress like the guys from Stranger than Paradise," she says.

"We live with a lot of nostalgia for a time we don't necessarily remember, which is odd. There's a looking back to something that isn't our past. We were all born in the mid-'80s. We were quite young when a lot of stuff happened. I don't know what our voices are going to be ultimately or our visual references - other than imitation. I'm sure they'll happen. It's always a negotiation," she says.

"The total access - with everything from the past instantly available on the internet, it becomes easier to only live in your selected and curated construction of what the past was in the present."

Concerns about her generation aside, at least Gerwig is not "undateable" - the phrase ascribed to the unlucky-in-love Frances. She and Baumbach have been together since late 2011. "I did have a phase where someone called me that and so I just stole it because I thought it was funny. It always followed when I said something nerdy; they'd say: 'Greta Gerwig - undateable!'"

Baumbach has gone on to his next movie, While We're Young, but he's keen to reunite professionally with Gerwig. "I think we'd both like to do something else." This is one partnership that deserves to flourish.

Frances Ha opens on Thursday