May 31, 2013

Greta Gerwig's 'Frances Ha' gives Sacramento a close-up

'Frances Ha" takes Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Sacramento, too, as it explores the post-collegiate coming of age of an apprentice dancer played by Greta Gerwig.

'Frances Ha" takes Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Sacramento, too, as it explores the post-collegiate coming of age of an apprentice dancer played by Greta Gerwig.

Sacramento comes into the New York story because Gerwig grew up in River Park and wrote the screenplay with her boyfriend, the film's director, Noah Baumbach.

She plays Frances, who struggles through late-20s career and life transitions in New York City, where she attempts to secure a permanent gig, a stable apartment and her place in the world.

Shot in black and white, "Frances Ha" lends a stark beauty to Frances' adventures, whether she's experiencing ennui or exultantly dancing down New York streets to David Bowie's "Modern Love."

The financially and professionally challenged Frances is not Gerwig, who at 29 already has appeared in the "Arthur" studio remake and acted for Woody Allen. But Gerwig drew from her time trying to make it in New York, and when Frances goes home, Gerwig wanted it to be to her home.

"Sacramento is so resonant for me," Gerwig said during an interview at a San Francisco hotel. "The way it looks and the way it feels. It is so emotional, and I think that sometimes it is important to photograph the thing that is actually emotional to you. Don't create another thing and try to put that emotion into it."

Gerwig is tall, with flawless skin and manners. Dressed in a conservative skirt and blazer, she's friendly and open but lacks the whimsy of her movie heroines. Part of it is being off screen. The camera loves Gerwig's big, expressive eyes so much it renders her subtlest expressions vivid.

Gerwig and Baumbach, who previously directed her in 2010's "Greenberg," considered shooting the Frances-goes-home scenes in New Jersey before choosing a more dramatic change of scene.

The Sacramento "landscape looks different, the trees are different" from the East Coast, Gerwig said. "It has a flatness, and my neighborhood, River Park, has that post-World War II first boom of suburbia."

Shots such as one of Frances riding a bicycle past low-slung houses give her character more of a presence than she has when dwarfed by New York buildings, Gerwig said.

Gerwig, Baumbach and a small crew shot in Sacramento just after Christmas 2011, mostly at the home of Gerwig's parents, Christine and Gordon, who play Frances' parents.

Gerwig conceived the Sacramento section as longer and more involved than it ended up being. Winnowing down that section to speed story flow also allowed the non-thespian Gerwigs to act in it.

"My parents are so wonderful, but they couldn't have done extensive dialogue scenes," Gerwig said.

Plus, as Baumbach, 43, joked in a separate interview in San Francisco, Gerwig's parents were "divas."

Gerwig gathered her close Sacramento friends, including New Helvetia Theatre artistic director Connor Mickiewicz, for a scene at Burr's Fountain ice cream shop.

"She called and said 'I want to do things I would normally do when I would come home to Sacramento,' " Mickiewicz said. He had answered a similar request from Gerwig to help populate a Los Angeles comedy club for a "Greenberg" scene. "To make her feel more comfortable, she wanted her friends to be in the background."

"Greenberg," in which Gerwig played an aimless, sweet young woman who opens up Ben Stiller's embittered character, was not a commercial success but drew critical praise, especially for Gerwig's natural screen presence. It broke Gerwig out of the talky, hyper-indie, micro-budget films of her early 20s – a subgenre deemed "mumblecore" – and into the mainstream.

Gerwig's and Baumbach's desire to work together again (Gerwig acknowledges their romantic involvement but will not give further details) has fueled Gerwig's bigger breakthrough in "Frances Ha."

It's the first film that fully captures what makes Gerwig special: the bouts of physical awkwardness contained within a larger poise, the crack comic timing and, most of all, the seeming lack of awareness of a camera – a quality evident in many European but few American actresses.

Reviews have been stellar, with audiences responding in kind. "Frances Ha" has posted healthy per-screen averages during its limited theatrical run of the past few weeks. The film opens in Sacramento today.

"I thought this was an opportunity (for Gerwig) to be at the center of something where she could be funny and dramatic and physical, and showcase everything she can do, which is pretty much everything," Baumbach said.

Baumbach, best known for indie films such as "The Squid and the Whale" and "Margot at the Wedding," sought a fresh approach to filmmaking, shooting with a bare-basics crew and for the first time in black and white. He asked Gerwig for story ideas.

Though Barnard graduate Gerwig focused on acting in recent years, she co-wrote mumblecore movies and was so devoted to writing that she applied (unsuccessfully) to the playwriting programs at Yale and Juilliard.

"When Noah said, 'Do you have any ideas?' I said, 'Oh my God, I have so many ideas,' " Gerwig said. "I had been acting so much in my 20s, I felt like I had stopped writing as much, which was really sad because I loved writing."

"Frances Ha," which took a year to write in between Gerwig's and Baumbach's other projects, taps a "well of material" Gerwig had stored, she said, including an unproduced play involving several roommates in a New York apartment.

The film touches lightly on the millennia malaise of underemployed people in their 20s. More timeless is the bond between Frances and her best friend, Sophie (Mickey Sumner, daughter of musician Sting). The friendship is Frances' main emotional gig and when Sophie grows serious with her boyfriend, it reveals Frances standing still in her own life.

Frances inhabits a world similar to that of the HBO series "Girls" – one of sexually frank talk between female friends, wobbly living situations and unsuccessful artistic pursuits – though "Frances" is less raw and more stylized.

Gerwig and Baumbach said they conceived "Frances" before "Girls." But Gerwig, who is friends with "Girls" creator Lena Dunham, understands the comparison.

"I am really flattered because I think it's a really great show," Gerwig said. "I feel like they are inherently different – one's a movie and one's a TV show. But I don't feel like 'How dare you compare ('Frances') to something that's clearly like it?' "

Gerwig's romantic involvement with her director, plus the film's New York setting and black-and-white photography, invite another comparison – to "Manhattan" and "Annie Hall," two of Allen's 1970s films with Diane Keaton, the actress to whom Gerwig most often is likened. (Gerwig, ironically, is more of a lighthearted Allen-esque heroine in "Frances Ha" than she was in Allen's 2012 "To Rome With Love," in which she played a more staid character.)

Gerwig said Keaton has been a touchstone.

"If you want to be an actor, you are always looking around – 'Are there people like me who are doing this?' (Keaton) was one of the people that there was something about her, and the way she was acting, that I identified as, 'Maybe there is a place for me if there is a place for her.' "

But Gerwig will only co-sign on the director-muse thing for so long. "Frances Ha" has been described as a cinematic love letter from Baumbach to Gerwig, but that's not accurate, she said.

"It's not a love letter from Noah because I helped him write it."

Call The Bee's Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118.. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.

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