Greta Gerwig Mistress America
Cast: Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke
Director: Noah Baumbach
Running Time: 84 minutes
Synopsis: 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.
Release Date: October 29th, 2015
About the Production
A college freshman in New York gets a crash course in city life when she befriends her glamorous stepsister-to-be in Mistress America, a contemporary screwball comedy from filmmakers Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig.
For Tracy (Lola Kirke), her first semester at college in Manhattan is a major disappointment. Her classes are dull, her roommate is hostile and her crush, Tony (Matthew Shear), has an obsessively jealous girlfriend, Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas-Jones). Rejected by the literary society she had set her heart on joining, the aspiring writer reaches out to Brooke (Greta Gerwig), the going on 30-year-old daughter of her mother's fiancé – and everything in her life changes overnight.
Brooke introduces Tracy to a side of New York she has long dreamed of. Enthralled by Brooke's picturesque but illegal apartment, about-to-open combination bistro/hair salon/art gallery/community center, and endless stream of breezy non-sequiturs, Tracy is quickly swept into a series of adventures masterminded by her soon-to-be sister.
But when a major backer drops out of the restaurant, Brooke's supposedly charmed life begins to unravel. With Tracy, Tony and Nicolette in tow, Brooke hits the road to confront the person she believes owes her the most: her former BFF Mamie Claire (Heather Lind), who stole both Brooke's best idea and her wealthy boyfriend, Dylan (Michael Chernus), not to mention her two cats. At the couple's Connecticut mansion, a farcical and poignant encounter reveals the improbable truth in this comedy of modern manners.
If the role of Brooke, a sometimes mad, always entertaining, girl-about-town seems tailor-made for Greta Gerwig, that's because it was. In their second screenwriting collaboration, Greta Gerwig and acclaimed independent filmmaker Noah Baumbach have created another unpredictable, unforgettable and absolutely believable portrait of a contemporary woman.
The filmmakers also launched a major talent hunt to find an actress who could carry the heart of the film as Tracy, played by Lola Kirke. 'It's easy to underestimate the character of Tracy because she's our way into the story, our narrator," notes Noah Baumbach. 'In a sense, she's an unreliable narrator. The story is about her finding her voice and growing into herself."
Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig's first collaboration, Frances Ha, earned accolades for its stylish black-and-white portrayal of a young dancer in search of a home. The experience was so rewarding, says Noah Baumbach, that they have been writing together ever since, constantly bouncing ideas of each other and seeing where it takes them. 'I like working with Greta because I'm always amused and inspired by her. I look forward to reading what she's written."
The character of Brooke began as a minor player in a different story, a woman Greta Gerwig says was 'a small-time hustler with a lot of irons in the fire."
'As we wrote," continues Noah Baumbach, 'Greta would speak in Brooke's voice and it made us both laugh. We decided she deserved her own movie and started writing what became Mistress America. We began with Brooke and reverse-engineered the story from there. I have no idea what the inspiration was for Brooke, but once Greta started talking like her, I knew I'd like to see a movie with her playing this part."
They decided to introduce Brooke to the audience through the eyes of Tracy, an 18-year-old college freshman whose mother is about to marry Brooke's father. A straitlaced child of suburbia freshly arrived in New York, Tracy expects that every day in the city will be momentous and exciting.
'It turns out to be kind of depressing and lonely for her," says Greta Gerwig. 'Then her mother suggests she call Brooke and she is pulled into a madcap adventure. I'm a fan of the kind of '80s movies in which some amazing girl drags 'the square" into a crazy underground. They go on a big adventure and all this happenstance tumbles in. We wanted that feeling. I love the energy of those movies and I felt like I hadn't seen one for a long time."
Movies like Something Wild, After Hours and Desperately Seeking Susan, in which the protagonist is taken on a wild ride by an alluring stranger, were an influence, says Noah Baumbach. 'These were movies I saw when I was a teenager and they had a big effect on me," says Noah Baumbach.
