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Frances Ha star Greta Gerwig: 'You don't need love and sex in films'

Indie icon Greta Gerwig is fed up with conventional romance in films, she tells Kaleem Aftab, which is why she wanted to get behind the camera as well as in front of it for her new hipster comedy, Frances Ha

"We're not saying that everyone needs to be celibate, but you don't need a romance to complete a story about a woman," posits Greta Celeste Gerwig, darling of the American indie film scene and star and co-writer of Frances Ha, hailed by both Indiewire and Variety as being one of the 10 best films of the year so far. It will no doubt still be on film of the year lists come December too, following the acclaim it received in reviews last weekend.

The other half of the "we" is director Noah Baumbach, who cast Gerwig as the object of Ben Stiller's warped affection in Greenberg, and a few months later, when Baumbach left the mother of his child, actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, he got together with Gerwig both romantically and artistically. They kept the romance quiet, working on a movie being the perfect cover for their trysts. Now the film is out, so is their relationship. There is some irony in the fact that there was a romance off-screen when on-screen the duo dump the cinematic convention of love being the catalyst for drama by having lead character Frances casually, and without emotion, dump her boyfriend in the opening scene.

It's Gerwig who will deservedly get the big career boost. The 29-year-old stars as Frances, a Californian who comes to New York to be an apprentice at a dance company. The city that never sleeps delivers a nightmare scenario of high rents, a failing relationship with her best friend, and a harsh job market. It's like Lena Dunham's hit show Girls without the sex. The black-and-white film also doesn't have the trying supporting characters, and Frances has a winning personality that's less caustic and obnoxious than Dunham's Hannah.

Gerwig explains her attitude about depicting lovemaking on screen: "The threat of sex is there all the time, but she doesn't ever [have sex]. I might change, but I'm not really interested in love and sex in films right now. I think it's pretty well covered."

Another link to Girls is the brilliant actor and former marine Adam Driver. On the TV show he plays Hannah's sometime boyfriend and in the movie his amorous flirting with Frances ends when she rents a cheap room in his apartment. Gerwig was aware of some crossover with the HBO show but was wise enough not to purposely run away from it, accepting that both her and Dunham have hit upon the zeitgeist.

"I love Girls," Gerwig says. "I'm good friends with Lena, actually. I've known her in New York for a long time. I didn't see Girls until after this was done.I knew Adam was going to be in Girls. There was a moment of 'do we want to use the same actor?' but he's great and it feels right to have the best people. It doesn't matter. I think it's funny Lena is getting all this recognition, because when I first met her she was making two web shows at once. She's working the same way she has always been working, but now it's more public."

The same could be said of Gerwig. She rose to prominence in the mumblecore movement, which saw a group of film-makers take advantage of digital technology to make low-budget character-driven films using the same group of actors. Gerwig most often worked with Joe Swanberg, co-writing and playing the eponymous lead in 2007's Hannah Takes the Stairs and a year later adding a co-director credit in the long-distance relationship tale Nights and Weekends.

It was when she graduated to working with better-known auteurs – in Baumbach's Greenberg, Whit Stillman's Damsels in Distress and Woody Allen's To Rome with Love – that she finally started to get the plaudits that her work always deserved. The blot on her copybook came when she went mainstream and took a role in the awful Arthur remake starring Russell Brand.

It was working with Woody Allen that made her realise that she could never be satisfied with 'just' being an actor: "I love working as an actor with film-makers that I admire, but what I realised on the Woody Allen set is that I definitely wanted to be in the movie, but, more than that, I wanted to be Woody Allen, which is a different impulse. I'm attracted to making films with these directors because I would like to do what they do."

First, she has already written a second film with Baumbach, which, like Frances Ha, they have been trying to shoot under the radar. Still untitled, it takes place in New York and also stars Jemima Kirke, the English artist who plays Jessa on Girls.

It's easy to see why hipsters love Frances Ha – this is a film that's about aspirational culture from the perspective of an artist. Being loved by hipsters is not necessarily a stamp of approval to boast about, which explains Gerwig's caution when talking about the demographic that has made the film a big hit in New York City. "Hipsters love my movie," she acknowledges. "I don't really consider myself a hipster, and then I heard the tell-tale sign of being a hipster is that they don't consider themselves hipsters and I'm aware of the fact that that probably makes me one! Hipsters get a bad rap but what I think is great about them, and the culture of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, is that people who are hipsters tend to actually be engaged in art and film. I feel like there are two types of hipsters – those that are engaged in art and film, and then those that only watch things ironically, who won't go see an art house film but they see Transformers because they can enjoy it with a distance from it. So, I don't think that I appeal to them."

The French New Wave is clearly an influence, as is Holy Motors director Leos Carax. Indeed, there's a reference to Carax's Mauvais sang when Frances runs through New York looking for a cash machine to the sound of David Bowie's "Modern Love". Her take on running provides proof that Gerwig always makes the most of her talents. "I don't run, I'm really bad," she argues, before remembering, "I actually did run the New York marathon. I thought, 'What a challenge!' and it was thrilling and emotional. I ran past every apartment I've ever lived in. But, you know, at some point they say runners get a high that I didn't get, not even once... The weird thing is that I did rather well, running the marathon in four-and-a-half hours."

There are elements of Frances taken from Gerwig's own life. She grew up in Sacramento; she originally wanted to dance; her parents are not in the business; her mother is a nurse, her father a computer analyst and financial consultant; and she also lived in numerous apartments when she came to New York, trying to survive the rents.

"When I graduated from college, I lived in this apartment that didn't have heat, with five other girls. Literally, you could feel wind coming through the walls in the winter and we used to all sleep with our coats on. I didn't have a real bed, so I slept on an air mattress and the saddest part about it was that we were so lazy that we didn't move in the second year. We were so incapable of moving our lives forward that we were like 'just stay, let's just get the winter coats out again'. That was the worst of the many places I lived in."

'Frances Ha' is on general release