Noah Baumbach’s ‘Frances Ha,’ or How to Make a Movie in Secret
It’s almost impossible to compare a small, independent film with today’s no-holds-barred superhero blockbusters. However, if there’s one thing that Noah Baumbach’s “Frances Ha” manages to have in common with, say, “The Avengers,” is secrecy.
For the film — which was shot in secret during 2011 and 2012 — Baumbach decided to withhold parts of the script from the cast, providing them with only the scenes in which their characters appeared. This method appears to have paid off, as critics have been swooning over “Frances” since it premiered at Telluride Film Festival last fall.
Of course, the secrecy factor is where the blockbuster comparisons end for “Frances Ha.” The black-and-white movie follows Frances (Greta Gerwig), an aspiring 27-year-old dancer who is looking to come to grips with adulthood as she struggles to keep a job in New York City.
Here, Baumbach offers some tips on shooting a secret film, talks about why all of his movies have great soundtracks, and reveals how he ended up writing “Madagascar 3.”
Moviefone: You didn’t set out to shoot this in secret. But, either way, it seems like a tough thing to do.
Noah Baumbach: We gamed the Internet! It was deliberate to keep the low profile, but I didn’t think Oh, we won’t be reported [in the media] somewhere down the line. We just didn’t announce ourselves and then that was really it. But it’s like, we were [in New York City] doing it. If people had walked by us and recognized us, they would have discovered something.
Was shooting low-profile a good experience? It seems like it worked to your benefit.
I mean, we could have done the same work and everything we did, even if we had been [more official]. But I think there’s something kind of nice, particularly in 2011-12, to be the only ones who know about it. Writing is a private experience and filmmaking is sort of necessarily a communal group thing, but it’s kind of nice in a way for the crew to feel sort of focused and private about it; it was our thing and nobody else’s.
It seemed pretty secret within the production itself. You withheld some of the script from the actors.
Yeah, I didn’t show the script. No actor — except Greta [who co-wrote the film] — had the script beyond their scenes. And what we’d do, we would send them — and we shot chronologically, so we could do this — the pages for that week, maybe a few days in advance, but not past that. So not only did they just get their scenes, they got them as those shooting days approached. And I think it just kept people in the moment and not overly concerned with the movie as a whole. It’s my job to be concerned about that. And because the movie was in chapters, and some people are kind of in a chapter and then disappear for awhile and then come back in another chapter, it kind of made that easier, too.
Actors didn’t really need to know what they were doing in the meantime or anything like that. And, if they asked, I would just make something up for them [laughs].
It’s funny to hear that method being used for an indie film. Most of the time you hear about those techniques used on a giant superhero movie (withholding the entire script from actors, shooting in secret, etc.).
Yeah, who the villain is is not important here [laughs]. But, you know, I suppose in our own way, we’re looking for some of the privacy that [those films have].
A lot of people are going to have David Bowie’s “Modern Love” stuck in their heads after this movie.
That’s a good one to get stuck in your head.
Was that always the song you had in mind?
I thought about a few different things, but I think that song’s kind of perfect. It’s so joyful. I feel like everything about it sounds great — his vocal is so great, the way he kind of shout-sings it. It just feels so immediate. When I was a kid and I got the “Let’s Dance” record for the first time, it was the first song on it and I remember just hearing that song; I don’t think I’d heard a better song and I would just play it over and over again.
All of your movies have really great soundtracks: “Margot at the Wedding” had Steve Forbert, “Greenberg” had a James Murphy score. Even movies you wrote but didn’t direct, like “Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou,” have great music.
Yeah, although we wrote the David Bowie into the [“Life Aquatic”] script because it was always written that Seu Jeorge’s character, Pele, would play David Bowie. I mean, it’s always interesting. With “Greenberg” I was listening to LCD Soundsystem’s “The Sound of Silver” while I was working on it. I didn’t necessarily feel like that music was tonally right for “Greenberg,” but I felt like the guy who made this music should probably score “Greenberg.” So I met James Murphy, and we became friends and he wrote a score, which is awfully different from LCD Soundsystem. I thought they were beautiful. I really love what he did.
With “Frances,” I had this instinct that, when I was cutting it, it could really hold a big, bold score, and I started to put in all these old French New Wave scores. It felt like the movie was so strong and flexible that it could hold it, and I really pushed it. I felt like it really elevated and broadened the movie. You almost couldn’t get too big or too romantic.
Fans of your work were pretty surprised that you ended up writing “Madagascar 3,” since you had really only done smaller indies up to that point. How was that experience?
It was a great experience. I really enjoyed it. I learned a lot about the animation process, which was really interesting to me, because you work over such a long period of time. And I liked those guys so much and I think they’re so good at what they do. I have a movie that I am developing there that I would direct. But yeah, I loved it. It’s not altogether different from when I work with Wes [Anderson]. It’s like I felt my job there was to help make the movie as good as possible. And there’s something nice about that as an alternate to what I do with the movies I direct, which is so rigourous and I am involved with every part of it until the very end. It doesn’t stop until you let go of it, which I probably need to do.
Did they approach you?
They came to me, and I worked with Ben [Stiller] on “Greenberg,” so Ben, I think, liked the idea, and I really liked the other two movies and I like Chris Rock a lot, too. It seemed like fun. That said, when I started it, I didn’t know how long the process was — I had never done animation.
Earlier on Moviefone: Greta Gerwig, ‘Frances Ha’ Star, Isn’t Interested in ‘Being a Great Actor in a Sh– Movie’
Original Article – Noah Baumbach’s ‘Frances Ha,’ or How to Make a Movie in Secret