tangerine-poster-695x1024There’s a sense of liberation in indie writer/director Sean Baker’s follow-up to his 2012 film Starlet, a film that felt weighed down by its intentions (Film Review: Misguided ‘Starlet’ fails as wannabe transcendent drama). Compared to his previous film, which suffered from contrivances and weak performances that reached for something grand but never went anywhere, his new movie, Tangerine is a sea change. It never tries to be anything more than it is, even while featuring a timely element of today’s contemporary culture: the transgender person. In doing so it becomes a grounded, human story with a consistent sense of humor that may just blow you away.

Though Baker still can’t seem to contain an over-the-top, sometimes self-conscious acting style, it works in Tangerine. Some have compared the film to the work to what Andy Warhol did with his cast of characters at The Factory, and it’s a perfect comparison, except there’s a definite plot and even a smart sense of story-telling. This is also a production by the Duplass brothers, who were pioneers in presenting comedic dramas featuring chatty characters working through their positions in life in films that were sometimes preciously self-aware, and that ethos is also present. TangerineBaker’s main characters are two transgender prostitutes working the streets of Los Angeles one warm Christmas Eve. After her release from jail, Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) joins Alexandra (Mya Taylor) at a doughnut shop to catch up. Soon into their conversation, Alexandra lets slip that Sin-Dee’s no good boyfriend/pimp cheated on her with another prostitute, what she calls “a white fish … vagina and everything.” Much of the film follows Sin-Dee on a rampage trying to find out who the other woman is and then hunting her down. Meanwhile, a parallel story unfolds about Armenian taxi driver and family man Razmik (Karren Karagulian). Just like Sin-Dee and Alexandra, Razmik harbors his own deeper knowledge of the streets. While Sin-Dee’s out searching for her vengeance, Alexandra passes out flyers for her open mic performance later that night. Meanwhile, Razmik picks up one quirky fare after another, including a couple of drunk dudes during one of the film’s funniest moments of gross-out slapstick.

This is a comedy, but it’s also more. It’s a sincerely human and confrontational film that arrives at its insights with a brazen sense of humor and a light touch. The worlds of these people will collide in manners both visceral and profound. All the while, Baker never loses his grip of the humor that holds it all together. Though transgender characters have been treated way more seriously in earlier foreign films that I’ve written about (see this review and this one), Tangerine brings a human dimension to its characters that’s still lighthearted and dynamic. TangerineIt helps that the film has a kinetic energy, shot using iPhones. The movie opens with a sprightly, symphonic version of “Toyland” played against the white script opening credits that appear over a curiously scuffed and scratched brilliant yellow surface. Then two pairs of large, black hands appear, revealing the yellow backdrop was a worn table. The hands show a flash of wear in their own way. The fingernails are unclean, but one wrist features ornate costume bracelets. One of the hands unwraps a colorful sprinkle-covered, frosted doughnut from a greasy white bag and lays it atop the paper pouch. “Merry Christmas Eve, bitch,” says one to the other before we meet Sin-Dee and Alexandra.

There’s a fascinating amount of information and humor in the moment. This is a film of high-contrast color that appreciates the rough edges, as well. Throughout Tangerine, the brightness and the range of color amazes, especially seeing as the film was shot with a trio of 5S iPhones. The camera phones help soften the actors’ style, drawing out more naturalistic moments above those self-conscious ones. They also capture a few breathtaking wide-shots that speak to Baker’s keen eye for visuals. It’s all done with a raw but sympathetic sense of humor that still highlights the challenges of a world few really know. Baker shot the film with Radium Cheung in a fast and loose manner. Baker also channeled that energy in the editing room himself. The iPhone cameras and the transgender element in a post-Caitlin Jenner world are interesting hooks, but they wouldn’t have mattered without the passion and delight Baker transmits in making this film. It has its rough edges, some scenes go on too long and the acting doesn’t always measure up, but this could very well be a new classic in indie film.