Brooke appears to be the young woman every girl moves to the city to become"or at least become best friends with. 'She seems to have a lot going on," says Greta Gerwig. 'She's a fitness instructor and she's opening a restaurant and she's an interior designer and she has an idea for a female superhero named Mistress America. She's into everything and she knows everybody"but nobody is really her friend."
Meeting Brooke makes Tracy feel like her life has finally begun. 'It's a bit like Nick Carraway meeting Gatsby," Greta Gerwig explains. 'Tracy becomes the film's narrator. She is an aspiring writer, so when she meets this larger-than-life character, she starts to secretly chronicle all her goings-on in a short story she calls Mistress America."
With her 'It Girl" shelf-life growing ever shorter, Brooke is painfully aware that she has not yet achieved the success she expected. 'But she is dazzling when you first meet her," says Greta Gerwig. 'Her life seems fascinating from the outside. At Tracy's age, it's easy to idealize someone a little. As you get closer, you realize they are more complicated. People often construct very specific mythologies about what they think happened in their lives, but sometimes the more questions you ask, the more you realize that it can't possibly be true. That's what Tracy starts to suspect about Brooke."
The film is produced by Noah Baumbach, Greta Gerwig, Scott Rudin, Rodrigo Teixeira and Lila Yacoub, who has worked with Noah Baumbach on three previous films. 'Whenever I first read one of Noah's scripts, I'm always surprised," says Yacoub. 'The last few have all been very different from each other. His work has become more lighthearted over the years. That seems to be his evolution as an artist. This movie in particular is quite different for him. It's probably the most upbeat film he's made."
Noah Baumbach has taken an increased interest in telling female stories in recent years, according to Yacoub, especially since the success of Frances Ha. 'Noah really loves women," she says. 'There's usually a strong woman in his stories, which is one of the things that attracts me to his work. I'm thrilled that he's writing characters like Tracy and Brooke. I completely respect him as a filmmaker and as a writer. I'm so proud to be part of this little family that we've created. He brings a unique perspective to filmmaking."
Mistress America focuses squarely on the evolution of the friendship between two women, says Greta Gerwig. 'It is unusual to see a story about women that has nothing to do with their relationships with the men in their lives. That was a parameter we very deliberately set for ourselves."
Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig have developed a way of working that is both independent and collaborative. 'In the beginning we talk through the story a lot and both take notes," explains the director. 'Once we agree on an idea, we often work on individual scenes separately and pass them back and forth."
A lot of the actual writing happens that way, according to Greta Gerwig. 'We'll hash out an idea and get a structure. Then one of us writes the scene and brings it in. We'll read it out loud, listening for the right sound. Once we've got all the scenes, we start tinkering with the lines until we get to set. What's really great is that most of the time we are totally on the same page." Once production begins, however, their roles become more clearly delineated. 'We get the script into shape before we start shooting," says Noah Baumbach. 'Then we work mainly as director and actor. But if we need to tweak things, of course, we're both there to do it."
In addition to being a comic escapade, Mistress America is a multi-layered exploration of subjects near to Noah Baumbach's heart. 'There are a lot of things going on," says Yacoub. 'In some ways it is about identity. Tracy is trying to figure out who she is. Brooke is realizing that she is not quite who thinks she is. It's also about this fish-bowl life that we live through social media. It's all on Instagram or Twitter or Facebook. And it's about creativity, originality and the value of artistic license. Tracy is borrowing certain things from Brooke's life for her writing, which leads to the question of how one creates things."
Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach put particular emphasis on language. 'Generally speaking, I have a great love of minimalism and precise, unadorned writing," says Greta Gerwig. 'But for this, I wanted there to be almost too many words and I wanted them to come quickly and fall over each other. The movie is 86 minutes long, but it was a big script filled with words and ideas and people talking a mile a minute. It is as if Brooke's flair for banter inspires and elevates the other characters. It was exciting to watch the actors find their characters."
Yacoub agrees: 'The dialogue is so snappy and memorable and quotable. It calls to mind the classic screwball comedies. We don't often express ourselves that way today and its fun to see it onscreen."
