In their latest film, MISTRESS AMERICA, writer/director Noah Baumbach and writer/actress Greta Gerwig (FRANCES HA) have once again written a compelling story about a fascinating, complicated female relationship. However, instead of two best friends, like in FRANCES HA, the women in this film have a different, though no less complicated, relationship. College student Tracy (Lola Kirke) is trying to find her place amid the thriving literary scene at Columbia University. As opposed to other college-centered films that focus on a character getting into the best fraternity/sorority, straight-laced Tracy is instead obsessed with being accepted into a prestigious literary society. However, her focus soon shifts when she finds out her mother is getting re-married and her soon-to-be stepsister, Brooke (Gerwig), lives close by in the city. Brooke is a free-spirit, who can’t seem to focus on one pursuit for more than a few days. But, in just a short period of time, the Brooke whirlwind envelops Tracy and she is left with a new perspective on life (and maybe a new inspiration for a story).
I had the opportunity to conduct a round table interview with the stars of MISTRESS AMERICA, Greta Gerwig (who also wrote the film) and Lola Kirke. We discussed character arcs, surprise twists in the film, Gerwig’s interest in telling movies from the female perspective, and much more! Check out the interview below and make sure you go see MISTRESS AMERICA in theaters this weekend! I saw the film at the Sundance Film Festival this year and really enjoyed it.
Lauren B. (Cloture Club): You guys had such a good, strong relationship in the film. Did you do any bonding activities beforehand?
Greta Gerwig: We had Lola audition a bunch of times, so we had a really long shooting schedule and 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 (Beliefnet): And if you’re going to be consistent with the film, you probably wouldn’t fall.
GG: She would’ve let me fall [laughs].
Mae Abdulbaki (Movies With Mae): 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?
LK: 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 (Punch Drunk Critics): 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 a love story in the middle of it. Is that something that you’re seeking out to do specifically?
GG: 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?
GG: 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 mis-remembered 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].
GG: But it wasn’t a sneaky, shi**y thing [laughs.] No, I mean they both have a point.
LK: 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.
GG: And even with Brooke, it’s not 100% “I hate this, I can’t believe you did this”. And she’s got this 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.
GG: 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.
LK: 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. It’s not a four and a half hour long Terrance Malick film; it’s an 87 minute comedy [laughs]. So it’s really interesting in that way.
Lauren: I really like the twist in the movie, where you find out that Brooke was a bully in high school. I felt like I knew the character, and then all of a sudden it’s like, “Wait, I don’t think I knew her as well as I thought I did.” How much of a backstory do you write for your characters? Are there things that you don’t put in the movie that you write out and think about?
GG: Yeah, definitely. When Noah and I write, we write a lot more than what actually goes into the movie. The scripts are very precise and there is no improvisation and you have to say all the lines exactly as written, but because of that we have such 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 am going to now going to write the backstory of Brooke.” It’s almost like… my experience of it (I don’t know if Noah is exactly the same), but for me, it’s a spark of an idea of what I think a character is, or what a scene is, or what a film is, that I start fumbling around with and play around with dialogue. I almost let the characters talk to me and tell me what their backstories are, and what is 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 have heard other writers describe it that way, so I don’t think it’s just me that writes this way. I think there is something that feels like it’s beyond your conscious abilities. It comes from somewhere else. I don’t know. 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 on screen 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?
GG: We had sort of two sets of cinema influences, the one being 80s movies like SOMETHING WILD, or AFTER HOURS, or DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN – someone who is more straight-edge and square being pulled into this crazy underworld. Then we had screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s like Ernst Lubitsch, Howard Hawks, and George Cukor. In BRINGING UP BABY they go to Connecticut, so in some ways there’s a tip of the hat to BRINGING UP BABY. We wanted Brooke’s whole consciousness to take over the movie and her high speed of living and talking. We thought it would 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. That was a very nerdy joke, but it felt, somehow, right. In some ways it was just a pleasure to watch the actors really go for it. Lola, Matthew Shear, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Michael Chernus, and Cindy Cheung… there are so many people in that scene! And all of the pregnant women, most of whom were actually pregnant! Cindy Cheung was actually pregnant; that’s a real baby in there. That was not a pregnancy belly. We were going over… we were going so long, she actually got to a point where she was like, “I’m going to give birth to this baby. You’re going to have to stop shooting this movie.”