Hans Morgenstern


Tangerine runs 88 minutes and is rated R (cussing, nudity and drug use). The film opened in our Miami area this Friday, July 31, for an exclusive run at O Cinema Wynwood. Magnolia Pictures provided an on-line screener link for the purpose of this review. It’s playing in many locations across the U.S. and has future dates scheduled through November, so if you live in other parts of the U.S., follow this link for other screening locations. All images courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

large_u1b4fzVmGMg7SChNB5r7rAw8oZAResults is one of the most creative, honest romantic comedies made recently. It follows the story of personal trainer Kat (Cobie Smulders), a driven and determined trainer who also has anger issues that are not quite under her control or even completely acknowledged by her yet. Kat works for Trevor (Guy Pearce) the founder of Power 4 Life, a gym that fashions itself a lifestyle, complete with a philosophy for life, with Trevor at the forefront. Though he fancies himself a guru, Trevor also seems unaware of his character flaws. He believes so deeply in his own Soul 4 Life philosophy, he takes himself seriously to a fault.

Into this mix, arrives Danny (Kevin Corrigan, in a wonderfully tic-filled performance with excellent comedic timing), a New Yorker that has recently moved to Austin, Texas, after inheriting a large sum of money. Danny is an odd character but brutally honest and self-aware –a stark contrast to Trevor. Danny shows up at the gym, and he is unable to articulate clearly what he wants. His life seems to be out of control, and when asked by Trevor what his goals are, he just says, “I just want to be able to take a punch.”

Kat starts to train Danny, which soon becomes painfully awkward. Danny is extremely uncomfortable in his own skin but at least ties to connect with people. He quickly develops an attraction for Kat. Danny’s half-empty mansion and his own life philosophy creates a disconnect between him and Kat, who tries to encourage him during personal training sessions but makes no inroads with him. Coaxing her with a drink and some weed after a session, he steals a kiss. The next day, he finally goes after her, and she goes into a full-on anger fit, to which Danny responds, “This is not making me any less attracted to you.”


Results is the latest feature-length film by Andrew Bujalski. After the trippy existentialist journey into vintage artificial intelligence (Film Review: Computer Chess reveals the mystical in the cyber),  Results brings him back to exploring romance in all its awkward glory through intriguingly flawed characters. While he was known to be at the forefront of the mumblecore movement (An Essential Guide to Mumblecore), which now seems like a passé categorization, the writer/director has grown into an insightful storyteller with characters that resonate because of their failings. Previous films such as Funny Ha Ha (2002), featuring a young woman who stumbles to find meaningful connections in post-collegiate limbo, explored emotional struggles that were verbalized in less than articulate terms. Bujalski soon became more refined. Mutual Appreciation (2005), where an ambivalence about long-term commitment drove the action, still stands as one of his strongest works. It’s a perfect example of this subtle character-driven narrative.

In Results, the action is also driven by each of the characters’ own failings, which provides a sort of meta-narrative of the unspoken motivations that drive the action: confusion and love. While mumblecore was known for its natural acting, it is now clear that Bujalski is exposing something deeper than natural acting, he is showing the complex interplay between action seen, spoken and felt, through a patient eye that finds the humanity in people, even they’re gym rats.

results 3

This character-driven approach stands out in Results, and gives the movie an interesting shape, rather than the formulaic boy-meets-girl device so familiar in Hollywood films. Smulders and Pearce give magnificently modest life to Kat and Trevor. They spar, argue, get mad at each other but otherwise seem incapable of truly expressing what they feel for one another. It is suggested early in the film that they had a fling, although by the time we catch up with them, they seemed to have figured out that their liaison was unprofessional. However, their interactions are marred by that comfortable/uncomfortable dialectic that starts to really make sense the more we learn about the couple.

For a romantic comedy, Results is also very funny in a smart way. Bujalski has created a deep narrative about relationships that is character-driven. Bujalski’s approach is delicate and kind; the funny moments come from the collision of all three characters, as they stumble through articulating their emotions. For instance, when Danny meets Trevor, he notices a poster in his office and reads it out loud, “Fear, excuses, surrender.” Trevor seems perplexed. It turns out the poster was actually blocked by something else that Trevor removes revealing the full poster that reads: “No fear, no excuses, no surrender.” The contrast between the two characters is stark, and it foretells many obtusely comedic moments scattered throughout this subtle, yet powerful, film.

Ana Morgenstern

Results runs 105 minutes and is rated R (for weed use, sex, profanity). It opens in our Miami are on June 12 at the Bill Cosford Cinema on the Coral Gable campus of the University of Miami. Results has already opened in some cities and is scheduled to open in select cities at later dates. For current playdates, visit this page. All images are courtesy of Magnolia Pictures, who also provided a screener link for the purpose of this review.

