Shortly after Greta Gerwig filmed a publicly-debated sitcom spinoff of How I Met Your Mother called How I Met Your Dad, Gerwig went stealth and made another unannounced film with her Frances Ha director and co-writer Noah Baumbach. How I Met Your Dad wasn’t picked up for a series, but the film Baumbach and Gerwig made afterward, Mistress America, does have a little bit of a sitcom feel to it—in that the jokes come fast, and everyone is quick on their toes. Don’t let the word “sitcom” throw you off though. Like Ha, Mistress America has a keen arthouse sensibility. But, it’s just funny in that timeless way.
Mistress America follows Tracy (Lola Kirke), a college freshman who finds friendship and writing inspiration in her older stepsister-to-be, Brooke (Gerwig). Despite her upbeat personality, Brooke’s life hasn’t exactly turned out how she planned, so the duo head off to a beautiful Connecticut house to confront the woman she blames for stealing all her ideas (Heather Lind), and the woman’s husband (Michael Chernus)—who might still have a thing for Brooke.
Recently I got the chance to sit down with Gerwig to discuss her collaborations with Baumbach, whether she’d ever try to do a sitcom again, and the difficulty she has with keeping her Baumbach-collaborations a secret.
Collider: Was there a different process, having worked with Noah [Baumbach] on the Frances Ha script, with this one?
GRETA GERWIG: In a way, Mistress America sort of grew out of how much we liked working together on Frances and making that movie, and it’s really hard to go back and reconstruct exactly how we write because I know a lot of time is spent feeling excited and that it’s great; but then a lot of time is spent feeling like it’s terrible and it’ll never be good, and at some point it becomes a movie. It’s a lot of talking and then a lot of going off and generating pages and giving them to Noah, or he gives me his pages, and then we read them out loud and put them together and start finding the shape of the thing that you have an inkling of what it is. But it’s a long process and it takes a lot of time because we really want the script to be as perfect as it can be. We don’t do any improvisation, actors don’t change lines at all, so really what you see on the screen is exactly as the script was.
You say no improvisation, I think that’s why the Connecticut house section works very nicely because each person has a joke as they’re walking in frame and you can’t really improvise any of that, because it’s very well-timed.
GERWIG: It took a lot of time to get all that stuff in the house because it was so many threads going on at the same time, and covering this person and then that person, but it was quite fun because all the actors were so great and they really could shine and work together as a unit.
I wanted to ask, especially with that very large set of house scenes, I don’t mean this in a derogatory way, but it kind of has a sitcom quality as far as each person gets their joke and comes back in for another joke, and I know you had done a pilot for How I Met Your Dad, do you have an interest in pursuing a sitcom?
GERWIG: I don’t think so. That is not something I am pursuing now. At all. The thing [Noah and I] actually talked about (for Mistress America) was screwball comedies, which have a slight sitcom feel to them.
Like a Preston Sturges?
Like a Preston Sturges, Howard Hawks, George Cukor type of thing. No, I think probably I won’t do [a sitcom] again. I had fun doing it while I did it, but it just wasn’t the life path I was meant to walk on. But I think I’m pretty committed to making films right now.
You said life path, the two films you made together, your characters are interested in lots of things, but do not have one specific pursuit.
GERWIG: I would disagree with that. I mean Frances has two very specific pursuits: She wants to be a professional dancer and she wants to live in a house with Sophie, they’re just not coming true. And Brooke (her character in Mistress America) wants a restaurant. I think Frances has a much stronger sense of herself, though. Even though she’s not successful at what she wants to do she had a much stronger sense of herself intellectually and what she has to offer the world and she’s just having trouble accepting the limitations of what her life will be and how she’ll achieve that. But I think she’s much more grounded (than Brooke). I think Brooke wants a magic ticket to get out of the hustle somehow, and I think she regrets not just having cashed in and married some dude she didn’t care about. But I think Frances knows, she’s just not achieving it.
The introduction to Brooke, when you’re walking down the steps in Times Square, was that very early in filming, or was that later? The only reason I ask is the introduction is so perfect: you’re shouting from the top and slowly coming down, and there’s so much awkwardness in between. It’s perfect for this character and so lived in.
GERWIG: Yeah, that was actually written into the script, but we didn’t know if we could actually do it. But it was written into the script, Brooke says, “Welcome to the great white way,” and walks down the Times Square stairs, but she’s misjudged how long the stairs are, so she sort of has to keep it going, even though it’s over, technically, but she’s got more stairs. That was something we weren’t even sure was going to work, and then it did, and it was as sad as we thought it was going to be. I mean it’s hilarious, but it’s also like “oh no”. She just keeps going, she has no humiliation in her, which is very different from me, I have lots of humiliation in me, so I had to not give into that. I would say that was early-ish, I mean we shot it in 60 days, which was a lot, a lot, of days.
Wow, 60 days is a long time for a film of this size and budget. Is that a benefit of shooting in secret insofar as shooting outside of the system?
GERWIG: We don’t explicitly make them secretly, it’s more that we don’t announce them. We don’t talk about them before they’re done, and—to be honest, nobody’s asking us to make these movies, so we don’t talk about them, I don’t think a studio would make these movies. I think that’s the other thing: it has given us the freedom to do stuff like have 60 days of shooting, which we could never do in another situation. But it’s always hard for me, because I’m terrible at keeping a secret and keeping things under my hat, Noah is much better about keeping his mouth shut. To be fair, I end up doing a lot more press, so I have more opportunity to talk about things I shouldn’t be talking about, but I think he enjoys knowing that he’s got one up his sleeve.
Speaking of things you maybe shouldn’t talk about, there are two things that I wanted to ask you about, just about Weiner-Dog and if Mike Mills’ new film is still happening, because I loved Beginners and I haven’t heard anything new about 20th Century Woman since casting was announced.
GERWIG: Well, Todd Solondz’s [Weiner-Dog; a spiritual sequel to Welcome to the Dollhouse] has wrapped shooting, and it’s great. I love Todd and I’m very excited about that movie but I can’t talk about it since everyone’s character is a surprise. So under my hat. As for 20th Century Woman, as far as I know, full steam ahead. Mike’s movie we’re going to go in the fall, in September and I am really looking forward to that. Lots of strong women. (20th Century Woman stars Gerwig, Annette Bening and Elle Fanning).
Mistress America opens in select cities this Friday, August 14. Here’s the official logline:
In MISTRESS AMERICA, Tracy (Lola Kirke) is a lonely college freshman in New York, having neither the exciting university experience nor the glamorous metropolitan lifestyle she envisioned. But when she is taken in by her soon-to-be stepsister, Brooke (Greta Gerwig) – a resident of Times Square and adventurous gal about town – she is rescued from her disappointment and seduced by Brooke’s alluringly mad schemes.