Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s New Collaboration, “Mistress America”
Mistress America is a delightfully fun film that celebrates friendship between two women – something rarely seen on the big screen these days. We sat down with writers Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig to hear more about their second screenplay collaboration.
In the movie, Tracy (Lola Kirke), expects her college experience in New York to be a whirlwind of fun. But the reality is that she’s a lonely English major whose spirit is broken when her short story fails to be accepted by the school’s prestigious literary society. But when Tracy meets Brooke (Greta Gerwig), her soon to be stepsister, her life goes from drab to fab.
Brooke isn’t your typical 20-something, however. She’s bold, charming, self-assured and possibly totally delusional. Baumbach said it was Gerwig who came up with the character Brooke when they were working on a different project.
“Hearing Greta improvise while we were writing and saying lines and things was very funny. We both thought we understood who this character was on some kind of level. We ended up thinking this person should have her own movie,” said Baumbach.
Though Gerwig couldn’t personally identify with the flighty, often misguided Brooke, she said, “Her voice became pretty clear to both of us, the way she talked and her psychological hang ups. It didn’t feel like it was part of me, but she was so clear to me, so it was easy to access.”
In the film, Brooke and Tracy quickly develop a close bond as they adventure through the streets of Manhattan. Focusing a story on a friendship between two women isn’t a new theme for Baumbach and Gerwig. 2012’s Francis Ha, for which Gerwig was nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance, also had a similar focal point. Baumbach said it was only in retrospect that they discovered that Francis Ha was a love story was between two friends.
“No significant male relationship was relevant to the story we were telling. What was exciting was that we hadn’t done it deliberately. We would have brought the romance in if we thought that would help the story, but it was just irrelevant. We were more conscious of it when we started Mistress [America], maybe kind of continuing in that mode. It’s kind of an intense relationship between these two women but also, very temporal,” said Baumbach.
But Greta was quick to point out that several of Baumbach’s other films, on which she didn’t collaborate with him, also dealt with powerful female relationships. “Something in him was really interested in these types of relationships. Not that he isn’t interested in romantic relationships, but also, what are the relationships that exist between friends and sisters and parents and children, and all these different ways we have of growing into and out of each other. I’ve had intense best friendships, also fleeting, idolizing girl-crushes on other women, but it was something Noah was interested in anyway,” said Gerwig.
When the two write together, they open the computer and begin a conversation. Very often, they’ve both started taking notes longhand, which Baumbach compiles into a Final Draft document. “Then, as all these ideas start to turn into scenes, you can just start putting them right into the format. It’s a way to gently ease into a script,” he said.
Gerwig said she’s learned a lot from Baumbach about the process of going from a bunch of random ideas to an actual script. “I’m much messier and disorganized. My issue would be that I’d always start new documents and new drafts and then I couldn’t find them. I’d write things longhand too, then I couldn’t find those. Then I would have this anxiety because I tend to overwrite, and what if I cut something and I want the thing I cut, and Noah said, ‘Just start a new document that’s called ‘cut stuff.’ And you put everything into that document and you can just look through the ‘cut stuff’ to see if you want something. Those kind of organizational things are really helpful because we move things around a bunch,” said Gerwig.
Writing screenplays has also really empowered Gerwig as an actress. “The best roles I’ve had, I’ve penned myself,” she said with a big laugh. She then looked down, as if a bit embarrassed. “It can feel a bit selfish, but creating a character like Brooke and giving her a whole movie – I don’t think anyone else would make it, or I wouldn’t get to play her if someone else did make it. It felt like I really got to stretch myself in that way and do something that was bigger. Brooke has more scope as a character than I’ve gotten to play. She exists in her own mind as bigger, too. That was really fun. “
When asked what Baumbach has learned about Gerwig from writing, he said he hasn’t thought about any one specifically, but he loves collaborating with her. “I find we both are able to see the same movie, which is obviously important if you’re going to do it together. At the same time, she’s always surprising me and amusing me, coming up with all this inventive stuff and, in the moment, it makes me feel like I’m not holding up my end of the bargain. But it makes me try to write better. Sometimes we’re writing simultaneously, but sometimes we’ll write separately and bring those in. Selfishly, I enjoy that, because reading whatever Greta’s written, it’s always so good. In the most general way, it makes me want to try to match her.”
In terms giving advice to up-and-coming writers, Gerwig was very clear. “Find your people! Find the people who hate the same movies as you, who like the same movies as you, who want to make things now. Sometimes, I think there’s too much put on the idea that someone official will give you the go ahead at some point. I don’t know that ever happens, really.”
Baumbach agreed and added, “When I was starting too, there wasn’t all this opportunity to just pick up a camera and do it, just because financially, it wasn’t viable the same way it is now. As confident as I was in wanting to make films, I still had this idea that there was this gatekeeper and people who knew better about how movies are made. But now, there really is an opportunity to make your own rules. If you’re good at it, people are going to find you.”
Screenwriter / Film Critic
Shanee Edwards graduated from UCLA Film School with an MFA in Screenwriting and is currently the film critic for SheKnows.com. She recently won the Next MacGyver television writing competition to create a TV show about a female engineer. Her pilot, Ada and the Machine, is currently in development with America Ferrera’s Take Fountain Productions. You can follow her on Twitter: @ShaneeEdwards.