(Copyright 2015 by Ana Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

lenny-cooke_poster-01In recent years, several sports documentary filmmakers have made some celebrated documentaries about winners. In 2008, you had two major ones: Harvard Beats Yale 29-29, about a legendary tie football game in 1968. More Than a Game followed the high school basketball team that made LeBron James famous. Some subject matter sometimes went beyond winning on the field or court. Sports can change lives for the better, as the 2011 Academy Award-winning documentary Undefeated proved about inner city youths saved by a football coach.

But compelling sports stories don’t always have to be about the winners. With their new documentary Lenny Cooke, the fraternal team of Ben and Joshua Safdie present a promising high school basketball player who, back in 2001, was once ranked number one on a national level, when scouts were also looking at LeBron James, Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony. But, as no one knows Cooke’s name today, one can imagine where he ended up.

The brothers Safdie are not here to make a portrait of a loser, however. Cooke just happened to be one of the many mortals chewed up by the pressures of the NBA machine. Cooke was so prominent a player, ESPN cameras followed him around while he was still in high school.


Early in the film, Cooke takes ESPN reporter Tom Farrey to a rundown section of Bushwick with an entourage of friends following. Cooke walks Farrey over to a two-story building and points to some boarded up windows where says he grew up. “It’s a four-family house, knowwhatimsayin?” He notes his family shared the home with “a couple of crackheads. We had the dirty Puerto Ricans” before “the rats took over.”

He also shares dreams of building a movie theater and a YMCA right nearby. But it’s an empty aspiration modeled after superstar player Magic Johnson. Farrey points to Cooke’s jacket emblazoned with almost two dozen NBA team logos. “Who do you want to play on that whole coat there?”

“I want to play for whoever gonna be a lottery pick.”

It’s that cavalier attitude that will ultimately sink this promising 6-foot-6-inch athlete. Meanwhile, the pressure mounts, not just from ESPN camera crews, but also his friends and family. Lenny_Cooke_still_in_Lenny_CookeEven an anonymous bag handler at a train station recognizes Cooke’s physique as the epitome of a born basketballer. “Get that money, baby!” he tells Cooke. “School is always gonna be there.” After the man walks away, Cooke turns away and says, “Shut yo ass up.”

The filmmakers use a vérité style capturing Cooke at such tell-tale, casual moments that reveal a doomed contradiction in a young man who may not be following a dream he has not entirely set his heart on. When he finally decides to make himself available to the NBA draft, after 18 months of not even playing basketball, he quietly weeps at a press conference during the announcement. He is never picked and ends up playing in minor leagues to ever-dwindling audiences.

The Safdie brothers follow Cooke from his high school heyday up until the present day. The chronological narrative serves to provide some subtle drama for those who do not follow basketball or know Cooke’s story. The filmmakers, who are embarking on their first documentary feature with this film (earlier works include the mumblecore films The Pleasure of Being Robbed and Daddylonglegs), prove they have a sensitive eye for revealing scenes. Who knows how many hours of footage they had of Cooke over the course of 13 years, but they know how to chop it down to create a dynamic, cohesive story and still make their subject endearing. They do not offer any voice-over narrative or ask any off-camera questions. They are there to mostly observe and document.

There is some manipulation in the choice of music, which first kicks off with “Shook Ones Part II” by Mobb Deep, but later turns into the hard bop and free jazz cacophony of Archie Shepp and Yusef Lateef. Lenny_Cooke_presser_in_Lenny_CookeAlso, they sometimes allow the camera to linger a little too long during Cooke’s 30th birthday celebration, where he ends up singing and breaking down in tears as midnight arrives and most of his friends have all gone home. Then comes a jarringly surreal but superfluous encounter between the elder Cooke and his younger self that hammers its point harder than necessary.

For the most part, though, the Safdies remain reserved and nonjudgmental as they present a captivating testament to the cruel corporate culture of professional sports and one of its tragic casualties. Though it can feel exasperating at times, Lenny Cooke comes across as an important story, handled with enough distance that shows sensitivity to its subject while offering an objective critique of what broke him down.

