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Greta Gerwig on How ‘Lady Bird’ Represents a New Kind of Coming-of-Age Tale

Written by Joshua Encinias on October 30, 2017 

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Writer-director Greta Gerwig’s new film Lady Bird is packed with the ‘brain trust’ of American theater: Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Stephen McKinley Henderson, and Lois Smith. Joining them are some of the finest young actors of their generation with Saoirse Ronan as Lady Bird, Lucas Hedges and Timothée Chalamet as her two love interests, Danny and Kyle, respectively, and Beanie Feldstein as Lady Bird’s doting best friend, Julie.

With the film now arriving in limited release this week, we’re returning to the 55th New York Film Festival, where Greta did a public talk with Thelma Adams and a press conference hosted by Kent Jones. Gerwig talks in depth about exploring the personhood of a young woman, the sometimes volatile love between mother and daughter, and sneaking into NYFF during college. See highlights below.

Why Lady Bird isn’t a typical coming-of-age story

Usually movies about teenage girls, even if it’s not the primary story, it tends to center around one guy. That’s the love story. In my story there’s not one guy, there’s two guys and they’re both wrong, because that’s not the love story. The love story is between her and her mother. I think it’s an incredibly rich and vivid time and I think when I was looking back, I thought what is Boyhood but for a girl, or what is 400 Blows but for a girl, what are these stories? And not does she date the guy, but what is personhood for young women? I just felt like there was a dearth of it. Romance seems to be the thing that women primarily do in movies. It’s not that I don’t like that; it’s not that I’m not interested in it–it just can’t be the only story we’re telling about what women do.

Greta Gerwig’s goal as a director

Most directors are only ever on their own set. They don’t actually know how anybody else does it and I’ve seen so many ways of working with crew and actors and department heads, I feel like the biggest thing a director can do is create a bubble of magic safety for their actors and for their department heads and hold the perimeter. So that they feel safe to play and bring their whole selves. Also with the actors, that they feel that they own those roles. The minute that we start rehearsing they know more than I do. I do not hold a secret key of who the person is — they do. They should be able to take it into themselves so they can be the guardian of the person. Even to the point of… the way I had my actors work with my costume designer, I had them build wardrobes instead of costuming each scene. Because it goes over a year, I wanted Saoirse to be able to say I think this is what she would wear in this scene. This is what’s in her closet and what does she want to wear today. That’s actually something I innovated. [Laughs] I think the thing you don’t want actors to feel is they always have to look to you for permission, because I think that limits the work they can do. When they think, “No, it’s mine and I understand it,” it opens up. I always wanted the actors to have secrets from me with each other. I also wanted them to have little things they knew and they came up with that were their codes with each other. Because the truth is I’m not in the make believe world with them. I’m capturing it.

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Working with playwright-actor Tracy Letts

I absolutely adore him. He’s so kind, but he’s intimidating. If I would give him a note he would always say, “I understand” (Gerwig says stoically). I would be like, are you gonna do it? He always would. Obviously he’s one of our great playwrights. I also felt in the course of this film, I had Tracy Letts, Lois Smith, Stephen McKinley Henderson and Laurie Metcalf. I was like, nothing better happen to them because this is the brain trust of the American theater. He’s such a great writer, but he’s also an incredible actor. For me to see those two things go together, he just brings his intelligence as a writer, but he also has what all actors have and it’s an enormous empathy machine inside. He has so many good, small things in the film. When his wife and daughter start fighting I think he just wants to go somewhere else because he loves them both and it’s so painful to watch them fight, so he just kind of leaves the room.

The first draft of the screenplay was 350 pages long

It’s always a little hard to know exactly how long it takes me to write something because I’m constantly writing and I don’t know what pieces become something. What I do know is that I have a draft, a very long draft, of this movie from the end of December 2013. So at least a couple years. It was about three hundred and fifty pages. There were a lot more dances. Some of the scenes didn’t go anywhere. It wasn’t like three hundred and fifty pages of something narratively cohesive, it was three hundred and fifty pages of stuff. Then I looked at it and felt what was essential and what was the core of the story to me. I don’t really decide what the core of a story is before I write. I write to figure out what the story is. I think the characters end up talking to you and telling you what they want to be doing and what’s important to them. In some ways your job is to listen as much as you write, to listen to what they characters who are coming through you tell you.

