Greta Gerwig talks 'Lady Bird,' growing up and the year of the female director
Greta Gerwig has hit the ground running with her directorial debut in "Lady Bird." A vaguely autobiographical comedy-drama about teen angst in 2002 Sacramento, Gerwig illustrates a mother-daughter relationship that has already captured several awards, earned a record-shattering 100 percent ‘Fresh’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes with over 180 reviews and started Oscar rumblings. The numbers don’t lie: "Lady Bird" is a stunning film that takes everything cliché about cinema and turns it into something special. And it’s been nothing but a success for Gerwig, who has broken out of her acting role ("Mistress America," "Frances Ha") to prove that she can really do it all. And how? Well, those are the questions she answered in a phone interview with The Daily:
How long did you have the story of "Lady Bird" floating around before it was produced? When did you start to convert your vision into a film?
I spent a couple of years writing the movie. It always takes me a long time to write and it’s my process. And it’s because once I'm on set, I don’t do any improvisation. And once I had a good draft of the film, I decided to have it be this thing that would be my directorial debut. And then after that, it took another year to get financing and get going. So it was really, from the first time I started writing it to being in production, about three years. And then it took a year after that to finish editing it and bringing into the world. So filmmaking is a long process, but it’s a very rewarding one.
One thing that really warmed my heart was that "Lady Bird" was a very mother-daughter centric film. Did coming-of-age cinema influence the development of Lady Bird?
Well, I was thinking about a lot of the different films that deal with both coming-of-age and growing up and occupying personal identity. And I wanted to make a film that was both one person’s coming-of-age and another person letting go. And I wanted it to be as much about the adults as it was about the teenagers.
And in particular, I guess I was thinking about the films that to me have to do with not just childhood but also memory, like Fellini’s "Amarcord" or Truffaut’s "400 Blows." Films that are both about childhood and about the loss of childhood.
Do you think "Lady Bird" will have that same effect on someone that feels they live in a place of cultural insignificance and they need to leave — that their life will start once they go to New York or L.A.?
I hope it does. I hope that it connects to people who are from the cities that are less documented than in a New York or L.A. or San Francisco, or Chicago. Because I'm interested in those cities and those stories and those places. I think there’s a lot of richness there and a lot of things that we don’t get to see and that’s what I'm always looking for when I go to the movie theater and hope that in a way someone will watch this and feel like they can make a film about the place that they're in and not feel like they have to leave in order to make their artistic statement.
The music in the film was very influential to the entire story. What went into choosing the specific music that you did of the time period and whittling it down to the certain songs that you actually ended up choosing in the film for it?
Music is such an important part of what I think it means to be a teenager and how you form your identity, and your taste, and imagining an adult life for yourself. And so I was very careful about the music that I chose in the movie because I didn’t want it to just be music from the year 2002, I wanted it to have music from the ’90s, because in 2002, it’s before the streaming and all the other stuff, and you really got your music from the radio and people were still playing the hits from 10 years earlier or seven years earlier on the radio. So that was important to me. And I would be remiss not to mention my collaborator (John Brian), who wrote the music for the movie; I wanted it to feel like it was pop music at the time that teenagers would listen to, and that it also had this old-fashioned movie score. That combination was something that I was very interested in capturing. I was so lucky that he was willing to collaborate with me on that, and then also that all these artists gave their permission to use the music.
2017 feels like the year of the woman director — why is it that this coming-of-age story, that’s focused more on the female experience, would be so important?
Well, I agree with you; I think that this year has been an amazing year for women in film. I think that the directors who’ve had films this year whether it’s a big blockbuster like Patty Jenkins with "Wonder Woman" or Angelina Jolie (with "First They Killed My Father"), or Maggie Betts with "Novitiate," or Dee Rees with "Mudbound"; it’s just an extraordinary year and to be part of that conversation is very meaningful to me.
And I think in a way, the story is a story that is so universal. But because there’s been a lack of female creators that it’s one that’s less documented than male coming-of-age. I love male coming-of-age stories and I have nothing against them, but I'm always interested to see what the female version of that is, like what is "Boyhood," but for a girl? What is the "400 Blows" but for a girl? And I felt that I had not seen that as much as I wanted to. So I wanted to make something that was about not only a young woman but about a mother and a family and a place.
As a female filmmaker, do you feel like there’s an expectation portrayed in this relationship, and how do you portray these relationships realistically for all of their complexity and nuance?
Well, I’ve made it a goal as a writer and now as a director to tell stories about women that the primary emotional relationship is one between two women. And in this movie, it’s between a mother and a daughter.
I don’t feel pressured to tell those stories. If anything, I feel like they're stories that are somewhat harder to get made or ‘green lit’ because they're not — they don’t have a genre. But I think they're important to tell because I think that these windows into the lives of girls and women, to steal a phrase from Alice Munro, that we don’t get to see if there aren’t female writer, directors and creators.
So for me, I love doing it and I don’t suspect that I will only make films about that. I'm sure I’ll make a lot of other films. But it was a deliberate thing on my part. And then in terms of making it realistic, I think I never want to turn away from the darkness, but I also don’t want to make villains, ever, with my characters. So I don’t try to present perfect people, nor do I ever want my filmmaking to take my characters down. I want them to be allowed to be flawed and to be loved.
