There are always magic couples. Each person is bewitching on his or her own, but when they get together, they create a new order of dazzlement. The world coalesces around them. Their universe may be a rarefied one: Say, bicoastal American filmmakers. But they’re at the centre of it. At this moment, June of 2013, Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach are magic.
He’s a writer-director known for edgy character dramas including The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding. She’s a writer-actress who’d emerged from mumblecore films (Hannah Takes the Stairs) and found success in Hollywood (Arthur) and New York (To Rome with Love). She’s sweet, as buoyant and unpretentious as sparkling grape juice. He’s a thinker, no stranger to angst, generous and thorough in his answers, but never without a touch of wariness. They met in 2009 when he cast her in Greenberg, his sixth film. He was 40; she was 24.
Baumbach modelled Greenberg (Ben Stiller) after the kind of flawed heroes that Philip Roth and Saul Bellow wrote about, Portnoy and Herzog, and Stiller didn’t flinch at making him unpleasant. Gerwig’s character had the near-impossible task of being so serene and humane that some of it had to rub off on him. Yet she pulled it off. Though Baumbach was married at the time, to the actress Jennifer Jason Leigh – and they had a son together, Rohmer (who’s now 3), named after the French film director Eric Rohmer, one of Baumbach’s heroes – it was clear he had found a muse.
“Greta’s one of the funniest people I’d ever met, both as an actor and a person, and she also has this incredible vulnerability,” Baumbach said during a recent trip to Toronto with Gerwig. (They conducted their interviews separately.) In a jacket and jeans, hair curling over his collar, he looks like a college prof, the kind who – he likely will want to kill me for saying this – would have cocktail parties for his students where he ends up playing guitar.
“She’s very present, always,” he continues. “I felt that together we could do a character where the humour was more front and centre, and at the same time, you’d really feel for her. With Greta, you can get away with things that you might not be able to with another actor. I could have her running down the street, and then start dancing down the street, in a way that felt like it came from the moment, because she can do that.”
Baumbach cast Gerwig in The Corrections, a series pilot he was shooting for HBO based on Jonathan Franzen’s novel. Despite its impeccable pedigree, it didn’t work, and HBO passed. At the same time, Baumbach was separating from Leigh. He asked Gerwig if she had any ideas for a movie they could write together, and over the next year they fell in love in a 21st-century version of a 19th-century courtship: Instead of letters, they passed e-mails back and forth (first just details and moments, which gradually became scenes), occasionally getting together to read aloud what they had written. In August, 2011, they began to shoot the finished script, guerrilla-style, on the streets of New York. A month in they were officially a couple. The resulting film, Frances Ha, opened in select cities yesterday.
Frances Ha, shot in black and white and refined in editing to a glossy lushness, is the kind of small scale/big impact movie that artistic American directors used to aspire to make, before everyone switched over to big-budget comic books. It’s unabashed in its love for its subject – the title character (Gerwig), a woman finding herself; its setting (the New York of ambitious young people who can’t quite get it together); and its European sensibilities. (In addition to Rohmer, Baumbach admires the masters François Truffaut, Ingmar Bergman and Woody Allen, and their influence shows. Though they’re actually quite distinct, it’s impossible to not compare Frances Ha to Manhattan.) In the writing, both Gerwig and Baumbach fell in love with Frances, and the swooniness is palpable.