I’ve long wanted to interview Greta Gerwig, if only to see if she’s a flighty and scattered as many of the characters she’s played in the past. Turns out, she’s not, or this might have been a really disjointed chat. She’s actually quite articulate and mellow, which isn’t entirely surprising since she’s worked with a handful of directors who also match that description, including the filmmaker who discovered her, Joe Swanberg (HANNAH TAKES THE STAIRS, NIGHTS AND WEEKENDS), Ti West (THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL), Mark and Jay Duplass (BAGHEAD), Whit Stillman (DAMSELS IN DISTRESS), Woody Allen (TO ROME WITH LOVE), and of course, her most frequent and recent collaborator, Noah Baumbach (GREENBERG), with whom she co-wrote two features in which she also starred—FRANCES HA and their latest, MISTRESS AMERICA.
In MISTRESS AMERICA—as she did in FRANCES HA—Gerwig plays a woman in a burgeoning friendship with another woman, in this case one that is about to become her step-sister (played by Lola Kirke, sister to “Girls” star Jemima Kirke). In both films, the woman talk a great deal about all manner of things, in a free-flowing stream of ideas that might be frustrating for some, but I found revealing and indicative of both women’s personalities. It’s a funny movie and very much a film about women who are refreshingly not beholden to men in their lives or conversations.
I sat down with Gerwig and Kirke recently in Chicago, and they could not have been more interesting and charming. With that, please enjoy my chat with Greta Gerwig and Lola Kirke…
Capone: Greta, was the writing process on this film significantly different than the process for FRANCES HA?
Greta Gerwig: Well, in some ways, it’s quite a similar process. The way Noah and I write, we don’t have any improvisation. The actors don't change the lines at all. They have to say it word for word exactly as we’ve written it, and we’re very strict about that. The writing process takes a long time, and we’re very rigorous, and we go through drafts, because we also don’t like to shoot things that we don’t put in the movie. There’s some philosophy of shooting that’s like you shoot a bunch of stuff, and maybe some of it goes in and you find it in the edit. We don’t find it in the edit; we try to find it in the writing, and then we shoot it to get the things that we’ll put in the film. Really what you see on the screen is almost verbatim what the script is.
What’s nice about collaborating with Noah is, because he’s directed so many films, he’s got a very good sense early of “We will not want that shot. I will cut that. I know I will be in the edit room and say, ‘Actually we want to go from here to here. We don’t need that little piece.’” And I think that’s something that comes from experience. So he’s pretty good at knowing how to edit scripts prior to shooting, so you’re not like, “Why did we spend an entire week that we didn’t end up using in the film?”
So the process just takes a long time, but it’s really fun, though. The same thing happened on both, which is we feel like we’re sharing one brain, and we love all the different characters we’re writing. We get excited about the world that we’re creating. We talk a lot about different influences. Most of the generating of material, the actual lines, we do separately. We go off and write on our own and then we trade scenes and we read them and we start putting them together. Once we have a big unruly draft, then we’ll sit down together and start working on one piece together. For whatever reason, I feel like we both get more done if we can just sprint for about 10 pages alone.
Capone: Does he also attempt to shoot it chronologically?
GG: He tries to as much as possible, but sometimes you can’t. You’ll just have a location that you have to shoot at.
Lola Kirke: The first day of the movie, though, we did shoot the first scene of the movie.
GG: That’s right. And you shot the stuff at college…
LK: All the stuff at college was shot first.
GG: …and also before I was really on set. I would pop in and see how it was going and look over everyone’s shoulders. It was nice, because I felt like it also gave the chance for you and the crew to be the baseline for the movie, and I could enter into it. And so it felt like this organism already existed, and I could enter into it.
Capone: You mentioned influences, I really love all the stuff in the house towards the end, because that to me felt like old-school ’30s, ’40s films that were based on plays, one location with the quick back and forth.
GG: Well, a lot of those movies that were screwball comedies were literally plays that they were making as films. HOLIDAY is a play. There was a more fluid relationship between theater and film in the ’30s and ’40s, which I'm sad is gone, because those are the movies I love. I love theater so much so when I can see something that feels theatrical in a film… and this sounds strange, but that’s in some ways why I love Bergman movies, even though they’re completely different than the screwball comedies. He comes from a theater background. Everything feels like there’s a sense of a proscenium and a sense of staging something for a photograph, a moving photograph. For me, that’s intuitively how I understand film as opposed to something more maybe one-point perspective, if that makes sense. I like that idea of a tableau coming to life.
Capone: The way the shots are framed, too, you see everybody in the picture. It’s not a series of close-ups or over-the-shoulder shots. It’s all in one shot. That also makes it feel very theatrical.
LK: There was something really economical about the way that we shot this movie, including the lighting. It was really rare that anything would actually be lit. Like our D.P. Sam Levy…
GG: …he was so good at using practical light…
LK: …and natural light. So that was one way in which it was economical. The other way is just shooting things in one take.