Underneath the high spirits and humor, however, there is an undercurrent of melancholy that the filmmakers say is quite deliberate. 'The movie is genuinely funny," Yacoub says. 'But it also made me think back to my college days and that feeling of being a freshman alone in a city. That really rang true for me, as did the idea of making friends who become like family to you."
But there is also a sense that this is a temporary family that may not even last all the way through Tracy's college years, let alone past them. 'Tracy hasn't finished her first semester yet and, as Brooke says, this probably won't even be her big college story," Greta Gerwig notes. 'It's more of a detour. The ache that creates is my favorite feeling in movies, the feeling that this is maybe not the thing. They'll move on, they won't know each other, but what a time they had." The In Crowd
Although it was a given that Greta Gerwig would play Brooke, the role is a departure from her previous work, says Yacoub. 'Brooke is in your face. She believes so strongly in herself and she has a singular focus I wish I had. Her confidence level is amazing. Is it a delusion? Probably. But sometimes you have to be a little deluded to succeed."
After seeing many young actresses, they decided to cast relative unknown Lola Kirke to play Tracy. 'She had to both be funny and have pathos," Greta Gerwig says. 'We were so lucky to find Lola. She's at the beginning of what I'm sure is going to be an amazing career."
Lola Kirke had not yet filmed her breakout role in the blockbuster Gone Girl when she auditioned. 'We first saw her on tape," says Greta Gerwig. 'I loved the way she looked. And it was the first time some of the lines had been funny in the way that we thought they were funny, so we had her audition in person."
But the filmmakers were surprised by what they saw when Lola Kirke walked in. 'Lola Kirke is not like Tracy at all. She's totally confident and seems like she has never actually been intimidated by anybody in her whole life. But it became clear that she's a great actress who really got the essence of Tracy."
The deciding factor was chemistry. 'Once we put Lola Kirke on camera with Greta, it was obvious that they had it," says Yacoub. 'Tracy has a strength to her that she doesn't realize, which Lola was able to really convey well. She captured the loneliness and isolation of those first weeks of college when you are afraid you might never connect with anybody."
Lola Kirke didn't see a full script until about a week before shooting began. 'I was given a couple of pages at the audition and had to loosely memorize it before doing the scene," the actress recalls. 'I actually really enjoyed that. It took the pressure to be perfect off a bit, so I could be more spontaneous and in the moment."
The process was unlike anything she had experienced before or since, she says. 'No actor, no matter which part they were auditioning for, got any kind of script in advance. You might have 12 auditions and screen tests. When we started working, there were many, many takes and we explored each scene in many different ways. That level of perfectionism and commitment is really exciting to me."
When Lola Kirke did finally receive a complete script, she was, she says, ecstatic, adding: 'You really don't often see dialogue of the caliber that they wrote."
Tracy, she says, learns to feel special because someone she respects believes in her. 'She is very taken with Brooke and I could definitely relate to that feeling. I am willing to be led by powerful and strong women who are brave enough to do the things I don't think I can do by myself. In fact, in some ways the relationship between Brooke and Tracy mimicked the relationship between Greta and me. She is an impressive and talented woman and it was really something to be taken under her wing."
The rest of the ensemble was just as carefully chosen, drawn predominantly from the ranks of New York City's versatile and hardworking stage actors. 'One of the great pleasures of making this movie was that we got to cast great actors that audiences might not necessarily know," says Greta Gerwig.
Tracey's first (and for a while only) friend in New York is Tony, another aspiring writer she meets in a seminar. They start a friendship and a bit of a rivalry, sharing and critiquing each other's work.
'Matthew Shear plays Tony, who looks like he might be a romantic interest," says Greta Gerwig. 'Matthew has worked with the improv comedy group Upright Citizens Brigade in New York, but this is his first big role in a film. He came in and just started reading the lines. He was terrific."
'Matthew Shear reminds me of actors from movies in the 1970s," Noah Baumbach says. 'He has incredible sincerity as an actor that can be used for both dramatic and hilariously comic effect. He's great at losing it."
