- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Chances are, you’ve had a friend like Brooke: proactive, loquacious, prone to exaggeration, the life of the party. Someone you know you might do better to avoid but whom you cannot help but be drawn to.

For Greta Gerwig, who plays the high-maintenance Brooke in the new film “Mistress America,” she didn’t have to look far for the character’s inspiration.

“Every third thing that comes out of her mouth sounds like a lie, but then some of it turns out to be true,” said Miss Gerwig, who co-wrote the script with director Noah Baumbach, who already has the spring comedy “While We’re Young” to his 2015 resume.

Miss Gerwig described Brooke as an “amalgam” of people both she and Mr. Baumbach encountered over the years, someone who “if she had 10 percent less integrity, she would have been more successful as a socialite because she would have just married somebody she doesn’t care about for the money and just gotten out of the game. But she just has a little bit too much integrity for what her aims are. And I find characters like that heartbreaking.”

“Mistress America,” which opens in the District Friday, follows young Tracy (Lola Kirke), who starts her college life in New York as a lonely, shy teen. At the insistence of her mother, Tracy contacts Brooke, who is destined to soon be her step-sister. Brooke, at 30, is already a seasoned Manhattanite, and briskly takes Tracy under her wing in an “uptown/downtown” dynamic.

“My college experience was similarly miserable my freshman year,” said Miss Kirke, who joined Miss Gerwig for a joint interview with The Washington Times, adding it was “lonely and filled with microwavable pizza and noodles. So it was fun to get to make that into something more enjoyable in a film.

“There’s humor to your misery, and you will find maybe a person like [Brooke] to make you come into your own.”

Miss Gerwig said that feeling of alienation was key to the writing process. It wasn’t until she started promoting the film, however, that the realization came that, unlike most college films that celebrate young adulthood as a nonstop party, “Mistress America” took a more realistic tack.

The truth of college life, for many, she said is “lonely and weird. And that didn’t even occur to me that was something unique about this film, and I thought, well everyone is lonely when they get to college, it just hasn’t been recorded.

“That’s always exciting when you realize that some truth that is self-evident to you has actually not been codified in a film in any way.”

Miss Gerwig was insistent that every word of the screenplay she wrote with Mr. Baumbach be followed to the letter. There was no room — or tolerance — for improv in either the auditions or during filming.

“We want it said the way we wrote it,” she said, adding that many of her contemporaries have been coached to improvise or even see the written dialogue as being completely elastic.

“We would have to say to them, if there is a ‘like’ in there, there’s a rhythmic reason for it, and you have to say it in the order that it comes,” Miss Gerwig explained.

“It’s kind of like songwriting in that way,” agreed Miss Kirke. “Or Shakespeare, dare I say.”

Miss Gerwig shares a romantic relationship with Mr. Baumbach, but she said the pair didn’t have much in the way of separation between professional and personal lives during the scriptwriting process.

“We don’t start the clock and say, ‘Now we’re punching in,’” she said. “When we write, we’ll actually go off separately and then come back and trade pages. Once we have a lot of pages and a working draft, we’ll sit down and work on it together, but mostly we’re generating material separately. And it’s the thing we both love doing the most.”

The film’s most extended sequence involves an impromptu road trip to the Connecticut home of a key character, a house filled with pregnant women taking a prenatal class. The visit turns into an extended screwball play that calls to mind the Howard Hawks comedies of the 1940s.

“It was timed down to the second of … all the things that needed to happen,” Miss Gerwig said. “It was lot of choreography and a lot of work to make it seem like it was just happening” spontaneously, she said.

“We shot that sequence for like a month,” Miss Kirke added.

One of the ongoing gags of the sequence is that one of the pregnant women is awaiting her husband to pick her up, which Miss Gerwig said was loosely based on her own mother’s typically tardy retrieval of her as a child.

“I felt as if I had gotten involved in so many weird things because my mom never picked me up,” she said, which she added often entailed impromptu dinner invitations at the locations she was left at.

The budget was small, often requiring crew members to double their duties — Miss Gerwig would often get a makeup touchup from the cinematographer — which the writer said felt almost as if the entire company went “to war together.”

“Having everyone work together just makes it feel more communal,” she said. “But I find that a more natural way to work.”

What they lacked in finance the filmmakers made up for with as many fresh takes as they could get to capture the hoped-for energy.

“Films are one of the only artforms where you have to make it on a clock, and that’s a really odd way to work,” Miss Gerwig said. “And we shoot it till we get it. And we have the freedom to walk away from it at the end if it’s not working and come back the next day, which you never have when you’re working on a $150 million movie.

“It’s actor-friendly too because if you can’t cry today, that’s OK, we can do it [tomorrow]. Lola can cry every day,” she said with a laugh.

“It’s harder, I think, laughing believably,” said Miss Kirke.

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