The recent release of Lady Bird makes Greta Gerwig one of several directorial debuts this year to strike a resonant chord with audiences—it's self-assured and absent of clichés, and if you’ve seen it already, you’re probably aware that it’s the kind of movie that will make you want to go and call your mom as soon as its done. Saoirse Ronan stars as the titular character, a precocious Sacramento teen who’s desperate to escape her hometown and move to the East Coast for college, “where culture is.” The film follows her senior year of high school from 2002–03 and her evolving relationships with her best friend, her crushes, and her tough but loving mother Marian, played by Laurie Metcalf.
On the latest episode of Represent, Gerwig talks to Aisha Harris about how she crafted the contentious mother-daughter bond, the current wave of coming-of-age films emerging from female filmmakers like herself, and how she prepared to step behind the camera for the first time. Here is a lightly edited excerpt from that conversation. You can listen to the full interview in the audio player below.
Aisha Harris: You’ve worked as a writer and all these other jobs behind the scenes. Around the time of Frances Ha, you talked about the way in which you tried to make the scenes feel new every time. But you also have this desire with whatever you do first—the first impulse is the one that you connect with the most. Did that translate at all into what cues you took from your actors and how you directed them?
Greta Gerwig: Yeah. Well, I think so much of who I am as a director is my experience as an actor and as a writer and producer and other things I've done. Really, those years became my film school. I didn't go to film school, so I learned on set and I tried to keep my ears and eyes open to what was going on around me and seek out mentors and people who would give me advice and tell me how they were lighting a shot and what were we doing exactly. I was very lucky to find those people.
Then when I got this cast, which is truly a phenomenal cast—every single actor is extraordinary, and I had this intention when I wrote the script, but I needed great actors to do it. I wanted the audience to feel like they could follow any one character and there would be a whole movie there, and almost that you got this quality of leaning forward for everybody because you think, “What's that life? Who is that person, really? How did they get there? What was that decision?”
I needed actors who could bring that sense of complete life with a few brushstrokes, in a way, and to really fill out the reality of that life. Something that I tried to do was give actors as much information as I possibly could. I made lots of playlists and gave them books to read and talked to them about what I thought was going on, but also because I wrote it and was directing it, I also have this deep sense of needing to pass on. The little candle of the character needed to go to them.
As soon as I cast them, I almost symbolically was like, “Now, I don’t know. I don’t know. You know. You know the character better than I do, so now you start telling me, because I don’t want you to ever feel like I’m looking over your shoulder and fixing your work.” I think that so much of my job as a director is to create a safe, calm, free environment where people feel free to make mistakes. And that I hold the perimeter and that I say, “This space, once we’re rolling, once you’re working, there are no wrong answers. I want your biggest, craziest idea,” and really allowing them to reveal to me what it is that I was making. That is because I feel like the best work actors do is when they feel empowered.
Was there any character in particular who changed a lot from what you envisioned to what finally wound up on the screen? Or surprised you?
Yeah. I guess in a way, they all did. Once they’re embodied by an actor, they stop being the thing in my head. I felt this with every single character. As soon as the actor started performing the roles, it was as if a third person had entered the room. It wasn't me and it wasn't them—it was the character. I would get goosebumps and I would know instantly.
For example, Laurie Metcalf, I just offered her the part because she's a genius. Anyone in their right mind should work with Laurie Metcalf if they have a part and a chance. But some people auditioned for me and I felt, like, the hairs on my arms stand up. I was like, “That’s it!” Sometimes it was different, but it always felt exactly right.
In the last few years we've seen quite a few films that center around a coming of age story with a female character, directed by a female director. We have Lady Bird, obviously, but also Edge of Seventeen, Pariah from a few years ago, Diary of a Teenage Girl.
We have all of these, but I feel like when you and I—we’re close in age—when we were growing up, I'm not sure I can think of any that really spoke in the way these movies are speaking. Was there anything for you that you can recall from that time that might have inspired you now?
First of all, I wanna say those movies have all meant a lot to me. I remember when I watched Dee Rees’ Pariah, I was like, “Oh, great! Good! This is great. I've not seen this film ever before.” I felt the same way about Diary of a Teenage Girl and Edge of Seventeen actually came out just after we had finished principal photography. I, for one, selfishly am so pleased that these movies are being made because I'm interested in young women occupying personhood. It's something that I didn't see, actually, growing up. There were films that had some edge of it, but it didn't have the fullness of it. I felt like I was missing that. I loved John Hughes movies. I mean, I loved Pretty in Pink, I loved—
Was there an homage to Pretty in Pink in [Lady Bird] with the dress?
