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April 21st, 2019

Greta Gerwig Interview, Mistress America

A college freshman (Lola Kirke/Tracy) in New York gets a crash course in city life when she befriends her glamorous stepsister-to-be in “Mistress America,” a contemporary screwball comedy from filmmakers Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig. Gerwig writes, produces and stars in the role of Brooke, a sometimes mad, always entertaining, girl-about-town, a character that seems tailor-made for her. In their second screenwriting collaboration, Gerwig and Baumbach have created another unpredictable, unforgettable and absolutely believable portrait of a contemporary woman.

At the film’s recent press day, Gerwig talked about why she found her character so compelling, what she drew on to write her, her collaborative process with Baumbach and what it took to get the script to a place where they could make the film, the long audition process with Kirke that led to casting the young actress in her first major role, why they chose to create a romanticized version of New York, the screwball comedies of the 1930’s and 40’s that inspired a pivotal sequence with all the characters in a glass house, her most memorable filmmaking moment, how everything starts for Gerwig from the place of writing, and her next film project entitled “20th Century Women” directed by Mike Mills.

Check it all out in the interview below:

QUESTION: Can you tell us about your character, Brooke?

GRETA GERWIG: I love Brooke. I love all the characters we write in the two movies we’ve written together. Brooke is a mess of contradictions. She’s incredibly performative and she’s always putting on a show, but then she has this insecurity underneath. I always thought of her in the mold of classic American striver/hustler. She’s got a lot of ambition but not a lot of discernible skills. I found her compelling. In a way, how funny she was and how many opinions she had is one of the reasons we wanted to make a movie around her.

Q: Have you met a lot of people like Brooke in real life and do you draw from them when writing the character?

GERWIG: Yes, definitely. Both Noah and I spent time talking about the Brookes we’ve known. He knew some and I knew some. And then, stylistically, we also talked a lot about 80s movies like “After Hours” and “Something Wild” and kind of a dangerous, fringe female character who pulls the Yuppie into the underground. And then also, the Warren Beatty character in “Shampoo” who wants that salon but he can’t stop having sex with all those women. It’s like those characters felt like they were spiritual cousins to who Brooke became.

Q: Was your collaboration with Noah originally a collection of ideas and how hard was it to get the script to a place where you could make the film?

GERWIG: We’ve written two scripts together. We wrote “Frances Ha” and this one. We’re really strict about the script. We don’t do improvisation and no lines are changed. So, in the process of writing, we want to make a piece of writing that seems worth making into a film. So, it takes a long time and it takes a lot of work. It’s hard to go back and break down how all the pieces fit together, but we very much grow character and story at the same time. We need story to come out of character and character to influence story. It’s a very symbiotic relationship. I think some people work more like they get the bones of the story and then they fill in who the characters are. We don’t do that. We do it kind of altogether at once. We’ll start with little scenes. I think one of the first scenes we wrote for this movie was the confrontation with the high school girl at the bar who says, “You were mean to me.” And then, Brooke has this reaction, and instead of what most people would do, which is, “Oh my God, I can’t believe it. I’m so sorry. I was young and I’m really sorry about that.” Instead, she turns on her and says, “What the hell is wrong with you that you’ve hung onto this?!” There’s something that felt so exciting about that scene and crackly. And then, it’s almost like you build. We try to write in order, but then you inevitably end up building outwards from certain moments that you’re sure you want. And then, you’ll get an idea for the ending but you have to work your way there. It always feels like a three-dimensional process. When I think about writing, it never feels like words on the page. It feels like creating something that is alive and moving.

Q: There’s a lot of romanticizing in the film such as living the life in Manhattan as opposed to the grind that the real Manhattan is or being a writer and quoting prose at French restaurants but not putting words on the page. How did you guys come up with the whole idea of romanticizing all of these very tough dynamics?

GERWIG: I think that we wanted to, particularly with Brooke, because so much of her feels like she’s almost engaged with an older idea of New York that doesn’t even really exist anymore. We even dressed her. We wanted her to look like she existed maybe in the early 90s, that she doesn’t quite feel like now exactly. Even her living in Times Square, which was an idea that made us laugh, made us feel like that’s a different idea of New York that maybe never even existed. Living in New York, you know, throwing your chips in and trying your luck at a city like that is you have to have a good deal of romanticizing to do it. I think with the writing, it’s even the way Tracy and Tony want to look like writers, where Tony says, “They got the guy down the hall. He doesn’t even look like a writer.” Whatever that means. You have this idea of what you think you want it to be. Tracy wants to be a writer but she doesn’t have a subject. Then, she gets a subject which is Brooke and it turns out that writing is not a victimless activity, that writing involves very often hurting people, because you’re seeing through them in a way that makes them uncomfortable. I think that’s a pretty universal experience of being a writer. It’s always that toggle between what you imagine your life to be and what it actually is that I think I’m interested in.

