Beyond Vassar

On Location: Noah Baumbach ’91 Films at Vassar

By Elizabeth Randolph
Frances Ha was co-written by Greta Gerwig—who also stars as the title character.
Frances Ha was co-written by Greta Gerwig—who also stars as the title character.

Noah Baumbach’s “people” originally requested permission to use Vassar as a location in August of 2011. The initial request was to shoot for five days in the following locations: a place suitable for a “high end” reception—someplace with a kitchen and a bar (the Alumnae House living room, kitchen, and the Pub would work out fine); a dorm room (unused rooms in Main’s fifth floor, South Tower), a “computer center” (Mudd’s computer classroom), a welcome desk (a table in the College Center), and a dance studio (Kenyon, Studio III). Baumbach wanted to get several exterior shots, too, including woods (the crew settled on a location behind the Observatory), and, of course, an obligatory stroll across the Quad.

The preparations were for the filmmaker’s most recent movie, Frances Ha, in which the eponymous main character, an aspiring dancer, tries to find her way in New York City after graduating from an unnamed Ivy-league college. Frustrated by her lack of success (and money), Frances finds herself adrift, and eventually returns to her Poughkeepsie alma mater as a “resident assistant” in a summer dance program. While on campus, she finds a job serving wine at an event for high-end college donors.

“We are looking to do some filming at a college campus and, of course, Noah would prefer to shoot at Vassar College,” stated the request to film professor Ken Robinson. It went on to explain that, unlike most film shoots, theirs would be done with “a miniscule crew (under ten)” and would be “extremely low impact.”

The crewmembers were true to their word. Most people didn’t realize a film was being shot.

Ed Cheetham, producing director of the Powerhouse Theater Program at Vassar, acted as a liaison to Baumbach and his crew, and recalls, “It was a secret, really, that Noah was even making a film. There really were no trucks, no craft services, no trailers, and no insufferable gatekeepers. There were no press agents or paparazzi following them around. They were shooting with a small 35mm digital camera, with little set-ups and limited equipment and crew.”

Over the course of the filming—which actually extended into eight days due to the large amount of material the crew had to cover—Cheetham gained an appreciation for Baumbach’s low-key style of filmmaking. “A film shoot might be one of the more tedious things to experience,” says Cheetham, “but what I observed was an example of how you can tell a story in a simple, ‘low impact’ kind of way. Noah’s desire and method of making this film was sort of the equivalent of those Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney films where a barn is used as a theater and the rallying cry is ‘Hey kids, let’s put on a show!’”

There was just a group of people who shared a common passion and goal to tell a story,” adds Cheetham.

Indeed, intimate, low-budget movies focused on the dynamics between family members and friends have become the hallmarks of Baumbach’s work. And some critics have compared the stripped down Frances Ha to the ensemble films of Woody Allen, the au courant HBO series Girls, and to French New Wave cinema.

“The style is reminiscent not only of Woody Allen's Manhattan—an inescapable comparison, given its black-and-white vision of New York City—but also of Jim Jarmusch and Francois Truffaut,” noted David Morgan in a review for CBS News.

Baumbach first made a name for himself in 1995 with the indie movie Kicking and Screaming, and an even bigger splash in 2005 with the critically acclaimed The Squid and the Whale, for which he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay, as well as Golden Globe and Independent Spirit nods. He went on to direct similar films such as Margot at the Wedding and Greenberg.

This most recent film, co-written by Greta Gerwig—who also stars as the title character—had its world premiere at the 2012 Telluride Film Festival, before going on to the Toronto International Film Festival, the New York Film Festival, and festivals in Europe.

Now that IFC Films has acquired Frances Ha’s North American and Latin American rights, stay tuned for Baumbach’s view of campus. After all, every location they used shows up in the film.