Greta Gerwig is the winning costar (with Lola Kirke) and cowriter (with director Noah Baumbach) of Mistress America, the story of two women at opposite ends of the NYC gauntlet. Young Tracy (Kirke) has just started college in the big city; somewhat-less-young Brooke (Gerwig) is rapidly approaching her make-or-break moment on the urban stage. They connect because Tracy’s mom is planning to marry Brooke’s dad, bond because it’s a tough town and there’s comfort in (sort of) family, and fall out because Tracy decides to write a story inspired by Brooke’s struggle. It’s brief, witty, talky, mannered, occasionally loopy, and ultimately poignant. I liked it.
Matthew Lickona: Let’s start with an analogy about two directors you’ve worked with: Whit Stillman is to Noah Baumbach as what is to what?
Greta Gerwig: Oh, gosh...the reason I’m going to pass on that is not because I can’t think of things, but because I don’t want to inadvertently offend either of them. But at their core, I think they’re both wordsmiths. The words are paramount, which is why I like working with them, and why I have so much to do and enjoy when I’m acting for them.
ML: In the case of Baumbach, you also write with him. Mistress America is your second collaboration, following Frances Ha. Could you talk about how that process works?
GG: It’s a long process, because we don’t do any improvisation in our films; we want every line said exactly how we wrote it. So the script is really of primary importance. At first, we talk a lot of things through. We talk about inspirations: characters we find interesting, stories we might want to explore. It’s kind of like exploring a dark room and shining a light in different corners, seeing what odds and ends are there. There are a lot of different touchstones: we draw from people we know in life, but also characters in literature. We were inspired by a number of different films: we’d been watching a lot of ’80s movies like Something Wild and After Hours. And also ’40s screwball comedies by George Cukor and Howard Hawks, noting the way they almost seemed like filmed plays. It’s not like we decide on what the story will be or who the characters are and then write it. It’s more like a bird building a nest: a little scrap here, a little scrap there, take something out, put something else in, see how it all fits together. I need a lot of different strands to be alive in order for the script to feel like it can fill the space of a film. The actual writing is done separately; I’ll take one scene and he’ll take another. Then we trade. At a certain point, we’ll have a full draft, and then we really start reading it out loud and editing it together.
ML: Was one of the things you tossed around the notion of familial disconnect?
GG: I had a lot of friends whose parents had gotten divorced and remarried and I watched them go through this experience of suddenly having new families, and then sometimes having those families go away if the second marriage ends. There’s something so sad and achy about it, this force beyond your control that’s saying “You’re family” or “You’re not family.” I’m very interested in the ways in which people create family in a vacuum, in the bigger world, and the way that stands in for what used to be just a nuclear family.
ML: I came out of Mistress America wondering what growing up would mean for these characters, and if the writers thought it worth doing.
GG: That’s not a theme that we consciously talked about, or that I consciously think about in that way. It’s more under the surface while other things come to the fore. The process of becoming who you are is an ever-unfolding situation.
ML: At a couple of points, Brooke is dismissive of terms that smack of old-timey morality. But later in the film, when she gets hurt, she gets very moralistic. Is she discovering the moral universe, or is that just her pain making her lash out?
GG: I think that’s the way most people exist: you have your ideas and then when you’re personally affected, they change. Also, I think that the bigger the front, the bigger the back. Brooke has so much front: she’s such a performative person. But it’s to cover up something that’s quite vulnerable and needy and insecure. We were very interested in exploring the question of what blame people hold for the things that happen to you, and whether you have the right to blame them. Tracy says to Brooke, “I didn’t mean to hurt you.” And Brooke says, “You don’t get to decide what’s hurtful and not hurtful.” I think that’s true: whether or not you’re allowed your pain, the fact that you have it is enough.
ML: You mentioned watching movies that came off like filmed plays. At one point, the characters form a sort of Inquisition around Tracy, and I thought it played almost like a theatrical farce, just because of how harsh it got, and how quickly: “Do you believe in any kind of feminine solidarity at all?”
GG: In some ways, that was more about Tracy’s writing about Brooke. It was a way to attack the writing that seemed on more solid moral ground than just, “How dare you write something about me?” They gave it this larger implication, which it didn’t really warrant. But writing is not a victimless activity. You are always involving people who did not give you their permission, because you live your life with other people, and when you write, they’re going to work their way in there. Sometimes, they’re very, very hurt by it. That’s something I’ve dealt with, and I know Noah has dealt with it. And I think they’ve got a point. It feels violating, even if you can’t totally explain why.
ML: How do you make peace with that?
GG: I’m lucky to have a lot of forgiving friends and family. And I’ve gotten better at letting people know before they see it, so they’re not caught off guard. And I make everything out of real love. I love all my characters. I don’t think that makes it perfect every time, but I do know that it’s always a tribute. It’s never a takedown.