Hans Morgenstern

Lenny Cooke runs 90 minutes and is unrated (expect some real language). It opens exclusively in our area at the Miami Beach Cinematheque this Friday, Jan. 24, which provided a DVD screener for the purposes of this review. For screening dates in other parts of the U.S., visit the film’s official website.

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Graphic by Ana Morgenstern

As film genres go, mumblecore is as independent and obscure a label as it gets. Consider this post a guide to that film movement, which sometimes gets thrown about by the would-be hipster/film connoisseur.

Former SXSW producer Matt Dentler championed many of these films, which all characteristically had conversation-driven plots that often meandered and were not necessarily enunciated as best they could by the mostly amateur actors involved (Hollywood Reporter: How To Speak Mumblecore). It loosely describes some independent films that came about in the mid-2000s. The label, though, is not an accepted genre; filmmakers do not acknowledge it and some film critics hate it. In 2007, Amy Taubin, a member of the New York Critics film circle, famously once stated mumblecore “has had its fifteen minutes.” However, in order to appreciate many of indie cinema’s current working filmmakers, one should not disregard their roots in this oft-maligned but key and even sometimes entertaining moment in independent American cinema.

All these films are dominated by talking. The plots are somewhat simple and acting is natural. Often, actors improvise dialogue. The term “actors” roughly describes the people in the films, as they are not necessarily actors by trade but mutual friends. The cast is then an amalgam of lesser-known people that have some sort of quick shorthand among each other. The films, shot with very small budgets, made the rounds at film festivals. Some were better than others.

It is safe to say that the wave of mumblecore films has ended, leaving a few good films behind and creating a crop of directors that have since created some great films with larger budgets. If anything, one can celebrate the movement as a training ground for the likes of Andrew Bujalski, who, last year, gave us the amazing Computer Chess (Film Review: Computer Chess reveals the mystical in the cyber), and the very talented Greta Gerwig who co-wrote and starred in one of the best movies last year, Frances Ha.

Mark Duplass and Greta Gerwig in Hannah Takes the Stairs.

Mark Duplass and Greta Gerwig in Hannah Takes the Stairs.

The characters in mumblecore films all seem stuck in a state of arrested development, partly imposed by a lack of economic opportunities but also self-imposed, as these twenty-somethings are marred by self-doubt, fear of commitment and what seems to be a prolonged adolescence. The films in this genre certainly capture the zeitgeist of being young and middle class in early 2000s America, and therefore, the self-conscious, distant, hesitant young characters in mumblecore ring true to life.

This attitude has recently been criticized by people like clinical psychologist Meg Jay, who called for twenty-somethings to reclaim their coming of age rather than continue to postpone it during a recent TED Talk. While Jay is right in stating that the decisions we make early on determine much of our lives, this very idea may be one of the contributing factors to indecisiveness, which is so aptly depicted in many mumblecore movies. Young people bombarded with competing messages on success, relationships and an obsession with being happy all the time boil under these pressures to the point that some may wish to avoid moving forward altogether. To me, it also portrays characters ill-equipped with disappointment-coping mechanisms and faced with too many choices, all of which are loaded with meaning and fate. Mumblecore should therefore be celebrated for its honest depiction of neo-slacker generational malaise that’s all too real in current American society.

Graphic by Ana Morgenstern

Although this post does not exhaustively cover all the many movies attributed to this scene, I do wish to offer some highlights. Outlined above are several of the most salient players in the scene. The information in the infographic is not meant to be all-encompassing, rather the works listed pertain to the mumblecore movement. Some of the names and faces will look familiar, as these directors have recently been making great films with bigger budgets and trade actors. The Duplass brothers most notably have broken into mainstream TV with the likes of “The League” and “The Mindy Kaling Project.” Rather than outliving its “15 minutes,” mumblecore was a short-lived movement that— as does adolescence— must come to an end. Below is a list of my favorite films in the genre. All titles titles link to the home video releases on Amazon. If you follow that link and purchase them, a percentage of the sale goes back to support this blog.

Short list: Some mumblecore films to watch

Mutual Appreciation (2005)

Mutual Appreciation Official Poster

At the core of this film is a relationship between Lawrence and Ellie. They profess their love to each other, but the camera reveals uneasiness with settling into the relationship. Every awkward pause is long and full of meaning. The writing is smart and witty. Not a date movie but one to watch if you’re interested in the quintessential mumblecore film.

Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007)

Hannah Takes the Stairs Official Poster

A Joe Swanberg film, Hannah Takes the Stairs follows Hannah and her relationship with men. Hannah falls for her office mates one after another while in a relationship that quickly goes sour. Greta Gerwig’s performance here is a revelation, a sweet characterization of trying to find love while finding yourself.

The Do-Deca-Pentathlon (2012)

One of the best movies I’ve seen on sibling rivalry, ever. Aptly directed by the Duplass brothers, the “Do-Deca-Pentathlon” is a sort-of “Olympics” developed  by two brothers when they were young. Alas, as it happens with epic childhood battles, the score was never settled, fanning the flames of an already heavy competitiveness into adulthood. The brothers meet again in all their middle-aged glory to try and settle that unresolved score.

Funny Ha Ha (2002)

It is the first film attributed to this genre. Andrew Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha is a story about Marnie, a recent college grad who is not quite sure what comes next in her life. She is shy, smart and unsure. There’s a lot of comedy involved, as the film depicts passive-aggressive behavior combined with the unaffected sweetness portrayed by Marnie. If you haven’t seen it, and you’re a recent college grad, I highly recommend it.

Ana Morgenstern

(Copyright 2014 by Ana Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

computer_chess_posterA rather cute notion clouds the mystical existential drama of Computer Chess, the new film by Andrew Bujalski. Just before the dawn of personal computers, software programmers from schools like MIT and Cal Tech have gathered at a convention to test programs of computer chess against one another. Bujalski and his longtime cinematographer Matthias Grunsky shot the film with actual technology of the era, a Sony AVC 3260 tube-based camera from the ‘70s (See Grunsky’s blog post on working with the camera). However, the film stands as so much more than a retro-fetishizing of the past. Not only does the cinematography match the era in which the film’s drama unfolds, but it adds a rather preternatural atmosphere to the goings on between man and computer.

With his new film, Bujalski offers a statement on the dilution of the mysteries of the analog and the romanticism surrounding that, lost to a mathematical world that threatens living organically, as computing continues to confine humanity while defining life experiences with every new, so-called “advance.” Indeed, this film stands as a work revealing an evolved, sensitive filmmaker, beyond the narcissistic world of mumblecore, a film scene of the early 2000s Bujalski helped define with early works like Funny Ha Ha (2002) and Mutual Appreciation (2005).

It all begins with setting atmosphere for Bujalski, and he uses the vintage filmmaking technology and all its quirks to his advantage. Along with the ghosting from lights burning too long on the mostly black and white images, the movie also has a flat sound quality to its audio track. computer-chess-3There are also explorations in archaic spilt-screen effects and some witty supers on teletype during the conference’s opening statements. The film’s slower pace also harkens to another time, if not the early 1980s, then certainly a sort of indie-film aesthetic defined by an elder Austin indie film pioneer: Richard Linklater. Characters talk over one another and during one marijuana-induced scene, reveal various ideas and fantasies about exploring what was then the very new world of artificial intelligence, from cold war concerns to existential entanglements.

The characters spend most of their time in a hotel of appropriately vintage quality. From the lamps, to the cheap dressers inside the hotel rooms, the film’s production designer, Michael Bricker, deserves extra acknowledgement. computer-chess-1He seems to have put great effort  into recreating “vintage banal,” as well as costume designer Colin Wilkes, who gets everything from the corduroy suits to the raggedy Polos and T-shirts that right sort of disheveled that would never pass in today’s hipster geek scene.

These superficial aspects aside, the film soon rises above its gimmick to enter a brilliant territory beyond nostalgia. It opens with a roaming camera as the nerds gather, awkwardly commenting to the camera. During an opening panel with the stars of this conference, the camera pans to the audience. One guy quietly but sternly shakes his head in disagreement while someone else nods off. It all seems rather candid and indulgent in its own “vintageness,” as if looking to create a faux document of a lost era. However, it soon becomes apparent that Computer Chess would like to offer much more than this. With hindsight perspective from the 21st century, the filmmakers choose to focus on whether humanity did the right thing to venture into this wormhole of artificial intelligence that now seems to rule our lives.

