Greta Gerwig & Noah Baumbach Talk Mistress America

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Mistress America, 2015

The dreamy actor/director duo give us the lowdown on their much-anticipated follow-up to Frances Ha

This Friday sees the release of Mistress America, the much-anticipated sophomore collaboration from creative and romantic partners Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig. The pair met when the director cast Gerwig in his 2010 film Greenberg, and they released the first co-scripted venture, the brilliant Frances Ha, three years later. Like its predecessor, Mistress America is based around a strong female protagonist played by Gerwig – this time the bold, beautiful and somewhat bonkers Brooke, a 30-year-old New Yorker with a big personality and even bigger plans for her restaurant-cum-hairdresser-cum-gallery. 

We are introduced to Brooke by Tracy (played by Lola Kirke, younger sister of GIRLS’ Jemima Kirke), an awkward freshman battling through her first semester at college in Manhattan, where she has been rejected both by the boy she likes and the writing society she hoped to join. Tracy’s mother is engaged to Brooke’s father and, feeling lost and underwhelmed by life, Tracy reluctantly takes her mother’s advice and decides to call upon her step-sister-to-be in a bid for friendship. What ensues is a deliciously farcical “comedy of modern manners” which sees Tracy catapulted into a life of drama and excitement as she falls under Brooke’s spell, and provides her with writing material she’d never dreamt of. Here, ahead of the film’s release we sit down with Baumbach and Gerwig to talk their favourite coming-of-age films and the moral dilemma of basing your work on the lives of others.

Noah Baumbach on sticking to the script...
“I think there is more freedom for an actor in following a script than if you burden them with the task of coming up with dialogue. I feel it’s a bit presumptuous to say to an actor, ‘Can you improve this?’ I want to give you a good thing for you to work with, and you do everything you can do with it as a good actor. That’s how I like to work.”

“I have this very specific memory of going to the roof of my dormitory and looking down into the city, I didn’t know which way was downtown and which way was uptown” – Greta Gerwig

Greta Gerwig on drawing from past experience...
“If anyone’s based on me, it’s Tracy not Brooke – Tracy was taken from my college experience. I have this very specific memory of going to the roof of my dormitory and looking down into the city; I didn’t know which way was downtown and which way was uptown. I didn’t know anyone in New York, I had no real bearings. I knew I wanted to be there, but I just felt lost. I was cocky, I was smart, and getting a B was so depressing. I really did have a guidance councillor say to me when I was having trouble with procrastination, ‘Well have you ever just tried getting your work in on time?’, and I was like, ‘Well that’s the problem’. So it’s fiction, but it was very rooted in what I experienced, and we dressed Lola in clothes that I wore at 18 – berets and oversized blazers. I felt like it was artistic, I don’t know what I was doing!”

Greta Gerwig on the women she idolised growing up...
“There was this one woman – she was intimidating, she scared the shit out of me, but I loved her. She taught me to skateboard (I hated being on wheels and it was down a hill) and she told me that her ‘look’, was based on an antique cigarette case, and that it was important to have a ‘look’. She could cook really well, she was just sort of causally fabulous – I’d never met anyone who was so self-actualised. Then another big person in my life was this beautiful girl and every third thing she said sounded like a lie but some of it turned out to be true so you never knew what was real and what wasn’t. You always felt nervous around her, there was something unstable and exciting about it. They’re the kind of people you like when you’re 18: they make you feel alive.”

“I got in so much trouble after Frances Ha – there were two or three people whose lives I drew from who were really, really mad at me about it” – Greta Gerwig

Baumbach & Gerwig on basing their work on other people’s lives...
NB: “I always find that people I wasn’t thinking about will come up to me and say, ‘You took that thing’, and I’m like, ‘I barely know you’. Whereas the stuff where you think you’re exposing yourself, or writing something more revealing, no one has any idea.”

GG: “I got in so much trouble after Frances Ha – there were two or three people who were really, really mad at me about it. It was horrible. I don’t think you have an absolute right to use other people’s lives in your work; I think it’s nuanced. In some ways I wanted to dramatise that because I feel like I don’t have an answer, and things that you don’t have the answer for make for more interesting topics than things that you do. Some of the things that Brooke yells at Tracy were things that people yelled at me! But I don’t know any other way to process my life; I make work about it and disguise it and change it, and make up new things, but that’s what I do.”

Baumbach & Gerwig on their favourite coming of age films...
NB: “It’s funny because I saw the movie Diner when I was probably 12, which is about guys in their 20s, but I remember seeing that thinking, ‘That’s just like me and my friends’. Their concerns in the 1950s were obviously worlds apart from our 12-year-old concerns in the 80s, but it was that thing of wanting to move forward but still trying to preserve the now... I really liked that.”

GG: “It sounds crazy but I really did love Noah’s movie, Kicking and Screaming, but I didn’t know Noah then. And then John Hughes’ movies. I always felt like the coming of age stories that resonated with me were usually about guys; the ones about women tended to be romantic. There’s this great Australian movie called Flirting which had a really big impact on me; it felt like life. It features a very young Thandie Newton and Noah Taylor, and Nicole Kidman, and it was about a scholarship kid at a boarding school, and the difference between his life at home and his life at school. He falls in love with a girl and everyone’s against her because she’s mixed race. It’s so subtle and so beautiful.”

Greta Gerwig on her dream superpower...
“I wish I had endless powers of concentration. I am such a distractible bird. I get stuff done but especially with writing, I’ve got about ten good minutes and then I’ll start looking around. So everything I have ever written has been in ten-minute bursts. I wish I had the ability to sit still and work continuously for four or five hours a day but I don’t have that at all.”

“I always think of the end credits of Spinal Tap when one of the side-line players says, ‘Have a good time, all the time’” – Noah Baumbach

Baumbach & Gerwig on their life mottos...
NB: “I always think of the end credits of Spinal Tap when one of the side-line players says, ‘Have a good time, all the time’. Even if I half-reach that, I’m in good shape.”

GG: “This is more a way of looking at the world than a motto but Noah and I watch a lot of baseball and there’s something about the pace of the game. The way it’s so slow, and even if you’re one of the greatest hitters, you’ll miss most of the time but you just grind it out. That is helpful for me to think about with writing or acting, when I feel like I’ve hit a wall. The background of my computer is the Red Sox during the World Series: they aren’t winning, they just scored a point in one of the games and they’re all calling in safe together. The amount of time it takes to get to the one moment that works is pretty analogous to the rewards of trying to make art that has integrity. A lot of it is striking it out.”


Mistress America is in cinemas from August 14.