Spotlight on Greenberg's Greta Gerwig and Mark Duplass
Alicia Van Couvering outlines the role two of Greenberg’s stars have played in the emergence of a new generation of American indie filmmakers.
Partway through Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg, the character Eric Beller appears. He is Greenberg’s now-successful former bandmate, lounging on a couch in a very comfortable L.A. home. Beautiful children with wildly original names run by, and Beller, dressed in an expensive version of cheap clothes, enthusiastically greets the main character, played by Ben Stiller.
It’s a small part, but the actor makes an impression. In fact, the actor who plays Beller—Mark Duplass—and co-star Greta Gerwig are prolific members of a film scene that has shaken up the independent scene of the last couple of years. Their films have played at U.S. film festivals and arthouse theaters, have been the hallmarks of pioneering distribution experiments, and have been featured in magazine articles with titles like “The New Next Wave” and “Welcome to Un-Hollywood.”
Both Gerwig and Duplass call themselves actor-writer-directors, though not necessarily in that order. Both became noticed in 2005, when Duplass and his brother Jay premiered their film The Puffy Chair at Sundance. It was a film shot on camcorders, recorded with a crew of three, and starred the siblings and Mark’s then-girlfriend/now-wife Katie Aselton as characters loosely based on themselves. The dialogue was unscripted, though the narrative had a clear structure: two friends, one with a girlfriend, venture out on a cross-country road trip in pursuit of the eponymous chair and the answer to some of life’s problems. Shortly thereafter, at the 2006 South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, TX, Gerwig made what could be called her film debut in Joe Swanberg’s LOL, a film that also employed a tiny crew of non-professionals, naturalistic acting and rough-hewn editing. It was easy to group the two features with others on the festival circuit that shared the aesthetic traits that come most naturally to films with no paid crew, lights or professional actors. In addition to The Puffy Chair and LOL there were Andrew Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation, Aaron Katz’s Quiet City, Kentucker Audley’s Team Picture, and Swanberg’s 2007 Hannah Takes the Stairs, which starred Duplass, Gerwig and Bujalski. Apparently it was Bujalski’s sound mixer who coined a term to label them all: mumblecore.
“The M word, yeah,” says Duplass, speaking five years, eight films and one TV show after mumblecore began. “I think it was really useful five years ago, when it was bringing attention to our little movies. That was great, to have the New York Times or whatever pay attention to us. But there are so many people working in the no-budget sphere now, and to have one word define all those films…it’s kind of a dead duck.”
Asked about getting the role at the Berlin Film Festival premiere, Greta Gerwig too alluded to her indie past as being firmly in the past. From indieWIRE:
“I just feel great that now I am in real movies,” Gerwig beamed, during a press conference [for Greenberg.] Then she caught herself. “Not that the other ones weren’t,” she quickly added.
Indeed, ask anyone associated with the term about mumblecore, and they will rankle with mixed emotions. For some film critics, it has become an epithet, lodged at films whose lack of money and discipline seem to be the overriding motive behind their creative choices. Many of these critics didn’t get that the m-movement is more about a shared idea of community than a shared aesthetic. This is a close-knit group of friends, working on and in each others’ work, traveling the festival circuit together. And now that the press is dying down, the founding members of the movement that never wanted to call itself a movement are moving on—often, it turns out, with Hollywood’s help.
One of the first connections that mumblecore made with Hollywood was Noah Baumbach’s executive producer title on Joe Swanberg’s 2009 film (one of the only ones not to star Gerwig), Alexander the Last.
As Joe Swanberg tells it, he emailed Noah Baumbach out of the blue after seeing Margot at the Wedding. Baumbach had seen Hannah Takes the Stairs, which stars Gerwig as a confused post-grad with a number of romantic options. Baumbach asked for a script of Alexander the Last, liked it, and began to advise Swanberg on the casting, editing, and beyond.
Speaking with Filmmaker Magazine at SXSW in 2009, Swanberg explained that working with Baumbach made him more confident as a director, especially when collaborating with a professional group of actors. “[Baumbach was] encouraging me to get things out of them that wouldn’t necessarily occur to me… Shooting multiple takes [and] being more decisive about the things that I wanted, and [to be] more confident,” Swanberg said. “Going in, I wasn’t as forceful and brave a director as I am now.”
But Baumbach’s influence didn’t completely change how Swanberg, or Duplass, run their productions, which prioritize performance and freedom for the actors above all else. (They generally forego formal scripts in favor of improvisation.) But did getting to know mumblecore have an effect on Baumbach?
According to Duplass, not in any superficial ways. “[On the Greenberg set with Noah,] we weren’t just fumbling through trying to find something natural, we’re trying to use our naturalism to make a scripted and rehearsed thing. Noah loves his script. Noah loves his words. Noah wants you to say those words.” Baumbach and d.p. Harris Savides “really convey a tone of ‘We have done this a lot,’” says Duplass.
“Compared to my sets, there’s a lot more crew around,” he continues. “You knew that this was going to be a good-looking movie, that the visual element of the film is important to them. Whereas me and Jay make every set into a closed set, and at any given moment in time we’ll sacrifice the visual quality to make the actors feel good.”
I asked Duplass why he thought Baumbach cast him and Gerwig in the film.
Speculates Duplass: “Well I know why people cast Greta – she’s magnetic. You can’t stop watching her.” (Duplass knows from experience — Gerwig plays a lead role in his horror comedy Baghead.) “There’s something to be said for directing actors who also have a filmmaker component to them -- they understand the effort, they understand what you’re going through, they don’t diva out on you — it’s nice.”
“To venture a guess,” he continues, “that the reason he hired the actors he hired is because he wants the sense of immediacy and naturalism as much as directors like us want it… Noah and Jennifer [producer and co-story creator Jason Leigh] and Harris are this little team, and they’re there making this really beautiful and visually poetic film. If you’re gonna be doing that, maybe you want to have the most naturalistic actors you can, so you can get that little one-two combo punch.”