Casting Saoirse Ronan at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival

I didn’t have her in mind while I was writing, but in 2015 I met her at the Toronto Film Festival. She read the script and she really responded to it. I was going to be there with Maggie’s Plan and she was going to be there with Brooklyn. We met and we sat in her hotel room and she read all of Lady Bird’s lines and I read everybody else’s lines and I knew within the first two pages that she was Lady Bird and that she had the part, but I just selfishly wanted to hear it all outloud said by her. She’s such an incredible actress. I can’t really say enough about her. There was something about the way she did it that was instantly different from the way I heard it in my head, and so much better, unique and specific to her. And she has a quality of being always emotionally at a ten, which made it that much funnier. Because it was all out of a place of sincerity. She never played the joke with quotes around it, she always played it from the inside. It made everything vivid in a way I always hoped for, but you just never know if you’re going to be able to find the exact person who’s going to be able to capture that. And she just instantly did.

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On Ronan channeling Barbra Streisand

I’ve always loved that song [Everybody Says Don’t from the Broadway show Anyone Can Whistle] and I think it spoke to where her character was at that point. Of always feeling like everywhere she turned she couldn’t move. As soon as I heard her sing it she was so funny and committed. Barbra Streisand made a recording of that song and it’s a really great recording, so she was listening to that version. So in a way this was her channeling Barbara. Which, that’s enough to make a movie.

“Discovering” Laurie Metcalf

Really, all of the actors in the film, I am so blessed and they are so wonderful. And Laurie in particular, I knew I wanted an actor who could hit a home run. It felt exciting and like a discovery even though she, to anyone who’s been paying attention, she’s not a discovery. But I felt like I knew she had this enormous power, of this enormous skill set of empathy and everything she brings to the character she plays. And I had seen her on stage more than anything else, and I when I left the theater I thought to myself, I have never seen anything in my life like that unfolded in front of me. When we were thinking about the part, I had already written the script, and as soon as her name came up as a possibility I thought she’s a genius. We talked on the phone and she’s a bit like a great athlete. She didn’t have to spend a lot of time going on about the character. She just said that I think this is something I need to do and sometimes things come into your life at the right moment. She said I currently have a seventeen-year-old child who is trying to kill me, so I think this is exactly what I need to be doing right now. Working with her was extraordinary and I learned so much from her. Getting to watch her and Saoirse work together, it was like watching a match of two greats. Each one of them had different ways of getting into it, but when they were in scenes together, it was like watching two heavy weights.

Gerwig’s next career move

I always wanted to direct but I didn’t go to proper film school. I went to Barnard College for women uptown. When I started production on this, I’d been working in film for ten years, and I’d done every job I could do. I was lucky to act a lot and be on a lot of great director’s sets. I had written, I had co-written, I had held the boom mic, I had edited, costumed, applied powder. I was using that to gather my ten thousand hours, whatever Malcolm Gladwell’s requirement is. When I finished the script, I said, “You always wanted to do this, you’re not going to get any more information, you’ve just got to jump, you’ve gotta go do it.” I loved doing it. It was a very wonderful experience of making the film and I hope I continue to be able to act in projects that I love with directors that I admire. Now that I tore the band aid off, I think I’m going to keep making movies, I’m going to keep writing and directing films. Hopefully continuing to do all of it.

Lady Bird’s depiction of working class America

Class is a very difficult thing in America. One of my favorite filmmakers is Mike Leigh. He’s British, and I think the British class system is very clear of who’s where. I think in America I think 95% of people describe themselves as middle class. That’s people who fall into the poverty spectrum and also people at the very top. We are very uncomfortable with class and how that works. I think it’s an invisible force that shapes a lot of people’s lives. I’ve always thought life is not fair and resources are not divided fairly, either in talents or in economics. I think one thing I wanted to explore is Lady Bird’s always looking up at other people, people who she thinks have more, have it all together. Meanwhile, those people are looking up at other people and she also doesn’t see what she has because in a culture of more, more, more and I always need to get to the next level, there’s no way to appreciate what you have. It’s not explicitly stated, but I think her best friend Julie looks up to her, she’s got a house, she’s got two parents, she’s okay. It’s that disease of looking up combined with the way these things are very real and untalked about. It’s something I wanted to explore and have a reality to.

Sneaking into NYFF during college

New York Film Festival is the festival. I went to college in town and I used to get dressed in a fancy dress and go to Tavern on the Green and try to sneak into the opening night party and I succeeded for three years. Someone would always leave a side door open and you just act like your drink is inside or you see someone. I probably shouldn’t give that away but it’s just true. It’s what I did, because I was a nerd and I wanted to see Isabelle Huppert.

Lady Bird screened at the 55th New York Film Festival and opens on Friday, November 3.


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