By Danny Peary
Mistress America, the latest collaboration of critics’ darlings, writer director Noah Baumbach and his partner, writer-actress Greta Gerwig, opens in New York this Friday. The hope is that it will be as popular as their Frances Ha, for which indie queen Gerwig was embraced by the mainstream and received an unexpected Lead Actress (in a Musical or Comedy) Golden Globe nomination. It’s always a pleasure to see the unique Gerwig on screen, and fans of the cult Amazon original television series, Mozart in the Jungle, will surely want to see Lola Kirke (Free the Nipple, Gone Girl) take another step toward stardom. The premise, from the press notes: “Tracy (Kirke] is a lonely college freshman [with writing aspirations], having neither the exciting university experience nor the glamorous metropolitan lifestyle she envisioned. But when she is taken in by her [ten-year-older] soon-to-be-stepsister, Brooke (Gerwig)—a resident of Times Square and adventurous gal about town [who wants to open a restaurant]—she is rescued from her disappointment and seduced by Brooke’s alluringly mad schemes.” Baumbach says, “It’s easy to underestimate the character of Tracy because she’s our way into the story, our narrator. In a sense, she’s an unreliable narrator. The story is about her finding her voice and growing into herself.” As major a character as Tracy, Brooke, too, will be forced to change. Recently I took part in roundtables with Gerwig, Kirke, and Baumbach and discussed their movie. Here are my questions to each of them and their responses.
Greta Gerwig Questions
Danny Peary: Do you see Brooke as a type, or is she unique?
Greta Gerwig: I don’t see her as a type, I see her as a totally unique creation, but the character is definitely influenced by other characters.
DP: I heard you in interviews saying that Brooke is like character from eighties movies, but I was thinking of Holly Golightly, an eccentric from decades earlier. Which you haven’t thought of at all!
GG: There were lots of different influences we were looking at, more wild girls from the 80s, the Melanie Griffiths and the Rosanna Arquettes. They were the type that would take a typically square, straitlaced uptown person and drag that person into their crazy underworld. They were a bit dangerous, and they seemed as if they lived on the wrong side of the law. And then our other influence was really the screwball comedies of Howard Hawks and George Cukor in the 30s and 40s–and Ernst Lubitsch. Those were the ones we were thinking about. But now that I’m thinking about it, I think we probably did watch Breakfast at Tiffany’s in anticipation of this, for ideas.
DP: Like Holy Golightly, Brooke is upbeat to cover up her insecurities.
GG: Yeah, exactly. I never loved Breakfast at Tiffany’s, I know that’s like a sacrilege, but I think it’s because it was such a stretch for me to see myself in Audrey Hepburn. Because she was so beautiful and elegant and brunette and European, and I felt like I didn’t have any point of entry. Even though I don’t feel like Melanie Griffith, there was some point of entry–her messiness and her wildness I felt more connected to.
DP: When collaborating on the script, did you and Noah argue over whether Brooke would be upset by having a story written about her by Tracy, good or bad?
GG: No, we don’t really argue at any point in the writing process. We kind of have like, a brain-meld happening.
DP: Then, did you debate this in your own mind?
GG: I always knew that one of the things we were exploring in the movie is how writing is not a victimless activity. It affects the people that find their way into your work. It’s not that your intentions are bad when you write about somebody, but those people didn’t ask to be written about. It’s something that I’ve dealt with a lot, and Noah’s also dealt with it. I don’t have any easy answers for it, but I knew I wanted to have this younger woman, Tracy, write something about Brooke and then have her be very upset about it. I think Brooke’s also upset about it because she puts on such a show for Tracy. She puts on a show and performs for everybody because she’s got a lot to cover up and needs to put up a big front. She’s very needy and insecure and scared–and there are these little pinpoint moments of seeing something that’s delicate in her. So of course when she reads a story where she feels she’s been seen for who she is, it’s incredibly traumatizing for her. It was something I wanted to explore because I don’t think writers have an absolute right to do what they do. I think it’s complicated and I think it’s not always a bright line of “this is okay, this is not okay.”
Lola Kirke Questions
Danny Peary: I read in the production notes that the audition process really went on and on and one reason you eventually got the role of Tracy was that you were both “funny and had pathos,” according to Greta Gerwig. Did she and Noah tell you to be funny and have pathos?
Lola Kirke: No. I think Noah and Greta did a great job of writing those characteristics into their dialogue. So it wasn’t where I was thinking, “Tracy has to be funny AND have pathos. How do I do that?” And I then didn’t look in the mirror and make funny faces.
DP: What scenes did you read for them?
LK: I read a number of scenes and a lot of them didn’t make it into the movie. The audition process was really unique in that I never got the pages before I went in. I had to get there ten minutes early and then I’d get the pages and memorize what I could and then just go in and do the scene. I enjoyed doing that because it’s very liberating. I think Noah and Greta enjoyed it, too, because it doesn’t give the actor a set idea of what has to happen. And luckily it’s not like some far out thing, but mostly characters talking to each other in a really amazing Noah-and-Greta way where everything they’re saying is at once incredibly naïve and intelligent, and funny and depressing.
