Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig have become a force to be reckoned with. After co-writing 2013’s Frances Ha together, the duo is back with another female-centered film titled Mistress America. The film centers around Tracy (Lola Kirke), a college freshman who is desperate to be a part of the famed literary club and Brooke (Gerwig), Tracy’s soon-to-be stepsister. At very different stages in life, they become fast friends and discover that they perhaps have more in common than they thought, not including the admiration they come to have for one another.
I–along with Nell Minow of Beliefnet, Travis Hopson of Punch Drunk Critics, and Lauren Bradshaw of Cloture Club–had the pleasure of sitting down to discuss Mistress America with both Greta Gerwig and Lola Kirke. They talked about roles for women, writing about people and being written about, and more. As well as being exceptionally giving with their answers, the pair was also very gracious and one of the best interviews I’ve been a part of.
Directed by Noah Baumbach and co-written by he and Greta Gerwig, Mistress America hits theaters tomorrow, August 21! You can check out my review of the film here.
You can read the entire interview below!
Lauren Bradshaw: So you guys had such a good, strong relationship in the film and I was wondering if you did any bonding activities beforehand?
Greta Gerwig: We had Lola audition a bunch of times, so we had a really long shooting schedule so we kind of just went straight into shooting.
Lola Kirke: And numerous trust falls. [laughs]I think the bonding happened pretty naturally throughout the course of the film.
Nell Minow: And if you’re going to be consistent with the film, you probably wouldn’t fall.
Greta: She would’ve let me fall [laughs].
Mae Abdulbaki: So Lola, your character specifically goes from lonely college girl to a woman with a little more power and confidence, and then back to lonely college girl. What was it like playing such a transitional character?
Lola: I think that it was a really revealing process for me. It’s something I kind of discovered today through talking [laughs]. It’s a funny thing. It’s hard to reduce a person to a group of adjectives and Tracy and I spent so much time together because it was a very long shoot. I didn’t know exactly who she was except for the words on the page that I would say and reactions that were spawned from that. But I think that what’s really essential to Tracy is that she wants to convince Brooke that she is as cool as she thinks Brooke thinks she is. And that is something I think a lot of people do all the time. We meet somebody and we love the way they see us and then we try and become that person. And I think that that enables her to become more powerful than she was to begin with.
Travis Hopson: One of the things I really like about this movie is that it’s about two women and their relationship. And there isn’t really the guy/romance element that’s thrown in a lot of the time. Like this kind of movie would never be made in a studio, I don’t think. They would never even try it. Unless they put in some love story in the middle of it. Is that something that you’re seeking out to do specifically?
Greta: Yes, I am. As a writer and the things I’ve written with Noah [Baumbach], I have very specifically tried to find other narratives for women that aren’t simply love stories. And that’s not to downplay the men in this movie, they’re great characters and amazing actors. I obviously live in a world with lots of wonderful men, so it’s not that I’m not interested in men, it’s more that I want to see women grappling and dealing with things other than are they or are they not going to be with this guy. Because the women I know are grappling and dealing with things other than that and I don’t often see it reflected in films.
Nell: You’re dealing in the movie with a sensitive issue that all writers have to deal with and that’s how much of the personal lives of the people around me am I allowed to include and what will that do to those relationships? Is that an issue that you’ve had to deal with and what is the answer?
Greta: I don’t know the answer! [laughs]That’s why it’s in some ways really rich for the exploration in dramatic form. I’ve really dealt with that problem, and it’s something Noah’s dealt with too. And it’s complicated and I don’t have an answer. And I think it’s a recurrent theme in the movie. There’s a lot of blaming people for stuff. Brooke blames a lot of people and then she tells other people that they’re not allowed to blame her and I think there’s an uneasy relationship I have with the rights of the writer versus the rights for someone not to be written about. I don’t know. I don’t know! [laughs]I mean in some ways I feel like I very much put myself in the Tracy character, but I very much understand the feeling of betrayal that Brooke has because it’s like she’s been living with a double agent.
She thought she was living her life and this person was actually noticing and writing it down and that’s really a horrible thing to realize. You feel like you’ve been used in some way or you’ve been observed and in that line between fiction and life, it’s also that you’re taking inspiration from life but you’re also adding onto life and you’re changing it and something that Tracy says, “it’s fiction. That’s why it’s fiction.” And Brooke says, “so much of this fiction did not happen this way.” And I think that’s a really understandable feeling. Like I recognize some of this and some of this is different and it feels like your life is being misremembered or misappropriated somehow. I’ve been written about, I’ve written about other people and it’s complicated.
Nell: And Tracy points out that Brooke tweeted her comment [laughs].
Greta: But it wasn’t a sneaky, shitty thing [laughs.] No, I mean they both have a point.
Lola: I also think that Tracy isn’t doing it from a place of malice, but a place of inspiration. Which is why she’s so bewildered by Brooke’s anger. And I think that we see the good intention in Tracy’s less than favorable representation of Brooke. Tracy becomes more like Brooke throughout the film in certain ways. But it’s not the exact replica. She’s emboldened to speak her mind.