With the hair and the dress, yeah. I did think of that. I mean, something Saoirse and I had talked about a lot was this idea of, "What is the movie playing in her head, which is not the movie that she's in?" She would think that she is in a movie where she is going to find “the one.”
And go to prom.
And go to prom with her hot boyfriend who is “the one,” which you can totally empathize with that viewpoint, especially if you grew up like I did, watching movies where there was a "one." That was a big part of what it seemed like you were supposed to be doing as a young woman, was looking for “the one.” That's the structure of the universe that these films would set up. But definitely, of those movies, I would say Pretty in Pink is my favorite. There was an Australian movie I really loved, Flirting.
Oh, I haven't seen that one.
Oh, it's great. It features a very young Nicole Kidman and Thandie Newton.
Yeah, it's about a fancy boarding school in Australia and the kids who are on scholarships are otherwise ostracized. It's very tender and it's very good. I remember that was a movie where I was like, "Oh, you could do it but it could be real?" Even though I've never been to an Australian boarding school, I have no idea whether that's real or not. But yeah, certainly I think it's a very exciting time as a viewer to see these movies.
You've said that you feel as though you've put in your 10,000 hours, your Malcolm Gladwell practice, to get to where you are now. But when I think about men, especially young and up and coming male directors—obviously this translates to all industries, not just Hollywood—but men tend to jump in even when they're not “ready,” whereas women seem to think they need to be ready.
Can you elaborate a bit more on that? Do you feel as though that was something you were consciously doing, or did it just feel like at this time, this was the right time to do it? Do you feel as though you were saying to yourself, "I'm not ready yet to make this?"
Well, I would say when I decided to make this movie, I guess I'd been working on the script, 2013 to 2014. By 2015 I was trying to get producers on and raise money and figure out how to make it. Looking back, I probably could have jumped in sooner, but I didn't have a script that I felt was ready. I felt like I wanted to be sure of myself. I don't regret any of the time that I spent. It was enormously useful, all of the time that I spent working with different directors.
I do think it's notable that I worked with the filmmaker Rebecca Miller. I worked with her right before I kicked into high gear on trying to get this film made. I don't think that's an accident. It wasn't conscious in terms of saying, “Oh, now I've worked with a female director and now I must really do this.” But the timeline is so close that you're like, “Well, clearly there's a connection here that I had worked with her.”
I had worked with other female directors, but I think for whatever reason, I was ready to hear it at that moment. Seeing her on set and that she'd written and directed this, I think it was something. It was a leading by example that I really responded to.
Which film were you working on?
I worked on Maggie's Plan with her.
Ah, right. Yes.
Yeah. I just adore her and we're very good friends now.
Was there something she said in particular or—just watching her, the way she directed, that might have kicked something or sparked something?
I spent a lot of time with her because I was one of the leads in the film. We had a lot of time to prepare. Just watching how she moved through the world and took control and commanded respect, but without ever trying to not be a woman. There was something about that—I had a professional crush on her. I started to dress like her, as you do with people you really like.
She's a mother. She has two sons and a stepson and she's an incredible writer and thinker and filmmaker and just being around her and seeing her occupy all these roles, but doing so—not effortlessly, because it is so much effort—but doing so with so much grace and humor. That thing I think you recognize in another person when they really have their power within, not power over, it's just emanating from them and they're not looking to put it on other people. They just have it inside them. That was very inspiring to see.
But this need to feel like you're perfect before you do anything, and the thing, just to go back to what you were saying before, that worries me about that with women is this not wanting to speak up if you don't understand something. Then you'll never learn it. That's the thing, particularly with filmmaking. It is such a long process to take something from the page all the way through to it being released. If you can't say, “Wait, I don't understand. What are we doing now?” and you're not in an environment where you feel like that's safe or that will be accepted, that that would prevent certain women from learning what they need to learn or moving forward because they're so scared to say that they don't know ’cause they're so worried they're gonna get kicked off or told that they don't know or, “See, she doesn't know what she's doing.”
I've talked to all of my particularly younger actress friends who've expressed some inclination to direct and they say, “Could I come shadow you?” It's like, “Come! Please! All of you, come. Ask me all the questions and find the people who will never make you feel stupid.”