DP: Is Tracy surprised that Brooke is upset when she writes the story about her?
LK: Is she surprised? I was surprised that Brooke was as upset as she was.
DP: I agree. But clarify—were you Lola surprised or was it your character Tracy who was surprised?
LK: Lola was surprised that Brooke was shocked. I don’t think Tracy ever would have shown the story to Brooke or think it would ever got to her. That’s why Brooke says “that’s a sneaky, shitty thing.” As much as I can see anyone’s point in that scene, it still surprises me just how everybody gangs up on Tracy at that moment. I remember during the shoot thinking, “But I’m right that Tracy is right, right?” And when we weren’t shooting Noah and Greta were like, “No, that was shitty of Tracy.” I didn’t know if that was part of them helping me as an actor. It’s confusing to me still and that’s an important issue in the movie. How much of your experience as a writer belongs to you and how much of it belongs to the people that you write about.. Greta said it so eloquently, that writing isn’t a victimless activity. I love that the film explores that.
DP: Before you walked in I wanted to ask you if you and Greta have the same rhythm or approach to acting. Because you are so low key in the movie. But now it turns out you are vibrant and out there, like Greta. I’m surprised.
LK: Maybe my approach to acting has changed since working with her. I really admire Greta, not in a creepy way, like Tracy admires Brooke, and I’m not gonna shit on Greta’s life with a screenplay about her. I don’t know. Perhaps my approach has changed a little bit. I’m still figuring out what my particular rhythm is as an actor.
DP: Did you film the final scene—which takes place at a landmark restaurant–at the end?
LK: It definitely wasn’t the last scene we shot. The last scene we shot was me on the steps of the house in Connecticut. It was a real wild experience, a real quiet ending to this raucous shoot. I sat there in the fucking, freezing cold doing a million takes of me silhouetted smoking and then they’re like, “Alright, that’s a wrap.” And I’m like “What!?”
DP: You did all the Connecticut stuff with the full cast at the end?
LK: That was more towards the end. I liked all the scenes in Connecticut, but I particularly like when they’re all in a row and talking excitedly about Brooke’s dream restaurant, that whole spiel.
DP: What was your favorite scene?
LK: I really liked the bar scene in New York with Rebecca Henderson because I think she’s brilliant.
DP: A former high school classmate tells off Brooke for the harm she did her years ago, while Tracy looks on–that’s an interesting scene.
LK: It is an interesting scene. I was actually catatonic during that entire scene. I think I ate twenty hotdogs because we shot it all day. We shot it in a bar in New York that wouldn’t shut for the day because their clientele would have passed away if they had alcohol withdrawal for long enough. So there were many very drunk people at six a.m. watching us, and by five p.m. the weirdest people came in. Rebecca just nailed it despite all the odds that were stacked against her.
DP: What is Tracy thinking as her friend Brooke is told off?
LK: I think that’s a moment where Brooke is affirmed as less stable than Tracy thought. Tracy is also really drunk and eating hotdogs in that scene. And really eager to please And awkward, obviously. It’s horrible to see anyone you admire be taken down a peg.
Noah Baumbach Questions
Danny Peary: Greta said you went back to screwball comedies for inspiration for Brooke, as well as eighties films. I mentioned to her Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but it also comes across to me like a modernized version of Jane Austen. Like Emma, in regard to the relationship between women, one being a mentor. Were you thinking at all about that?
Noah Baumbach: Well, we were definitely thinking of ‘80s comedies, maybe a subgenre of movies where somewhat straitlaced people are kind of taken out of their comfort zone. Something Wild, After Hours. Greta may have, but I hadn’t thought about Jane Austen. But I think when you’re looking at these kinds of comedies, a lot of those references are kind of baked into the menu anyway. So in some ways, our movie almost became that. It was less that we set out to do it, but we kind of acknowledged as we were working on it that it was sort of a tradition that we were in.
DP: I think of your films dealing with two things. One is age. It’s always important how old your characters are. And another is that your characters always are lost. Not in a fish out of water sense, but they’re just out of place, they don’t fit in. I’m curious how you think those two common themes apply to this movie, but first do you agree with me that those are indeed your themes?
NB (laughing): Sure. However, I don’t think of my movies in terms of themes. Of course I’m aware that there are themes that are going to run through it; it stands to reason that since I’ve written and directed all of these movies that there’s going to be a conversation that goes on between them. But I’m not really that interested in what that is. I get interested in each movie individually and sort of want to try to figure out what that is. And often it’s specific ideas or, visuals or characters that have been in my head for a while, that I start to crystallize and that becomes the story that I end up making. But you know, I don’t really think of it like that. I think what you say makes sense. [Laughing] You could probably tell me better than I could tell you.