Shear recalls being asked to audition for an 'untitled Noah Baumbach project." Like Lola Kirke, he never saw a script and was given a few pages of dialogue at his appointment. 'And then three months later I got an unexpected callback. Again, I went in without any preparation. Noah and Greta and Lola were all there. I read with Lola and it was a whole lot of fun."
The actor had auditioned for Noah Baumbach when the director was casting The Squid And The Whale, but lost out on the role to Jesse Eisenberg. 'I was very impressed by the film, so to get another audition with Noah was really exciting for me," he says. 'He is very thorough director and incredible to work with. He is sharp, funny and imaginative. And his process is rigorous, which is intimidating at first, but it became a wonderful opportunity to explore and collaborate. He gives gentle suggestions and then we do the scene over and over and over again. Ultimately, it becomes liberating."
When he was finally presented with a full script, Shear was wowed by the thought and effort that had gone into crafting it. 'The writing was precise and witty, without being highbrow or off-putting," he says. 'Noah and Greta didn't want us to stray from the script. I really began to appreciate how well they crafted each sentence."
The relationship between Tracy and Tony takes a few unexpected detours, veering from confiding to flirtatious to competitive because they both aspire to be writers. 'Lola was such fun to work with," says Shear. 'She's very loose and funny and goofy. She seems to make friends easily and we connected from the beginning."
It turned out the two actors share a love of the same music"and even studied under the same acting coaches. 'I absolutely love working with Matthew," says Lola Kirke. 'When we weren't on camera, we were busy creating very elaborate harmonies."
Tony's jealous girlfriend, Nicolette, played by Jasmine Cephas-Jones, wants to keep him as far away from Tracy as possible. 'Jasmine has a terrifically dry sense of humor," Noah Baumbach says. 'Her and Matthew's growing rage toward each other makes me laugh. At the wrap party I discovered she also has a beautiful singing voice. This wasn't news to anyone else"or for anyone who has seen the musical, -Hamilton'"but it made us wish we'd given her a song."
According to Cephas-Jones, the filming process was very much like the audition process. 'It was always in the moment. They gave us ideas and we just rolled with them. I didn't really know how they would work together when I signed on, so it was a cool surprise. Even on set, they were throwing ideas back and forth, and everyone was cracking jokes."
Watching Greta Gerwig juggle acting, writing and producing inspiring, Cephas-Jones says. 'You could almost see the ideas running through her head. She's completely ahead of the game and ready to do as many takes as it needs to get what she wants. Noah has the same commitment. He gives you the options to play with and then leaves it up to you to execute."
When Brooke's campaign to save the restaurant culminates in a trip to the Greenwich, Connecticut, the home of a wealthy couple she believes owes her, Tony's car is commandeered and Nicolette's jealous suspicions compel her to go along for the ride. 'Tracy obviously has a crush on Tony," says Cephas-Jones. 'Nicolette is afraid that Tony's going to cheat on her. She is an outsider and she wants to fit in. The only way she can do that is through her boyfriend, so she kind of brags and nags until she gets what she wants."
The upper-crust couple in question, Brooke's old friends Mamie Claire and Dylan, are played by Michael Chernus and Heather Lind. 'And they are just hysterical," says Yacoub. 'They are great actors with wonderful, unique faces. They help set a new tone for what follows."
Greta Gerwig remembered meeting Chernus while she was studying playwriting in college. 'The teacher invited some actors from New York to do a reading of a play I'd written," she says. 'Michael Chernus was one of them, so I've always had a real affection for him."
Noah Baumbach had been wanting to cast Chernus in one of his films for a while. 'Dylan was a perfect part for him," says Noah Baumbach. 'I was thinking about Jack Warden in Shampoo. No matter how badly he behaves, you still kind of love him. I needed someone like that to play Dylan." As Mamie Claire, Lind is an uptight suburban striver who provides a great foil for Greta Gerwig's Brooke. 'When you first meet Mamie Claire, you think you know exactly who she is, but as things unfold, you realize you don't know her at all," says Noah Baumbach. 'Heather understood that and played it brilliantly."