At the heart of the film, though by no means the film’s only level of drama, is Peter Bishton (Patrick Riester) and Shelly Flintic (Robin Schwartz), two young programmers who have an easy chemistry in their mutually awkward attraction to one another that never moves beyond brief glances. computer_chessMore pressing matters are at hand, as Peter appears more concerned about his team’s computer, TSAR, which only seems to follow disastrous moves against other computers. However, when Peter asks Shelly to play the computer, TSAR seems to make an effort. This quirk inspires Peter to think the computer was acting out and has an innate desire to play the game with a human.

This projection of a personality on TSAR by the sensitive Peter while he fails to connect with Shelly is just the tip of the iceberg. Bujalski spreads his ideas among more than this couple. There is the cocky human chess master Pat Henderson (played with deadpan bravado by Boston film critic Gerald Peary) boiling over with repressed anger at the notion of irrelevance. Then there’s the enigmatic “independent programmer” Michael Pappageorge (a charmingly quirky Myles Paige), Andrew-Bujalski_web1who may be programming in Sanskrit and seems to be haunted by fluffy cats. Acting as Peter’s foil and grounded mentor, family man Tom Schoesser (real-life University of Chicago computer science professor Gordon Kindlmann indulging in the film’s soberest character), would never dream of anthropomorphizing computers, as he casually but determinedly pioneers this new virtual cyberscape.

Even outside this group, other layers of the film’s concerns come to light. The fact that the tournament shares a conference room with an “encounter group” concerned with communal “rebirthing” experiences has a resonance far beyond the wink implied at the past. This is only another way humanity struggles to find the transcendental experience in a world that continues to work to rationalize existence while inching further away from the powers of mysticism.

One of the ways Bujalski maintains the mystical, beyond several strange scenes that seem downright Lynchian best left to surprise, is his inspired choices for the film’s soundtrack, specifically, his unearthing of the obscure folk singer Collie Ryan. The film features rather gorgeous musical interludes of Ryan rambling on guitar and warbling poetic lyrics that have a loop-like quality. computer-chess-2Her voice twitters like Kate Bush as she sings about nature and man’s futile role to do nothing but learn to flow with it. During one particularly powerful moment, she sings, “And the rain comes down easy/But the minds of men take longer,” against a montage featuring droplets of rain nourishing some small leaves, while the programmers hustle to cover up and protect their equipment from the casual wrath of nature. It’s raw, organic and positively stirring in an understated way.

Ryan comes from obscurity and is far from the mass media viral hype of today’s popular music artist who needs technology to achieve any sort of relevance in contemporary pop culture, from social media marketing to the computer programs used to “co-write” songs. Ryan came to the project because Bujalski wrote her a letter, of all things. She was an obscurity during an era that had long grown past folk music, in the early ‘70s. Bujalski only learned of her through a friend (reference). It’s a rather organic and pure word-of-mouth experience far from Google filters and Spotify suggestions, and it resonates against the images and concerns of the film as far as adding yet another layer to the montage.

With Computer Chess, Bujalski presents the beginning of an end. It chronicles the dawn of the digital world from the analog. But it’s so much more. This is the awakening of another consciousness, outside humanity’s. These are people toying with the latch of Pandora ’s Box.

Hans Morgenstern

Computer Chess runs  92 minutes and is not rated (language and sexuality). It opens in South Florida exclusively at the Miami Beach Cinematheque this Friday, Sept. 14, which provided a DVD preview screener for the purposes of this review. Nationwide, the film might already be playing in your neighborhood or coming soon, see full screening dates (that’s a hotlink). Yoga Records has provided a bandcamp page to stream the entire soundtrack for free here.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)


The other day, I ran a review of one of only a few films I have seen this year that I would already consider among the best of 2013: Frances Ha. It’s also one of those movies worth re-watching during its theatrical run, which began on Friday. But between writing the review and fretting about other writing assignments, I decided to squeeze in one more project: talk to the filmmakers behind the movie. When I inquired, it would turn out the studio, IFC Films, had been lining up phone interviews for the near future with the film’s star and co-writer, Greta Gerwig. A few pitches later, and I found myself second in line for a 15-minute chat with her. “Miami New Times” took the feature piece I wrote as a result. You can read it by jumping through the logo for “Cultist,” the alternative weekly’s art and culture blog; here’s a the link:

cultist banner

Of course, I am always left with extra bits of my conversations with my subjects, so here are some outtakes that cover how she and Frances Ha director/co-writer Noah Baumbach started writing the film, her feelings about being one of the pioneers of the mumblecore film scene and a little exchange about Whit Stillman, who directed her in Damsels In Distress, and was one of my more recent subjects (A cup of coffee in which director Whit Stillman and I reconsider my negative review of ‘Damsels In Distress’).