Greta: And even with Brooke, it’s not 100% “I hate this, I can’t believe you did this.” And she’s got the story in her apartment, so it’s like a Yiddish phrase that I won’t attempt to say, but it’s basically, “both these and these are the words of the living god.”
Nell: It’s actually Hebrew.
Greta: Hebrew! Hebrew, yes. It’s basically saying this and this can exist together. You can be horribly offended but also very flattered. And they seem contradictory but they actually illuminate the complexities of your relationship with something. And that moment of Tracy seeing that story at Brooke’s house is realizing it’s not all one thing for her.
Lola: I think so much of the it’s this way or that way is erased in this movie and it can be “and.” I’ve had a really hard time making a punchy, three-sentence synopsis for this film because I think that it’s outside of all those things. And it’s not a four and a half hour long Terrance Malick film, it’s a 97-minute comedy [laughs]. So it’s really interesting in that way.
Lauren: I really liked the twist in the movie when you find out she was a bully in high school [laughs]. Because all of a sudden you’re like wait, I didn’t know her as well as I thought I did. So I was wondering how much of a backstory do you write for your character. Is there stuff you don’t put in the movie that you kind of write up or think about her life before the movie?
Greta: Yeah, definitely! Noah and I write a lot more than actually goes into the movie. And the scripts are very precise and there’s no improvisation and you have to say all of your lines exactly as written. But because of that, we have a ton of material that we then have to pare down and make smaller. There’s a lot of extra writing and backstory. It’s not like I sit down and say, “I’m going to now write the backstory of Brooke.” My experience with it is, and I don’t know if Noah is the same, but for me it’s a spark of an idea of what I think that character is or what a scene is and what a film is that I start fumbling around with.
And I play around with dialogue and I almost let the characters talk to me and tell me what their backstories are and what’s going on with them and what their past is. It’s a really creepy experience because it feels like somebody who is not you is writing it. I don’t know. I’ve heard other writers describe it that way so I don’t think it’s only me that writes this way. There is something that feels like it’s beyond your conscious abilities. That it comes from somewhere else. So those little details get collected. It’s not like I have an exhaustive encyclopedia of every character’s backstory, but I do feel like for every character there needs to be at least a handful of details and scenes and moments from their lives that we never see onscreen that I need to know to make them real to me.
Mae: I especially love the house scene. There is a lot, lot going on in there. To me, it was staged like something you would see on a stage, in a theater, where things are all happening at once and people are going in and out of doors. Can you speak a little bit more about what you wanted to accomplish from that scene?
Greta: We had two sets of cinema influences. The one being ‘80s movies. Like Something Wild or After Hours or Desperately Seeking Susan. Of someone being more straight-edged or square and being pulled into this underworld. And then we had screwball comedies of the ‘40s and ‘30s and in Bringing Up Baby they go to Connecticut [laughs]. So in some ways, there’s a tip of the hat to Bringing Up Baby, but we wanted Brooke’s consciousness to kind of take over the movie and her high-speed of living and talking. We thought it’d be funny to do a farce, which is generally associated with door slamming in a house with sliding doors because you can’t slam any doors [laughs]. That was a very nerdy joke [laughs].
In some ways it was such a pleasure to watch the actors really go for it. And Lola and Matthew Shear and Jasmine Cephas Jones, Michael Chernus, and Cindy Cheung. So many of them. There are so many people in that scene! And all the pregnant women, most of whom weren’t pregnant [laughs]. And Cindy Cheung was actually pregnant. That was a real baby in there! That was not a pregnancy belly. We were going so long and she actually got to a point where she was like, “I’m gonna give birth to this baby, and then you’re gonna have to stop shooting this movie” [laughs]. But it was just fun to watch them kind of inhabit it and show off their chops. Show off what they could do.
I think something in a film that doesn’t happen as much onstage, is that onstage you really are playing hot potato with the people around. You have to keep it alive for the people around you. And the thing in film, so often because of the way it’s shot and the fact there tends to be not as many people in a room, the wide, the medium, the over the shoulder [shots], you’re kind of more in isolation from each other. And the way we shot this was like everybody’s playing. You’re all on and everybody’s on deck. It’s not like anybody cannot participate in this scene, in this moment. So it did have that feeling of theater, and it was possible because the actors were all so good.
Travis: A lot of them have theater backgrounds.
Travis: I don’t usually think this about a lot of characters, but I think you’ve got two really great and memorable characters in Brooke and Tracy. And I was thinking on the way here that New York is such a part of them. I was trying to figure out how they would be if they actually did leave. Would you ever think about how they’d continue on if she did go to the west coast? Do you think she [Brooke] would make it?
Greta: I don’t know. In a way, as opposed to the backstory of a character and the looking forward for characters, it’s sort of lights out for me. I think why I love film is because of the lights up, light flickers onscreen for 90 minutes and goes out. And I think, for me, having that ending… you know the feeling of being in a movie theater and the film ends and you loved it, and you think “I just want it to keep going,” but it’s over. I think I have that same feeling. I don’t know what happens to these people. I wish I did, but I don’t [laughs].