The cast is rounded out by Dean Wareham (who also provided the film's score with musical partner Britta Phillips) as Harold and Mamie Claire's disgruntled neighbor; Kathryn Erbe, well known from her long stint on the 'Law and Order" franchise, as Tracy's mom; and Cindy Cheung as a pregnant book-club member left stranded by her husband at the Connecticut mansion.
'I know there are amazing actors everywhere, but I feel like New York actors are solid as a rock," says Greta Gerwig. 'You can put them in any situation and they're going to make the text sound terrific. It's so exciting to be able to be in a position to hire all these talented people." How To Create Controlled Chaos
Mistress America was shot in New York City and Connecticut in Noah Baumbach's preferred style"with a tight, small crew. 'It felt like a filmmaking band of brothers," Greta Gerwig says. 'All hands were on deck all the time. On most films, everything is all set up by the time they bring the actors on set. Working this way means we build everything together. We didn't have trailers, so there was nowhere to go away to."
Noah Baumbach returned to frequent musical collaborators Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips to create a score that evokes the 1980s in New York. 'The music is very specific," says Yacoub. 'Noah wanted an '80s vibe to the movie. Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips knocked it out of the park. It's reminiscent of t
The period, but with their distinctive spin. I think it's just a great soundtrack." The husband-and-wife team, who first joined forces as members of cult-favorite indie band Luna, have provided music for The Squid And The Whale, Frances Ha And Greenberg, as well as appearing in several of Noah Baumbach's films. 'We thought this was an opportunity to do something that evoked bands like New Order and OMD," says Noah Baumbach. 'Dean and Britta have very much their own sound, so I knew that by asking them to do something in this vein they would naturally come up with something only they could do. The result is one of my favorite scores. It has terrific energy, romanticism, beauty and a sense of humor. It's a great score for New York City."
The film's mile-a-minute climax starts with a poorly thought out road trip and builds to a new take on classic farce, with characters busting in and out of rooms in a glass-walled Connecticut mansion, as Brooke makes a last-ditch effort to bail out her failed restaurant deal. The scene's frenetic pace and action throughout the house matched Brooke's personality and manic energy perfectly.
'There's always a road trip in this kind of movie," Greta Gerwig says. 'You've got to get in the car at some point. We thought moving the action to Greenwich, Connecticut, would be kind of hilarious."
The controlled chaos that erupts was very carefully scripted and filmed, she adds. 'We had a screenplay that was strictly adhered to. It looks out of control, but nothing was shot in a messy, hand-held way. It was really precise and rigorous, like the rest of the shoot, but allowed everyone to participate in defining the scene."
As the backdrop for the climactic sequence, the filmmakers found an enormous glass house with 360-degree views and sliding doors galore. 'Usually there are a lot of slamming doors in farce, but we thought it would be fun if all the doors were sliders," Greta Gerwig says." 'It makes them impossible to slam."
Shooting these scenes was a terrific experience for the cast, says Cephas-Jones. 'We were going in and out of rooms constantly, the blocking was precise and the logistics were challenging, but also really fun."
The ensemble nature of Mistress America couldn't be clearer than it is in that scene, according to Kirke. 'There was some complicated choreography and it was really fun to be able to do that. Someone exits and then someone enters and someone moves a table."
With nine actors in the scene, the logistics had to be meticulous. The actors needed to speak very quickly and talk over each other, keeping the dialogue crisp while also following precise blocking. 'It's not just the four New Yorkers," Greta Gerwig points out. 'There are also Mamie Claire and Dylan, one of their neighbors, the housekeeper and a woman from Mamie Claire's book group, all wandering around this huge house. It looks effortless but it took a lot of planning to get right. We tried to shoot economically with as many people in each shot as possible. There's one long -walk and talk' with Brooke following Mamie Claire and it was like an obstacle course. We had to hit multiple marks and pass other people at just the right moment."
Greta Gerwig hopes audiences are amused and entertained by the story of Tracy and Brooke, but she also thinks they will be surprised and moved. 'I want them to feel like they saw something they've never really seen before. There's something very exciting about that."
Release Date: October 29th, 2015