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INTERVIEW: Noah Baumbach, Greta Gerwig and Lola Kirke (MISTRESS AMERICA)
MISTRESS AMERICA explores the dynamic between Tracy (Lola Kirke), an aspiring writer and freshman at Barnard College, and her soon-to-be older stepsister Brooke (Greta Gerwig), who is living the adventurous life of a post-college New Yorker.
The film, now in theaters, was co-written by Noah Baumbach, who also directed, and Gerwig. The two of them, joined by Kirke, talked to the WGAE about the film, its themes and the writing process.
LOLA: Greta and Noah’s writing really lends itself to being funny. There is a specific rhythm to their work. I get asked if any of the movie is improvised and it isn’t at all. Noah and Greta are very interested in everybody being word perfect. Which makes sense and is kind of wonderful because you want to be saying words people care about. Coming from a stage background, you don’t work with playwrights who say, “Go ahead and make it your own.” The words are the art form. It was a pleasure to work with people who had really thought about the rhythm of what we’d be saying.
GRETA: We spend a lot of time with the script. We shoot exactly as it’s written. We don’t allow any improvisation. You can’t even change a word. You can’t make it yours. We spend more time on the script than anything else because for both of us, the words are really paramount in the movie making experience.
NOAH: Thinking of Greta playing Brooke drove the writing of her. The idea of someone doing, or half-doing, a lot of things. A girl about town. It grew out of that. The character and story were created almost simultaneously. We didn’t go into thinking about them needing these type of characteristics. It forms as we’re writing it.
GRETA: There might be instances where we need a hair more dialogue because the shot is a longer, Noah or I will go away and write an intro. For the most part, it’s shot exactly as it is written. It also cuts very closely to the script. We don’t shoot a lot of things that we don’t end up using. That has been true on both our collaborations. What you see on the screen is how it reads on the page.
NOAH: When we’re working as writers, we’re both working as writers. We’re both able to walk away from that we start shooting. Greta has a real ability to act our script as if, on some level, she wasn’t part of the creation of them. I’ve written or co-written everything I’ve directed and there is always a split that when I’m directing, I’m interpreting the script. Greta acts that way. She can go and interpret the character now that it’s written. There is always days that whatever plan I have, I can’t visualize it even though I wrote.
LOLA: Greta and Noah were interested in exploring a different kind of love story. Most women in movies have a single objective and that’s to get a man.
GRETA: It was about creating this girl who existed in so many times. I think the reason we were influenced by 80’s movies, SOMETHING WILD and AFTER HOURS and DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN, is because those women tend to have an edge of danger about them. They’re not just charming or effervescent. They’re kind of crazy. They’re a little bit on the wrong side of the law.
NOAH: We didn’t out to make a screwball comedy. I wouldn’t call MISTRESS AMERICA a screwball comedy in any actual sort-of way, but it has it is mind. It has that pace. People ending up in one place for a while and going in and out of rooms.
GRETA: We didn’t think about this film as a commentary on the historical moment we’re living through. It feels like it belongs more to the 80’s, or screwball comedies of the 1940’s.
LOLA: The movie isn’t specific to now. There is something timeless about the movie to me. It could be because of the reference points Greta and Noah were inspired by were screwball comedies of the 1940’s; George Cukor, Ernst Lubitsch and Howard Hawks, SOMETHING WILD and these other movies from the 80’s.
GRETA: There was something about those movies that we those characters had disappeared from cinema for some reason, maybe because they’re hard girls. They’re not easy for you to digest. I missed her though, that certain kind of woman. They’re not girls. They’re women. I think that’s a defining characteristic of them. They’re women, even though they’re wild, they seem to have something more realized about them even if they can be a bit bananas. I think Brooke is a survivor. She will keep going. She’ll move out to L.A. She’ll do her hustles out there. She’ll figure it out.
NOAH: With Tracy, it was interested to show college in a way that I haven’t really seen it, which is how lonely and boring it can be at the beginning.
LOLA: The movie is about female friendship and it is its own kind of romance, which is present in so many female friendships. I think there is something really beautiful about love stories, even platonic love stories, where we don’t see people get what they want, because that’s life most of the time.
GRETA: I love my character and I loathe movies that make characters meet dreadful ends. Brooke is so big and performative and she really is acting a lot. She puts on this show for Tracy and everyone she meets. I think the bigger the front, the bigger the back.
LOLA: Tracy idolizes Brooke and then begins to see the crack in the thing she’s idolized. Tracy is pretending to be as cool as she thinks Brooke thinks she is. Tracy is performing for Brooke and Brooke is performing for Tracy.
GRETA: You see these moments that reveal how delicate Brooke is and to me, as an audience member, it’s never the big, tragic ending that gets me. It’s the ache of knowing that Brooke and Tracy may never know each other again. The pin-prick moments of vulnerability as opposed to some massive breakdown where she can’t go on. There are so many moments where Brooke will reveal something that’s heartbreakingly vulnerable, like when she tells Tracy that she makes her feel so smart. It’s a throwaway moment, but for all of her bravado, she doesn’t feel smart all the time. It’s also my interest level in the tiny moments of disintegration rather than the big blowout.
NOAH: A month in college is an eternity. You have a relationship for a week and it feels like a major thing, but it can have an impact on everyone’s life.
GRETA: I’d identify more with Tracy. I’m really nothing like Brooke, but I loved playing her and writing her and getting inside of her head.
LOLA: I think part of the job of an actor is to be observing most of the time. Writers may know things before they write them down. Observations that you keep that speak to something true about the world as you see it. It only occurred to me recently that I was playing some version of Greta, I knew Tracy is very much based on Greta. I was even wearing Greta’s blazer from college for the majority of the film. We were shooting in locations that were very specific to her life.
GRETA: Writing is a very complicated activity and I don’t have a clear answer if it’s always acceptable to write about other people who can’t give their permission or weren’t asked to be written about. Yes you have a right to your story and recording what seems true to you or inventing other things off of it. But it’s a tricky thing to negotiate. We wanted to explore that because we don’t have the answers. If we did, it wouldn’t be interesting. There wouldn’t be an argument. But Brooke has a point. So does Tracy. They both have points. I had written other things and I’ve experienced people getting really angry at me and also people being really flattered or somewhere in between.
NOAH: I haven’t thought about this, but other people have brought it to my attention, that both this movie and WHILE WE’RE YOUNG have penultimate moments between characters that are working out emotional issues over perceived intellectual property that leads, in both cases, to being hurt. For them, it’s an emotional issue and sometimes it’s easier to fight about that than to talk about being hurt.
GRETA: You only ever live life with other people. So when you sit down to write, all the stuff you have to work with, even if you’re making something completely fantastical, a fantasy series, the characteristics that I’d be drawing upon to make it seem real would be of things I knew. Where it gets complicated is none of them are real people. None of this has actually happened in any of the movies I’ve written. But there are details that correspond with details in life that are then combined with fiction. At one point, Brooke says, “So much of this fiction didn’t happen this way.” I think that’s the genuine response because you recognize some part of it, but it’s not what actually happened. I didn’t do that. You identify with your own personal ego that you know did happen and then you can’t believe that they’ve taken it and made it into something else. I empathize with that. I’ve been written about as well. It’s weird. You sit there and think, “I said that, but I didn’t say any of those other things.” It’s an instinctive reaction.
NOAH: A number of my movies do deal with how you grow as an individual or as a group or a Couple. Can you maintain these relationship as you or they are changing. What is in or out of your control.