Skip to main content

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.

"It's the traditional hero's journey, the kind of story that's been told since the beginning of people telling stories, but it's not a space that women's stories have typically occupied," Gerwig says. She has a quicksilver loveliness, an evanescent beauty that flickers and changes with each thought and sentence (it looks particularly striking in black and white). She delivers every line so trippingly, it takes me a few minutes to realize how intelligent she is. She says "I think" a lot, which in some people is a disclaimer, but with her it's more like she's staking a claim.

"Women's stories tend to revolve around a romantic heterosexual relationship, where love or the lack of it is the point of the film," she continues. "This film is not that; it's about friendship" – Mickey Sumner (Sting's daughter) plays Sophie, Frances's platonic soulmate – "and ambition. Even though it's a small scope, it is a hero's journey."

"In a lot of ways, I was letting Greta lead the way," Baumbach says. "I was there to make sure the movie honoured her. Frances could humiliate herself occasionally – she throws herself into things, she obfuscates, she expects things that seem silly from our perspective – but I thought the movie should never humiliate her."

Gerwig and Baumbach's differences are a key component of their alchemy. She's from Sacramento, Calif. Her mother's a nurse, her father works for a credit union. (They play her parents in Frances Ha.) Growing up, she didn't know any writers; she didn't know any artists at all. "I knew people who were artistic and made stuff," she says, "but I didn't know anyone who did it for a living. My family can't believe that I made this into my life. They're like, 'We thought you were just annoying, we can't believe somebody's paying you to do this.' Which I can't believe either."

As an adolescent, she took ballet lessons and devoured the autobiographies of ballerinas, "which were mostly horrifically depressing," she says, laughing. "Like Gelsey Kirkland's Dancing on My Grave, which is about her terrible eating disorders and drug problems and affairs with Balanchine. It was crazy, but I was so in love with it all. It was the first thing that connected me to the idea of a bigger world."

In high school, she acted in plays and earned a scholarship to Barnard College in New York. "That really changed my life," she says. After Gerwig wrote a monologue for a fellow student, her professor urged her to pursue playwriting. It had never occurred to Gerwig that she could do that. "I loved plays and films," she says, "but I'd always assumed writers were better or smarter or more inspired than I was. Just, someone else. I was really lucky that I met the person who said that. Then it was like someone had lit a match."

Through friends, she met aspiring filmmakers, including Joe Swanberg and the Duplass brothers, and started co-writing and starring in their work. After Hannah Takes the Stairs caused a stir at the SXSW festival, she landed an agent, and after Greenberg, she became a name. "It all feels very congruous now, but at the time it seemed like, we would do this weird movie in Chicago for a couple of months, and I had no idea how it was all going to unfurl," she says. "But I'm really grateful to my early experience. I was given a blank canvas to try stuff out, to make mistakes in an environment where it was okay. I think there's nothing more valuable than that."

However, Gerwig continues, most film people "still can't seem to put me in a lane. To the chagrin of my agents. So much of being hirable has to do with being a known entity: 'Ah yes, this person is like this.' With me they're like, 'You just don't have a coherent look or personality.' Though I think that's good, ultimately, in the moment it can feel like, 'God, I need to get a coherent personality!'" She bubbles with laughter. "I think it's okay to not have a lane," she says. "Make your own lane."

Suddenly she turns into Frances. "Sorry, I have gum in my mouth," she says, apropos of nothing. "I'm self-conscious about my breath." She seems to want to stop talking, but can't. "I arrived in Toronto and ate a huge sandwich, and I forgot my toothbrush. Sorry, too much information. But that's why I'm chewing it." The fact that in person, she makes this charming, says it all.

Baumbach, on the other hand, is from Park Slope, Brooklyn. He grew up in the thick of artists and artistic expression: His mother, Georgia Brown, is a writer of fiction and a former film critic for The Village Voice; his father is experimental novelist Jonathan Baumbach. Their dining room was the set for the scene in Heartburn where Meryl Streep pushes a key lime pie into Jack Nicholson's face. (Years later, Noah would lay bare his own parents' messy divorce in The Squid and the Whale.) He attended Vassar, worked as a messenger at The New Yorker, and made two films, Kicking and Screaming and Mr. Jealousy, by the time he was 27. He's also co-written two films with his friend Wes Anderson, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Baumbach's parents fully supported The Squid and the Whale, by the way. Jonathan gave Jeff Daniels, who was playing a version of him, some of his clothes to wear. Noah sat with his mother when she first saw it, and found it "a very emotional experience," he says. "I almost couldn't deal with her reaction. I'm still to this day not sure why, but it was cathartic. For that reason, I let my dad see it by himself. There was too much weird energy to have more than one family member watching it at a time."

Much of Baumbach's work can be characterized as having empathy for people behaving badly. "I think sometimes bad behaviour can be liberating for certain people," he says. "They need to behave badly to find themselves – to go off path to find their path. You see it with kids all the time: They're testing boundaries, and I think that's healthy." For Frances, he deliberately wanted something lighter. "I think I've always had a version of this movie in me," he says. "Though it never would have been this exact one without Greta."

The duo enjoyed collaborating so much, they immediately launched into a second film, still untitled, which they are currently shooting. They're also working together on an animated film for Dreamworks, about a woeful dog.

"We never specifically talk about how it works," Gerwig says. She's talking about their work process, but it could easily be their relationship. "In some ways, you don't want to know too much about why; you don't want to mess with it. I've never been in a band, but I feel it must be what it feels like to write music with someone. I'm certainly not comparing myself to Lennon and McCartney, but they wrote great stuff on their own, and when they wrote together they made something greater than the sum of its parts. You can't account for it; it's almost like a third party enters into it."

In other words, it's magic.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Check Following for new articles

Interact with The Globe