GG: Designing a shot that would carry you through a large chunk of dialogue. So we do like 50 takes, but it was partially because we were only going to pick one of them for about three pages of dialogue. So they had to be perfect.
Capone: And plenty of chances to get tripped up.
GG: [laughs] Oh my god. You’d be take 30, and you’d get halfway through the take, and you’d trip, and you’d be like, “Goddamn!” You’d feel like you dropped a baton. “Sorry!”
Capone: This is a story about a female relationship that is not centered on men—meeting a man or breaking up with one. I love the way men are treated. The boyfriend that Brooke has is never seen. The one guy that you’re even mildly interested in, you’re not really that interested. You’re more interested in why he’s not interested in you. Was that something you set out to do?
GG: When we started writing FRANCES HA, we discovered that the heart of the story was two best friends whose lives seemed to be going in different directions and the pain of that, and how to reconcile that moving forward. And when we got to the end of writing that script, we realized, “Holy shit, we just wrote an entire script that has nothing to do with romance, and that nobody ever kisses for the whole movie.” There’s no kissing; there’s no anything.
Then when we wanted to write this movie, we deliberately set out the parameters: we will make a movie about two women, different relationship, different ages, but that has noting to do with it again. It’s not that I don’t care about romance. I love romance. I think there are movies that do it great. I think that sometimes it’s helpful to have restrictions on the kind of stories you’re going to tell to force you to find different stories. I think that there are lots of stories about women, but too often the only stories that are told about women—and the only plot function that they can have—has something to do with a bigger narrative in a man’s life. And that the only time they can carry a whole movie is if it is solely about, are you or are you not going to be with this guy?
Capone: And with FRANCES HA, a lot of that movie is her being alone. Here, it’s about this pairing, but it’s not played like a traditional friend set up. It’s very uneasy and awkward. I really dug that.
LK: I think also that you see Brooke though Tracy’s eyes. There’s no like illusion that they are like, “They are best friends till the end!” There’s this thing of voyeurism when it comes to Brooke in a way. I loved seeing Brooke through Tracy’s eyes; we’re seeing a woman frame another woman. Not “framing” like “Ha ha, she did it!”—I know that everyone in the room probably knows that [laughs]. I think that so often we have these muse characters…like when we have movies about creative endeavors, we always see women through the masculine gaze. I just liked seeing Brooke though Tracy.
GG: Not that anyone is making this connection, and I’m not saying that this is as great a piece of art, but we did talk about how we meet Gatsby through Nick Carraway, and we’re with him, and we see this man who seems like he’s all these things, but actually there’s all this darkness and problems underneath. We can’t base anything else on it, but it felt…
LK: Dylan [played by Michael Chernus] is Daisy?
GG: Dylan is Daisy.
GG: A beautiful, scrumptious man.
LK: With his blonde beard.
GG: His blonde beard and his fleece.
GG: But there was something about that that we always liked. We don’t write the story first and then create the characters, or create the characters then write the story. It all happens simultaneously, but there was a very strong sense early on that we need to frame this in almost a literary way. We need a narrator to bring us into what’s happening. Then there was this feeling of “What if at a certain point, it feels like Brooke’s consciousness takes over the movie?”
Capone: There’s a point where suddenly everyone’s looking at Tracy at the end, and everyone’s judging you.
GG: Yeah. It switches back, and we’re suddenly on Brooke’s side about what she’s saying. There’s a movie that I love, but I also find frustrating, but I love, is CELINE AND JULIE GO BOATING, and there’s that thing where their consciousness flips. They’re literally taking a drug of some kind. It’s unclear, but it’s that flipping of consciousness, and I think that’s something that literature does really well, because you can easily shift into somebody else’s point of view. I think it’s interesting when you try to accomplish that in a cinematic way.
Capone: You mentioned last night that there were ’80s films that you used as reference points. What about those films was it that you wanted to extract ideas from?
GG: SOMETHING WILD, the Jonathan Demme movie with Melanie Griffith, who’s fucking good, and Jeff Daniels. AFTER HOURS, DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN, and BROADWAY DANNY ROSE. Something that felt like a common thread between them was that it tended to be a story about a straight-laced, straight-edged uptown person that’s dragged into an underworld by a slightly crazy but totally amazing, maybe dangerous woman. And I felt like that character, that character of the woman, the Melanie Griffith-type in SOMETHING WILD, had disappeared from movies, and maybe it’s the division between yuppies and straight-edged people maybe started disappearing. Even having her live in Times Square seems like some throwback to another time. And the feeling of New York in the ’80s, it did have this dangerous feeling, and we did want Brooke to feel a little dangerous in that way. You’re not sure if she’s on the right side of the law in different capacities.