Frances Ha opens with a montage of a couple having one of those magical long days that only happen spontaneously and become increasingly rare as a person slips into proper adulthood. They share a picnic lunch in the park. One dances on the sidewalk while the other strums a banjo. They go home and dreamily wonder how their futures will unfold (with a trip to Paris while taking over the world, of course). That all this takes place between two best girlfriends and not lovers doesn’t make Frances Ha any less romantic a movie. The story follows aspiring dancer Frances (Greta Gerwig) as she navigates her life — adrift at 27 in New York City and teetering from seismic shifts in her friendships and career — and it has as many stinging lows and giddy highs as a classic romance. Just don’t expect any rom-com conventions, such as Frances finding her happily-ever-after by way of a Prince Charming. This is a romantic comedy sans romance.
”We always say, ‘There’s no kissing. Frances doesn’t kiss,”’ says Gerwig with a laugh on a recent chilly afternoon in her West Village neighborhood in New York City. The ”we” the actress, 29, is referring to is herself and director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale), with whom she wrote the script. (They’re also a couple, but more on that in a moment.) ”It actually wasn’t a deliberate choice that this was going to be about female friendship or that it wouldn’t have any romantic interest,” she says. ”It really came out of the scenes we were generating and what the characters seemed to care about: When we realized this was going to be the story we were telling, it really clicked into place.”
The complicated business of female friendship gets largely ignored or relegated to the B plot in movies and on TV. HBO’s Girls is still just beginning to plumb its depths after two seasons. Frances Ha, which was shot in gleaming black and white and opens in limited release May 17, is most poignant and relatable when Gerwig’s title character and her best friend, Sophie (Mickey Sumner), find themselves unraveling because their universes have moved in different directions. A friendship breakup, after all, can be just as exquisitely painful as a romantic one — and sometimes it’s worse. ”There’s no words for it, no songs written about it. You can’t even explain to yourself what’s going on or why you feel so bad,” Gerwig says. ”I think in your late 20s you go through this realization that your friends are not your family and they don’t owe you the things that your family owes you. That’s incredibly painful. I still find it really hard to think about sometimes.”
Baumbach and Gerwig first met when the director cast her in 2010’s Greenberg. She’d been in a handful of ”mumblecore” indies like Hannah Takes the Stairs, but the offbeat comedy starring Ben Stiller was her first role in a more mainstream movie. Soon after shooting wrapped, the director emailed Gerwig, asking her what she thought was going on in the hearts and minds of people her age. And so began a long correspondence that slowly evolved into the Frances Ha script. ”Sometimes it’s a mysterious process,” says Baumbach, 43, seated at a long conference table in his editing suite in midtown Manhattan. ”I knew I wanted to work with Greta, and I wanted to do something where she could really kill it as an actor and as a comedienne. And I wanted to [film it] in black and white. But it’s scary looking back: If you had asked me, ‘Could you chronicle in a very nuanced, very real way a female friendship?”’ He smiles. ”I’d think, ‘I don’t know if I’m up to that.”’
Gerwig and Baumbach began dating shortly after shooting started on Frances Ha in late 2011. (Baumbach and his ex-wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh, split in 2010; they share custody of a son, Rohmer, 3.) There are times in the movie — like during a particularly exuberant scene that finds an incandescent Gerwig dancing across crowded city streets to David Bowie’s ”Modern Love” — when the camera is quite obviously an instrument of adoration.
The couple acknowledge their relationship, but neither seems particularly comfortable discussing it. ”When I direct actors, I don’t have to like them personally, but I have to ideally appreciate what they’re doing. This…” he says, trailing off. ”To have someone you love, and work with them — then there’s something else happening that I think generally only makes the work better.” It’s certainly added a more lighthearted and tender touch to his films, which previously tended toward the angst-ridden. (See especially: Margot at the Wedding.)
Gerwig and Baumbach are currently at work on two new projects. They’re co-writing an animated still-to-be-greenlit comedy about a Brooklyn dog named Freddy and another as-yet-untitled film that will star Gerwig. (Baumbach also plans to reunite with Stiller for While We’re Young this fall.) As intense and fruitful as their collaboration is, Gerwig stresses that when it comes time to shoot, it’s never just ”a two-person world.” For instance, during production on Frances Ha, after shooting a scene on Manhattan’s Lower East Side where Frances falls down while running mid-date to an ATM, the tight-knit cast and crew wrapped at 3 a.m. and decided to go for a drink. ”We went to this bar and felt like we’d earned our whiskey — that we’d had this big, good day. It’s the closest feeling I’ve had to being in a band,” she says. ”I mean, I was in a marching band,” Gerwig adds after a moment. ”But that’s not the same thing.”