The Greta Gerwig story could be subtitled ‘Move Over, Lena Dunham’. Just when the ”Girls” creator was getting big because of her debut film ”Tiny Furniture”, the 32-year-old Gerwig made waves in another definitive young-woman-in-New-York story ”Lola Versus”.
Since then she’s emerged as one of the new generation of homespun Big Apple raconteurs, writing and starring in love letters to the joys and despair of relationships in the city that never sleeps.
Her breakout hit ”Frances Ha” was another project directed by Mistress America helmer Noah Baumbach (and another one she acted and starred in), and now comes ”Mistress America”, where Gerwig plays seemingly together thirtysomething Brooke, who’s perfect façade cracks when she falls in with her soon-to-be stepsister Tracy (Lola Kirke).
Perhaps the most surprising thing about this actress we equate so synonymously with New York is that she’s originally from Sacramento, California, so when she sat down with Moviehole.net in LA to talk about Mistress America, she was closer to home than ever.
How do you separate the writing and acting aspects of the job?
We spent a long time on the script and we didn’t let the actors change any words, it’s very precise, but we really keep the writing process and the acting process separate.
Because we don’t change anything and because we don’t do improv, the script is the script. Then when I’m on set I’m free to be an actor without the encumbrance of thinking about the writing. In a way I try to come at it as if I didn’t write it, as a writer you know why things are in there that actually doesn’t help you as an actor.
You produced as well, does that add another layer of complexity that’s hard to juggle?
I was incredibly involved with the casting, the locations and the look of the film, then afterwards in the editing and the music, but those are really pre- and post-production things.
While we’re actually shooting it I am 100 percent an actor and I think that’s just the way I work best. I don’t like acting with a strong sense of what it looks like externally. I would hate watching playback of myself. I like feeling as if I’m a bit out of control, that’s where I find what’s good.
What was the thinking behind the very 80’s inspired soundtrack?
It was really 80’s movies we were thinking about, the scores of Risky Business, After Hours or Something Wild, that sort of synthey 80’s emotional score. We were listening to the soundtrack to Planes Trans and Automobiles the whole time, which has an amazing soundtrack by the way. We didn’t want it to feel too much like we were doing ‘a thing’, we wanted it to feel natural to the world but also referencing these other movies.
Your first film as a director (Lady Bird) is coming up. What have you learnt from working with Noah Baumbach as a director?
One of the nice things about being an actor is that you get to be on so many different sets and you get to see so many different directors and the way they work. Directors are only ever on their own sets, they don’t know how anybody else does it.
So I feel like I have a good sense of the different ways you can go about making a film. That being said, I’ll discover what I’m like and what I need and what I’m doing, but the reason to make the movie for me is that the script is something I want to shoot, so it starts with the writing.
There seems an obvious relationship with New York in your films.
One of the things cinema is uniquely great at is capturing places. I love New York and I love making films there but I also feel like if you’re lucky enough to be from a specific place you should try to capture something that feels real and specific to you, that’s how you get a sense of different places. I love regionalism in fiction, cinema and theatre and it’s just exciting to see different places illuminated through work.
One of my favorite writers, Joan Didion, is from Sacramento and wrote about Sacramento. I think Sacramento needs an opus.
You usually work on small movies with streamlined crews. What do you like about that?
I like the freedom that it affords us in terms of being able to shoot more days and that’s a big part of it. So often with indies you’re squeezing a regular sized movie into 19 days and we shot this over 60 days.
We really gave ourselves the freedom if the scene’s not working to come back to it the next day, We didn’t have to give ourselves that pressure of always moving on.
The character of Brooke is hard to pin down. What’s her driving motivation?
She has that ridiculous speech when she’s pitching the restaurant and she says ‘and then when I have kids they’ll come,’ and you’re like ‘what are you even talking about?’
Brooke lives in this very stark world of the winners and losers of capitalism. You get your money and you get out of the city. You work and you cash out, you leave and you get your big house. I think she’s looking for a third path, for a way that she could make something that didn’t cause anyone to feel like a loser or a winner necessarily but was a place everyone could be.
Even though she’s sort of crazy and weird the way she goes about it, I felt very connected to what she was talking about. I have no desire to open a restaurant but I’m a big believer in communal art and using art as a way not just to make a product that’s sold to people but to make an experience that’s shared.
The scene with the old classmate [when a former classmate recognises Brooke in a bar and confronts her about past cruel treatment] says a lot about the character too, what does that tell us about her?
That was one of the first scenes we wrote and it’s a standalone scene where things start going badly for her. The woman says ‘I wish all bad things on you’ and then everything falls apart after that, almost like a curse. Also, just this idea that in a normal interaction if somebody came up to you and said ‘You were a real dick to me in high school’ you would say ‘Oh my God, I’m sorry.’
Brooke doesn’t do that, she turns on this woman and she says ‘What’s wrong with you that you’re paying attention to this?’ and it felt like part of what makes Brooke amazing and it’s also what makes her downfall.
Most people aren’t either/or, they’re both/and. They’re both magnanimous and they’re petty, they’re kind and they’re cruel. Too often we want our characters to exist in these very narrow parameters.