But it was just fun to watch them really inhabit it and kind of show off their chops, really show off what they could do. I think something, in a film, that doesn’t happen as much as on stage is on stage you really are playing hot potato with the people around you. You have to keep it alive for the people around you, and I think in film, so often because the way it is shot and it tends to be not as many people in a room, it’s really the wide, the medium, the over-the-shoulder [shot], you’re more in isolation from each other. And the way we shot this and worked on this, it was like everyone is playing. You’re all on. Everybody is on-deck. It’s not like anyone cannot participate in this scene for this moment, so it did have that feeling of theater and it was possible because the actors were all so good.
Travis: I don’t usually think this about a lot of characters, but I think you have to really great and memorable characters in Brooke and Tracy. New York is such a part of them, I was trying to figure out how they would be if they ever did leave [the city]. Would you ever think about continuing on and seeing how they were if she moved to the West Coast? Do you think she would make it?
GG: I don’t know. As opposed to the backstory of characters, I think 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, lights flicker on screen for 90 minutes, then go out. I think, for me, having that ending… you know that feeling when you’re 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.
LK: There were definitely versions where there was a mention of who they were later in life. It was all looking back…
GG: Oh there was a version where there was a frame of a frame, yeah…
LK: And I remember seeing it but those pages were hidden from me and then halfway through the shoot Noah told me about this. I was like, ‘So what did happen to Tracy?’ He told me and I was like, ‘No!!! I hate that!’ That was devastating!
Lauren: Now I want to know what it was!
GG: 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 a frame around this thing. We had another frame which was these guys – I don’t know if I should say this – these men at The Harvard Club sitting around and talking about their wives. And one of them is Tracy’s husband…
LK: It makes me so sad!
GG: … saying, “Oh, she used to write.” It was too sad! So we didn’t do it. Don’t worry, that’s not what happened to her! It was managing how… then honestly it got to the point where it was like what is the time now? 2030? I don’t know that we really need this part of it.
LK: 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.
GG: I think, in some ways, the movie becomes what it is in the same way that the actors take possession of the roles and they bring something to it that you would never know when you’re writing it. 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 rhythms that you have to respect. That was an intellectualized idea and it no longer fit the characters in the story we were telling. I think that’s just something you go through while you are writing. You pare those things away because they don’t belong anymore; they’re not part of it. The scene knows more than you do sometimes.
Lauren: So do you allow it to be fluid on the set?
GG: No [laughs] not really. It’s more in the writing process before we start shooting because we have more flexibility. The movie really cuts exactly to the script and that was the film Noah and I did before, FRANCES HA. We really shoot what we want 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, ‘We are going to 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, but FRANCES HA dealt with that and this movie dealt with that. Tell me a little about what it is about women’s friendships that you think this movie has to tell.
GG: In some ways, this is less about a traditional friendship… I mean the friendship in FRANCES HA was these best friends from college who had grown up together and now were kind of going down different paths and the pain of separation. In some ways, [MISTRESS AMERICA] to me is friendship, but also this artificial construct of instant family combined with completely idolizing someone and then tearing them down. But it’s a deep bond, a fast bond. They’re both performing for each other and they both are invested in each other so quickly. In A Room of One’s Own, there’s the Virginia Woolf quote, “Men don’t know what women do when they’re not there because they’re not there.” I think so much of what I am interested in writing is what women do when men aren’t there because they can’t possibly really speak to that. I think there are these incredible intricate relationships that are really rich. Also, you can just watch little girls play versus little boys (no offense to little boys) and the little boys are like, ‘Rawrrr my man is killing your man!” and little girls are like, “Your doll is not invited to my party. They can come in a week if they bring their other doll friends.” They’re already in this complex world of emotions, social cues, and using language in a certain way. It’s a romance but it’s also a battlefield and it’s something that I am endlessly fascinated with.
LK: In the Van Morrison song, “Tupelo Honey”, he says, “All the girls walk by dressed up for each other.” When I dress up, I am dressed up not to impress a man but I want a girl to be like, “I want to be her!” I am so grateful that Greta is writing these movies. I was a huge fan of FRANCES HA and I had never seen anything quite like that either, and to be able to participate in this film and be in something that can’t quite be articulated… like are they friends? She’s in love with her but it’s a platonic romance. Are they sisters? Is it her mother? There are all of these weird… just in the way that we can be so many things.
GG: It happens all the time, though. I even feel that way with Jordan (the woman that 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.’ I feel like I go through this all the time with women.
LK: Totally, and that’s the beauty of getting to make a movie about women because with men and women together, there may be a more specific end game. It’s like I want you to fuck me or fall in love with me or feel stupider than me or be my friend too. [everyone laughs]
GG: I love the way Tony gets so jealous of Tracy and she’s like, “Why can’t you tell me you like my story?” and he just yells, “BECAUSE IT’S BETTER THAN MINE!” I am so happy Tracy is a better writer than Tony even though I made them both up.