Q: Of all the different hats that you wear in this movie, what do you enjoy the most and why?

GERWIG: I love doing all of it. I mean, I like acting and things when I like the writing. If I don’t like the writing, I don’t like acting. I think in some ways everything starts for me from the place of writing. I don’t think I’d like producing something if I didn’t like the writing. Maybe it’s because I had a background in theater and that’s really my first love. I think in theater the playwright is king. Those words are unchangeable. They are the reason that everything else flows from. So, I approach film the same way. For me, it’s not that I like one thing more, but it’s just that writing is always at the center of the wheel for me. And then, everything else is a spoke outwards from that.

Q: Lola talked about her casting process and how she signed on before the two of you had met and then she read the script with you at your apartment. Can you talk a little about that process?

GERWIG: She auditioned like ten times. We had her audition a ton. We just never gave her the full script. We would always give her five pages at a time. I think by the time we gave her the role she did read every single scene. We saw her do the whole thing. I mean we had an instinct about her right away, but we just wanted to really vet her because she’s the lead and she needs to be in for the ride and she was quite young. You get a feeling for a person, but then you want to make sure that they can really carry a movie.

Q: In the end, you have all of the characters in a glass house throwing stones at each other.

GERWIG: That’s true. I know. We like our metaphors.

Q: How did you come up with that scene?

GERWIG: Well, it’s those 30s and 40s screwball comedies I think. They tend to change locations. In “Bringing Up Baby,” the whole thing is moved to Connecticut. In “The Palm Beach Story,” they all move to that house and then they’re all hanging out in the house and going crazy. Even in “Holiday,” they don’t change locations but it all takes place in that room upstairs. So, we wanted that feeling of almost like we’re trapped in this place with these people. The idea of the glass house was we thought that having sliding glass doors everywhere was really funny for something that was a farce so that you could never really slam a door. That was sort of the nerdy joke we were making there. And then, there was something about the glass house and the way it was decorated that felt kind of like the wealth of the 80s which we were interested in. We wanted it to feel a bit dated somehow, and so those were the reasons behind that house.

Q: You’ve worked mostly in film on independent productions and Noah has worked almost exclusively on the indie side. How is the landscape changing for getting films like this made?

GERWIG: I don’t really know how it’s changing for other people. For us, it’s been certainly not easy but we’ve been able to do it. The way Noah designs these films is so that we can shoot. I mean, we had 60 days of shooting, which is a long time. We make them so that we can be as rigorous as possible with every part of the production, so that we’re not sacrificing anything that we feel actually goes into the quality of the film. I feel like I don’t have a sense of how it is in general. I just know that we’ve been managing to do it and it seems like that with other people. It seems that every year at Sundance and Toronto and Telluride and Berlin there’s American cinema and global cinema that’s really thriving. So, somebody’s making them and I’m happy about that. But I can’t speak to what it feels like for other people.

Q: If you had a memorable moment throughout the whole process, what would it be?

GERWIG: It’s so many because it’s so long to make these movies. I think in terms of shooting, when we shot in Times Square when Tracy and Brooke meet for the first time, just because it was something we’d written into the script. Brooke says, “Welcome to The Great White Way.” In the script, we said, “She makes a gesture that she realizes halfway down the stairs isn’t enough to fill up the entire stairway, so she has to start over.” We didn’t know that we’d really be able to shoot there. We also didn’t know if there’d be enough of a stairway to actually do that. And then, it’s that magic. It’s in the middle of the night in Times Square, and we’re shooting this movie, and it’s 10 degrees out and it works. That’s nice.

Q: Were the extras regular people or were they extras?

GERWIG: I don’t know if I can legally answer that question.

Q: What are you working on next?

GERWIG: I’m making a movie with Mike Mills who made “Beginners.” It’s called “20th Century Women.”

“Mistress America” opens in theaters on August 14th.


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