"Lady Bird" has been getting so much media attention for being so critically acclaimed, with 100% on Rotten Tomatoes and everything. What’s it like to have such a personal film that’s also your debut be so well-received?
It’s amazing to have it be received like this. Because I know how much love and care and effort every single person who worked on this film put into it, and that’s from all of the casts and the crew and the production team to our distributors, A24. Everyone has pulled so hard for the film and put so much into it and to get that love back is just extraordinary. It’s also completely intimidating but it’s great. It’s a good intimidation.
When so many films put romance at the center stage, what was it about friendship rather than romance that you thought was more interesting to tell?
Well, I love romance just as much as the next person, and I certainly love romance in movies. But I think romance, especially heterosexual romance, has got a lot of great movies. We’ve got a lot of good ones about that. And I didn’t feel that it was particularly for me at that moment. It felt like I was interested in emotional relationships that were just as deep and vivid and filled with love and complexity, but that aren't just heterosexual romance.
And I like taking things that are cliché and putting them in another capacity. Like, for example, when her mom drives back to see here at the airport, everybody knows the scene and the romance where someone circles back and runs through an airport to find someone they love. That tends to be between a man and a woman. And I wanted to take that cliché but make it between a mother and a daughter and transform it that way.
Many of the characters in "Lady Bird" have autobiographical similarities, but they're not exactly the same as your own story. Can you talk a little bit more about writing from your own personal experiences?
I always start from a place of something that I know where it’s close to my heart. And with this movie, I wanted to write about Sacramento because I'm from Sacramento. And I wanted to write about Catholic schools because I’ve been to Catholic school for high school.
But I find this: It’s almost always they (the stories) start with some kernel that’s real and then very quickly the characters spin out and become their own people and the events of the film have their own shape and form that’s outside of the events of my life.
And I think for me, it’s more, the impetus is starting from a place of familiarity and letting that be the thing that allows me to invent. It might not always be that way in my writing, but that’s sort of where it tends to begin. But it takes very odd paths and I think someone in the product, people might think that there are things that autobiographical that aren’t, and they might think that something is invented which is actually autobiographical. Because I'm not just writing one character, I'm writing a lot of characters. So sometimes I’ll hide a little piece of something that I know is real in a character that you wouldn’t suspect and things like that.
I like filmmaking that’s personal, I like writing that’s personal. And whether or not it’s actually real is it’s not in my case. But it’s never mattered to me as an audience member, or as a reader, or as a consumer of arts, what the connection was to the actual autobiography. It always seems to be separate to me.
What advice do you have for people that might feel that same way as Lady Bird: not directionless, but having so many directions they’d like to go but can't decide?
I think when you're 17, like Lady Bird is 17, I don’t know that many 17-year-olds with a very clear direction. I mean, they're always the ones who are great athletes or they know exactly what they want to do, but I think the vast majority of 17-year-olds are figuring it out. And I don’t think that’s an indication of they're never going to do anything. I think that’s an indication of being open and curious and looking for what the things will be.
I think in terms of picking a direction, I think this is something another writer said, Elizabeth Gilbert, in her book about writing. She said you're always — you always are going to be okay if you just follow your curiosity. Sometimes people say follow your passion. But she said that’s a very difficult thing to do. What if you don’t have a passion? That’s a pretty tall order, to follow your passion.
But if you follow your curiosity, the worst thing that could happen is you live a life investigating your curiosities and even if you never find a passion, it doesn’t mean that you haven’t had a very interesting life.
What's your process like in creating all these characters that felt so relatable?
I think one of the reasons that I'm interested in dramatic writing, in writing that is going to be said by actors, whether it’s in theater which is my first love, or now in cinema, which is my adult love, is that I'm always interested in the way words fail us and the way that we use language not to say what we mean. I think people do that all the time. And I think I'm always interested in the language underneath the language.
And so many of the scenes with "Lady Bird" and her mom, I mean her mom wants to tell her “I'm so scared” and she can't say that because it’s hard to say what you're actually feeling particularly when that feeling is fear. So you say a lot of other things. You say that your role is not picked up, or you say that — you fix it on something else.
And I think so much of who I am as a writer is a person who likes to listen. And I think one of the things that’s great about New York, is that you're always in this circumstance where it’s very easy to listen to people talk.
And mostly people use language to not say what they mean at all. And I'm always fascinated by that. And I think one of the reasons for me that the ending is so moving is that "Lady Bird" is finally able to use her language to say what she means and she means that thank you and she says thank you.
Are you surprised by how universal the Sacramento experience seems like it is based on how well "Lady Bird" is doing?
Yes! I mean, it is really extraordinary because I’ve always been a believer in the more specific you make something, the more universal it will be. So I didn’t want to make it any town. I wanted to make it this town and this people and these people. Because I think the truth is that through that specificity, people would have a greater likelihood of connecting to their own life and their own hometown and their own families and where they're from and where they're going. And I didn’t expect though how much so many people would say to me I’ve never been to Sacramento, but I have a Sacramento in my heart. And it makes me incredibly pleased and also it’s also kind of incredible that everybody can understand it.
But I think that, you know, that’s always been this thing that I love about movies, is they could take you into world you’ve never been in and you’ll never be able to go in and you feel like you know it.
"Lady Bird" is playing now at Michigan Theater.