Lola: There were definitely versions where there was some kind of mention of who they were later in life, all kind of looking back.
Greta: There was definitely a version where there was a frame of a frame.
Lola: And I remember seeing that. Those pages were hidden from me or something [laughs]. And halfway through the shoot–no one told me about this–and I was like, “what did happen to Tracy?” And they told me, and I was like, “No! I hate that!” That was devastating! [laughs]
Lauren: Well now I want to know!
Greta: Well there was a version where the whole story, I mean we decided to dispense with it because we already had Tracy writing the story about Brooke, which was already this frame around this thing. And then we had another frame, which was these guys. I don’t even know if I should say this, but these men at the Harvard Club, sitting around talking about their wives. And one of them is Tracy’s husband.
Lola: It makes me so sad!
Greta: Saying, “oh, she used to write.” And then it was too sad!
Greta: But don’t worry that’s not what happens to her [laughs]. And honestly it just got to the point where it was like, what is it 2030? That’s so weird [laughs]. I don’t feel we really need this part.
Lola: I’m so happy that it stands alone and isn’t mediated by the masculine gaze or something like that, which still could be a really interesting comment on the film.
Greta: And I also think the movie becomes what it is in the same way the actors take possession of a role and they bring something to it that you would never know when you were writing it that it needed. And when Lola started playing Tracy, that’s how I felt. It doesn’t belong to you anymore, it belongs to her. And then as soon as that starts happening, the movie has its own logic and its own rhythm that you have to respect. And that was an intellectualized idea that no longer fit the characters or the story that we were telling. And I think that’s something you just go through as you’re writing. You pare those things away because they don’t belong anymore, they’re not a part of it. Because the thing knows more than you do sometimes.
Lauren: So do you allow it to be fluid on the set?
Greta: No. [laughs]No, not really. It’s more in the writing process before than when we’re actually shooting that we have more flexibility and imagined worlds. But the movie cuts almost exactly to the script. And that was true for the movie Noah and I did before, Frances Ha. We really shoot what we’re going to use. We don’t find it in the edit, we find it in the writing and the edit is constructing it from the footage. I think some filmmakers work a different way which is like, “we’re just gonna shoot a lot of things, maybe we use it, maybe we don’t.” We don’t tend to shoot stuff we don’t use.
Nell: There aren’t a lot of movies about women friendships, and Francis Ha dealt with that and this movie deals with that. So tell me a little bit about what it is about women’s friendships that you think that this movie has to offer.
Greta: It’s less about a traditional friendship. In Frances Ha, it’s about these best friends from college who had grown up together and now have kind of gone on different paths and the pain of separation.
Nell: Not all friendships are good friendships [laughs].
Greta: Yeah, and in some ways this to me is friendship, but it’s also this artificial construct of instant family, combined with completely idolizing someone. And then also tearing them down. But it is a deep bond, it’s a fast bond they’re both invested in each other very quickly. In A Room of One’s Own there’s a Virginia Woolf quote. She says, “men don’t know what women do when they’re not there because they’re not there.” And I think so much of what I’m interested in writing is what women do when men aren’t there because they can’t possibly speak to that. I think there are these incredibly intricate relationships that I think are really rich. Also you can watch little girls play versus little boys play, no offense to little boys. But the boys will be like, “rawrrr! My man is killing your man!” and little girls are like “your doll is not invited” [laughs]. And they’re already in this complex world of emotions and social cues and really using language in a certain way, and I think it’s a romance but also a battlefield and it’s something I’m endlessly fascinated with.
Lola: Yeah, and just to speak to that using a less intelligent line, but still culturally relevant in the Van Morrison song, “Tupelo Honey,” it says “all the girls walk by dressed up for each other.” And it’s like when I dress up, I’m not dressing up for a man but because I want that girl to be like “I wanna be her!” [laughs].
Greta: Totally, yeah!
Lola: I’m so grateful Greta is writing these movies. I was a huge fan of Frances Ha and I’d never seen anything quite like that either and to be able to participate in this film and be in this once-again-can’t-quite-be-articulated. Like are they friends? She’s in love with her but it’s a platonic romance and are they sisters? Is it her mother? All these ways we can be so many things. It’s not “or” anymore, it’s “and.”
Greta: It happens all the time though. I even feel like that with Jordan, the woman who does the hair and makeup. I instantly met her and was like “I want you to like me. I’m not sure why, but I really want it” [laughs]. And I feel like it just happens all the time with women.
Lola: Totally. And that’s the beauty about getting to make a movie about women. Because with women and men together, there may be a more specific endgame, and it’s like I want you to f**k me or fall in love with me or feel stupider than me [laughs]. Or, you know, be my friend too [laughs].
Greta: And I do love the way Tony [Matthew Shear] gets so jealous of Tracy. She’s like “why can’t you just tell me you like my story,” and he just yells “BECAUSE IT’S BETTER THAN MINE!” [laughs]. I’m so happy that Tracy’s a better writer than Tony. Even though I made them all up [laughs].