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Greta Gerwig talks 'Frances Ha'

Gary Thompson, MOVIE CRITIC

Updated: Friday, May 24, 2013, 3:01 AM

IN "FRANCES HA," Greta Gerwig creates a character who's heir to the tradition of Annie Hall or Mary Richards.

Frances can turn the world on with her smile, etc., and, if the character's profile continues to rise (an Oscar nomination seems possible), she may even become iconic, like those other names, or perhaps Julia Roberts in "Pretty Woman," although I don't think that particular pretty woman turned people on with her smile, strictly speaking.

Point is, in Frances, a hard-luck girl trying to make it in the big city, Gerwig has written and embodied a woman who's caused a bit of a swoon among viewers.

Folks like the movie, they love the character.

"Of course I feel happy that people are reacting this way," says Gerwig, 29, an actress known mostly for roles in small, independent movies like "Baghead" and "Greenberg." "When people say how much they loved and cared about Frances, how much they were invested in the story, that's hugely gratifying.

"But I can say that I absolutely did not set out to get that reaction. Otherwise, you're like a kid that knows it's cute, and that's the least cute thing in the world."

Gerwig said the only goal in creating Frances - a multiyear, semisecret collaboration with director Noah Baumbach (who helmed "Greenberg") - was trying to create a collection of "truthful" moments that might illuminate the life of an urban 20-something.

For many months, the cobbled-together project didn't have a plot. Just a bunch of random moments. It started with a small list of Gerwig's ideas, then slowly grew.

"Some of the things on the original list actually ended up in the movie. Like Frances deciding whether or not to pay the $3 ATM fee. Noah looked at that, added his own ideas, and it became something."

The scene is really Frances in a nutshell. She's on a date, she's promised to pay, her card is denied, she races to the ATM, then has to decide whether to pay the draconian fee to access the small sum in her paltry account - one of the small-but-huge crises that add up to a life for a woman like Frances, who pinballs through a series of mostly unfortunate events.

"We talked always about this being a road movie, but nobody really goes anywhere," Gerwig said.

For a time, the project was just as adrift, but Gerwig was having so much fun writing it she didn't care.

"I didn't want to talk about it too much, didn't want to intellectualize it. Things were going so well and I didn't want to scare it into not going well," she said. And there was a eureka moment.

"When it clicked in was when we arrived at this idea of a love story between Frances and her best friend. That really activated Frances, and the movie."

The road movie to nowhere really begins when Frances' roommate/best friend (Mickey Sumner) gets engaged, moves out, leaves Frances without an apartment or an emotional tether. She moves among apartments and people and jobs, as optimistic as she is uncertain.

"I think we always thought of Frances as being indomitable. We put her through her paces, she makes a lot of bad decisions, but she has a spirit that keeps her going. I guess it sounds pretentious, but we kind of saw this as a spiritual journey."

And Frances is a heroic figure, in the classic sense. It's why they gave her a gender-neutral name.

"She's on a journey, the journey is hard, and that's not man-specific or woman-specific. It's about being human."

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Gary Thompson, MOVIE CRITIC

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