Hans Morgenstern: Is it accurate to say that you and Noah began writing this script when he sent you some emails asking you about your generation after you had completed Greenberg [their previous film together; Read the review here: Greenberg: The Great Projector]?

Greta Gerwig: He emailed me, and he asked me if I wanted to write something together that I could play and that he would direct. And that was the first interaction. Then I sent him a list of ideas that I had, which weren’t specifically about my generation. They were just character ideas, moments, small exchanges of dialogues or scenes or something I thought could go into a movie and some of those made it into the final movie and it was about three pages long, and he liked it. He added to it, and we just started writing scenes, and that was really how it began and how it developed. Most of it was written apart, in terms of the actual writing. It was sort of scene by scene, and we switched them off, but it was a slow process. It was about a year, and then, once we had a script, we did it as perfect as we could get it. Then we went figuring out how to shoot it.


You had your start in some of the indiest of indie films, which even frustrated some art film critics. I remember [“Film Comment” critic] Amy Taubin said she hated mumblecore (“Mumblecore: All Talk? Pros and Cons of the Much-Hyped Neo-Indie Movemenr”)

(Giggles) Yeah, she did not like it, but we’re friends now.

Did she revisit her analysis of those films at all?

No, I think she still hates those films, but she likes Frances, so she’s come around, I guess. But I think she still hates those films, which is totally fine. Everybody’s entitled to their own opinion.

My wife likes them, but I too don’t care for them, I have to admit.

That’s the thing about this, you’ll never make anything that will get a hundred percent approval, as much as you might want it (laughs).

Then you worked with Ti West and Noah. Did you feel you were on another sort of playing field with these directors?

It definitely felt like … it was such an interesting process of how I got to have the career I have, and I’m so grateful to all these different people at different moments I worked with who’ve taken me on as an actor and really taught me a lot. I feel very lucky. I would say the biggest difference is that when I was doing movies with Joe Swanberg and the Duplass brothers, they were so improvisation heavy, the Duplass brothers a little less so than Joe, Mark Duplass and Greta Gerwig in Hannah Takes the Stairsbut those movies, I was almost writing while I was speaking, I was figuring out what the scenes should be and then executing them while I was playing with scenes and that was actually great because it felt really free, and it felt like I got to work out a lot of ideas, and see how things played and almost experiment on camera, but then with Ti and with Noah and with Woody Allen and with Whit Stillman and Arthur and all the other films that I did since, as soon as I had a script-script, that was the departure and executing jokes and getting rhythms perfect, really find the art in the structure, and I think I really— at this point— I enjoy that a lot more. It’s not that I’ll never do the other thing again. It’s just I feel like I really did it for a while, and I just kinda wore thin on it, and I feel like, right now, as a writer, I like to make things as perfect as they can be, working with great writing, and as a viewer I like to see great actors execute great writing, but that might change for me. I might step back from that later and feel I like another thing, but I feel like one of the nice things of getting to do this for a while is I feel like I passed through a phase of my artistic interest, and I’m not as interested in that anymore.

I recently had a nice long lunch with Whit Stillman when he was in Miami.

Oh, I love Whit!

We had a fantastic couple of hours where we discussed my mixed review of “Damsels” which I have grown to have a deeper appreciation for over time.

Yeah, he’s great. He reads every single review, so I’m sure he read yours (laughs). He’s very, very engaged with his own critics, which I think it totally suits him. He’s good at that.

* * *

Hans Morgenstern

Frances Ha runs 86 minutes and is rated R (frank talk, including sexuality). It is now playing at the Coral Gables Art Cinema and the Regal South Beach Stadium 18 in Miami Beach. IFC Films provided an on-line screener for the purposes of this review. It arrives in West Palm Beach on May 31 at Living Room Theaters, Regal Shadowood and Regal Delray. Late next month, it will arrive at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. Nationwide screenings dates can be found here.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)